For about a decade, students and teachers at Bel Air Middle School have participated in an annual initiative to raise money for the American Heart Association.
But when the physical education teachers at the school announced that they were unable to coordinate the event this year, Charles Spinnato took action.
Fearing that the fundraiser, called Hoops for Heart, would be canceled, the 13-year-old wrote a petition that was signed by 100 teachers and students at the school.
He wasn't about to give up, he said.
"My father has had three heart attacks," said the eighth-grader who raised $425. "He survived all of them, but he almost died after the third one. I want to help raise money for the American Heart Association so they can find a cure before he has another heart attack and dies."
Spinnato got the chance to raise money for the heart association when three teachers at the school took over the project. Through the program, about 545 students raised $33,221.63, shooting hoops, playing volleyball, and selling raffle tickets for gift baskets. The school had a goal of $32,500.
Launched in the fall of 1995, more than 7,000 middle and high schools across the country participate in Hoops for Heart.
Participants build their basketball skills and raise money for research and educational programs, said Sheri Colona, the youth market director for the Mid-Atlantic affiliate of the AHA who oversees 110 schools. The elementary school program is called Jump Rope for Heart.
In addition to shooting hoops, the coordinators planned a gift basket raffle whose items were donated by the teachers and staff. The gift baskets included one that contained garden items such as seeds and tools, and one with golf items, with a gift certificate for four rounds of golf and a Ping sand wedge.
A portion of the money raised is returned to each school to purchase equipment for physical education. The top fundraisers also received trophies and gift certificates in assemblies held on Thursday.
For the past four years, Bel Air Middle has placed first in the state, and second in the nation, annually raising more than $41,000 for Hoops for Heart in the last two years. On average, schools raise between $7,000 and $8,000, Colona said.
"The passion of the children at Bel Air Middle is second to none," Colona said. "They do this program here for all the right reasons."
In addition to fundraising, the students learn about heart disease, she said.
"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women," Colona said. "More than 950,000 Americans die from cardiovascular diseases and stroke. We try to teach the children how to keep their hearts healthy, live tobacco free, and eat healthy foods."
On a recent evening, about 250 people came to the school to watch three volleyball games that pitted the top three boys and top three girls from each grade level against some of their teachers.
Crystal Blair, who teaches ancient civilizations, saw the game as a way to motivate the kids to work harder to raise money, she said.
"When the students see their teachers doing things, it motivates them to do it," said Blair, who has taught at the school the past seven years. "I wanted to do what I could to encourage them."
The project coordinators selected volleyball because it involves less physical contact than basketball, said Lisa Standish, who has taught sixth-grade language arts for the past 12 years.
As the teachers warmed up to loud music, Charles Spinnato sat on the sidelines anxiously waiting for the game to start.
"My math teacher is playing today," Spinnato said. "She's strong. She does triathlons. She might beat us."
However, Spinnato's pre-game jitters were nothing compared to the challenges the teachers faced while coordinating the program this year. For starters, about 60 percent of the students at the school are new. Many of the new students were redistricted from Fallston High School, which did not participate in Hoops for Heart, said teacher Heather Ingram.
"We had so many students that didn't even know what the program is that we had to find different ways to motivate them," said Ingram, who has been teaching eighth-grade language arts at Bel Air Middle for the past four years. "I knew it would be a challenge, but I have a passion for teaching children to give to others."
Standish said she saw the program as a way to get involved in the greater good.
"A lot of times children think they can't participate in something bigger than them," she said. "So when they actually get to participate in a program like this, it's intoxicating to see their enthusiasm."
Jason Hall became involved with the program because of the impact that heart disease has had on the students, he said.
"When I asked how many kids knew someone who had suffered a heart attack, almost all the hands went up," said Hall, who teaches eighth-grade social studies. "This is a way the kids can make a difference and help with an important cause."