On a hot August afternoon 10 years ago, 14-year-old Sean Clegg was riding his bike with friends when a car slammed into him just blocks from his home in Tabernacle, New Jersey.
After one of his friends rushed to fetch his parents, Gail and Andy Clegg knew there wasn’t much hope for their gifted and compassionate first-born son.
“At the hospital, we learned in the emergency room that he was brain dead and wasn’t going to survive,” Gail, 52, tells PEOPLE, “so we immediately made the decision that we wanted something good to come from losing him. Right then, we asked if Sean could be an organ donor.”
A decade later, the Cleggs and their other son, Brian, 23, don’t have to look far for reminders of Sean, an accomplished guitar player and student at the John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth who passed all of his college boards when he was in the 7th grade, and ultimately helped more than 100 people to live productive lives through donations of his organs, corneas and tissue.
The family has become close friends with several of the people who received Sean’s organs, including Melissa Coleman of Philadelphia, the recipient of one of his kidneys.
“After enduring 10 hours hooked up to my dialysis machine every night for four years, I’m forever grateful for the gift I received from Sean Clegg,” Melissa, 46, tells PEOPLE, “and I’m also thankful to his parents for giving me this awe-inspiring second chance. Without them, I’d still be wondering whether I’d ever get a transplant and new purpose in life.”
Because April is National Donate Life Month, Gail Clegg wanted to share her family’s story with PEOPLE in the hope of inspiring others to register as organ donors.
“When we got home from the hospital and were making funeral plans, we went on Sean’s Myspace page and found something he’d written before he headed out the door on his last morning,” says Gail. “Sean wrote, ‘We all die. The goal is to create something that lives forever.’ We took that quote to heart. Sean will live forever in all of the people that he helped.”
“I’m extremely proud of what Sean has been able to do and so grateful that I have the opportunity to know these incredible recipients,” adds Andy, 52. “To have someone think of your son as their hero is humbling.”
Several weeks after their son’s death, Gail decided to write letters to the people who had received Sean’s heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and liver, hoping to meet them. After her messages were delivered by the NJ Sharing Network, four of the recipients, including Melissa, wrote back.
“She was the first one we met,” says Gail, “and I remember how incredibly touched I was to know that Melissa had a part of my son. She and everyone else who received Sean’s organs were very close to dying. Since meeting them, we’ve all become close and are now more than just friends. We’re family.”
Stefania DeMayo, 37, who received Sean’s heart, doesn’t like to call the Cleggs by their first names. Instead, she calls them “Mom” and “Dad.”
“She’s like the daughter we never had,” Gail tells PEOPLE. “Stefania was 28 when she received Sean’s heart — a perfect match, even though Sean was 14. When I met her, there was an instant bond.”
Stefania’s heart was failing in 2008 when she received word from the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center that a donor’s heart was available for immediate transplant.
After the surgery, she wanted to thank the family that had made the wrenching decision to donate Sean’s heart during the worst moment of their lives.
“They gave me the gift of life,” says Stefania, of Wayne, N.J., who has given birth to three children since her transplant. “My dream was to be a mom one day, and I love how close we’ve all become. I gained such a beautiful family in a tragic time of their lives, and they mean the world to us.”
Stefania, Melissa, and two other organ recipients — a man who has one of Sean’s lungs and a woman who received his other kidney — now gather several times a year at the Cleggs’ home to observe holidays, have barbecues or just sit around the kitchen table and share the latest from their lives.
“I’m honored to be one of Sean’s living legacies and I strive daily to pay my gift of life forward,” says Melissa, who now works at Philadelphia’s Hahnemann University Hospital as a physicians relations manager, showcasing the benefits of organ transplantation. She enjoys traveling with the Cleggs and took a trip to Europe with them in 2016.
“Sean not only gave me a kidney, he gave me the world,” she tells PEOPLE. “During my four years hooked up to dialysis, I dreamed all the time of traveling and getting my passport stamped once again.”
Andy Clegg says he’ll never forget what Melissa told him when they met for the first time after her transplant.
“She used to be hooked up to dialysis all night, and she said that since receiving Sean’s kidney, she’d been waking up at 4 a.m,” he tells PEOPLE. “Melissa told me that she had little talks with Sean during that time and that she’d do anything to ‘give your son back, so I did not have to have that talk with him.’”
As tears began to fall, Andy reached out to hold Melissa’s hands. In a soft voice he told her not to cry because “God had a different plan for Sean.”
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