Heart health a slam-dunk for local students

Basketball shootouts prepare Bel Air Middle for American Heart Association fundraiser

February 11, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

When the timekeeper said "Go!" Mark Weider grabbed a basketball and let it fly.

In the gym at Bel Air Middle School, the eighth-grader fired five shots from beyond the three-point line before moving on to the next spot and shooting five more. He had one minute to shoot from five locations.

In all the commotion, he wasn't sure how he had fared.

"I don't know how many baskets I made," he said after finishing the first of two rounds last week. "I was shooting too fast to count."

The 13-year-old is not the only one trying to fill up the hoop at a local school. Thousands of county students are participating in three-point shootouts to qualify for next week's Hoops for Heart, which was started 12 years ago by the American Heart Association. The program aims to give students a chance to raise money for the organization and enhance their fitness habits.

Whatever the effect on fitness or shooting accuracy, Bel Air Middle has scored big with fundraising: Last year, the students raised more than $35,000, bringing in the second-highest amount in the nation for the second consecutive year, according to the AHA. (North Attleborough Middle School in North Attleborough, Mass., was first with $102,754.)

"[The students] are motivated and enthusiastic because for many of them, heart disease has hit close to home," said Matthew Roseland, a physical education teacher who coordinates the event. "Some students have a loved one or friend that has died from a heart condition. Others know people who have ongoing heart problems. So they are very willing to raise money to help them."

Bel Air Middle joined the program 10 years ago to provide students with an opportunity to participate in a community service project. This year more than 800 students at the school are taking part.

The basketball program for middle schoolers came on the heels of Jump Rope for Heart, which is geared toward elementary school children.

Last year, about 25,075 schools nationwide participated in the basketball program and Jump Rope for Heart, raising more than $56 million. In Maryland, 638 schools raised more than $3 million. And in Harford County, about 44 schools raised $436,677.

Health education and community service are among the top reasons schools participate in the program, said Ginny Popiolek, supervisor of elementary and middle school physical education for the county.

"Students learn the anatomy of the heart, and how activity impacts heart function," she said. "At the same time they learn that they are doing more than just raising money. They are making a difference in their community."

Eighth-grader Christian O'Neill said he enjoys the program because he excels on the court.

"I do this program because shooting three pointers is one of the few things I am really good at," the 14-year-old said. "I think it's really important to participate in the Hoops program because my grandfather died of a heart attack. He inspires me when I shoot baskets for Hoops for Heart."

AHA statistics show that only one of 10 Americans engages in 30 minutes or more of vigorous activity each day, said Sheri Colona, a youth market director for the Maryland branch of the association.

Organized activities help kids increase cardiovascular activity at earlier ages, she said.

Students participate in several ways, said Matthew Roseland, coordinator of the event at Bel Air Middle, from soliciting pledges to entering a poster contest to taking part in the shooting competition.

Roseland, a physical education teacher at the school, credits the success of the program to the students' enthusiasm.

"When we kicked off the program, we asked all the kids who have someone in their lives who have suffered from a heart disease or a heart condition to stand," said Roseland. "About 80 percent of the students stood up. We tell the children that this program helps people with heart problems, and they just want to help."

Seventh-grader Carlee Lund points to the high participation rate among students.

"When your friends raise money, then you want to do it, too," she said. "When you raise money, then someone else wants to do it also. The kids at Bel Air Middle are competitive. We want to be the best. So everyone tries really hard."

Parents and teachers get involved, too.

"One year when students met their goal, a teacher dressed up like Elvis, and two years ago I shaved my head," Roseland said.

But the students are leading the charge again this year. Seventh-grader Michael Burrill leads his classmates with $3,000 in pledges, breaking the school's record of more than $2,500, which was set last year. He thought about competing in the shootout as well, but decided it was too much pressure.

"Not everyone is out there competing," the 12-year-old said. "I think it's also good to donate money to help people who have problems with their hearts. So I help that way."

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