Share this article

print logo

Mother to honor organ donor son at Rose Parade

Thomas J. Burley had two dreams since he was 3 years old, said his mother, Kathleen A. Forti of Youngstown: to be a firefighter and a police officer.

Sadly, those dreams were cut short on June 18, 2013, when Burley, a 2011 graduate of Lewiston-Porter High School and a member of the Youngstown Volunteer Fire Department, was killed in a motorcycle crash. He was 20.

“His senior quote was, ‘Firemen never die. They live on through the lives they save,’ ” said Forti, who believes her son, an organ donor, lives on in the people who received his tissue and corneas.

“I know he’s already saved two people from being blind,” she said.

And when the nationally televised 126th Rose Parade sets off Thursday morning down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Calif., Forti will be one of 30 people atop the “Donate Life” float, representing her son who, when asked at age 16, already knew he wanted to be a donor.

“Tommy always called me ‘mama’ and he said, ‘Mama, I already signed up,’” she said. “Tommy had an incredibly generous heart since he was a little boy. He would give the shirt off his back to anybody.”

Burley was reportedly heading home from his first day of orientation for accelerated firefighter training when the crash occurred at North Ridge and Church roads in Cambria.

“I followed his wishes,” Forti said. “I couldn’t imagine overturning his wishes for what he wanted to do if something happened to him.”

She was asked by Unyts, the transplant and organ donation group, to be its representative at this year’s parade.

“We typically try to pick someone who is really involved in the entire Unyts mission, feels very passionately about everything we do at Unyts,” said Sarah R. Diina, director of marketing and communications for Unyts.

Since Burley’s death, Forti has held memorial blood drives, become part of support groups through Unyts’ family services and become an advocate for organ donation, Diina said.

Forti and her family arrived in Pasadena on Friday and on Tuesday decorated the flowery float, which features 60 butterflies flying out of an open book and has “The Never-Ending Story” as its theme.

“They represent the beginning of the lives that can be saved with a single person donating,” she said of the butterflies.

Forti said she will soon send out letters to the people in Colorado, Iowa and New York who benefited from her son’s gift.

“Hopefully, the recipients will respond to my letter because I would really just like to meet the people,” she said. “As the theme of the float says, it’s ‘The Never-Ending Story’ and Tommy’s out there living on.”