Written By Zoe Engels, Contributing Writer and Editor
Currently, there are over 100,000 people on the transplant waiting list, and 17 people die everyday waiting for a transplant. To reduce the organ shortage and educate others about the importance of organ donation, the Donate Life Rose Parade Float has been a part of the Rose Bowl Parade, a.k.a the Tournament of Roses Parade, since 2004, encouraging the approximately 700,000 attendees and more than 20 million viewers to register as organ donors.
At this year’s 134th annual Rose Bowl Parade held on January 2nd, 2023, in Pasadena, California, two of the sponsors of the Donate Life float were SODA: Student Organ Donation Advocates and Growing with Grief. Growing with Grief provides resources and hope for those who are grieving and was founded by Autumn Toelle-Jackson, a member of SODA’s Board of Directors!
Autumn’s daughter, Rylee, was honored at this year’s Rose Bowl Parade with a floragraph, a floral portrait, on the Donate Life Rose Parade float. Because of this honor, Autumn was able to tell her daughter’s story and raise awareness for organ, eye, and tissue donation throughout the festivities.
Rylee's completed floragraph on the Donate Life Rose Parade Float
Autumn, a passionate organ donation advocate herself, is no stranger to loss. Widowed at the age of 31, it was not until weeks later that she realized she could have asked about the possibility of her husband being an organ and tissue donor. Later, when she and her second husband, Kyle, tragically lost their three-month-old daughter, Rylee Marie, they immediately considered organ donation. Rylee’s heart, liver, and kidneys were donated. Although the experience couldn’t take away their grief, it did provide them with a semblance of comfort knowing that Rylee would be able to help three other people, providing miracles through organ donation.
“Our family was shattered when we found out Rylee was not going to make it,” Autumn said. “However, when we found out she would be able to donate, saving the lives of three others, we felt a lightening of our grief. She made a huge mark on our family, but it's [difficult] to make a mark on the world in [three months]; Rylee made her mark through organ donation. She died but her death brought life. The experience taught us just how helpful organ donation is, not for recipients, but for donor families as well. Having her gifts honored at the Rose Parade, which was viewed internationally, allowed her legacy to inspire others to become organ donors as well.”
Originally, the parade was designed as a way to promote California living, showcasing its mild climate, and the flowers it allowed for, year-round. The parade has evolved into its current state—a 5.5-mile route lined with floats covered in 100 percent organic materials (including over 17 million flowers!), some equestrian units, and marching bands from all over the world.
Having grown up in Oregon, Autumn recalls that the Rose Bowl Parade and subsequent College Football Rose Bowl Game were always part of the New Year’s Day festivities. In high school, she even took a floral design class in which the teacher explained how to design floats and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to bring the class on a field trip to help with decorating a float.
Since then, the Rose Bowl Parade has taken on a whole new meaning for Autumn. After Rylee’s passing, she recalled seeing the Donate Life Float honoring deceased and living organ donors and organ recipients at previous Rose Bowl Parades, and she knew that she wanted to share Rylee’s story by having her honored on the float.
The Donate Life and Done Vida logos from the Donate Life Rose Parade Float
Autumn describes the process of preparing to go to the Rose Bowl Parade as originally daunting. But she looked to SODA for partnership and sponsorship, and together, SODA and Autumn raised funds and applied to have Rylee accepted as an honoree by the Donate Life Rose Parade Float Committee.
“When we finally found out Rylee had been accepted, it was very surreal,” she explains. “I don't know that I actually fully understood we'd be going to the Rose Parade until we arrived.”
The weekend was jam-packed with events. Autumn attended a Decorator Family Meet and Greet the first day, followed by a Floragraph Brunch at which donor families had the opportunity to socialize, watch videos showing the floragraph creation process, and listen to the band All for One perform a few songs and share the impact organ donation has had on members’ lives.
Brunch was followed by a Sticker Trading session; float participants mingled, sharing photos and stories of their loved ones (as organ donors) or themselves (as organ recipients). Next, Autumn participated in a six-hour Donate Life decorating shift, trimming, opening, and gluing carnation’s to the back of the dragon float and placing dedication roses along the base. The float honored thirty-nine organ donors through floragraphs.
The float-decorating process included the opportunity for each family to have a hand in the construction by adding the finishing touches to their floragraphs before the rest of the decorating in Pasadena; Autumn specifically got to complete Rylee’s eyebrows and found that it was amazing to see her face appear in organic plant materials, knowing her smiling face would soon be seen by millions of people who would also learn her story.
Autumn and her family completing Rylee's floragraph at home
Autumn shared, “Meeting the other families was a time of high emotions, but also in some ways peaceful. So often, we carry our grief and stories of organ donation close because it's not something easy for people to understand, especially if they haven't lived through it themselves. However, at this event, everyone we talked to had their own stories of love, loss, and life-saving organ donation. Instead of thinking about how someone would react when they heard our stories, we had the freedom of knowing everyone there had a different, but no less sad, and amazing story of hope. In that way, we bonded with each other. I now think of many of the people we met through this experience regularly and know that I will carry their stories with me forever. I don't know that I'd ever been in such an incredible situation before.”
That day ended with the Donate Life New Year’s Eve Party, which consisted of music, dancing, and a balloon drop at midnight.
Early the next morning, Autumn caught the bus to the warehouse where the float was housed to watch the float judging; it’s where everyone got to see the almost-completed float, though it wasn’t fully assembled—“it was too tall for the dragon gate to stand all the way up in the warehouse and wouldn’t be finished until it left the warehouse on the way to the parade route,” Autumn explained. Judges took notes as they also heard some of the organ donation stories displayed on the float.
“It was touching to see the tears in their eyes and know that the stories we were sharing did have an impact,” Autumn recalled. “It wasn't until the morning of the parade, where we had front-row seats, that we found out that the Donate Life Rose Parade Float won the Sweepstakes Trophy, which is the Rose Parade’s top prize for the float that is the most beautiful, [which includes the criteria of] float design, floral presentation, and entertainment. It was the first time in the Donate Life Rose Parade float history that they won this award, and it was an honor that Rylee got to be a part of it.”
At the parade itself, Autumn and the other families got to see the complete float against the idyllic backdrop of Pasadena’s clear blue, sunshine-filled skies.
A clip from the Parade captured by Autumn
“The cheering from our section was so loud with love, hope, and grief pouring out of each of us,” Autumn added. “It was such a touching scene that I don't think could be fully described.”
One of the biggest takeaways from the experience for Autumn is that you never know who has been touched by organ donation or what impact anyone can have on others.
“A lot of the work we do to promote organ donation is work that we may never see direct rewards from,” Autumn said.” We won't know the direct impact made by someone who registers at one of our events, but we can know how impactful organ donation is, not just to recipients but also to organ donor families like ours. … While organ donation is such a personal decision, it's also one that can deeply impact countless lives.”
Visit sodanational.org/students to learn how you, too, can make an impact and save lives with an organ donation nonprofit.