By Rachel Jones  

Driving through the city, you’ve probably met eyes with one of Pittsburgh’s top sports heroes. Ben Roethlisberger, Francisco Cervelli, and Kris Letang, portrayed in black and white alongside powerful messages like “Organ Donation Nation,” “A Small Sacrifice That Can Make a Big Impact,” and “The Penguins Have Found Something Worth Fighting For,” respectively.

The impactful billboards, along with a slew of city-wide events, are part of Play It Forward Pittsburgh, an educational campaign that emphasizes the importance of registering as an organ donor.

Cindy and Rob Citrone started the initiative when Rob’s father endured the anxiety-filled waiting game that is being on an organ transplant list. “It doesn’t matter who you are — the organ transplant waitlist process is complicated, stressful, and heart-wrenching for all transplant patients and their families,” Rob says. “We wanted to change that. Pittsburgh is world-renowned for its transplant centers. We are a city of championship sports teams and ‘championship’ transplant teams. We want to make Pittsburgh a city of organ donor champions as well.”

As minority owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Citrones first asked the team and the Rooney family to back their project. An immediate “yes” from the Steelers, followed by similar responses from the Pirates and the Penguins, fell in line with the Citrones’ initial mission. “The idea was to unite three major professional sports franchises with common goals and common messaging over a three-month period to create a movement, create social impact, and move the needle in organ donation. Everything after that snowballed,” Cindy says, as more than 30 local and national universities, nonprofits, and businesses joined the cause.

The Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins donated the proceeds of their 50/50 raffles, which totaled over $150,000.

Along with the project’s initial success,The Citrone Family Foundation announced a $2 million gift to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC with an agreement to match $1 million in donations, launching a revolutionary network to improve pediatric liver transplant outcomes for patients around the world. The Starzl Network for Pediatric Excellence, named in honor of Pittsburgh’s own father of modern transplantation, Dr. Thomas Starzl, will ensure that Pittsburgh continues to be the leader in the field of transplantation by allowing centers to develop and share the best practices, patient outcome data, and research. 

“Organ donation — and more wonderfully, organ transplantation — is a solvable problem!” Cindy says. “With more efforts like ours, an increase in registered donors, as well as educated donors, we could eliminate all waitlists and save countless lives. We want to keep the momentum of the movement. Pittsburgh has demonstrated what true organ donor champions they are. We would like to use their success as a model for other cities. We also would like to come to the teams and the city again and unite to tackle another social impact issue.”

BY THE NUMBERS

  • More than 117,000 people are currently on the national organ transplant waitlist
  • More than 7,700 of those are in Pennsylvania
  • 22 Americans die every day waiting for lifesaving organs
  • 40-50 percent of Pittsburgh residents are registered organ donors, 10 percent below the national average

Play It Forward Pittsburgh, playitforwardpgh.org.

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