Last week, Bert Raney Elementary School students celebrated another successful year raising money for the American Heart Association (AHA). Kindergarten through 2nd grade participated in the ‘Jump Rope for Heart Fundraiser, while 3rd through 5th grade participated in the Hoops For Heart Fundraiser. The fundraising activity was overseen by BRE physical education teacher Mary Grey.

The fundraisers are annual events that Grey has helped organize ever since she first started teaching over three decades ago. Each year, students set fundraising goals in their communities and participate in fun events that promote physical fitness and overall wellness through jump rope skills, basketball activities, and games. Each year at the end of the fundraiser, there is a celebration where Grey reveals the total money raised by the students. Last year, students raised $23,435.23. This year, in an exciting and suspenseful reveal involving balloons and giant signs, students learned that they had raised $26,026.73 -- an all time high for BRE.

According to Grey, this is also the first year that a single student raised more than $1,000. Grey also reveals the total number of lives saved through the donations of the students. This year, students saved 521 lives with the money they raised. For Grey, educating students about the importance of heart health. She recently lost her father, an event that she said only solidified her commitment to the Hoops for Hearts/Jump Rope for Heart fundraisers.

Education is a major component of the fundraiser. Students learn about what genetic and lifestyle choices determine overall heart health, and what to know when somebody is suffering a heart attack. They also discuss dietary changes that can improve cardiovascular health and they investigate their own family history of heart disease. Students shared their stories with classmates and even created a large graph charting the number of extended family members with heart problems. This year, there were over 1,200 family members impacted by heart disease.

“It doesn’t care about age, it doesn’t matter the gender or the ethnicity,” said Grey. Grey stresses to her students that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. In Yellow Medicine County, it accounts for 23.7% of all deaths. The AHA creatives educational tools and resources to assist teachers with the learning portion of the fundraiser. Grey said that every year, students are intensely interested in learning more about heart health, and show compassion and empathy when discussing sensitive and often difficult issues. “My students are amazing,” said an emotional Grey, “and the parents and support of the community is amazing. I’m feeling very blessed.”

Increasingly, students are using the online fundraising portal created by the AHA to seek out donations. With adult supervision, Grey said that the internet option was easier and safer for students to utilize. At the end of the fundraiser, students receive thank you prizes that correspond to the amount their raised individually. Although this is certainly an exciting component to the fundraiser, Grey says that students are more motivated by the chance to make a positive difference, and many actually decline the gift.

The highlight for the fundraiser comes at the end, when students got to throw cream pies at Grey in the school gym. BRE Principal Lisa Hansen led the spectacle, and even tied Grey to the chair with duct tape for good measure. The assembled kids clapped and yelled enthusiastically, and at one point event chanted ‘Tie her up!,’ ‘Tie her up!’ Grey laughed, and joked, “I thought you liked me!” before the first pie was hurled in her face. Grey says that she doesn’t mind the pie throwing, which is part of an annual tradition where students get to choose a funny or mischievous event for Grey to participate in. The one exception was the year when Grey had to hold a snake (which she is very scared of). “I’m never doing that again,” Grey said.

Putting aside all the fun and games, Grey hopes that students take away important lessons about taking care of their hearts. Grey called the whole experience rewarding, adding, “I’ve learned more from them than they’ve learned from me. I thank them from the bottom of my heart because this wouldn’t happen without them, their drive, dedication, and passion.”