Today we celebrated Joe Darga’s “triumphal entrance into heaven.”
I remember the very moment I first heard about Joe Darga. I received a call from Jacquie Colleran, the first transplant recipient I ever met and the grande dame of them all. As president of the recipient organization in Ventura County, Jacquie worked with new transplant recipients before they joined the OneLegacy Ambassador program, which I oversaw.
Jacquie called to warn me. Joe had just received a heart transplant and was anxious to start spreading the word about organ donation. Jacquie cautioned me, as she often did, that as a new recipient Joe’s medications made him feel full of energy but he needed to take it slow.
As always, I thanked Jacquie for her insight and told her I looked forward to speaking with Joe. When Joe and I got on the phone I realized there was no holding him back, or slowing him down.
On our first call Joe chastised me. Why didn’t OneLegacy have a larger and more active Ambassador base in the Santa Barbara area, where he lived? Why were there so few donor awareness activities planned in his community? Why hadn't I focused on Santa Barbara at all? What had I been doing with my time? Obviously I needed him. And after that conversation I realized, I did need him. I needed Joe a lot.
I encouraged Joe to focus his boundless energy on OneLegacy’s high school education program. That would give him the biggest bang for his buck. Helping high school students learn more about organ donation and make an informed choice before they received their drivers license would contribute to a whole new generation of organ donors.
To improve his story-telling skills, Joe signed himself up for Toastmasters. When Joe gave his first speech about his transplant I drove up to hear it. He always remembered that. As we worked together for the following decade Joe always remembered that I had made the time to drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to listen to his speech at 7 a.m. for his sunrise Toastmasters. But even as I drug myself out of bed and got on the road before dawn, I knew Joe was worth the effort. I knew that whatever time I gave to Joe would be repaid hundredfold through his service.
I was right.
As Joe perfected his speech, he also delivered packets of information about OneLegacy's high school education program to every school principal in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Goleta. If principals didn't get back to him when he followed up with a phone call, Joe would find the science teacher and speak directly to that person to book presentations.
So it went. Because Joe never gave up, he soon secured presentations in every high school in the region. I drove up many mornings for 8 a.m. classes to describe the process of organ donation while Joe told his personal story. I loved watching the high school kids, engaged and amazed at how a donated organ can transform a life.
Joe was a force of nature. He booked us on local radio shows. He recruited Ambassadors. He secured a Donate Life table at the annual Lemon and Avocado Festivals. Grateful for his second chance at life, he worked tirelessly to give back.
And Joe certainly did give back. He made a difference in the lives of thousands of people, especially young people. When students in Santa Barbara arrived at the DMV for their license they checked yes, proudly. They became organ donors because of Joe. His message carried far and wide.
On Monday, when I found out Joe died, I cried. Overcome with grief at the loss of his life, I was also happy that he had 14 healthy, vibrant years. He was not only a champion for donation, he was a husband, father and grandfather. When Joe told his story he always included that he wanted this gift of life so he could see his grandkids grow into young adults. He had that chance. Today at Joe’s memorial I met his beautiful grandchildren, grown and thankful to have had "Papa" in their lives.
Joe made a difference to his immediate family, to his community and to me. Joe was my partner in crime when I worked for OneLegacy. I knew I could rely on him, and he knew he could rely on me. I was proud of him, and he was proud of me.
There are people in your life who are so much a part of who you are that they can never be forgotten. For me, and for many, Joe is one of those people. Rest in peace Joe. You have left behind a lasting legacy. We who celebrate you today, hold you in our hearts forever.
A Bit About Me
I am Tenaya, a communications strategist and public speaker telling stories that connect, inspire...and laugh.