Safer Sun: One Company’s Mission to Protect Skin
The holidays bring about a sense of community. In sunny St. Petersburg, we are fortunate to have just that: a local region of small businesses, the arts, and localized charities that allow residents to connect with one another. This is well exemplified by ShapeShifter Fish and Friends, a small business with ties to Coffee Pot Bayou. Maria Aller and Andrew Hill co-founded the organization in October 2020, a time when they felt the world needed more positivity.
“I lived in an apartment for five years, but fell in love with the neighborhood,” Aller says. “When I decided to buy a house, it took me one and a half years until I found the right one. I bought my forever home here in 2018.”
Putting down roots in St. Pete also inspired Aller to start up her own small business, which she describes as producing “multiFUNctional sun protective wear featuring Tampa Bay marine life.”
She and Hill found that they loved the outdoor life in Florida, but were also wary of the damage our ever-present sun can cause. That’s when they came up with the idea of sun protective clothing, reflecting the natural elements of Florida life. Aller designs each image, which is then screen printed onto UPF50+ long sleeve shirts.
“We hope that by making this line, those wearing it are motivated to go outside and enjoy, but to do so in a manner that is more health conscious,” she says, adding their hope that the pieces also help to “inspire friendship and support diversity” by allowing for cultural interactions.
The clothing line originally launched for youth, passing the message “to be yourself, to be different, and embrace this idea that friends, like our clothing line, come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.” Popular designs include a puffer fish image on bright pink shirts, the lovable manatee design, and local favorite ‘the GOAT,’ which features a #12 on the back of the shirt as a nod to the Bucs and Tom Brady.
But it’s not all business for Aller and Hill. They also created their own charity, Project FIN – short for “Friends in Need.” Launched in 2021, FIN is an outreach “to get UPF50 sun protection shirts out to the local homeless community to help combat the risk of skin cancer.”
Aller says that when she lived in her apartment, she noticed people who would walk the alleys looking for food and clothing. She knew that she wanted to help.
“The idea truly came to life when I started a friendship with a local homeless man named Gary,” she said. “He is often seen in his wheelchair in our neighborhood and through the years we’ve provided him meals, blankets, umbrellas, and clothing.”
Then, she says, Gary vanished for about two months in 2020.
“We had no idea what had happened to him or how to find him,” says Aller. “When he reappeared, we found out that he had been hospitalized with skin cancer. It was then that we realized how little the disease is addressed or talked about for the homeless communities, who have an extremely high-risk lifestyle for skin cancer.”
It seemed like an issue uniquely suited for Aller and Hill to help address. “I did research to see if any of the other sun protective clothing lines were doing this in Florida, and I could not find a single one. There is definitely a need, and Andrew and I agreed that we were fated to help.”
They started to set a portion of the proceeds of every ShapeShifter Fish and Friends shirt sale to fund Project FIN. “In May 2021, we went to the International Harley Women’s Ride event and donated our first batch of sun protective shirts to the Tampa Homeless Outreach,” Aller says. “We were blown away at the positive response from the event organizers and other participants.”
Aller says that the idea was also a embraced by their local customers. The company soon started donating to St. Pete Reach, Meet Me in the Street Ministries, Pinellas Hope, Homeless Leadership Alliance of Pinellas County, St. Vincent de Paul CARES Center of Hope – even walking around the city to hand them out. In the wake of Hurricane Ian, they also were recently able to send protective wear to people in Southwest Florida.
“Thus far we have donated over 800 shirts and are about to send out another batch,” says Aller. “We are always looking for new organizations to donate our shirts to so they can pass them out to others in need.”
In addition to providing the clothing, the project aims to bring skin cancer awareness to homeless people and works to provide more free public skin health checks. In October 2022, the company also started to donate to local breast cancer treatment centers as patients going through chemotherapy often have greater skin sensitivity to the sun.
“Recent data has shown a link between breast cancer and skin cancer,” Aller said. She was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and knows firsthand how challenging it is to deal with skin sensitivity due to treatments. “I want to live life outside, but I also want to be safe. I am so happy to be able to help my fellow fighters and thrivers do the same.”