Cindy Marten's volunteer affiliation with the American Heart Association began after her husband, Sergio, died in 2016. She was superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, and was asked by the local AHA executive director to participate in the Go Red for Women campaign.
"I said, 'I'll do anything you want,'" Marten said. "The medical interventions they did when he had a heart attack and 10 years later when he had a stroke saved his life. They gave me 18 more years with my beloved Sergio, thanks to research funded by the AHA."
That gesture of volunteerism began an extraordinary affiliation.
Marten raised $1.2 million as chair for San Diego Go Red for Women and almost $1 million for the Kids Heart Challenge. As superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, she promoted Hands-Only CPR, aiming for every student in the district — 100,000 of them — to learn the lifesaving technique. She also took on the tobacco industry over the vaping epidemic among teenagers.
"You lead with your heart, and the AHA was a great fit to meet that goal," Marten said. "I just want to make a difference in my community and in the lives of the children I'm serving. That was and always will be my goal."
For her efforts, Marten is the recipient of the American Heart Association's first Woman Changing the World award.
By the time Sergio died, after being permanently disabled for a decade, Marten had been superintendent for about five years. She considered every moment with him a gift, and she wanted to give back to who made that time possible. When the AHA called about the Go Red for Women campaign, she didn't hesitate — and the Kids Heart Challenge had long been a passion of hers that she supported during her time as superintendent at San Diego Unified.
"What I loved about the challenge is that it was more than just 'eat well, drink water, exercise,'" she said. "It's that a happy heart is a healthy heart. It's incredibly empowering for children to be active participants in their health and well-being. They'll exercise, eat a rainbow, drink water and do one kind thing a day."
Three years later, she was asked to chair Go Red for Women in San Diego. Again, she didn't hesitate, even though she was running one of the largest school districts in the country. But her son, Andrew, was off to college; what little free time she had, she wanted to share with the AHA.
That resolve led to making sure every student in the district learned CPR.
"We had three confirmed saved lives because students knew CPR," Marten said. "I see this program as creating an army of angels in our community. It's a skill they can use the rest of their lives."
Then came another challenge: vaping. "This became an epidemic very quickly," Marten said. "Teachers and parents can tell kids all day long how dangerous vaping is and put out statistics about it. But truly, the best ambassadors for models of good habits are young people."
San Diego students devised a campaign that focused on health risks as much as tobacco company marketing.
Their work helped lead to a one-year moratorium on sales of flavored smoking devices in unincorporated areas of San Diego County, as well as a ban on vaping liquid, smoking and vaping in outdoor dining areas.
Everything she has done and continues to do fits into what she calls her three buckets: children, employees, family.
"Children are my priority, no matter my job title. Every single day I wake up and see how to make their lives better."
She could only do that by taking care of the district's employees, she said.
Closest to her heart are Sergio and her son, Andrew, who was 5 when Sergio had his life-altering heart attack. Like his father, Andrew was found to have familial hypercholesterolemia. Medication that came from AHA-funded research will keep Andrew — now 26, with a master's degree in cellular biology and a job as a researcher — heart-healthy.
"His heart for research and his passion for medicine came from what he went through," she said. "He's been influenced by the American Heart Association and wants to contribute.
"At the end of the day, I believe you lead with your heart. This is all part of who I am, no matter where I am. My heart is my heart."