Winter 2019
Feature Story

Come to Life

Once upon a mid-semester morning, a group of Pitt students set out on a quest to share something special with the Pittsburgh community: the magic of imagination.
Photography by
Martha Rial

Memories of childhood film and storybook characters can warm the hearts of even the most grown of grown-ups. But for one group of Pitt undergrads, a shared love of fictional characters serves a purpose beyond nostalgia. With the help of make-up, wigs, and a dedicated base of members, a student-run club called the Imagination Project (TIP) is bringing some much-needed joy to local children and adults.

Dressed in costume as beloved heroes and heroines or serving as character assistants, members of TIP visit children, young adults, and families in hospitals and care facilities around Pittsburgh. Recently, the club traveled to the city’s North Hills to visit the Woodlands Foundation, which hosts programming for people of all ages with disabilities and chronic illness. There, club members—including princesses and a superhero—met with young adult campers for a morning of imagination and meaningful connections.

“Our mission is just to spread happiness to as many people as possible,” says biochemistry major Raksha Pothapragada, who cofounded TIP in 2017 with neuroscience major Revathy Pillai, Joanna Anninos (NURS ’18), and Alexandria Saltzman (NURS ’18). 

The club was sparked by the idea to help Pitt students give back to the community. It now has 100 members, 40 of whom portray at least one character. Members don’t have to dress up to make a difference, however. Fundraising and roles training characters, applying their makeup, and accompanying them on visits require an immense amount of work and are vital to keeping the magic alive. For many participants —who come from a range of Pitt schools and academic programs including rehabilitation science, communication, and theater—working with TIP builds upon their classroom studies.

The group’s efforts have inspired others: TIP is already helping students from four other universities across the eastern seaboard start their own club chapters. It isn’t hard to see why others would want to replicate the club’s good works.

“Whether it’s five minutes or 45 minutes that we’re interacting with them,” says part-time superhero and marketing major Caleb Shalaby, “to be able to make a difference in these people’s lives really just means everything.”

Julia Driscoll (right), TIP board member and chemistry major, helps bioengineering major Daniela Krahe get into character.Ronnie (right), Woodlands camper, is thrilled to meet a princess portrayed by Daniela Krahe.

Woodlands camper Amary is all smiles after a bracelet making activity.

TIP princesses take turns giving farewell hugs. From left to right: Argirel Lion, TIP board member and communication and English nonfiction writing major; Gabrielle Gieringer, natural sciences major; and Daniela Krahe.

Andrea receives a superhero hug from marketing major Caleb Shalaby.

Woodlands camper Nicole shows off her dance moves.Members of TIP leave their castle, the Cathedral of Learning. In descending order: Gabrielle Gieringer; Nicole Saltzman, Caleb Shalaby, Argirel Lion, and Daniela Krahe.


Opening image, from left: Gabrielle Gieringer, Nicole Saltzman, Daniela Krahe, Argirel Lion, and Caleb Shalaby walk through the Commons Room of the Cathedral of Learning.

This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Pitt Magazine.