2 Geneseo families, 1 Rose Parade float

Lisa Depies
Roxanne and Les Ritter, left, of Geneseo, hold a floragraph of their son, Sgt. Leevon Ritter. The floragraph will be used on the Donate Life Rose Parade float. Sgt. Ritter became an organ donor following his May 2012 death.​ The Ritters will travel to Pasadena, Calif., to watch the Rose Parade. Carlie Newton, center right, ​of Geneseo, ​will ride on the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade. Carlie is pictured with her parents Cindy, left, and Vince Newton. As an infant, Carlie received part of her mother's liver in an organ transplant. Cindy Newton will walk with the Donate Life float in the Jan. 2 parade.​​

As this year’s Rose Parade rolls down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Calif., one float in particular will have ties to two Geneseo families.

For the past 12 years, the Donate Life float has honored organ donors and recipients. Living donors and recipients ride on the float or walk adjacent to it, while deceased organ donors are memorialized in “floragraphs,” portraits created entirely from organic materials.

The 2017 float will feature a floragraph of Sgt. Leevon Ritter, whose father and stepmother, Les and Roxanne Ritter, live in Geneseo. Geneseo mother-and-daughter Cindy and Carlie Newton will appear with the float as a living donor and transplant recipient.

Only recently did the Ritters and Newtons learn about each others’ connection to the 2017 Donate Life float.

“It’s such a small world,” said Carlie Newton.

Carlie, 19, a sophomore at the University of Iowa, was diagnosed with the liver disease Biliary Atresia when she was an infant.

For Carlie’s parents, Cindy and Vince Newton, the diagnosis “was like being hit in the face with a ton of bricks” said Cindy.

Carlie needed a liver transplant to survive, and her mother, Cindy, was a match.

On Dec. 22, 1997, the pair underwent surgery, with Cindy donating 20 percent of her liver’s lower left lobe to her daughter.

“I don’t even remember if I’d been signed up to be an organ donor before that,” said Cindy. “But, after what we’ve been through, I know just how important organ donation is. It lets people, like Carlie, have a second chance at life.”

The liver is the only organ that regenerates, and, aside from periodic blood work and a “giant scar across my stomach” Cindy said she has been “perfectly fine” following her donation. “I was only in the hospital for four days.”

Carlie was three months old when she had the transplant. “I obviously don’t remember anything about the transplant itself, but I still go to the doctor a couple times a year for blood work,” she said.

“She’s now 19 years post-transplant, and look at her now, she’s a college sophomore” said her mother.

Via the Iowa Donor Network, Carlie also has become an advocate for organ donation.

“It’s about getting the word out about organ donation. Not as many people know about organ donation as they should,” she said. The Rose Parade float “is a celebration of the life and the gifts that people have given.”

Carlie is an active participant for Team Iowa in the Transplant Games and has been a longtime volunteer for the Iowa Donor Network. She also filmed a driver’s education video geared toward teens promoting organ donation.

Organizers from the Iowa Donor Network nominated Carlie and Cindy for the Donate Life Rose Parade float.

“I’m still kind of in awe knowing we’re going to be in the parade,” said Cindy. “It’s such an honor to participate in the Rose Parade and such an honor to be able to do it with Carlie.”

The 2017 Donate Life float will be a Polynesian-style boat. Twenty-four organ recipients, including Carlie, will “row” the boat in the parade.

Cindy will be one of 12 living donors who walk alongside the float for the 5.2-mile Rose Parade route.

“I’ve been breaking in my shoes trying to get ready for that walk,” said Cindy, who added she thinks she’ll be so enthralled with all the activity around her she won’t notice the distance.

Adorning the float will be 60 floragraphs honoring those who gave “the gift of life” to others.

Sgt. Leevon Ritter’s portrait will be included on the float.

Leevon joined the Army in 2006 following his graduation from Pleasant Valley High School, in Bettendorf, Iowa.

As an M1A2 Abrams tank crewman, Leevon was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. He served two deployments to Iraq.

On May 18, 2012, Leevon, 24, was involved in a motorcycle accident, in Texas. Surgery followed, but, in the hours after, Leevon was declared brain dead.

“Before they deployed, the Army had encouraged soldiers to sign up to be organ donors, so if something happened, they could help someone else,” said Leevon’s father, Les.

Because Leevon had expressed a desire to be an organ donor, he was kept on life support for two days as doctors made sure his organs were viable for transplant.

His parents hope the Rose Parade float will help raise awareness for organ donation.

Leevon was nominated for the Donate Life float by the Southwest Transplant Alliance.

His parents had the opportunity to help create Leevon’s floragraph, which is comprised of organic materials including coffee grounds, sand, bird seed, rice, salt and sugar.

“Up close, the image looks a bit funny, but from a distance or on TV, it will look like him,” said Les.

The couple helped glue eyebrows on Leevon’s floragraph.

“It’s a little like doing an art project,” said Les.

In Pasadena, the Ritters and the Newtons will join other Donate Life families in an array of activities, including putting the final touches on the 2017 float itself.

Those not participating in the parade itself, including Les and Roxanne and Carlie’s father, Vince, will have designated viewing spots to watch the procession.

Both the Newtons and the Ritters said they’re also looking forward to meeting other Donate Life families.

“We look at it with mixed emotions. It’s a honor to be going, but the reason we’re going is awful,” said Roxanne.

Still, Roxanne said it’s an amazing coincidence that one float will have two Geneseo connections.

“Who would have guessed that little Geneseo would have two families going to the Rose Parade?” she said.

Though traditionally on New Year’s Day, because Jan. 1 falls on a Sunday, the 2017 Rose Parade will be Monday, Jan. 2.