NJ Sharing Network Honors Local Donor Heroes and Transplant Recipients to Raise Awareness
NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – Observed in April each year, National Donate Life Month helps raise awareness about organ and tissue donation, encourages Americans to register as donors and honors those that have saved lives through the gift of donation.
Locally, NJ Sharing Network, the federally designated nonprofit organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue in the Garden State, is leading a wide variety of community awareness activities and sharing inspiring stories of residents and families touched by the miracle of organ and tissue donation and transplantation.
NJ Sharing Network’s National Donate Life Month webpage (www.NJSharingNetwork.org/DLM) and social media platforms will be continually updated with information on ways to participate in activities throughout April. The website also features informative videos, flyers, and inspiring stories of hope and social media messaging to share with others.
“Here in New Jersey, National Donate Life Month is a special time to honor our organ and tissue donor heroes, celebrate those who received a life-saving transplant, and offer hope to those waiting for the gift of life,” said Carolyn M. Welsh, President and CEO of NJ Sharing Network. “Our caring and compassionate team of dedicated staff, volunteers and community partners are unstoppable in their efforts to help educate others and dispel any myths and misinformation about organ and tissue donation in our diverse communities throughout New Jersey.”
Currently, there are over 100,000 Americans – nearly 4,000 of whom live in New Jersey – waiting for a life-saving transplant, according to United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Alyssa D’Addio, Vice President of Hospital and Community Services, NJ Sharing Network, believes the generosity of those in the Garden State is providing hope for the future. In 2022, the number of organ donors (283) and organs transplanted in a single year (670) reached all-time highs. This also marked the fourth consecutive year NJ Sharing Network has reported new records in the number of organ donors, underscoring the clear trend of increased support for organ donation in the Garden State.
“Thanks to the generosity of New Jersey organ donors and their families, we are saving more lives than ever before - ensuring others now have more time to share special moments with their loved ones,” said D’Addio.
The following local stories exemplify ‘Jersey’s Generosity’ as we celebrate National Donate Life Month.
Forever in our Hearts – Lily James of Waretown
Craig James, a Correctional Police Lieutenant at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, has been overwhelmed by the support he has received in recent months from people throughout the Garden State and beyond. On July 14, 2022, Craig’s wife Denise and their three-year-old daughter Lilyanne (Lily) sadly lost their lives in a tragic motor vehicle accident.
Faced with unimaginable loss and grief, Craig is doing his best to stay strong for his sons, Nicholas and Robert, who survived the horrific accident. He is thankful for the care and sympathy of his family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers, who have reached out to do whatever they can to help ease his pain.
“My world and my dreams were torn apart,” said Craig. “But the outpouring of support from everyone has been amazing—it is very touching. I cried with this incredible feeling when I think about how we are loved by so many people. We are eternally grateful. I know Denise and Lily are thanking everyone for looking out for us.”
Craig says he has also found comfort in knowing that Lily gave the ultimate gift of life to others as an organ donor. Her donated heart and liver saved the lives of two 2-year-old boys.
“I want everyone to know that Lily is a hero,” said Craig. “She was my baby girl. I loved her more than anything, and we were so close. But it is comforting to know that she has helped others continue to live and enjoy life to its fullest.”
Craig is also passionate about sharing Lily’s donation story with countless others to help raise awareness for NJ Sharing Network’s life-saving mission. He openly discusses how he made the decision to have Lily become a donor hero.
“I put myself in the shoes of a parent of a young child that is in need of a life-saving transplant. If I were them, I would want to do anything in my power to get my child an organ to save their life,” said Craig. “I knew that donation was the right thing to do, and I know it is something that my wife would have wanted for Lily too. Lily’s legacy now lives on through others.”
Craig is also grateful for the compassionate support he received from NJ Sharing Network and team members at Hackensack Meridian Health Jersey Shore University Medical Center.
