Band of Brothers – A Soldier Honors the Legacy of His Best Friend

November 11, 2014
Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte honored his best friend by carrying a Donate Life Flag with him on tours of the Middle East and Africa.

Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte honored his best friend by carrying a Donate Life Flag with him on tours of the Middle East, Africa and Thailand.

This article was originally published in the Q1 issue of Gift of Hope’s Connections Newsletter

Cameron Chana and Staff Sgt. Erik Tofte first met in 2006 when they pledged for the Sigma Pi fraternity at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. Chana, of Clarendon Hills, Ill., was entering his sophomore year and eager to continue his college pursuits while serving as a member of Sigma Pi. Tofte, of Roscoe, Ill., also a sophomore but three years older than Chana, had a year of community college under his belt after coming off active duty as a member of the U.S. Army’s famed 1st Cavalry Division. They were accepted into the fraternity, and for the next three years they were college roommates and worked closely together in their various roles within the Sigma Pi fraternity house. They became brothers.

Cameron Chana

Cameron Chana

“Cameron was easily the most memorable person I met during my time at Eastern,” Tofte recalled. “He was one-of-a-kind, and there aren’t enough positive words in any language to describe just how remarkable of a person he was. I have been half-way around the world with my Army travels and have met all kinds of people from all walks of life, and it’s no exaggeration to say Cameron was easily among the best of them. He was warm, kind, funny, loving, smart and helpful.”

The trait that radiated from Chana most — the part everyone fell in love with — was his genuine caring attitude, Tofte added. “It didn’t matter if you had known him for years or just met him 10 minutes ago. He wanted to get to know you better. It was why so many people considered him their best friend and why there was, and there remains, such a strong reaction among his friends and fellow students to his loss.”

It was late May 2009, three weeks after Chana had graduated from EIU. He had decided to pursue an MBA at EIU, so he stayed there after graduation with plans to start graduate school in the fall. He and about 50 others, mostly EIU students, were returning to campus on a rented double-decker bus with an open-air top after a day of boating at Lake Shelbyville, a popular central Illinois recreational area. Chana, who stood about 6-foot-3, and another man were facing backward when the bus headed under the Interstate Highway 57 overpass on Illinois Highway 16 in Mattoon, just west of the EIU campus. Chana and the other man both were killed instantly when their heads struck the overpass.

Quick-thinking students gave both men CPR until first responders arrived. The students didn’t know both men were beyond saving at that point. But their actions proved to be lifesaving nonetheless.


Erik, a Humvee and the Donate Life flag

That’s because Chana was a registered organ and tissue donor. Chana’s parents, Rob and Lori, didn’t know about their son’s decision to be a donor. That fact surfaced when they heard the devastating news that Cameron was brain-dead. Even in death, Cameron’s caring attitude emerged, Rob said. “Cameron had taken all appropriate steps to be an organ and tissue donor. He knew the decision to donate would be a difficult one for us, and he didn’t want us to have to make that decision if we were ever faced with it. That was Cameron.”

Surgeons recovered Chana’s heart, liver, lungs and two kidneys, and those gifts saved five people’s lives. And his tissue gifts have resulted in more than 50 transplants to date. Cameron’s impact on other people’s lives through his decision to be an organ and tissue donor is his legacy, Tofte said. “It was only a matter of time until he made a mark on the world. We all expected that to happen in life. In his case, he has made his mark in death.”

Tofte has dedicated himself to ensuring that Chana’s mark leaves a very large footprint. Since 2009, he has been a member of the Texas Army National Guard and has been deployed to several locations, including Africa, the Mideast and Thailand. During those deployments, Tofte took several steps to make sure the areas he visited felt his best friend’s presence and learned about the importance of organ and tissue donation.

For example, he carried a Donate Life flag with him, and, taking a “roaming gnome” approach, he had photographs taken of himself holding the Donate Life flag throughout his travels. He also created Donate Life and C.L.C. (Chana’s initials) nameplates for his uniform and wore them over his regulation insignia when possible and appropriate and took more photographs of him wearing the nameplates. And he had pro-donation T-shirts made and wore one in many other photographs. He compiled many of these photographs into a photo book.

