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North Hills Monthly

Once Upon a Hero Honors Father Who Gave Life to Save Another

Aug 31, 2018 11:42AM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch

The Once Upon a Hero team

"When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him, lies on the path of men." – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In May 2010, Don Spillane was riding his Harley through McConnells Mill State Park when a girl came running out of the woods to flag him down. Her friend had fallen over a waterfall and they needed his help. 

While the girl he tried to save survived, Spillane slipped on the wet rocks and died. “Of all the things he taught me while he was here, nothing even comes close to what he taught me in the way he passed away,” said his daughter, Dawn Spillane Hack. “I didn’t know back then that he was a superhero!”

To help with the healing process, Spillane Hack started to think about what she could do to honor her father, who risked his life to save another. After tossing around ideas with those who knew him best, the Cranberry Township resident founded the Once Upon a Hero charity to continue Spillane’s legacy of helping people in times of need. 

The group became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in 2013, and Dawn, her family, and its board of directors haven’t looked back. In the past five years, the group has raised money to benefit seven deserving families in the Butler and Beaver County areas. 

“In the beginning, we chose two families per year, but we decided to change our strategy in 2015 so that we could give each family a larger amount,” said Spillane Hack. “On average, we raise up to $15,000 for each beneficiary.”

Families are typically nominated by someone who is aware of their situation. From there, each family goes through a screening process that includes filling out forms, undergoing background checks, providing financial proof of hardship (including bank statements and tax forms), along with other information. Once it is decided who will be that year’s recipient, the charity gets to know the family and encourages them to get involved in the fundraising process. 

“The families who are able to help spread the word tend to be the most successful,” Spillane Hack said.  

This year’s recipient is the Popson family. Shortly before his 26th birthday, Stephen Popson went to the emergency room because his heart was not functioning properly due to an excessive consumption of energy drinks. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, in addition to being septic and having H1N1 complications. Over the next four years, there was hope that the condition of his heart would improve. 

Popson had multiple hospital stays, but each time he was able to return to work. In April of this year, he went into cardiac arrest and it was determined that he had multi-organ failure. He required four open heart surgeries within six days. Once he recovers, he will be added to the organ recipient list for a new heart. 

As Popson is not able to work to provide for his family of five, they have no income and many financial burdens. “Things are really tight right now,” he shared. “My kids are young and I can’t work to provide for them–and I want to work! Being chosen to receive the financial support from Once Upon a Hero is a real blessing; I’m in tears even talking about it.”

The organization holds two annual family-oriented events to boost their fundraising efforts—a Halloween party (Sat., Oct. 20) and a golf outing at Stonecrest Golf Course in the summer. 

“These events are really fitting because my dad was a true family man who loved coaching us as kids and cheering on the Steelers and Penguins,” Spillane Hack said. 

She added that she looks forward to continuing to grow the organization. “I can’t think of a better feeling than being able to help someone,” she said. “If we can help even more families—that would just be amazing!” 

For more information about events and sponsorship, visit