Winston County high school seniors honor friend’s legacy by spreading life-saving message on organ donors

LOUISVILLE, Miss. (WCBI) – As Kaitlyn Sanborn and Kady Rose Hailey prepare for their high school graduation ceremonies, they can’t help but think of the person they won’t see sitting in the crowd.

Their childhood friend Carmen Smith, who died when she was just 12-years-old.

So the girls spent their final semester of high school keeping their friend’s legacy alive by going to schools across Winston County spreading their message about how they can save lives by being organ donors.

“If there had been a family out there that could have saved Carmen’s life, and they chose not to,” says Carmen’s mother Gina Smith. “I didn’t want to be that person.”

Gina says that’s why she and her husband made the decision to donate Carmen’s organs, even as they suffered through every parent’s worst nightmare of losing their young daughter to a traumatic brain injury.

“I remember my mom being up there a lot with Aunt Gina,” Hailey says. 

The decision to donate five of Carmen’s organs helped extend the lives of four people, including a 10-year-old girl who received her heart.

“That family got five more years with their daughter,” Gina says. “I would give anything for five more years (with Carmen).”

Sanborn was with Carmen during the ATV accident that sent her to the hospital.

“I was 11 years old,” she says. “That was such a hard thing to hear, that your best friend passed away when you were talking to her the week before.”

Sanborn and Hailey say they had been friends with Carmen for as long as they can remember.

“I can close my eyes and I can see the three of them,” Gina says. “Just over there playing and having a good time. Probably getting in trouble of some sort and Carmen was probably the ring leader.”

The three grew up going to cheer camps, rodeo competitions and other events together. Now, so many years later, Sanborn and Hailey are using their senior project to honor their friend’s memory.

“I think about Carmen every single day,” Sanborn says. “I think Carmen’s passing has kind of made me into the person I am. Just because now I know what it is to lose.”

To help prevent more families from suffering a loss, the seniors from Noxapater and Nanih Waiya high schools have spoken at classrooms throughout Winston County, teaching their fellow students about what it means to be an organ donor and how it can make the difference between life and death.

“I think our main goal throughout was to just help promote (organ donation),” Hailey says. “Because there’s a ton of people that do not know anything about it.”

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, there are over 100,000 people currently on the national organ transplant waiting list. Every day, 17 people on that list die, still waiting.

But thanks to the girls’ work, 73 Winston County seniors became registered organ donors, close to one third of all high school seniors in the county.

“There’s no telling how many lives they have touched,” Gina says. “73 people? One organ donor can save eight lives.”

“Me and KK get to remember that we did this in memory of (Carmen),” Hailey says. “And that this is going to live throughout the years to come.”

Sandon, Hailey and the rest of the seniors who are organ donors, are wearing blue and green cords at graduation to symbolize organ donation and traumatic brain injury

“I wish (Carmen) was here but she’s not,” Gina says. “But then she is because over the next week at graduation, there’s going to be 73 seniors in Winston County walking around with blue and green tassels and they might not know it, but I’m going to know that’s my Carmen and that she’s still here.”

The schools will continue the program after Sandon, Hailey graduate.

Click here to find out more about becoming an organ donor.

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