Brianna Broderick

Brianna Broderick was looking for productive ways to channel her grief when she first learned of SkillsUSA. She thought it seemed like a lot of work and that she’d need an “in” to get involved, but nonetheless, she joined. And, her life started to change.

At Somerset County Vocational Technical School in Bridgewater, N.J., she and her Community Service contest team focused on pulmonary fibrosis, the hereditary disease that took Broderick’s mother.

“My mom passed away in September of 2013, and that was really, really hard on my family, because like any mom in a household, she was the glue that held me and my dad together,” Broderick explains. “I’m an only child, so it was hard not to have someone there, too, who could understand the grief that I was feeling.”

Teammates chose pulmonary fibrosis for their SkillsUSA project to help Broderick with her grief process and to help their community learn more about the disease.

“What we ended up doing was raising $2,400 for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, which is the foundation that provides patient support and different types of research toward the disease that my mom died from,” she says. “Pulmonary fibrosis is the scarring of the lung tissues, and it happens just kind of out of the blue if you get triggered by an antigen in the air. You don’t know what it [the trigger] is. There’s no cure for it.

“Only a lung transplant can help save someone, and my mom was at the top of the list, but for her blood type and her stature, the lungs didn’t come in on time … So, she died on the list after having a minor procedure to help her heart continue to support her lungs.”

Personal impact

Beginning their contest project as a tribute to her mother, “I really had to tap into a lot of stuff,” Broderick continues. “In a sense, it was so hard for me, because people didn’t always understand what I was talking about, like the kind of pain.

“I had to try to translate for them, because the really scary part is that I’m eligible to have this disease, too.”

Her uncle also died from pulmonary fibrosis. Broderick admits that the genetic risk has had a substantial impact on her, leaving no choice but to try to do something about it.

A student at her school’s Academy for Health and Medical Sciences, she says the project helped her both learn and make presentations about the disease. A later result was discovering the leadership aspects of SkillsUSA.

During a SkillsUSA Day event, Broderick met a friend’s brother who was a state officer and a senior. “All the seniors looked really professional and successful,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘If this is what this organization produces, if this is the product — all these successful, well-rounded, great people — then that’s what I want to be, and that’s what I aspire to do.”

She saw how running for SkillsUSA office could improve her speaking skills, and it did. She was elected New Jersey’s state president in 2016 and hopes to run again, possibly for a national office.

Taking on Alzheimer’s

In 2016, Broderick and her teammates won a gold medal in another SkillsUSA competition, Career Pathways Showcase (Health Services). They presented an awareness campaign on Alzheimer’s disease, another scary affliction that’s affected both sides of teammate Anjana Nair’s family, putting Nair at a higher risk of getting it. They called their project “The Wish of Jellyfish.”

Broderick explains how scientists are researching a protein in bioluminescent jellyfish called apoaequorin, which is used in the drug Prevagen. “We have a wish that there’s more that we can gain from that research of jellyfish.”

The students also learned how therapy dogs as well as music can help Alzheimer’s patients. Broderick’s dog, Daisy, has completed the training, Nair sings, and another teammate, Catherine Chen, plays the violin, so it was natural to begin visiting patients in nursing homes.

“You can really see how stimulated they are, and it’s scientifically proven that [therapy dogs and music] have that type of effect on people,” Broderick says. “I can’t even put into words how great of an experience that was.”

The girls also held an Alzheimer’s Day at each of the middle schools they’d attended, addressing over 600 students and making pinwheels, which are used to promote awareness during the Alzheimer’s Foundation’s fundraising walks. They’ve also presented at a back-to-school night and an open house.

Awareness projects touch many

With representatives of the Alzheimer’s Association, for whom they’ve raised $1,500 and counting, Broderick and her team have taken the message of their jellyfish project to the state capital. They were awarded a citation for their efforts.

From a high-school freshman dealing with grief to becoming a state officer and gold medalist, Broderick says her life completely changed with SkillsUSA.

“I realized that we can’t suppress our untapped potential because we want to just go through the motions. If you’re given something in front of you, and you feel like you have a gift to share with other people … I know through my competitions, I was able to help so many different groups of people.

“It’s not just for yourself,” she adds. “You need to do it so that the people around you can feel just as good as you do.”

Broderick claims SkillsUSA has also given her superb credentials to continue her career goals.

“I was writing out a résumé for myself the other day,” she says, “and I noticed, again and again and again, SkillsUSA kept coming up. So really, the many by-products of this organization have motivated me to not only continue working with it myself, but also to hopefully motivate people to put themselves out there, too. Because I know I was hesitant, but now I have such a great passion for it that there’s no going back. SkillsUSA is my life now, and I love it so much.”

Broderick says her dream job would be to work within the philanthropic division of the Walt Disney Co. or to go into nonprofit, charity law. “I ultimately want to end up helping people, because that’s what feels the most natural.” 

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