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Indy Star- Vera Bradley Foundation to give another $10M to IU cancer center

Indy Star- Vera Bradley Foundation to give another $10M to IU cancer center

Last month, the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer finished a decadelong effort to donate $10 million to the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.


But that was just the half of it.

Today, the Fort Wayne-based foundation will announce a pledge to raise yet another $10 million, which will make the foundation the largest single philanthropic resource for the center’s breast cancer research program.

The gifts, which started in 1998, represent a sort of cancer-fighting alliance between the Vera Bradley Foundation — which grew out of Vera Bradley Designs, the Fort Wayne-based maker of handbags and luggage — and the IU Simon Cancer Center.

Vera Bradley Designs co-founders Patricia Miller and Barbara Baekgaard, who also serve as foundation board members, were inspired to help defeat breast cancer after a close friend, Mary Sloan, died of the disease in the 1990s.

“We reached our goal for our first pledge, and there is still important work to be done,” Miller said. “We want to see this thing through to the end goal, which is early detection. We feel that goal is within reach, certainly within our lifetime.”

She said the foundation has not set a specific time frame for raising the next $10 million.

Money already donated from the Vera Bradley Foundation has been used to fund research positions, such as the Vera Bradley Chair in Oncology held by Linda Malkas, a Ph.D. researcher who is co-director of IU’s breast cancer program.

The breast cancer program has grown to 34 members, up from six in 1999.

The IU Simon Cancer Center’s total peer-reviewed research funding exceeded $63 million in 2009. Of that, $10 million goes toward breast-cancer research.

Dr. George Sledge, the program’s other co-director, said the Vera Bradley gifts have helped fund potentially groundbreaking research.

He pointed to efforts such as those being led by David Gilley, a Ph.D. assistant professor in the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at the IU School of Medicine.

The research’s goal is to turn off a “fountain of youth” enzyme for cancer cells and allow them to die of old age.

The IU Simon Cancer Center has enjoyed multiple multimillion-dollar donations in recent years — most notably the $50 million pledge, announced in 2006, from the late shopping-mall magnate Mel Simon and his wife, Bren Simon. That gift resulted in the renaming of the center.

Also in 2006, the center received gifts of $7.5 million from the Lilly Foundation and $6.8 million from the Vera Bradley Foundation, which was part of the foundation’s first $10 million in donations.

Such gifts are vital for cancer centers to keep research moving amid limitations of government funding sources, said Ellen Sigal, chairwoman and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, a nonprofit group in Virginia that seeks to raise awareness about cancer research.

“I don’t think centers could survive without them, nor would there be innovation,” Sigal said.

The Vera Bradley Foundation is independent from Vera Bradley Designs. But the company is the largest cash donor to the foundation. The company also pays the salaries of three foundation staff members.

The foundation also receives a portion of proceeds from the sale of Vera Bradley products made with the “Hope Garden” pattern for breast cancer awareness.

It’s a sizable commitment from a retailer during uncertain economic times.

Vera Bradley Designs — with just more than 900 employees, and now about 350 temps in preparation for the holidays — is a private company and does not disclose sales figures.

The company’s handbags, totes and other products are sold by 3,500 retailers and in 28 company-owned stores.

Additional Facts

About Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer

» Headquarters: Fort Wayne.

» Established: 1998.

» Philanthropic efforts: Has donated $10 million to the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center; has pledged to give an additional $10 million.

» Fundraising activities: Vera Bradley Classic Women’s Golf and Tennis Tournament raised $782,952 in 2009; other efforts include “Turn the Town Pink” ribbon campaign and sales of Hope Garden and Pinwheel Pink products.

» Fiscal 2008 revenue: $2.01 million.

About the company

» Headquarters: Fort Wayne.

» Established: 1982.

» Employees: More than 900, with about 700 in Indiana.

» Revenue: Not disclosed.

» Products: Includes Vera Bradley handbags and travel items sold by roughly 3,500 retailers and in 28 company-owned stores.