Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the weekly emailed newsletter The Good News with Brad Schmitt. To sign up to receive the Friday morning newsletter, go to tennessean.com/goodnews.
She was overwhelmed with gratitude for the transplant that saved her vision last year.
In fact, retired government exec Shelly Cleek − delighted with her new cornea − picked up the phone to call Tennessee Donor Services to tell them she’d do whatever they might want her to do to spread the word that folks should become organ donors.
Someone called back to say, hey, how about being a model in a fashion show?
“I’m way out of my comfort zone,” Cleek said, “but I’ll do it.”
And that’s how, at 58, Cleek landed her first gig as a runway model. She’ll be in Wednesday’s annual O’More College Fashion Show at Belmont University, which this year features five other organ recipients or organ donor family members as models.
The O’More College Fashion Show 2023 happens at 7:30 pm Wednesday (April 26) at Belmont’s Curb Event Center.
It took Cleek 43 years to make the journey to that runway.
Very mixed emotions
At 15, Cleek got into a nasty crash, a passenger in a car hit head on by one of two cars drag racing in his hometown of Hendersonville. Cleek’s head went through the car’s windshield, and a piece of glass pierced her right eye.
That eye gave her problems for her whole life, and about a year ago, she started losing her vision in it.
Doctors told her she needed a cornea transplant or she’d go blind in that eye. Just a little while later, almost exactly a year ago, a 24-year-old in Texas tragically died. Shelly doesn’t know how, doesn’t even know if her donor was a man or a woman.
But she did get a successful transplant. And now Shelly sees just fine.
“I feel very mixed emotions,” Cleek said. “I was getting this wonderful gift. But I knew I was getting this gift with someone else’s loss.”
Cleek told Tennessee Donor Services she’d do anything to spread the word about organ and tissue donations. And they mentioned the Belmont University fashion show.
“That was out of my comfort zone,” she said.
But Shelly met with a 21-year-old design student named Jaedyn Black, and the two got along like peas and carrots.
Black wanted to incorporate her model’s story into the dress design. So after hearing how Cleek planted jasmine bushes to honor her donor, Black incorporated jasmine into the skirt.
“It has been awesome to hear your story and help bring it to life through fashion,” Black told Cleek during a recent fitting.
So Cleek will be strutting down a runway Wednesday with six other organ recipients or family members of organ donors. And she’ll be in a lovely lavender couture dress with puffy sleeves. Proceeds from the show will go toward promoting organ donation.
Several months ago, Cleek wrote an email to the donor’s family to thank them, an email that was sent to her doctor who forwarded it to a nationwide donors network to pass along to preserve the family’s anonymity. Cleek hasn’t heard back from the family, but she’s not giving up.
Cleek will be sending videos and pictures from the fashion show to her donor’s family as well.
Reach Brad Schmitt at [email protected] or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Cornea transplant recipient to hit the runway to show her gratitude