Throughout Mahwah, a group of residents shares a connection that they call “uncomfortable, but completely supportive in a way that is difficult to explain.”
Members of the New Jersey Sharing Network work both as a support system for one another, and an advocacy and awareness organization that promotes organ donation. The many Mahwah members in the group joined either because they had a loved one who has donated organs, are signed up to be donors themselves, or have been the recipients of donated organs.
“It’s not something that people want to always think about or talk about because it is uncomfortable,” Mahwah resident Jackie Lue Raia, a manager at the Sharing Network, said. “It’s often associated with the end of life, but it’s so important. It needs to be talked about.”
Raia applied for a job with the sharing network after she and her four siblings decided to donate her mother’s organs after she died two years ago.
“I was looking for a job that I could feel a personal connection with day in and day out, and it doesn’t get any more personal than this,” she explained.
“It took me two years to meet two of the women mom helped save,” Raia said. “Each got one of her kidneys. One just hugged me and thanked me. The other was standoffish, until I approached her. She then broke down and cried, and told me how blessed she was to have me and my mother. It made me realize the guilt and emotion involved with being on the recipient side, too, which I didn’t grasp before.”
Raia said that while meeting the recipients of organ donations isn’t necessary, and only happens if both parties are interested, it helped her personal grieving process. “I know that a little piece of my mom is still alive in them, and in, so far, 41 other people that she has donated to.”
Raia is working with Sharing Network members in Mahwah to spread the word about organ donation. “There are so many myths out there, and we try to clear those up, while working as a support group for family members of organ donors.”
Mahwah resident Pam Drozd, whose late husband Mike became an organ donor when he was killed in a 2008 car accident, said the Sharing Network has been “there for me. When you are grieving, you automatically feel like you are the only person in the world who has ever experienced this. I have met so many people whose stories were different, but they were traveling the same road I was.”
Drozd said to date, her husband has helped save or enhance the lives of 57 people through skin and tissue donations. She said skin and tissue can be donated up to five years after a person’s death, and are often donated to non life-threatening surgeries. “Mike still has a year left. Who knows how many more people he can help?”
Mahwah resident Geri Entrup said she joined the Network several years after her 37-year-old brother Andy died in 2006. His passing was ruled a “sudden death, with not much more explanation than that,” she said.
“In the beginning, my parents got with the Sharing Network very quickly, but I couldn’t be involved right away. It took me time to realize that what we were doing was celebrating his life, not mourning him. When I saw how many people my brother’s life could help, it’s healing in a way.”
The three women work with a network of donor families and recipients to spread awareness about “the importance of the talk,” Drozd said. “People need to know what their family members want, because in that moment, it is one less thing you have to think about. And, you can really carry out whatever legacy your loved ones wanted.”
The Network, now in its 25th year, encourages people to sign up online or “check the box” on their driver’s licenses to become organ donors. The group also inspired a mayoral proclamation at last week’s town council meeting officially naming April ‘Donate Life’ Month in Mahwah.
“You just don’t realize the impact it can have,” Drozd said. “If each person I talk to about this becomes an organ donor, and saves 50 or 70 lives, that’s global. Mike’s impact has been global, and I know being a part of that is the right thing for me.”
"We are a group of people who turn tragedy into hope," Raia said.
More information about the Sharing Network and its upcoming fundraisers, including a 5K walk June 10, is available on the organization’s website.