Inspiring generations of kids to stay heart-healthy

Sandy LightfootFor the past 30 years Sandy Lightfoot has looked forward to teaching her students about heart health while raising money to help others.

And each year, she gets reminded all over again why it’s so important.

“It’s the excitement and enthusiasm in the kids, when they realize how their heart works and how exercise affects that heart,” said Lightfoot, who has taught PE for 30 years in Ascension Public Schools near Baton Rouge with the past 21 years at Lake Elementary. Lightfoot is extremely excited this year as she’s coordinating the American Heart Association’s newly launched Kids Heart Challenge. The program still includes the fun, education and fundraising aspects of AHA in-school programs, but also incorporates important lessons about emotional health and self-esteem.

“It’s not just exercise and health, the whole day involves the whole child,” she said.

Lightfoot’s commitment to American Heart Association fundraisers earned her recognition as the 2017-18 National Coordinator of the Year. Over the past 30 years that she’s served as a coordinator, her school has raised nearly $220,000.

Lightfoot was first introduced to the AHA’s school programs three decades ago, when her own kids were participants. As a teacher, Lightfoot has been an avid supporter, using the programs to motivate students and their families to keep their hearts healthy while earning credits toward gym equipment.

And they are very motivated.

After major flooding closed down the school for six months, Lightfoot considered cancelling the 2017 event at Lake Elementary. Students spread across three different schools. Many families, including Lightfoot, were also grappling with flooding damage in their homes.

But as soon as the kids returned to campus, Lightfoot said, “it was the first thing they asked about.”

That year’s event held additional poignance after a Lake Elementary teacher required quadruple bypass a week before the event. The students and community raised more than $29,000 – the most in the state that year.

“We were still in FEMA pods and had to do the event on the football field,” Lightfoot said. “I was just blown away, it was very emotional.”

Sandy Lightfoot with kids jumping ropeThat was an extreme example of how programs such as Kids Heart Challenge can help students see how they can make a difference. Former students have grappled with heart conditions and received treatment thanks to the organization’s research support, she said.

“It’s about teaching our children empathy and how to care for someone else in the world,” she said. “The kids understand that the money they raise is helping someone whose heart is sick and that they are making a difference.”

The fundraising event is designed to teach kids about the importance of physical activity as a way to prevent heart disease and stroke – the two leading causes of death in the world. The Kids Heart Challenge knits together activities to keep kids moving, such as jump rope competitions, basketball, dance and “warrior” obstacle courses, along with challenges to do good deeds and maintain healthy habits. The activities also instill lessons about teamwork.

And all of them are coordinated by AHA volunteers devoted to heart health and improving lives such as Lightfoot.

“She’s incredibly committed and passionate about this program and having students make healthy choices and be successful,” said Lake Elementary principal Jeremy Muse. “It’s not one event or a one-time thing. It’s about how do you get ready for your entire life.”

For Lightfoot, it’s about getting many people ready for life.

“I’m on my second generation of students and so many of my kids have parents who participated when they were in my class and they give us a lot of support,” she said.