Resilient community pulls together for Cullen | Brooke

Every great cause requires a person to stop forward and make that dream a reality. Several years ago I had the pleasure of working with a leader in our town who underestimated her ability to make the dream of a critically ill young man come true.

  • Wednesday, July 10, 2013 8:26pm
  • Opinion

At play: Cullen Steele

For the Reporter

Every great cause requires a person to stop forward and make that dream a reality. Several years ago I had the pleasure of working with a leader in our town who underestimated her ability to make the dream of a critically ill young man come true.

In 2008 Cullen Steele, who lives in Kent, was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a disease that requires the Kent boy to take a battery of drugs, including wearing a backpack that administers medication intravenously at six-minute intervals. Cullen, then a third-grader at Holy Family School in Auburn, was told he would eventually need a heart, double-lung transplant.

But before the specialists at Stanford University would put him on the transplant list, his family had to raise $75,000 to help pay for expenses that wouldn’t be covered by his medical insurance.

Fortunately for the Steele family, there is an organization called the Children’s Organ Transplant Organization, COTA, that exists just for this purpose. The people at COTA met with the family and local volunteers to help organize a one year fundraising campaign. At this point, Amy O’Donnell-Riley stepped in to be the coordinator to help make Cullen Steele’s dream come true.

Amy had a worthy cause and dedicated volunteers to help. But the path was rough. There were people who questioned why the focus on one kid, when there were plenty of people in need. Her pitch to a group of local government employees was turned down in favor of another charity. And as the year progressed it looked more and more unlikely that we were going to achieve the $75,000 goal. At one point of great frustration Amy was talking to me about whether or not she was the right person to lead this effort.

She said, “I must be the world’s worst COTA coordinator.”

I lamented with her, offered encouragement, and remembered the comment.

Amy and her band of believers stayed the course. Auburn pastor Don Stevenson walked 1,200 miles throughout the state of Washington to raise money for the cause. A Buddy Holly tribute concert at the Auburn Avenue Theater brought the community together, raised money, and spread the word about Cullen. Friends and classmates “donated their birthdays” by asking for support for COTA instead of gifts. A Brownie troop donated their part of cookie sales to the cause.

And during one particularly low point, Leon Sanders, the father of one of Cullen’s classmates, walked into an organization meeting with three checks totaling more than $6,000 — the results of scrap metal contributions by local businesses.

As the good news piled up, I frequently had the chance to kid Amy by telling her, “Not bad for the ‘world’s worst COTA coordinator.’ ” But as the year wound down it looked like we would fall short of the $75,000 goal.

Amy rallied her team. Pastor Stevenson talked a local choir into a benefit concert that raised more than $10,000. Leon organized a community scrap drive, and in the end the “World’s Worst COTA coordinator” raised more than $79,000. Because we beat the one-year deadline, COTA added $15,000 in matching funds for a total of nearly $100,000.

Sometimes success is showing up, recruiting fellow believers, and persevering through tough times. Fortunately for Cullen Steele and his family, Amy O’Donnell-Riley was there to do that.

Dennis Brooke tells stories about life, leadership and sometimes Auburn at


You can help

Cullen Steele is now 14 and a priority candidate for the transplant list. He now carries two backpacks to deliver critical medication on an around-the-clock basis. Getting on the transplant list depends on his ability to have transportation from his Seattle area home to San Francisco in four hours or less — at a moment’s notice.

If you can help in that area, please contact Dennis Brooke at If you’d like to make a tax deductible contribution to Cullen’s COTA fund go to

You also can go to and search for Cullen Steele. Keep in touch with his progress at his Caring Bridge Site:

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