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‘How lives get saved’: Forsyth County Schools raise close to $360,000 every year for the American Heart Association
American Heart Association
P.E. teachers Chad May, left, and Donna Feuerbach plan the Kids Heart Challenge at Brookwood Elementary each year, and in 2020, the school took the No. 1 spot in the county for funds raised for the American Heart Association. Photo courtesy of Mariel Hicks.

Students at Brookwood Elementary take part in all kinds of activities in their Physical Education classes in the spring. From playing kickball and jumping rope to juggling and dancing, these students seem to constantly be moving at school.

Many in the Forsyth County community don’t realize, however, that these same students and their families are saving lives in the process.

Last year, Brookwood’s families raised nearly $35,000 for the American Heart Association simply by participating in these activities and giving money where they could.

But these fundraising efforts don’t end at Brookwood. Midway Elementary School raised more than $28,000 last year, and Sawnee Elementary raised another $25,000.

Every school in Forsyth County participates in these fundraisers, making sure to support the AHA as much as possible. Overall, the district raised nearly $300,000 during the pandemic, and in a normal year, the schools usually raise close to $360,000.

Each year, this puts the district in the Top 10 in the nation and the second in the state for AHA donations.

Mariel Hicks, the youth market director for the organization, said they are nothing but incredibly grateful for the district and its families.

“This is a big deal,” Hicks said. “It may not seem like it when you’re at your individual schools just doing another program or participating in another fundraiser, but what Forsyth comes together and does for the American Heart Association is outstanding.”

Fundraising efforts

The fundraisers that take place each spring are called the Kids Heart Challenge in elementary schools and the American Heart Challenge in middle and high schools, and each school takes part in the challenges in its own way.

“The schools get all into it,” Hicks said. “They’ll put up signs, they’ll put up brain posters and heart posters, there will be challenges like ‘drink more water’ and ‘move more.’”

Many schools plan educational weeks where lessons focus on heart-healthy tips, and then in the following weeks, they hold pay-to-play activities. This means that students may enter a jump rope competition or can participate in a kickball game if they donate $5.

Other schools also give away prizes for different donation levels.

Although most families give a small amount, Hicks said the donations add up — and they have a huge impact.

How FCS is helping to save lives

Hicks explained that the funds raised by the schools each year go mainly to community initiatives and hospital research grants.

Community initiatives include activities and items that promote heart and brain health. For example, one recent initiative allowed the AHA to put water fountains in schools that would not be able to otherwise afford them.

Research grants, on the other hand, provide funding to universities and research that benefit patients and hospitals both locally and nationally.

Those grants can go toward cardiovascular research, materials, equipment and more, and researchers can apply for a grant directly through the AHA instead of having to rely solely on government grants. The organization is the second supporter in the nation of heart and heart disease research grants.

Hicks said these grants cost, on average, around $25,000.

“So when you see a county raising $360,000, that’s multiple hospital grants,” Hicks said. “If you want to look at it from a bird’s-eye view, we would be able to give multiple hospital grants out just from this one community. And then you have your schools like Brookwood or Sawnee that raise over $25,000 a year, so we’re making sure to let these schools know — you all raised enough money for a hospital.

“That’s a big deal because that research is how lives get saved,” she continued. “You’re a part of this thing that’s bigger than yourself.”

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Kids Heart Challenge
Poole’s Mill Elementary P.E. teacher Brent Odum awards a student with the Top Student Award for her and her family’s participation in the Kids Heart Challenge. Photo courtesy of Mariel Hicks.

Heart-healthy mission

Heart and cardiovascular disease are the two largest causes of death in the U.S.

Before the pandemic, Hicks said AHA hosted assemblies at the schools each year, and when she asked students in the room if they knew someone who had experienced heart disease, nearly every hand would shoot up.

Unfortunately, heart disease is common in communities across the world. According to the AHA, 785,000 Americans have their first heart attack each year, and someone experiences a stroke every 40 seconds.

Hicks also tries to remind students that heart disease is not only common in adults.

Each year, the AHA features a student as their “heart hero” to share their own story of struggling with a heart ailment. This could be an older student who deals with a chronic disease or a younger child who recently had heart surgery.

“We’re able to highlight that on the students’ level so that they can understand it’s not just for mom and uncle who had strokes and who may have had heart disease, but it’s also your friend who sits behind you in second grade,” Hicks said.

In making the issue more relatable to students, Hicks said she hopes it encourages them to be more conscious of heart health.


‘Heart-conscious individuals’

Overall, Hicks said the AHA’s main goal through the Kids Heart Challenge is normalizing talking about heart health and making sure kids and families know how to stay mindful of their hearts and brains.

“Only about 7% of the school’s population will participate in the fundraising piece, but 100% of the students get to benefit from all of the materials, everything that the teacher is doing in class, all of the little take-home recipes and videos,” Hicks said. “All of the students get access to that.”

During the fundraiser, teachers and school leaders also ask students to register on an AHA through their school and take the Heart Healthy Pledge.

By taking this pledge, students agree to check back on the app and website to go over educational resources available to them and their families at any time. These resources include everything from education and exercise videos to healthy recipes.

Registration each spring is free for all students and families. Last year, Hicks said 7,000 students registered online and took the pledge, and not all those families made donations.

“It’s amazing that, even if they’re not participating in the fundraising piece, they’re still engaged,” Hicks said. “For me, that’s the groundwork for producing heart-conscious individuals as they grow up.”

Each school has its own Kids Heart Challenge website where families can register and find out more about the challenge. Those interested can be on the lookout each spring for more information from their school.

As a member of the AHA Board of Directors, Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden said he is proud each year of the district’s participation in the organization’s fundraisers and initiatives, helping to spread its mission through the community.

“One of the attributes of our FCS Learner Profile is that we want all students to ‘Exhibit Strong Personal Qualities,’” Bearden said. “Maintaining wellness and balance in life is an important tenant of our Learner Profile …. Our students are learning to be heart healthy while also learning to give back to others in need.”