Janice Schwartz Donahue is still teaching after all these years.
Five years retired from her 37-year career as a fifth-grade teacher in Philadelphia, she’s now passing on arguably a more important lesson.
She goes around to schools and community groups to teach about organ donation and about how 22 people among the 120,000 on the transplant list die waiting every day. She speaks about how organ donation is the ultimate mitzvah, an opinion shared by most rabbis and denominations of Judaism.
“Don’t take your heart with you to heaven,” she said. “Heaven knows we need it here.”
She knows firsthand about the joys and sorrow of organ donation, having lost her 23-year-old daughter, Jessica, in 2002, more than eight years after she received the heart of a 16-year-old Russian Jewish boy killed in a car accident.
“I made lemonade out of those lemons,” she said when asked if there’s any bitterness, since Jessie was born with a congenital heart defect, was sick throughout her childhood until her transplant on Rosh Hashanah 1994, then struggled afterward. “I got my miracle when she had that heart transplant. The next miracle I didn’t get. But Jessica was here for a purpose.”
You can learn more about Jessica, organ donation and the effect it has on transplant recipients at the 14th annual Jessie’s Day from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 25 at the Independence Seaport Museum. Co-sponsored by the Gift of Life organ donor program, the event raises money to help send area students who’ve been organ recipients to college.
One of them is Dani Hess, a freshman at Arizona State University, who had a liver transplant just before her first birthday. While she won’t be able to attend the event, her grateful parents will be there.
“The events are usually very emotional,” said her father, David Hess. “Every story is personal, and you can relate it to your story.
“The room will be full of people who’ve received organs and families who’ve donated. It’s a very powerful feeling. It’s changed the way I think about life. Now I know the difference between a big problem and a little problem.”
So does his daughter.
“As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate it more and more,” said Dani, who’s become close to her donor family, the Fies, who’ll be in attendance. “Life can be taken away quickly.
“My donor daughter [16-year-old Rachel Fie] was taken away. You don’t know how long you have. I got a second chance. I want to do more and make an impact on this world.”
The idea behind Jessie’s Day came behind a collective effort between Schwartz Donahue, her older daughter, Laura, and Gift of Life CEO Howard Nathan.
Because Jessica had always been passionate about school and education — graduating on time with her class at Abington High School, getting a degree from Harcum College, then going on to study journalism at Temple University — they decided that four annual $2,500 college scholarships for area transplant recipients would be fitting.
Throughout the years, they’ve raised more than $120,000.
“I was 27 when she passed away,” said Laura Schwartz, who organizes Jessie’s Day from her Encino, Calif., home, where she raises her five year-old son, Jesse, and works occasionally as a film production assistant whose credits include “National Treasure and “Pirates of the Caribbean” II and III. . “Jessie was active speaking to junior high and high school kids.
“Whenever there was a platform to talk to about organ donation, she did it. After she passed, we had two ideas. We talked about opening a library because she was such an avid reader.
“But the more Mom and I talked, we remembered how when Jessie had graduated high school and was looking for college scholarships, there was nothing for organ transplant recipients.”
There is now, although the intricacies of organ and tissue donation are complicated.
“My daughter could not be a donor because she was septic,” said Schwartz Donahue, vice president at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, who was recognized by two people in the span of five minutes at the Jenkintown IHOP through her Gift of Life connections. . “Only about 2 percent of people die in a way they can become donors.
“You have to be on a respirator in a hospital, which is why there is such a huge shortage. Your organs start to die the minute you die.”
However, some organs, like a piece of the liver or lung or a kidney, can be transplanted from living donors.
And tissue can be taken at any time.
For both mother and daughter, Jessie’s Day has become a labor of love, in addition to being something they know she would’ve appreciated.
“My sister’s confirmation pin is in the lapel of my jacket, right where my heart is,” said Laura Schwartz, who’s put together an event that combines live music, food, various kinds of liquor, a silent auction and designer jewelry. “I can keep her memory alive doing it every year.”
Meanwhile her mother’s simply doing what she’s done her whole life. “I went to a high school reunion a few years after Jessie died and told somebody about it,” said Schwartz Donahue, who’s originally from New Brunswick, New Jersey, not far from the family plot where her daughter is buried. “He said ‘You were always doing stuff like that.’
“I never realized it, but my mother was vice president of her Hadassah chapter and my dad was in the lodge. I just saw that’s what you do. You give back to the community.
“I raised my kids with the whole idea of tikkun olam–of giving back. When I speak to Jewish community I talk about ‘if you save a life you save the entire world’ which comes from the Talmud.
“We’re giving back.”
Thanks to Jessie’s Day, thanks to recipients through the Gift of Life organ donor program, her memory—and their lives—will go on.
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