Posted 11/03/15 (Tue)
By Jody Michael
Divide County Elementary students filed into the gymnasium Thursday morning for a brief assembly about the heart.
“It’s a muscle, and it’s really important that we take care of it,” Mary Reiser of the American Heart Association (AHA) told the students. “Eating healthy, not smoking, and moving 60 minutes a day is important so your heart can keep beating for many, many years.”
The assembly served as a kickoff for the AHA’s annual “Jump Rope for Heart” awareness event and fundraising contest. The mission is to teach kids about the heart through lesson plans and jump-rope competitions, while also offering prizes to the students who collect the most donations for the AHA.
Melissa Rindel, physical education teacher at the elementary school, said she usually just introduces the event by herself during her class time, but having Reiser on hand this year to address the entire school excited her a great deal.
Reiser, the AHA’s youth market director for central and western North Dakota, said she pays close attention to the latest numbers on the health of America’s children.
“One of our priorities right now is kids’ wellness,” Reiser said. “The generation of kids who were in this room today is expected to live five years less than their parents.”
On a sunnier note, Reiser excitedly shared with Rindel the findings of a study that was in the news that week: The research showed that obese children who reduce their sugar intake see their blood pressure and cholesterol fall dramatically in just 10 days.
“It’s just amazing what a change like that can do,” Reiser said.
Reiser also brought some new prizes from her Bismarck office to unveil for this year’s event. Rindel said Divide County is generally one of a privileged few schools in this area to get a first look at the latest rewards.
“Our school has been a pilot program for the new prizes, because I’ve been able to get the kids so excited and involved,” Rindel said.
Last year, Divide County Elementary students raised more than $6,000 during Jump Rope for Heart, placing it in the top 10 among the 135 schools that Reiser oversees. In the past five years combined, DC’s total exceeds $34,000.
Funds go not just to the AHA but also toward heart research at North Dakota universities, and also back into the physical education programs for local school districts.
“PE budgets are not large by any means,” Rindel said. “We’re grateful for anything that might make PE more fun and memorable for the kids.”
The money given has proven beneficial for all entities, and the total has been increasing each year, Reiser said.
“North Dakota raised $650,000 last year, and that’s a big jump from what we had been getting,” Reiser said. “I think it’s because we reach out to kids with stories of who we’re helping, and the kids see it’s real.”
The prizes are undeniably an incentive as well. After a few years of awarding rubber ducks, the AHA is changing it up this year with several puppy figurines among the 13 items, each available by reaching various levels of donations.
For example, students who raise at least $15 receive a jump rope, while near the top of the list at $250 is a pair of headphones. As a bonus incentive, the school’s top fundraiser will get to rename the gymnasium for the remainder of the year.
Working for kids’ health
Along the way, Rindel and Reiser hope to instill some healthful habits with the kids as well, by explaining the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases and how to prevent them.
“North Dakota is sixth in the country in child obesity,” Reiser said. “That’s not a number we like.”
Rindel said “Jump Rope for Heart” is more than just a passing interest of hers. She has served for several years on a statewide committee of PE teachers who collaborate to improve physical education in schools.
“We help the state come up with standards to teach by,” Rindel said. “One of our biggest is how many minutes of PE the schools should have.”
The teachers work in tandem with Reiser and other AHA representatives to advocate for more physical education and nutritional wellness in schools.
“We fight hard with the legislature on this stuff,” Reiser said.
“We want to try to make PE a core subject, instead of being ‘just PE,’” Rindel said. “Right now, PE is one of the first things to go whenever there are cutbacks.”
Reiser said she is full of praise for Rindel’s dedication to the committee.
“She really supports the cause,” Reiser said. “Melissa is a leader. Her voice is respected and appreciated in that group.”
In return, Rindel said she is grateful for the AHA’s educational resources.
“They’ve started giving lesson plans,” Rindel said. “A lot of us try to teach health, but now they have specific lessons on why physical activity increases health and strengthens the heart, and kids understand it.”
Reiser said educators like Rindel play a vital role in saving lives from heart disease.
“Our goal is a culture of health, and schools are so important for that,” Reiser told Rindel. “Schools are sometimes the only ones feeding a healthy plate for kids. You guys are the trendsetters.”
The students have until Nov. 20 to solicit relatives and area residents for donations, and Reiser said their immediate reactions were encouraging. After the assembly, several students approached her to ask which schools finished ahead of theirs last year and what it would take to be number-one.
Lest anyone think the competitive aspect of “Jump Rope for Heart” was generating more interest than its educational purposes, some of the kids also acknowledged that heart disease had indeed impacted their families.
Reiser said she hopes the kids will recognize why every dollar makes a difference.
“Being healthy isn’t the easy, convenient, affordable choice,” she said. “That’s why we’re passionate about this.”