“From the second that I arrived at the hospital, everyone showed me nothing but kindness and goodness,” said Craig. “I felt like they knew what I was going though. They would hug me, hold me, and console me every step of the way. I know they will continue to be there for me and my family.”
In addition to the many people Lily directly helped with her donation, her story has already inspired many others to register as organ and tissue donors.
“I am amazed that nearly everyone that I speak with says that they have now checked the box to register as donors. It is truly a silver lining that so many lives can be saved and enhanced in the future thanks to Lily,” said Craig.
A Tireless Advocate for Others - Anthony Cruz, Sr. of Jersey City
On May 26, 2022, residents in and around Jersey City experienced a deep loss when well-known and beloved community activist Anthony Cruz, Sr., 61, passed away. For four decades, Anthony worked tirelessly on community development both inside local government and in the private sector in a variety of organizations and roles, from tenant organizer to nonprofit leader.
As Deputy Mayor, Anthony was credited with helping to breathe new life into Jersey City’s historic downtown special improvement district by spearheading an effort to restore the iconic clocks on the pedestrian plaza on Newark Avenue and promoting progressive programs on affordable housing and home ownership for residents. He also helped revitalize inner city residential communities and commercial districts as director of Housing and Economic Development.
While Anthony’s family continues to feel great sadness, they take great pride in knowing that he was a caring, honest, and humble man who put his heart into serving other people without regard to personal accolades or financial gain. They also remember him for his beautiful sense of wonder about all the little things around him and how he never missed an opportunity to show affection for his family, even with the goofiest gifts.
“He understood that we are all part of a community of people. It was his guiding principle,” said David Cruz, Anthony’s brother. “There are so many stories to tell about how Anthony always put the needs of others first. Like how he led a rent strike against slumlords, or saved people from losing their jobs, or raised money for hurricane victims or spearheaded the effort to create William Mercado Plaza on Jersey and Newark Avenues to commemorate El Piraguero. His life was rich and full of great accomplishments and love.”
Anthony’s selfless legacy also lives on as an organ and tissue donor who enhanced the lives of many others. At first, Anthony’s family did not know that he was a registered organ and tissue donor. However, they quickly found some comfort in knowing that Anthony gave the gift of life to others.
“It was another example of the kind of giving person that he was,” said David. “Everything he did in his life - personally and professionally - he did it with a great sense of humility and with purpose without needing any accolades. Anthony being a donor hero made us all think, ‘yeah, that would be Anthony.’ They will not make many more like my brother.”
On a Heroic Mission to Give Back - Rev. Dr. Valerie M. Griffin of Morristown
Rev. Dr. Valerie M. Griffin, Chaplain at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, is loved and admired by all those who know her. She always brings hope and joy to patients, families, and her colleagues. She truly practices what she preaches as she never lost hope while waiting nearly three years for a life-saving kidney transplant.
“I was not supposed to be alive – no one expected me to live beyond my 20s due to the medical issues and struggles that I have had with sickle cell anemia since childhood,” said Rev. Val. “But I always remember that God will provide and walk with you – especially in times of need.”
On October 31, 2020, Rev. Val received the call that she had been waiting for – a kidney was available for transplant. Her surgery was a success, and she is now feeling healthier and stronger.
“I am forever grateful for my donor who unselfishly gave me the gift of life,” said Rev. Val. “There are no words to fully express my deepest gratitude.”
Rev. Val is now more focused than ever on supporting the needs of patients. She is grateful for the opportunity to regularly minister to those who are waiting for a transplant or those who recently received a transplant. Her caring presence and personal story provides them comfort and lifts their spirits during their most challenging times.
“I will never forget one young man who was struggling a great deal during his dialysis session. He told me that he was in a ‘season of darkness’ and was losing all hope,” said Rev. Val. “I held his hand, and we spoke and cried together. Before he left, he thanked me and promised that I would see him again soon. My heart was filled with joy months later when he came to my church to see me. He was in a better place, and it was a powerful reminder for both of us of the power of faith and hope.”