HUGS and Hope

The annual HUGS Charities fundraiser recognizes a cancer survivor or someone who died from the disease. The most recent honoree was banker Rusty Branson.

Sawyer, Rusty and Ashley Branson

On the evening of February 22nd, beneath the lights and stars in downtown Ocala, the annual HUGS (Heartfelt Unconditional Giving) Charities of Ocala fundraiser was all about, well, the hugs—and securing donations to help more people. The 14th annual event took place at the Bank Street Patio Bar & Grill, which offers spacious outside areas for social gatherings. 

HUGS Charities works with the Cancer Alliance of Marion County to help people with cancer and each year’s fundraiser recognizes a cancer survivor or someone who died from the disease.

The most recent honoree was Rusty Branson, regional president of SouthState Bank. He also is involved with a number of local organizations and sits on many local boards, but notes that he is “not directly involved with HUGS other than being a multiyear donor to the organization.”

Branson was diagnosed with large B cell lymphoma in June of 2021. He says his treatment consisted of chemotherapy every three weeks, which lasted about four hours per treatment, over a period of nine months.

Leo Smith, Barbara Tomyn, George Tomyn and Lois Schwenk

“While I was very thankful to have had chemotherapy as it is saving my life, the side effects were like having the worst hangover of your life for seven consecutive days,” he recalls. “But that being said, I had an incredible medical team and family that were there for me 24/7, comforting me along my cancer journey.”

HUGS was formed in 2009 to help Marion County residents who are actively undergoing cancer treatment and are experiencing a financial hardship. Assistance is available to help with needs such as paying for rent and utilities, or filling up the gas tank so patients can get to treatments. The theory is that having the basics covered allows patients and families to focus on cancer treatments and healing. 

Michael Koontz, along with Manal Fakhoury, founded the nonprofit after his nephew died of cancer. The goal is to provide immediate temporary relief while helping find long-term financial solutions through collaborative efforts with The Cancer Alliance of Marion County. 

The alliance leadership committee consists of representatives from several area agencies, such as the American Cancer Society, Robert Boissoneault Oncology Institute, HCA Florida Ocala, AdventHealth Ocala, Tobacco Free Florida Partnership, Hospice of Marion County, Sabal Direct Primary Care, Heart of Florida and We Care, Marion County Medical Society, Langley Health, Department of Health, Crippen and Company, and the Rural Women’s Health Project.

Mandy Tucker, Leanne Drake, April Fontana and Thomas Fontana

According to material on the HUGS website, the alliance “determined our community has several gaps in the assistance of patients and families facing the diagnosis of this life changing and deadly disease. The creation the of HUGS Patient Assistance Program is spearheaded by a team of dedicated local law enforcement, firefighters and HUGS members who are focused on filling these gaps.”

The nonprofit raises funds for the research, prevention, detection and treatment of all forms of cancer and assists individuals and families whose lives have been affected. HUGS also helps raise awareness about cancer, as well as sources of help and relief. Funding comes primarily through the annual fundraiser and private donations. 

This year’s event also honored Langley Health Services, a local nonprofit that has worked to improve education and access to cancer screenings for at-risk Latino and Hispanic women. Approximately 350 people were in attendance. The event included live and silent auctions and raised approximately $60,000 (after expenses) to benefit local cancer patients. In 2023, HUGS distributed approximately $75,181 to cancer patients, with more than 50 percent of those funds helping with gas for medical transportation and groceries.

Branson says that advice he might offer to others diagnosed with cancer would first be to “keep a positive attitude and do not feel sorry for yourself.”

“When you get the news that you have been diagnosed with cancer it is like a punch in the stomach and just takes your breath away,” he shares. “But breathe, and tell yourself each and every day that while this may be a long journey, today is a blessing and today you are going to continue to fight this horrible disease.  When you get tired of fighting, rest and let your family, friends and healthcare providers do some of the fighting for you. Cancer is just a word, it is not a sentence, so continue to live your life.” OS 

To learn more, go to

Employees of SouthState Bank
Posted in Community Spotlight, Living

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