It is early 1978, and much of the United States is battling a harsh winter. At Riverside High School in Milwaukee, physical education teacher Jean Barkow is dealing with another problem.
National Physical Education and Sports Week is approaching, and a friend has asked her to come up with something new. She’s trying to envision an event that combines physical activity and community spirit, which is tougher than it sounds. Because what she’s really being asked is to plan something that’s fun for boys and girls, easy for adults to supervise, raises money for a good cause and – if all those goals are met – will leave everyone who sees or hears about it feeling good about their school.
Barkow nailed it.
Her inaugural event, then called a “Jump-Rope-A-Thon,” featured 216 kids raising $2,032 for the American Heart Association. It was enough of a success that the school held it again the next year, as did other schools that liked the idea so much that they copied the format. And that was just the start.
In September 1979, only 18 months after the inaugural event, the American Heart Association – and co-sponsor American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance – adopted “Jump Rope For Heart” nationwide. Now, 35 years later, it is among the biggest success stories in U.S. fundraising history.
“The joy of children jumping rope is a wonderful reminder that preventing heart disease can be fun,” said American Heart Association chief executive Nancy Brown. “The phenomenal success of this event is a tribute to all the hard work of everyone involved, and the passion of our loyal supporters.”
Jump Rope For Heart has generated more than $750 million to fund research and education about heart disease, the No. 1 killer of all Americans. The event is held at more than 28,000 schools, with children who once skipped rope now the parents of those taking part themselves.
While this year’s events are still under way, the campaign is off to a great start. Boosted in part by the buzz surrounding this anniversary, organizers are hopeful of breaking the single-year fundraising record of $65 million.
At Riverside High, where it all began, a ceremony recently was held to celebrate the milestone. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett proclaimed it “Jump Rope For Heart Day” in Milwaukee, much to the delight of a crowd that included a group of Barkow’s former students, some of whom wore their letter sweaters.
Barkow sat in a throne during a gathering in the gymnasium, which was followed by a trip to the atrium for a big surprise: the unveiling of a sign renaming the gym the “Jean Barkow Gymnasium,” with a tagline that reads, “Home Of Jump Rope For Heart 1978.”
When the curtain was drawn, Barkow dropped her head and put her hand over her face. She stood and put her other hand to her head, repeatedly saying, “I can’t believe it.” (She taught PE from 1956 until retiring in 1991. While at Riverside, she also coached the girls volleyball team for 15 years and supervised the school’s drill team.)
“I’m very honored,” she told the crowd soon after. “Wow. … I can say to all the young people, do your best – do your best in school because it pays off.”
Jump Rope For Heart was widely embraced as soon as it went nationwide.
In Texas, American Heart Association executive Cass Wheeler saw the event’s potential and convinced his team to set a $1 million goal for the event in 1980. He then managed an all-out effort in the schools that reached the goal. About 80 percent of the organization held Jump Rope For Heart events in 1980, raising $4 million in roughly 3,000 schools across 39 states that year.
The following year, it generated $12.9 million through 1 million students and faculty at 6,000 schools. By 1983, similar events were taking place in Australia, Canada and elsewhere around the world. (Wheeler, meanwhile, went on to become chief executive officer of the American Heart Association from 1997 to 2008.)
In a 1988 publication, a Milwaukee PE teacher and American Heart Association volunteer named Bill Budris said: “When we started Jump Rope For Heart, we expected it to last no more than five years. But then after six years we realized we were seeing only the tip of the iceberg of its potential.”
In 1989, Hoops For Heart began in Albuquerque, N.M. It became a national event in 1995, focusing on middle schoolers while Jump Rope For Heart catered to elementary schoolers.
Both events promote the lifelong benefits of regular physical activity, as well as the spirit of teamwork. There’s also the pride of helping others through fundraising and awareness about the importance of fitness and heart disease.
Perhaps it’s best described as it was from the start – in a letter Barkow and her principal wrote to an administrator on Feb. 21, 1978:
The Jump-Rope-A-Thon is a special event in the truest sense of the word. It offers young people the chance to work toward physical fitness while helping the heart fund. … Hopefully, Riverside’s attempt in this endeavor will prove worthy enough to be tried nation wide in the years to come.