Erik with the Donate Life flag in Djibouti.

Erik with the Donate Life flag in Djibouti.

Knowing he would return to the states in November 2012, Tofte arranged to visit the Chana family to present them with three surprise gifts: the Donate Life flag he carried with him, the photo book and a T-shirt he wore at his various landing points. He also brought a certificate of authenticity from his base commander in Djibouti verifying that the Donate Life flag flew over Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on August 6, 2012, “as a symbol and constant reminder of the importance of the Donate Life program and the impact donors have on our great nation.”

In December 2012, Tofte visited the Chanas at their Clarendon Hills home to present them with his gifts. “We had no idea he was doing it,” said Lori Chana. “It was an amazing tribute. We were really touched by it.”

Presenting those gifts was the least he could do to honor the legacy of a dear friend who made the lives of so many people better — in life and in death, Tofte said. “Cameron was the kind of person the world so desperately needs more of. It’s also what makes his participation in organ and tissue donation so fitting. It’s as beautiful as it is tragic.”

See more photos of Erik, Cameron and the Donate Life flag at


A Challenge from a Donor Mother

September 17, 2014
Wyatt with his brothers and sisters on graduation day.

Wyatt with his brothers and sisters on graduation day.

Today, September 17th, would have been Wyatt’s (my son) 20th birthday. It is the first birthday since he was taken from us last October. 

Wyatt’s final gift to others was through organ and tissue donation. In his passing, he saved the lives of three people and gave sight to two others. His decision to be an organ and tissue donor has impacted countless lives.



So, in honor of my son and his decision to save lives, I am asking you to share Wyatt’s story and to pledge to do one thing to positively impact your community.  I hope to encourage 20 people — one for each wondrous year I had with my son — to take action by helping someone else.

Nothing is insignificant when it comes to uplifting the life of another.

Personally, I will volunteer at a women’s shelter and a senior living complex. I will pay for someone else’s meal. And, I will pledge my time and energy to a local charity. At the end of the day, I will visit my son and tell him that I live each day to honor him and his many gifts.

If you have not yet considered organ donation I urge you to visit and become an organ donor.  It would be remarkable to inspire 20 people to honor Wyatt by registering as organ and tissue donors. 

Thank you all for your love and support.

Krista Jones

The Inaugural Shawn Miller Memorial Run

September 3, 2014
Shawn Miller on his bike.

Shawn Miller on his bike.

Shawn Miller had a big personality. Most people around his small town loved him and he, of course, loved them right back. His brother, Nathan, says that, “All you had to do was call and Shawn was there.” Nathan continues, “He would go out of his way to help his friends and make sure they were happy.”

It was only natural that when Nathan told Shawn about organ donation, his response was, “Well duh. I have no use for my organs once I’m gone. Why the heck wouldn’t I be donor?”

That discussion became relevant earlier this year when Shawn was fatally injured doing what he loved – riding his ATV.  “I was so proud of him for making this decision,” says Nathan. “Knowing that he lives on and helped five others in need is amazing. Shawn is my role model.”

On Saturday, September 6th, the friends and family of Shawn Miller are hosting inaugural Shawn Miller Memorial Run to honor him and his gifts of life through organ and tissue donation. The event will kick-off at 11:00am at Manny’s Pizza in Savanna, Illinois. All proceeds from the event will be donated to Gift of Hope.

To learn more about the event, visit the Shawn Miller Memorial Run Facebook page at Inquiries about the event should be sent to Nathan Schnitzler at

A Journey of Hope: Part 1

December 27, 2013

Each year, Donate Life organizations from across the United States and throughout the world celebrate the “gift of life” through organ and tissue donation by creating a float to be featured in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. Gift of Hope is proud to be a part of this amazing event.

Over the next few days, we will feature the stories of Illinoisans and Hoosiers who are organ and tissue donation advocates and have been a part of making the 2014 Donate Life Float a reality.

