The bells, and the Nicholas Effect

 A monument of bells exists on the side of Highway 1 in Bodega Bay, having been erected there 19 years ago. If life were fair, this tower wouldn’t exist. If it weren’t for two robbers who took the life of a 7-year-old Bodega Bay boy, we’d never know the Children’s Bell Tower.

On Oct. 1, 1994, the Green family were vacationing in Italy. They were all in the family’s rented car when two robbers mistook them for jewelers. The robbers chased them down, shooting into the backseat. 7-year-old Nicholas Green was shot in the head as he slept in the backseat with his 4-year-old sister, Eleanor. The bullet destroyed Nicholas’ brain, and he was declared clinically dead.

“His life was wasted,” his father, Reginald Green, told reporters in Italy. But he also said that Nicholas had a very strong heart. So the family offered their son’s heart, along with other organs, to people who needed them.

His heart went to a 14-year-old Roman boy.

His liver went to a 19-year-old Sicilian woman.

His kidneys were given to a 14-year-old Puglia girl and an 11-year-old Sicilian boy.

And three others received his pancreas and corneas, as well.

Out of death and despair, life was created. A community was formed. One little boy and a grieving family changed the course of 7 human beings, their families and friends, and two nations, along with the world who watched this family’s selfless act of love with awe.

The Green family had a choice. They could have dwelled in their despair, angry that their precious son was taken from them so violently, angry at the nation in which their son was taken. I’m sure they felt these emotions. The story could have stopped there. But it didn’t. The family decided their son’s untimely death wouldn’t be in vain. His life was treated as a holy sacrifice, an offering to 7 other families who were in need. If it weren’t for the death of Nicholas Green, at least 5 of those recipients may not be alive today. And because of the generosity of the Green family, Nicholas Green lives on in these 7 individuals.

This was only the beginning of the story. At the time of Nicholas’ death, organ donation in Italy was the lowest among European countries. After his death, organ donation significantly increased in Italy, as well as around the world. Today, organ donation has tripled in Italy, and Nicholas Green’s name is associated with this change. The movement is known as “The Nicholas Effect,” referring not only to organ donation, but to anything good that emerges from tragedy.

It was in 1996 when the Children’s Bell Tower was unveiled in Bodega Bay, located behind the Bodega Bay Community Center and garden. The tower holds more than 140 bells, all donated by individuals, families, schools, and churches to honor Nicholas Green and his family. In the center is a large bell that holds the name of Nicholas Green, along with the names of the 7 people who received his organs. This bell was created and donated by Fonderia Pontifica, the oldest bell manufacturer in the world, and blessed by Pope John Paul II. And the bells were assembled by sculptor Bruce Hassan of San Francisco, who said he placed each bell on the sculpture as if they were his children.

This last week, I took a soul retreat to clear my head and find answers to some very real issues that have been plaguing me for months (see the story at Soul Retreat part 1, and Soul Retreat part 2). I had created a plan that included visiting the ocean as part of my soul retreat. On the way out to the coast, I turned my head at exactly the right time as I passed by the bell tower, seeing it set back from the highway. I knew the story behind the tower, but had never stopped. I’d always wanted to, but you know how it is when you live in the same area as something wonderful – you take it for granted.

Following the ocean portion of my soul retreat, I headed back down the coast to find something to eat. But as I came upon the bell tower once again, I made a split second decision to stop. I parked my car and walked the pathway toward the tower. I stopped to read the plaque set near the monument, then continued to the tower.

Once there, this is what I experienced.

There was no heavy breeze when I got there, but the bells still offered delicate rings with each light gust of wind. I stood in awe, drinking in the soft clanging of bells, and the heavy horns that sounded in the distance. I breathed in and out, standing on Holy Ground as I meditated on the beauty that came out of tragedy…the Nicholas Effect.

The other day, my husband left a statement on the chalkboard in our kitchen: “Life is what you make of it.” At this moment, I cannot think of any statement that is more true.

*Information about Nicholas Green and The Nicholas Effect found at The Press Democrat, The NY Times, Wikipedia and Find out more with the book, The Nicholas Effect: A Boy’s Gift to the World, written by Reg Green, Nicholas Green’s father.

Here are a few photos of the Children’s Bell Tower in Bodega Bay, and surrounding monuments.

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