NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ - When thousands of participants filled the streets of New Providence at last Sunday's NJ Sharing Network's "Celebration of Life" 5K, they ran or walked with a story, a purpose -- to save lives together.

"When you share the story, you can’t help but to save a life," said Donna Albanese-DeMair, former Chair of NJ Sharing Network Foundation and one of the originators of the 5K which is in its seventh year. "People start talking, they start checking the box -- lives are saved by sharing our stories," she said. 

Albanese-DeMair, owner of Dairy Queen in Plainfield, has a story of her own -- she joined the organ donation family when she gave one of her kidneys to her mother. "When you save one life, you save a whole family," she said. "You are all part of my family, a part of my Sharing Network family. We are all here today to save lives."

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At 9:30 a.m. there were Race Awards and a program which featured speakers including Albanese-DeMair; Elisse Glennon, Executive Director of Sharing Network Foundation; Stephen Adubato, television broadcaster for Caucus Educational Corporation; Joe Roth, President and CEO of NJ Sharing Network and Frank D’Amelio, executive vice-president of Business Operations and chief financial officer of Pfizer, Inc., which has been the presenting sponsor for seven consecutive years.

The event is made possible through the work of  222 volunteers and the event sponsors including presenting sponsor Pfizer, Inc, platinum sponsor RWJ Barnabas Health and the many gold, silver and bronze level sponsors. 

Mayor Al Morgan, representing the host town, along with Union County Freeholders Al Mirabella, Angel Estrada and Christopher Hudak were present and on stage. Hudak told his story that this year he became a member of a donor family. "My mother passed away very unexpectedly -- we found out she was an organ donor -- she registered on the national registry," said Hudak. "The hospital knew. I want to thank the Sharing Network and their professional staff - because without them, her gift would not have gone out so quickly."

Awards were given to the six top race winners who included: JP Flavin (15:49.58), Ben Evans (16:56.85), Zack Faljean (17:18.96), Alexandra Niles (18:06.71), Julia Trethaway (19:46.28) and Laura Baeyene (20:14.). 

Elisse Glennon looked out at the crowd of participants and was inspired. "You inspire us, you inspire family, friends and colleagues by the thousands to walk together so we can honor those who gave, pay tribute to those who received and offer hope to those who continue to wait, and remember the lives lost while waiting for the gift of life," said Glennon. "The sharing network commitment to our community is that we will not stop until everyone waiting for a transplant receives one."

The tent village was filled with a sea of colors that represented the 200 registered teams and thousands of participants -- each shirt represented a story of a donor or recipient.  

The bright pink Linda Lovees were in honor of Linda Finnegan, an aerobics instructor and phys-ed teacher, wife and mother of five who passed away suddenly in December. "She was a big motivator -- when this happened, we knew we wanted to get the biggest team," said Linda's daughter Shannon. Their team was 150 participants strong, raising over $9,000.

Race winner JP Flavin ran for team Tim's Rangers. Tim lost his life when struck by a car. Female repeat race winner Alexandra Niles ran for her mother Betsy, who was a donor.

The day also celebrated stories of receiving the gift of life. A husband was celebrating his 52nd wedding anniversary thanks to receiving a heart transplant 9 years ago, and a 14 year old was participating in the 5K because he was the recipient of a heart transplant at age 9. 

This year, the 5K "Celebration of Life" expanded to three locations -- a 5K Walk at Bergen Community College in Paramus in April, and the New Providence USATF Race and 5K Walk -- and new this year, a 5K was held in Long Branch at Great Lawn at the Ocean Promenade. 

The 200 teams registered are on target to raise $1,250,000. "The event continues to grow in leaps and bounds every year," said Glennon. "This is the nation’s most successful 5K for the cause of organ and tissue donation and you are all part of it."

The message to "checking the box" and register as an organ and tissue donor was heard loud and clear. -- "The message is simple, people come together thousands strong at the Sharing Network 5K to give the gift of life and to share and get the message out," said Steve Adubato, television broadcaster for Caucus Educational Corporation.

Participants also find comfort in the NJ Sharing Network family, knowing their loved ones carry on because of their gift of life. 

The Summit Volunteer First Aid Squad lost one of their own this past year. A large group of Summit EMTs and the surrounding community came out to honor Cindy Mahoney of Berkeley Heights, who suddenly passed away in November 2016.  

"We may not have given it much thought before," said Summit Volunteer First Aid Squad Chief Kari Phair.  "Everyone should consider it.-- I think all of us -- it is the single greatest gift to give peace and hope that she lives on."

Check out the NJ Sharing Network 5K Celebration of Life - New Providence photo album on Facebook for event day photos. Click here for race results.

NJ Sharing Network is a non-profit, federally designated organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue for New Jersey residents in need of life-saving transplants.  The NJ Sharing Network Foundation is committed to increasing the number of lives saved through education, research, donor family support and public awareness about the life-saving benefits of organ and tissue donation and transplantation. For more information and to register to be a donor, visit www.NJSharingNetwork.org