Today, we would like to introduce Larry Lefferts. Larry is a donor father and an avid advocate for organ and tissue donation. He and his wife, Vivian, represented Gift of Hope at last year’s Tournament of Roses Parade. They enjoyed the experience so much that they are returning for the 2014 parade as members of the Donate Life Float Advisory Committee.

Without further ado, here is Larry’s story in his own words.

The Lefferts family at the 2013 Rose Parade.

The Lefferts family at the 2013 Rose Parade.

The English language is far too inadequate to describe the beautiful experience of being involved with the Donate Life Float! Words like “joy”, “pain”, “comfort”, “healing”, “support”, “compassion”, “love”, “sharing”, “caring”, “thankful”, “remarkable”, “overwhelming” do not seem adequate in conveying just what this experience was all about. We met new, very dear friends who make one feel like they have been our friends for a very long time.

There is Kevin Monroe, who donated a kidney to his brother and has worked on every Donate Life Float. He was in charge of a shift for building the float. After telling him Vivian was riding the float, he asked what state we were from.  When we said Illinois, he said he knew about us and then said something about our fireworks business and our son. His eyes swelled with tears as we talked about John and we all cried. What compassion he showed us!

Then there is the driving force behind the float, Bryan Stewart.  It was amazing to watch his skill at handling all of the things thrown at him. We also got to know Bryan’s assistant, Annie Kiefhaber, quite well. We were even able to help her with coordinating buses for the parade. 

And there was Heidi Schaiberger!  We were so very blessed to be able to meet her and share the experience with her. 

The joy and anticipation on the day of the Parade was palpable!  The Donate Life folks sat facing each other on both sides of Colorado Blvd which hosts much of the parade route.  It was a joy watching the other floats and bands go by as everyone cheered.  We could see a couple blocks up to “media corner” as floats turned towards us.  There was a clear view, stirring much excitement, when the Donate Life Journey of the Heart Float turned the corner.  To watch it approach us and see it so clearly was truly a life changing moment. I saw my lovely bride, Vivian, clutching my son’s photo and waving back at all of us! I was flooded and overwhelmed with emotion as I watched this beautiful creation sail by us and heard the Float’s theme song, Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be In My Heart.”  I was truly blessed to be there for this moment! It was joyous!

Larry and his daughter as they wait for the Donate Life Float.

Larry and his daughter as they wait for the Donate Life Float.

Vivian and I felt so very blessed!  Our lives were changed on that day. We pledged to return at some time in the future and volunteer in the hopes we could again experience the healing joy.  Imagine our excitement when Annie Kiefhaber called us and asked if we would like to be on her Donate Life Float Committee!  We were, and are, thrilled beyond belief at this opportunity. It is our hope to make the Donate Life Rose Parade Float Class of 2014 feel as blessed as we were made to feel by those who were there for us!

Share Your Story: Part 2

April 14, 2011

“Will to Live” (submitted by Kim McMahon)

William "Will" McMahon

My son William “Will” McMahon was an active, healthy, 16-year-old honor student. During the last week of 2004, he suddenly developed flu-like symptoms. Less than a week later, Will was diagnosed with inexplicable liver failure.

He was flown to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla., in critical condition. We were told that, without a liver transplant, he had just 24 hours to live. Miraculously, he received a donated liver in time to save his life. Following his transplant, Will fought bravely to recover and successfully returned home to resume his school work along with his passions of surfing and playing the  guitar. However, five months later, Will developed complications and was relisted on the national transplant waiting list—he needed a second liver transplant. Will was not so lucky this time. A donor liver never arrived, and he passed away on May 19, 2005, as he waited.

My experience has made me an enthusiastic advocate for donation. Following Will’s passing, I founded Donate 4 William, a not-for-profit foundation, in my son’s memory with the goal of educating others about the overwhelming need for registered donors. I spend much of my time speaking to schools, civic groups and other audiences to encourage everyone to register as organ and tissue donors. I also am honored to serve on the United Network for Organ Sharing Patient Affairs Committee where I work to make a difference in organ donation policy and procedures on behalf of patients.

