April is Organ Donor Awareness Month, but for Don and Renee Freeman, founders of Donors Are Heroes, the cause is a year-round endeavor.
Don and Renee Freeman at the Donors Are Heroes Party in 2013. right: The Gift of Life Family House, a “home away from home.”
Husband-and-wife interior design team Don and Renee Freeman want you to save a life. As the heads of Donors Are Heroes, an all-volunteer organization that supports the Gift of Life Donor Program (a nonprofit that coordinates life-saving organ and tissue transplants throughout the tri-state area), the Freemans were inspired to give back when Don himself received a heart transplant in 2000. Just one year later, Donors Are Heroes was born. The couple’s annual fundraiser, simply dubbed “The Party” (this year on March 27), is one of the highlights of the spring social season for its high-energy, dance-all-night atmosphere. Credit that to the Freemans’ spirited mission to not just save lives but to celebrate life. Here the couple share their triumphs, challenges, and why ending their charity is the ultimate goal.
What is the mission and vision of Donors Are Heroes? Renee Freeman: We are supporting the Gift of Life Donor Program. Our group has always been about dispelling myths and raising public awareness about the importance of becoming an organ and tissue donor. Don Freeman: We have an About Life grant program, and we have scholarships for schools and the clergy. They need to be educated, and that’s what we try to do. We are not out there asking people to become donors; we are giving them the facts and the education and letting them make their own decision. RF: The largest educational program we have is Spirit for Life, which provides the framework to promote organ and tissue donation education to high schools. We also do the same thing for the clergy, and we titled that It’s About Life. With the clergy, it’s extremely important for them to be educated so they can educate their communities. If the clergy stands up at the pulpit, people will listen.
The Home Cook Heroes program at Gift of Life Family House prepares meals for transplant patients and families.
What kick-started this initiative for you? DF: I was in the hospital waiting for a heart, and I was there with about 30 people. Although I was successful, some people were waiting for over a year because they hadn’t gotten a match. And we saw a lot of people dying because there weren’t enough organs. I said, “We have to do something about this.” Renee observed what I went through, and she’s the one who really started this. RF: When Don was waiting, he was weeks away from perhaps not making it. I realized that, sadly, I wasn’t educated and I was not an organ donor. It never dawned on me to figure out where and how to donate organs. If you can’t take it with you, why not enhance lives?
What were some roadblocks you faced as you were getting started? RF: One roadblock was that people weren’t willing to listen. DF: It was always someone else’s problem. RF: But by starting out not so serious and throwing [the Donors Are Heroes Party], [without] giving speeches, not making people uncomfortable, they became more willing to learn about it. DF: Now, out of anywhere in the country, we do the largest amount of transplants and have the largest number of registered donors. RF: In the beginning, we wanted to do something to get people together to learn about organ donation. We had 13 friends who were the most precious and supportive friends in the world. They reached out to their friends, and so on, and we had [the first Donors Are Heroes Party]. DF: They were local people we knew. They were really just friends. RF: Now this year, on March 27, we are going to be at the Four Seasons Hotel. DF: It’s really not a typical charity party. We really make it a fun event. RF: Even if people don’t [register to become donors at the event], they will tell their friends where they were, and that starts the story.
Paul and Debbie Kelly at “The Party,” the Donors Are Heroes annual fundraiser and one of the highlights of spring’s social calendar.
What are your plans for the future? RF: We’re hoping that we can have corporate partnerships for educational programs within their systems. The other thing we are hoping is that, one day, we will have presumed consent, which means that you are automatically an organ donor unless you opt out. If there were a way for us to lobby for that, it would be amazing. DF: At the end of the day, I hope everyone wants to be an organ donor. RF: One organ and tissue donor can save and enhance the lives of over 50 people. This is a crisis with a cure. DF: Ultimately, in the future, I hope that there won’t be a need for us. And then we’ll be on to something else. RF: It really is that simple.
Friday, March 27, at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, 1 Logan Sq., 215-557-8090