Organ donation and transplantation messages are stronger with community connections

Sometimes the pieces seem to come together to form a clear path in life. That’s how it was for me, in both my personal experience and my work with Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network.

I was a student at the University of Missouri when my mother, Monica, was diagnosed with kidney failure and almost died. She quickly started dialysis treatment and was added to the kidney transplant waiting list.

Monica became an advocate for kidney donation. She shared her need for a donated kidney on social media and anywhere else she could. She volunteered for Gift of Hope and for the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois, representing of the thousands of people in the U.S. waiting for a kidney transplant. As Monica’s health declined, my passion for educating others about organ and tissue donation grew. I began to volunteer, too.

After waiting three years, Monica was thrilled to receive a new kidney through directed donation. Her long-awaited transplant was successful. My mom and I knew our advocacy work couldn’t end there, though.

At a Gift of Hope volunteer meeting with my mom, I met Marion Shuck, Vice President of Governmental Relations and External Affairs. Marion suggested I consider working at Gift of Hope. The timing was right because I had just graduated college and was looking for a job in which I could make a difference. A new role in Community Outreach was the next piece of my story.

Now I work as a Gift of Hope outreach specialist on Chicago’s South Side. I share information about organ, eye and tissue donation and encourage people there to register their decision to donate. To reach more people, I like to join the community conversations already going on. I can add my perspective to them and support the work of government, grass roots movements and neighborhood organizations, while enriching my own message.

My style is one of connecting with community stakeholders to understand what the needs are. For example, I include the importance of kidney donation in my outreach because many there are awaiting kidney transplants in many of the communities where I work. In Community Outreach, we try to provide relevant resources and education so that people can have a full understanding of the important and life-changing decision to donate.

I’m proud to be part of the Cook County Health (CCH) Clinic Community Advisory Council for Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood and Ford Heights in the south suburbs, to both support their work and provide education. For example, through the county’s recent food giveaways, approximately 500 families received both food and information about organ, eye and tissue donation because of this relationship.

In April, I coordinated an event in the Englewood neighborhood held the same day as a neighborhood cleanup event. It brought together the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois, the 17th Ward alderman’s office and local businesses. Neighbors enjoyed free frozen custard in celebration of National Donate Life Month while learning about organ and tissue donation, and kidney health – which is critical particularly in our communities of color.

I talk frequently of the misconceptions about organ and tissue donation. For example, people often hold a mistrust of medical professionals and may think that if they were to register as donors, doctors and hospital staff would not try to save their lives in an emergency.

I combat this by just explaining how the donation process works. As I break down the steps in the process and talk through the misconceptions piece by piece, it becomes obvious that they cannot be true.

By playing a part in local conversations and initiatives, I get a more holistic understanding of how to better connect.

I have been promoting organ and tissue donation with Gift of Hope for over five years. With every new conversation and relationship, I see our impact growing, piece by piece.