I am motivated to spread awareness about the need for organ and tissue donation because I know that every day 18 people die waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant and more than 110,000 Americans currently are on the national transplant waiting list. Regrettably, fewer than half of the eligible registrants in the United States have decided to be organ and tissue donors. We can save the lives of those in need by registering ourselves and encouraging others to register as organ and tissue donors. It takes less than one minute to register your decision to be an organ and tissue donor at DonateLife, the Donate Life America Web site, or at the DLA-affiliated donation advocacy organization in your state. In Illinois, that organization is Donate Life Illinois.

For more information on Will and his story, I encourage you to view the short documentary Will 2 Live.

Kim McMahon

Register your decision to be an organ and tissue donor at

“An Amazing Experience” – A Recap From Our Rose Parade Rider

January 24, 2011

I feel so honored to have been chosen by Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network to be a float rider on the Donate Life Float in the 2011 Tournament of Roses Parade.  I rode on the float to honor my son, Jeff Meyer, who became an organ/tissue donor when he passed away 10/23/01, his recipients, and my husband, Jim Tilton, who received his new healthy kidney 3/18/89.  We put a rose on the float to honor Jeff, as well as one for a friend for her precious little granddaughter who passed away at 11 months old waiting for a transplant that never came in time to save her little life.  Our family, volunteers and friends were as excited as me knowing I would be on the float.

We had a busy 4 days in Pasadena, CA, as we were involved in many Donate Life Float activities, parties and the Rose Bowl Game. It was so wonderful to meet the other float riders and floral graph families. It was so awesome to get to help decorate the float and see it become such a beautiful float.  Seeing all the amazing floragraphs on the float honoring donors was touching.  As the float rolled out of the hanger and seeing the kites being brought up along with the floragraphs, was like seeing it come to life and represent life.  Then all of us riders climbed onto our seats for float judging with photos in our hands of our donor loved one or their donor who gave me a new chance at life.  And as the float judges walked around our float and talking to riders you could see the tears in their eyes too.

Dee (center) rides the Donate Life Float

The excitement started New Years Day at 7:40 AM as we climbed on the “Seize the Day”  Donate Life Float. The float won the Theme Trophy in the parade judging. As the parade started it was just so awesome to see how excited people became as our float approached them. All along the parade route it was awesome seeing people react as they’d realize what the float represented. Many stood, clapped, threw kisses, showed hugs, or had tears in their eyes.  It was great to be able to interact with the crowd while on the float as we rode the 5 mile parade route.  Most floats represent a company or city, but the Donate Life float represents life, memories, love, caring, giving and hope.   You could just see this float had true meaning to those watching the parade.

Towards the end of the parade, as we were stopped, a couple of teenage girls were just smiling and waving to us, so I motioned for them to come over to the float.  I gave them a “Seize the Day” lapel pin and it brought such smiles to their faces as they put them on their jacket. I took their picture as we pulled away. It was neat to see how excited they were, and it made them feel more part of the float.

The two plus hours we were on the parade route went so fast, but I came away from it so blessed.  The Donate Life float had a meaning that touched people’s hearts and made them see how organ donation touched our lives. The Donate Life Float not only shows awareness of the importance of being an organ/tissue/eye donor, but touches the hearts of those who see the float’s true meaning of giving love, hope and life to others.

I had the most amazing 4 days of my life that I will never forget.  I was so blessed to be part of this wonderful float and parade.

Delora “Dee” Tilton

Groveland, IL

Visit the Donate Life Float media center to view more photos from the parade.

Seize the Day!

The Complete Circle

September 28, 2010

Two recent stories about donation have received national attention. Although unconnected situations, the stories tell the complete story of donation. Taylor’s family made the decision to donate while Anna received the heart transplant she needed to save her life. Together, the stories illustrate the beautiful circle of donation.

Many of you may have already heard about these stories as Taylor’s Gift appeared on Good Morning America and Anna’s story aired during last night’s Bears v. Packer’s game but please pass on to others.  Both are incredibly moving and, hopefully, encouraged many viewers and motivated them to register.

Taylor’s Gift

My Wish: Anna Schmidt’s Journey


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