NASCAR driver makes pit stop to promote organ donation

By: Kayla Dimick | Southfield Sun | Published June 17, 2015

 Tim Makinen, Gift of Life communications director; Jennifer Tislerics, Gift of Life special events and partnership coordinator; Joe Gase; Jennifer Helmer, East Michigan liaison for the Secretary of State; Peggy Burkhard, Donate Life Coalition of Michigan marketing and public relations director; and Tom Moran stand in front of Gase’s car June 11 at Art Moran Buick GMC.

Tim Makinen, Gift of Life communications director; Jennifer Tislerics, Gift of Life special events and partnership coordinator; Joe Gase; Jennifer Helmer, East Michigan liaison for the Secretary of State; Peggy Burkhard, Donate Life Coalition of Michigan marketing and public relations director; and Tom Moran stand in front of Gase’s car June 11 at Art Moran Buick GMC.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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SOUTHFIELD — Just as a few seconds can mean the difference between first and second place to NASCAR drivers, the few seconds it takes to become an organ donor can also mean the difference between life and death to those in need.


Before wheelman Joe Gase took the track June 13 at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn for the XFINITY Series, he made a pit stop at Art Moran Buick GMC, 29300 Telegraph Road. There, Gase showed off his car, No. 52, a Chevrolet Camaro sponsored by Gift of Life Michigan, and shared his personal connection to the organization.


“My mom passed away in April of 2011 of a sudden brain aneurysm, and when that happened, the doctors asked us if she could be an organ and tissue donor,” said Gase, 22. “We didn’t know a lot about the donation besides when you go to the DMV, it’s just a quick yes or no question, but we said yes because we knew she was a very helpful and loving person, and we found out she was able to help save and improve the lives of 66 people, and that was amazing to us.”


The event at the dealership was a joint effort between Gift of Life Michigan, an organization aimed at  maximizing organ and tissue donation for transplantation, and the Donate Life Coalition of Michigan, an organization that promotes and encourages organ, tissue and eye donation.


“We coordinated efforts so we could sign up donors and have a little party today so Joey could meet local people, sign autographs and show off the car,” said Peggy Burkhard, public relations director for Gift of Life Michigan.


Tom Moran said the dealership has been committed to promoting donations through specialty license plates.


“On the dealership level, we’ve been doing the Donate Life specialty license plates so any customer that buys a car, we pay the fee for them to get the license plate, and we also put that on all our company vehicles,” Moran said.


The back of Gase’s car also featured the photos of two Michigan donors: Garrit Vandenberg, who died at age 7 in 1998 from a car accident, and Chelsey Northrup, who died at age 21 in 2014 after being hit by a drunken driver. Family members of both were at the June 13 race in Gase’s pit area to honor their loved ones.


Donna Vandenberg, Garrit’s mother, said she and her husband, Mark, were honored to be asked to have their son’s photo on the back of Gase’s vehicle. Vandenberg said her son was a NASCAR fan.


“It just comes full circle since Garrit was a big NASCAR fan,” Vandenberg said. 


Jennifer Helmer, East Michigan liaison of the Michigan Department of State, said that donors have grown dramatically since Secretary of State Ruth Johnson took office in 2011. Before Johnson took office, Helmer said only 27 percent of adults were registered donors, and now 51 percent are.  


Tim Makinen, communications director for Gift of Life Michigan, said anyone is welcome to join the registry, and all it takes is checking a box at your local Secretary of State.


“There’s no age limit; it doesn’t matter what your medical or social history is,” Makinen said. “Anybody can join the donor registry, and that indicates you’re willing to help others after you’re gone by being an organ and eye and tissue donor.”


Gase said he hoped the sponsorship would help educate the public on organ, tissue and eye donation.


“I wanted to do something to honor my mom, and not only honor her and honor other donors and also bring awareness to donation, so hopefully if anybody is ever in the same situation we were, they will be more prepared and know what to do, and they will hopefully have already talked with their loved ones.”


Gase came in 27th place at the race June 13.

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