Milwaukee native Sara Miller was just 12 years old when she had to experience one of the worst tragedies in life — the sudden loss of her sister Laura. But the life her sister saved through organ donation motivated Miller to advocate for donation throughout her education and beyond.
At just 26-years-old, Miller is the founder and president of the nonprofit Student Organ Donation Advocates (SODA) which has more than 50 chapters in universities and high schools across the country. Miller said her roots in Jewish leadership and organ donation volunteer work in Milwaukee gave her the skillset to translate her passion for organ donation into action — a mission she now carries out from Israel after making aliyah last year.
When her sister died, Miller said she encouraged her family to allow her sister to become an organ donor. They then learned that her sister’s liver was recovered and transplanted to a woman in New York.
“Whenever I would tell people about my sister’s story, I would always tell them about this other half of the story. This beautiful piece of the story, which is that even though my sister passed away, she was able to make a really big impact on somebody else,” Miller said. “It really impacted me that by telling my story, and the impact that my sister had, all of a sudden, people were making this amazing decision to be an organ donor.”
After seeing the impact of personal outreach, Miller started volunteering with her local Organ Procurement Organization, now called Versiti Organ and Tissue. She participated in community engagement work as one of a few student volunteers and remembers speaking to driver’s education classes about the importance of signing up to become an organ donor.
“I would tell my peers about my sister’s story, and I would see that I was impacting the students I was talking to,” Miller said. “Students listen to other students much more than they listen to adults. So this also taught me that peer-to-peer education can be particularly effective for organ donation.”
Anne Krueger, who is the director of organ and tissue donation at Versiti, remembers Miller as a young and deeply motivated volunteer.
“Donation was a passion of hers. Every time I would hear her talk about donation or about her sister, you could just feel it,” Krueger said. “I knew she was going to make some serious change and do wonderful, amazing things in this world.”
Throughout high school, Miller was also a student leader in BBYO, a Jewish teen movement that offers leadership development opportunities and aims to build Jewish identity. Through the organization, Miller gained confidence in her ability to lead and manage a team.
When Miller started her freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis in 2014, one of the first things she did was head to the campus community service office to inquire about groups that promote organ donation. When she learned that none existed, she decided to volunteer with the local OPO in St. Louis. There, she met a few other students interested in organ donation advocacy who decided to team up to bring organ donation conversations to students.
“There are a lot of programs that exist for adults to advocate for organ donation. But there weren’t any programs that I could find that were tailored specifically to students,” Miller said. “Students work differently… They have the passion, but not the tools. They need a platform. So that’s why I ended up founding SODA, which is that platform that enables these students who are already passionate to make a difference.”
Miller said the leadership skills she learned in BBYO assisted her pursuit of founding an organization that continued to grow throughout her college years.
“When you are part of BBYO, you learn very quickly how to run a meeting, how to set goals and work with other talented peers to achieve those goals. Not every student graduates high school with an understanding of how to lead other peers,” Miller said. “I was prepared to get started advocating for organ donation and making a difference from day one. And I don’t think that would have been possible without the experience with BBYO.”
By Miller’s junior year, SODA began expanding across the country. By taking a slow and steady expansion approach, Miller said the organization was able to build back-end practices to develop fundraising initiatives, robust advocacy materials and partnerships across the organ donation community.
Despite being the president of a national organization, Miller continued to work full-time in the healthcare industry after graduation. Following her engagement to an Israeli man she met while working as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp in Colorado during college, the pair decided to move to Israel for their next big adventure together. The couple is set to get married in Tel Aviv in June.
While it might be counterintuitive, Miller said she finds it easier to assist SODA from abroad. Working full-time in the United States made it difficult to find time to schedule meetings and assist SODA during business hours, but the time difference in Israel — and Sunday through Thursday work week — makes scheduling much smoother for Miller. She was also able to hire two full-time staff to assist with the day-to-day operations of SODA National.
Miller credits much of her work to her Jewish roots in Milwaukee, where she was part of BBYO-Wisconsin Region.
“I developed a strong connection to Judaism and Israel growing up in Congregation Shalom. And because of that experience, as well as BBYO, I worked at a Jewish summer camp in Colorado,” Miller said. “Without that, I wouldn’t have met my partner, which then led me to moving to Israel. Everything’s connected.”
Miller’s mother, Susan Angel Miller, has published a memoir about grief following her daughter Laura’s passing and has been a big supporter of organ donation causes in Milwaukee, according to Krueger.
“This family continues to have a commitment to donation like I’ve never seen before,” Krueger said. “I’ve never felt this level of support. It’s unwavering.”
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Are you a student interested in organ donation advocacy or starting a chapter of Student Organ Donation Advocates? Visit: SODANational.org/students