There are lots of reasons hearts might be broken, but the American Heart Association's Kids Heart Challenge some local schools are participating in encourages children to learn healthy habits to take care of their and others' hearts.
Blair Oaks Elementary School kicked off its 17th year of participation in the Kids Heart Challenge on Wednesday — all of those years under the leadership of physical education teacher Matt Albers.
"You just want to give back and try to help," Albers said of what initially inspired him to coordinate the school's involvement with the American Heart Association's elementary-level program to promote heart health — with banners on the walls of Blair Oaks Elementary's gym marking each year of participation.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States among all people — men, women, and most racial and ethnic groups — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease killed almost four times as many people as accidents, almost four and a half times as many people as stroke, five and a half times as many people as diabetes and more than 14 times as many people as suicide in 2016.
Albers said heart disease also affects people close to individuals and in the community, in addition to being the most prevalent killer nationwide.
St. Martin Catholic School third-grade teacher Leann Higgins spoke Wednesday about her son, Jase, who was diagnosed before birth with having a heart with a left side that was too small to work properly.
It took five open heart surgeries for Jase to improve to where he is today — surgeries and treatments that would not have existed for him were it not for research sponsored by the American Heart Association, Higgins said.
AHA's Youth Market Director Stephanie Jumps said while it's optional for students in the Kids Heart Challenge to raise money for the Heart Association, students who choose one of three available online challenges to commit to aside from fundraising will be rewarded with a glow-in-the-dark wristband. Challenges include: be physically active for 60 minutes a day, choose water over sugary drinks, and do a good deed every day.
Raising $10 or more will win a student a "Heart Hero" animal character who embodies a heart-healthy habit such as regular exercise, eating fruits and vegetables with every meal, and avoiding tobacco and unhealthy levels of sodium in one's diet.
Jumps said the exact length of the Heart Challenge depends on the school, but it's a minimum of two weeks. Blair Oaks Elementary School has raised $65,573 in total for the AHA, as of last year, she added.
While at school, students will also be encouraged to practice heart-healthy behavior with jump rope, basketball, dance and obstacle course challenges.
Schools in the challenge have access to curriculum for classroom-based physical activity plans, and certificates to purchase P.E. equipment through an expanded U.S. Games catalog, according to a news release. The release also mentions a new grant program for participating schools.
Jumps said schools that apply for a grant and are selected to receive one at the end of the school year will be awarded $250-$5,000 — out of a total pool of $400,000 — to use to enhance things such as physical activities, playground equipment and school nutrition.
Albers said he had not yet written an application, so he wasn't sure what he would hope to fund if Blair Oaks Elementary got a grant, but he added it would probably be something technology-related, such as pedometers or other health-tracking devices — "things where (students) can really see themselves moving" throughout the day.
Jumps said in an email that other area schools that have started or completed the Heart Challenge this year are Trinity Lutheran, Immanuel Lutheran, South Callaway Early Childhood, California Elementary, Southern Boone Elementary, Southern Boone Primary, High Point and Latham schools.
Middle and high schools and school districts also have their own levels of heart health programs, she added.