Of the approximately 25,000 flowers on the Donate Life Rose Parade float, three held special meaning for the Persinger family of Mukwonago. There was one rose each for Derek Hazenfield, Christian Weyer and Chris Persinger, who all died after a car crash five years ago. The roses were in the heart-shaped dedication garden at the front of the Donate Life Journeys of the Heart float for the 2013 Tournament of Roses Parade.
The past five years have been a journey of the heart for the Persinger family after they learned Chris helped 64 people through tissue donations, including his sister Caitlyn, who received his final tissue donation to repair a torn ACL and meniscus. Chris had always been the one who pushed Caitlyn in sports. Now he runs with her every time she steps on the soccer field.
"Every time I play I do think about it. I'm playing because of him. I'm playing for him," said Caitlyn. "It's my special thing. When I play sports I always have him with me."
It's been a year and a half since Caitlyn received the donation from her brother, and it still seems surreal, added Shelley Persinger, Caitlyn's mom.
Chris was always a "limelight kind of kid," Shelley explained; however, after Caitlyn was chosen as one of 32 people to ride the Donate Life float, the rest of the family has also found itself sharing that light, fielding interviews by various television stations before the Rose parade on New Year's Day.
It had been almost a year ago since the Persinger family traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to share the story of Chris' tissue donation with Medtronic, one of two tissue organizations, along with American Tissue Services Foundation, which sponsored the family for the Donate Life float. While they knew the effect of Chris' tissue donations, hearing stories from organ donor recipients provided an emotion-filled evening for them. They heard stories of extremely ill people waiting on donor lists. They saw the gratitude of the recipient to the families who provided a lifesaving donation.
"It was just a huge circle of emotional but thankful recipients," said Shelley. "In their eyes, it was 'You didn't just save my life, you saved an entire family.' "
For Shelley, Todd, Courtney and Caitlyn, it illustrated the far-reaching effects of Chris' donation even more.
Weeks of work on the float came together with intricate detail as volunteers - all of whom had been touched by donation - painstakingly tended to intricate detail as a green base was put down and then flowers added. Todd spent hours gluing flower petals onto the base. Shelley helped attach flower heads to wires to stick in the base. Caitlyn and Courtney helped stab roses in water tubes into the Styrofoam base under watchful eyes that guided the precise placement of the flowers. Flowers were continuously fluffed and watered.
"Every detail is unbelievable," Shelley said. "To see it all done was incredible."
Families took eight-hour shifts to work on the float. When the Persinger family finished their shift, another group worked through the night to complete the float for judging on Dec. 31.
"There is so much work put into it that you can't tell on TV," Caitlyn noted.
During judging the 32 float riders sat on the float and waved as if they were driving along the parade route as black-shirted judges moved between the floats.
"It was pretty intense," Shelley added.
People camped out on the streets of Pasadena, Calif., to get a spot for the parade. The morning of the parade, many of the Donate Life participants ended up walking from the hotel to the start of the parade when their bus never arrived to transport the group to the float. Caitlyn sat on the "non-media" side of the float, holding her brother's picture, and spent more than two hours waving to people while "You'll be in my Heart," played repeatedly as the Donate Life float moved along the parade route. The best part of riding in the parade was the recognition on people's faces when they realized what the float was about, Caitlyn said.
Chris would have been standing tall, shouting throughout the parade, Caitlyn said. While Chris enjoyed the limelight, "it's not really us," Caitlyn explained. However, they believe if their story can make a difference they have to share it. Shelley has called on Chris many times for strength as the family has told their story about his donation.
"We miss him every day. There have been some positive things that have come from it, and it gives you a sense of more peace. It's kind of helped us grieve and get through the days. Just to honor him, for Caitlyn to carry that picture and to be part of that entire event was truly amazing," said Shelley. "There just really aren't any words to truly explain it, but it was such a touching thing for us as a family and to be able to do it all together."
"It was kind of like meant to be," Caitlyn added. "Chris was always that person that was kind of out there, people knew him, so riding on that float was so something he would do for us. It was so cool to hold his picture and honor him in the parade. But I feel like because of all this happening, donation has become such a big part of our lives."
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