Gonzales man to be remembered on Rose Parade float
By ELLYN COUVILLION | Advocate staff writer
By ELLYN COUVILLION | Advocate staff writer
Antonio Bennett, of Gonzales, was a hardworking young man and a musician who cared about his family and others.
As a teen, he registered to be an organ donor when he got his driver’s license.
Bennett died in 2008 at the age of 20 and changed the lives of four other people through organ donations.
He and other organ-donor heroes will be honored in the New Year’s Day Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., on the flower-covered float of Donate Life.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Donate Life is dedicated to inspiring people to register to be organ donors.
“This is a proud moment. I believe he is pleased,” said Bennett’s mother, Melinda Johnson, at a special ceremony held this month at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
There, Johnson and other family members put the final touches on a “floragraph,” a striking likeness of Bennett, created with organic materials, which will adorn the Donate Life float.
Johnson is the principle reason her son decided early on to become an organ donor, she said.
As a young woman, she received two corneal transplants, from two different donors, six months apart.
The donors “gave me a precious gift, the gift of sight,” said Johnson, who had suffered from keratitis, an inflammation of the cornea.
This will be the fourth time that the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA) has participated with the Rose Parade, as one of the sponsors of the Donate Life Rose Parade float, said Kirsten Heintz, director of development for LOPA.
The organization’s participation has helped honor Louisiana organ donors.
“Seize the Day” is the theme of the Donate Life float that on New Year’s Day in the Rose Parade will honor 60 organ donors from across the country, with the memorial floragraphs.
“The aim of the float is to inspire people to register as organ and tissue donors and to see organ and tissue donation as something to be celebrated,” said Bryan Stewart, the vice president of communications with OneLegacy, the California counterpart of Louisiana’s LOPA.
OneLegacy helps coordinate the float’s national campaign to honor organ donors from across the country.
The float, one of 47 that will be in the Rose Parade, will have a design of kites soaring in the sky with everything made of organic materials, according to Rose Parade regulations.
The volunteers who make the memorial floragraphs are taught how to create the likenesses, working from photographs, Stewart said.
There are two volunteers working on each floragraph, he said. The volunteers have a connection with organ donation and are often organ recipients themselves, he said.
“It’s a real honor to be able to do this for a family,” Stewart said.
When the Donate Life float rolls on New Year’s Day, there will be 30 riders and three honorary walkers with it, all of whom have been touched in some way by organ donation.
The organ donors whose likenesses will brighten the float this year range in age from newborn to 72, Stewart said.
“Nineteen donors did not live beyond their teens, and another 20 died before age 30. Yet all had an enduring impact on those whose need for life-saving and healing organ and tissue donations depended on the generosity of others,” said a news release from Donate Life.
More than 28,000 lives are saved each year in the U.S. through organ donations, it reports.
To learn more about the Donate Life float and its 60 honorees, visit http://www.donatelifefloat.org.
In a meeting room at Our Lady of the Lake on Dec. 9, Bennett’s family members saw his floragraph for the first time.
The likeness of Bennett had been shipped to Baton Rouge from California.
Johnson, daughters Milana Johnson, 4, and Tanisha Bennett, 18, and her nephew Irvin Nash, 18, along with other family members, carefully brushed glue on the outline of the eyebrows on the floragraph likeness, then applied small, black seeds to provide additional texture to the image.
Antonio’s grandmothers and aunts and uncles and other cousins were also there.
Before he died, Bennett had recently started working at a machine shop, Johnson said. He loved music, sang and wrote his own rap lyrics and had his own musical equipment, she said.
In her letter to LOPA nominating her son for the Donate Life float memorial, Johnson, who lives in Baton Rouge, said that Antonio had worked through some challenges in his teen years and had become a mentor to his younger family members.
His cousin, Nash, said that he and Bennett were “like brothers.”
The last holiday that the family spent with Bennett was Thanksgiving 2007, when Bennett cooked dinner for his mother, his sisters and one of his grandmothers.
Johnson describes her son’s death on June 4, 2008, only as caused by a “fatal accident.”
He was brought to Our Lady of the Lake following the accident.
This month at the ceremony honoring Bennett, his mother thanked hospital staff members for the comfort they offered on the day she lost her only son.
She said she was glad that “Antonio’s death was not in vain.”
His liver, both kidneys and one of his lungs were donated to others in need, she said.
“We need to get the importance of organ donation out,” Johnson said. “So many lives can be saved.”
Johnson and the family met one of those recipients on the same day they saw the floragraph.
Tina Pitre, 31, of Luling, received one of Bennett’s kidneys.
Her father, Thomas Pitre, said that Tina has had health problems since birth.
The family was anticipating that she would soon need dialysis, before she received the kidney transplant, he said.
Tina Pitre had been on a kidney transplant list for seven years, her mother, Caffie Pitre, said.
“She’s doing great. She’s doing all the things she couldn’t before — bowl, dance, going to the ball game,” Caffie Pitre said.
“I don’t know how to express how thankful you can be,” she told those gathered around Bennett’s floragraph.
A balloon release honoring Bennett and other Louisiana organ donors ended the floragraph ceremony.
Bennett’s family is in Pasadena this week and will be watching the float honoring Antonio when it rolls in the parade.
The Rose Parade will begin at 10 a.m. and will be broadcast on ABC, NBC and HGTV, Stewart said.
The floats will be judged on Friday. Typically, each float will have a handful of supporters there at that time, he said.
For the Donate Life float, it’s always different with upwards of 200 people gathering to show their support, he said.
“Everyone is there, and it’s a real celebration,” he said.
“It’s something that distinguishes us,” Stewart said.
“It’s not about the float,” he said. “It’s about what it (organ donation) makes possible.”