At the bustling float decoration area inside Pasadena's vast Rosemont Pavilion, Rudolfo Barajas remembers his little brother, Gabriel.
The 22-year-old Iraq war veteran was in the Army Special Forces that captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. To Barajas and the rest of his family, Gabriel seemed invincible.
But one evening, while changing a flat tire on Interstate 5 near Dodger Stadium, Gabriel was hit by a car. He died four days later.
"The fact that he had gone through so much in Iraq, the stories that he would tell me of what happened in Iraq and the fact he was part of the Special Forces that were able to capture Saddam, and for him to come back and pass away the way he did was just terrible," Barajas says.
But for many others, Gabriel’s death brought new life.
Just before he died, the war veteran had registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles as an organ and tissue donor. And for that decision, he will be honored — along with 71 other organ donors — with a floragraph portrait on the float, called "Journeys of the Heart," that represents Donate Life America.
This year marks the organization's 10th float entry in the Tournament of Roses Parade.
"Our participation was inspired by a lung recipient from Orange County named Gary Foxen," says float committee chairman Bryan Stewart. "He decorated floats with the Auto Club for many years. And once he received a lung transplant, he realized the Rose Parade would be a perfect way to thank donor families and celebrate everything the gift of life makes possible."
More than 115,000 people are on the national organ transplant waiting list. But according to Donate Life, only about 28,000 organs are transplanted annually. As a result, 18 people die each day for lack of a donor.
Stewart says when the first Donate Life Rose Parade float rolled down Colorado Boulevard a decade ago, the organ donation rate nationwide was at about 50 percent.
"Which means half the time people were saying yes to donation when we had actual donation opportunities in the hospital," Stewart says. "Now that donation rate is about 75 percent."
Stewart says part of the credit goes to federal initiatives that helped educate hospitals on how they can support the organ donation process.
"But we’ve also see things like this," he says, referring to the parade float, "that position us as something very positive and very hopeful."
Rosemary Rodriguez says she feels that hope each time she volunteers to decorate the Donate Life float. For the past five years, she says, she’s spent much of the week before New Year's Day working on the float as a way to honor her son David, 21, who died of a gunshot wound to the head 10 years ago.
Rodriguez says her family, like many others, struggled with whether to donate her son's organs.
"In a way, we didn’t want to do it," she says. "But little did we know that two weeks after, they mailed us our son’s ID and he was already a donor without us even knowing."
Rodriguez says her only wish now is that someday she’ll hear something from one of the recipients of David’s organs. Until then, she says, working with and inspiring grateful organ recipients she meets each year to write letters of thanks to their donors' families provides her a measure of healing.
The parents of kidney recipient Ernesto Bravo, now 12, were there to thank the family of war veteran Gabriel Barajas for the life he gave their son. A letter mailed seven years ago marked the beginning of a bond so tight that now the two families often share holidays and vacations.
"Now we're like one family," Bravo says.
And it's such celebrations of life that Stewart hopes will be conveyed to Rose Parade viewers on New Year’s Day.
Says Stewart: "Our hope is that when people see our float in front of TV screen that next time they’re at the DMV they have that question in front of them: Do they wish to register to be an organ an tissue donor, instantly they think, ‘You know what? I want to be part of something that is so beautiful and meaningful and celebrates life in a positive way.’ And they check 'yes.'"