Nearly 2,000 people, all touched in some way by the gift of organ and tissue donation, participated in NJ Sharing Network’s 5K Celebration of Life in Paramus on Sunday to support the life-saving mission.
The theme was: To Honor. To Remember.To Give Hope.
Each team embodies a poignant story, from a Hewitt man giving thanks for his new heart to a Wayne family honoring the legacy of a young lawyer who gave the gift of life to others.
Donor families, transplant recipients, living donors, those waiting for a transplant, volunteers, elected officials and hospital and corporate sponsors participated in the walk.
The teams were there to honor those who gave the gift of life, pay tribute to transplant recipients who received a second chance at life, offer hope to those still waiting, and remember those who died while waiting for the gift of life. More than 80 teams came from towns throughout Bergen and Passaic counties, as well as other counties in New Jersey.
Under sunny skies, participants, some pushing strollers and others carrying banners, walked the 5K route at Bergen Community College, which was the presenting sponsor of the event.
“I am inspired by the generosity of spirit and enthusiasm I see here today,” Elisse Glennon, Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer of NJ Sharing Network and the Executive Director of the Foundation, told the crowd. “We are so thankful to our generous sponsors and, especially, to all those sharing their stories to spread awareness about how organ and tissue donation truly transforms lives.”
Support for the 5K Celebration of Life was growing so fast that NJ Sharing Network, for the first time, created a second location. Two locations now comprise the 5K Celebration of Life: Sunday’s 5K Walk in Paramus as well as the 5K Walk and USATF Certified Race on June 7 at NJ Sharing Network headquarters in New Providence.
Through this successful event, the NJ Sharing Network Foundation is half way toward its $1 million fundraising goal for 2015.
The largest team at the Paramus event — with 118 people — was “Mack The Super Hero,” honoring the legacy of Malachy Byrne, a two-and-half-year-old Kearny toddler whose organ donation saved three other children.
“Malachy loved that his dad (Gary) was a fireman and he would always shout `Help is on the way!’” said Katie Warnock of Bayonne, co-captain of the team. “Malachy’s older brother, Zack, said he is now a superhero in heaven. So that is why we wanted our team to be all about superheroes.”
Some teams united donor families with recipients. Kelly Walker, the sister of Robert “Bobby” Walker, joined the recipient of her brother’s heart, Roy Praschil of Hewitt, and the recipient of her brother’s kidney, Bryan Mueller. Together they have formed lasting bonds and walk with other friends and family in Team 360.
“It’s comforting to know that my brother lives on and is saving lives,” Walker said.
Dr. B. Kaye Walter, the president of Bergen Community College, served as speaker and host. Walter said the college’s support of the 5K reflects the institution’s commitment to health education and to improving healthcare in the college community and the surrounding community.
Bergen County Executive James J. Tedesco shared the story of his late wife’s double lung transplant with the crowd. He called his wife’s transplant a “rebirth” that gave her more time with her family.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno took the opportunity at the microphone to express her commitment to the life-saving mission of organ and tissue donation and to reaffirm her continued support of NJ Sharing Network.
Also at the event to support the work of the organization were Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-39) and Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-39), and Assemblyman Timothy Eustice (D-38).
Joe Roth, President & CEO of NJ Sharing Network, marking his 17th year with the organization, said the event is all about celebrating the enormous generosity of those who donate organs and tissue, and their families. Roth said the day also serves as a call to action, recognizing that there are nearly 5,000 people on the waiting list in New Jersey for life-saving transplants.
For many teams, the day was a time to reflect and honor their loved ones who gave the greatest gift.
Team David Ensel remembers David Ensel, who died of a heart attack two years ago. Lois Ensel said she wanted to honor her husband’s generous decision to donate tissue and corneas to restore health, and sight, to others.
“It’s been tough, but it’s nice to be here,” she said as her daughter, Hannah, comforted her as tears filled her eyes. “I’m starting to get more involved and I look forward to next year.”
Team John Scott Stevens honors a police detective for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office who was an organ and tissue donor. John Scott Stevens of Forked River died in January at the age of 44. One of his kidneys saved a 38-year-old man and the other saved a 37-year-old woman. A man in a nearby town received the gift of sight.
His widow, Dawn Stevens, said she was encouraged by the couple’s 11-year-old son to participate in the 5K to honor their father’s generous gift to others. “It lessens the pain to know that even though my husband passed away he lives on in others,” she said.
The 5th Annual 5K Celebration of Life continues in June. More than 8,000 participants are expected at the 5K Walk and USATF Certified Race in New Providence on June 7. To sign up, to start or join a team, and to learn more about the event and sponsorship opportunities, please visit www.NJSharingNetwork.org.
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