The Secret of Success

Posted by on Jul 17, 2013 | No Comments

“Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”  Woody Allen

Every great cause requires a person to step forward and make that dream a reality. Several years ago I had the pleasure of working with a leader who underestimated her ability to make the dream of a critically ill young man come true.

In 2008 Cullen Steele was diagnosed with Pulmonary Hypertension, a disease that requires him to take a battery of drugs, including wearing a backpack that administers medication intravenously at six-minute intervals. The third grader was told he would eventually need a heart, double lung transplant.

But before the specialists at Stanford University would put him on the transplant list, his family had to raise $75,000 to help pay for expenses that wouldn’t be covered by his medical insurance.

Fortunately for the Steele family, there is an organization called the Children’s Organ Transplant Organization, COTA, that exists just for this purpose.  The people at COTA met with the family and local volunteers to help organize a one year fundraising campaign. At this point, Amy O’Donnell-Riley stepped in to be the coordinator to help make Cullen Steele’s dream come true.

Cullen Steele & Friends

Cullen Steele (center) & Friends

Amy had a worthy cause and dedicated volunteers to help. But the path was rough. There were people who questioned why the focus on one kid, when there were plenty of people in need. Her pitch to a local group of government employees was turned down in favor of another charity. And as the year progressed it looked more and more unlikely that we were going to achieve the $75,000 goal. At one point of great frustration Amy was talking to me about whether or not she was the right person to lead this effort. She said, “I must be the world’s worst COTA Coordinator.” I lamented with her, offered encouragement, and remembered the comment.

Amy and her band of believers stayed the course. Pastor Don Stevenson walked 1200 miles around the state of Washington to raise money for the cause.  A local Buddy Holly tribute concert brought the community together, raised money, and spread the word about Cullen. Friends and classmates “donated their birthdays” by asking for support for COTA instead of gifts. A Brownie troop donated their part of cookie sales and during one particular low point, Leon Sanders, the father of one of Cullen’s classmates walked into an organization meeting with three checks totaling over $6000—the results of scrap metal contributions by local businesses.

As the good news piled up I frequently had the chance to kid Amy by telling her, “Not bad for the ‘world’s worst COTA coordinator.’ ” But as the year wound down it looked like we would fall short of the $75,000 goal.

Amy rallied her team. Pastor Stevenson talked a local choir into a benefit concert that raised over $10,000. Leon Sanders organized a community scrap drive, and in the end the “World’s Worst COTA Coordinator” raised over $79,000. Because we beat the one year deadline, COTA added $15,000 in matching funds for a total of nearly $100,000.

A Mug for Amy

A Mug for Amy

Sometimes success is showing up, recruiting fellow believers, and persevering through tough times. Fortunately for Cullen Steele and his family, Amy O’Donnell-Riley was there to do that.


Cullen is now 13 and a priority candidate for the transplant list. He now carries two backpacks to deliver critical medication on an around the clock basis. Getting on the transplant list depends on his ability to have transportation from his Seattle area home to San Francisco in four hours or less—on a moment’s notice. If you can help in that area please contact me at If you’d like to make a tax deductible contribution to Cullen’s COTA fund go to You can also go to and search for Cullen Steele. Keep in touch with his progress at his Caring Bridge Site:

Related Post: Giving Away Your Birthday

A version of this post appeared in the July 12 editions of the Auburn Reporter and Kent Reporter newspapers