Kingdom Day Parade float promotes African American organ, tissue donation in LA

Liver-transplant recipient Leslie Franklin holds up the leaf he created in honor of his donor.
Liver-transplant recipient Leslie Franklin holds up the leaf he created in honor of his donor.
Brian Watt/KPCC

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The 25th Kingdom Day Parade begins Monday morning at 10:15 in South Los Angeles. Among the 300-plus entries set to proceed along Martin Luther King and Crenshaw boulevards is a float from Donate Life California. The float is part of an outreach campaign that has helped organ and tissue donation gain acceptance among African Americans in the Southland.

The theme of this year’s Kingdom Day Parade is “Yesterday’s Dream, Today’s Reality.” That means something to Eunice Gibson of Baldwin Hills. Eight years ago, she needed a double-lung transplant, and got it.

"It was a dream that I’d one day receive this transplant, and the reality is that I’m here and I’m doing something with that and that’s amazing," says the 57-year-old Gibson.

She now runs an adult daycare facility, but also spends a lot of time working to promote organ and tissue donation to African Americans. Four years ago, she came up with the idea of an entry in the Kingdom Day Parade. With the financial support of a few doctors and some personal friends, her first entry was two cars.

This year, it’s a 39-foot-long float that presents a park-like setting shaded by a giant tree. The leaves on the tree bear the names of organ donors, recipients, doctors, hospitals, and advocates.

"That’s the tree of life," says Gibson. "It gives life back."

At Donate Life’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, Gibson and other volunteers wrote the names on the leaves for the float. Leslie Franklin sorts through to the leaf he finished first.

"OK, this is it, right here," Franklin beams. "My donor’s name is Jimmy Triana. His daughter’s name is Gloria."

Franklin recently celebrated his 67th birthday, thanks to a liver transplant almost two years ago. The retired Los Angeles County social worker and Air Force veteran was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. He says he waited five years for the transplant.

"It was a tough five years, " Franklin remembers, speaking in a measured pace. "I was very ill during that time. I almost passed away a couple of times."

The Veterans Administration sent Franklin to its hospital in Portland, Oregon for the liver transplant. As soon as he was strong enough, he wrote a letter to Jimmy Triana’s family to thank them.

"A Few months later, I got a letter from the donor’s family, which is quite rare because sometimes they do not respond," says Franklin. "The donor’s daughter happened to be the same age as my daughter, 19. And she was very gracious."

Franklin says they haven’t met in person but keep in touch through regular e-mails.

"She treats me like a family member and has put my photo on the wall at her University in Oregon," he says, unable to hold back a chuckle.

Leslie Franklin is one of 15 people riding on the Kingdom Day parade float. It’s now a key part of an outreach campaign to a community that hasn’t always embraced organ donation.

Ralph Sutton coordinates Donate Life’s outreach among African Americans in Los Angeles. He says that in his three years in the position, the consent rate for organ donation among LA’s African Americans has climbed way, way up - from 35 percent to 58 percent.

"Through large community events like the Kingdom Day Parade, people are beginning to see us more and beginning to understand that we are part and fabric of the community," says Sutton. "We’re not this entity out there just looking to carpetbag organs or something like that. No, we’re you. We’re you and this is best for us," he says.

Eunice Gibson says as a volunteer Ambassador for Donate Life, she can feel it.

"More people are pulling out their driver’s license. More people are identifying with 'my husband had a transplant, my daughter needs a transplant.' ” Gibson says. That allows the trained nurse to take her message a step forward – or maybe back - to preventing the health conditions that put African Americans at greater risk of needing a transplant: hypertension and diabetes.

"We make up 13% of the population but yet 35% on the wait list are African Americans for kidneys," she reports. "And a lot of that can be something that we can change."

Eunice Gibson says it’s great that more African Americans are on the list of organ donors, but her goal is to make sure fewer have to end up on the list of organ recipients.