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Cottage Grove family remembers young organ donor with Rose Bowl Parade float

Marlene and Mike Seerup, and their son, James Berg, 15, spent roughly six hours creating a portrait of Kaitlyn Berg, who was 4 years old when she was killed in a car accident in 2001. Her organs were donated to three people. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
The Seerup family from Cottage Grove wear bright green bracelets that say “Donate Life” in memory of their daughter, Kaitlyn Berg, who was 4 years old when she was killed in a car accident. Her organs were donated to three people. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)2 / 2

The annual Rose Bowl celebration in Pasadena, Calif., marked each New Year’s Day by a colorful parade of elaborately decorated floats, was the perfect stage for one Cottage Grove family to share their story of hope and new life more than a decade after tragedy.

Leaving behind sub-zero temperatures for sunny, west coast weather nearly two weeks ago, Mike and Marlene Seerup and her son, James Berg, 15, were among more than a dozen families invited to the Rose Bowl festival to help build a float for LifeSource in honor of loved ones who are organ recipients or organ donors.

Twelve years ago, Marlene’s daughter, 4-year-old Kaitlyn Berg, was killed in a car accident and her heart, liver and kidneys were donated.

Several weeks before Halloween in 2001, Marlene, Kaitlyn and James, living in southwest Minnesota at the time, were passing through Mankato on their way home from shopping. The perfect Halloween costumes were in the back seat. Kaitlyn wanted to be a witch, her mother said, a character unlike her kind, caring demeanor.

At the intersection of Highway 169 and Minnesota 68, a driver, who wasn’t paying attention, T-boned the driver’s side of their vehicle, where both Marlene and Kaitlyn were strapped in. James, who was 2 years old at the time, sat on the opposite side of the car and sustained minor injuries.

“I just remember waking up on the ground,” Marlene recalled. “It took me a minute but then I remember that we had been hit. I saw the (other) driver’s face right before it happened.”

Unable to move because the accident broke several of her ribs, her left leg and pelvis, Marlene, who also had a collapsed lung, glanced back at the wreck and said she knew Kaitlyn was gone.

“It was the most difficult day of my life,” she said, maintaining her composure. “It’s not something that you ever get over. There is no closure. But I knew I had to get better for my son.”

Just days after the accident, the family decided that Kaitlyn, whose brain stem was severed during the accident, would be an organ donor.

“My brother Ronald and his wife, Lisa, died in an accident several years prior,” Marlene said. “He was an organ donor through LifeSource, which helped make the decision for me to donate Kaitlyn’s organs.”

Now more than 12 years after the incident, Marlene and her husband, Mike, who had just begun dating shortly before the accident, were invited to California to not only pay tribute to the life of their daughter, but connect with other families who had gone through similar situations.

“It was an emotional opportunity to be surrounded by families who know what you’re dealing with,” Mike, Kaitlyn’s stepfather, said. “You take comfort in knowing that there are others that understand.”

Through what Marlene said was Kaitlyn’s gift, she helped three people continue living, two of whom were younger than her. Her heart went to a 29-month-old girl, her liver went to a 2-year-old boy from Minnesota and her kidneys went to a 31-year-old woman.

The family said they still keep in contact with the boy, now 15, who received her liver.

“It’s amazing to see him thriving and living,” Mike said.

“It never gets easier but it helps knowing that she was able to help three people,” Marlene added. “There was a bigger plan for her.”

Emotional experience

While in California, the Seerup’s and son, James, spent six hours gluing seedlings and flowers to an enlarged photograph of Kaitlyn, which was affixed to the LifeSource float, created in a Chinese lantern theme.

“Watching that float go down the road, boy, that was emotional,” Mike admitted. “She saved a lot of lives.”

To keep the memory of Kaitlyn alive, which is also present in the myriad of photos that adorn the couple’s Cottage Grove home, a benefit is held each year in her honor. In August, the fourth annual Donate Life in Memory of Kaitlyn Berg event will be held.

Throughout the last three years, the Seerup’s said roughly $30,000 has been donated to LifeSource, the organization through which they donated Kaitlyn’s organs.

At the event this summer, auctioneer Greg Ryken, who Mike said makes the five-hour drive from South Dakota to Minnesota, will be auctioning items, including a signed Olympic jersey from the Minnesota Wild’s Zach Parise.

While it has been more than a decade since her daughter died, Marlene said she still remembers her infectious laugh.

“Kaitlyn was so funny,” she added. “She was always willing to share her toys and within five minutes of meeting you, you would be her best friend.”

Kaitlyn would have been 16 years old. And despite the tragedy, the family said they have come to know a new normal, a normal which includes a fervent belief in organ donation.

“The biggest thing we can learn from this is be an organ donor,” Mike said. “There are a lot of people waiting on machines, waiting for a donor. Be that person to save another one’s life. Be a donor.”