By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Davejones

Nearly three decades ago, newly arrived physical education teacher Dave Jones was looking for a project that would instill kids with more than just basic athletic skills and the joy of breaking a sweat.

He found the American Heart Association. Its Jump Rope For Heart program inspires kids to combine physical activity and fun with fundraising at schools across the country.

“Along with all the testing and curriculum stuff, kids should learn there are things to you can do to help out in society,” Jones said. “This really fit.”

So he enrolled his school, Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Glenview, Illinois, in the program, dispatched his students with heart-healthy messages to collect pledges, and capped it off with a rollicking assembly featuring all manner of jump-rope demonstrations and competitions. “That first year the kids really surprised me,” he said. “I was looking for a couple hundred bucks and we raised like $14,000. And we just kept rolling.”

That was 1988. On Friday, the suburban Chicago school’s 28th annual Jump Rope For Heart assembly includes a momentous announcement: this year’s total will push Pleasant Ridge’s cumulative tote board over $1 million, one of the highest figures in the nation for any school of any size.

“It’s something to be proud of,” said Frank Rottman, the principal at Pleasant Ridge, which has 537 students in grades 3, 4 and 5. “But it’s not just a dollar amount. It’s a whole school event with so much energy surrounding it.

“This program has really given our students the opportunity to make their mark,” he said. “We challenge our students — How can we make a difference beyond the walls of Pleasant Ridge?”

The difference isn’t just about money. Jones said one factor in directing his efforts toward heart disease “is that it’s an affliction that you have some control over. It’s not always the case, but for the most part if you’re healthy and active and have the right kind of diet, you can control whether you’ll have heart disease.”

And the educational aspect, Rottman said, can impact others. “We tell the children, ‘Imagine that through your work you can help people change. Maybe your mom or dad won’t smoke, or someone in your family is eating a little better. Maybe you’ve made business owners aware of this.’

“It’s the idea of building character and thinking beyond yourself and your own needs.”

The million-dollar program developed gradually over the years, garnering more support from local businesses and adding new elements ranging from video and webpage design contests to CPR instruction for the fifth-graders.

What it doesn’t have is an annual goal. In recent years Pleasant Ridge has raised as much as $64,000, but Jones said there’s no pressure to set new records. Many years ago he abandoned the traditional fundraising tactic of asking for a dollar amount for every minute someone jumps rope, because some donors were unpleasantly surprised by the total.

“The message is to pledge to fight heart disease, and to do what you can to help,” he said. “You don’t want to be mad at anyone who can’t do as much as someone else, or anyone who tells you no. No matter what you bring in, you took some of your time to help somebody else.”

The drive begins when students return from winter break (much of fall is devoted to the school’s community garden). Students distribute donation packets to friends and neighbors, and set up online accounts as well. It culminates on Friday with a two-hour, prize-filled, jump rope party after school when the final tally will be revealed.

That won’t be the only big announcement. The kids don’t know yet – “I wanted to make sure the paperwork was in” – but Dave Jones is retiring at the end of the year. “I wish I could talk him out of it,” said Rottman, his principal.

He can’t.

“I’ve had 30-plus wonderful years, but I’m 60 and I’m ready to do something different,” Jones said. “I’m going to tell them I’m like our fifth graders. They’re heading off on a new adventure and so am I.”

As Pleasant Ridge’s jump rope renown has grown, Jones has collected awards from the AHA and physical education organizations over the years. In April he’ll be a guest of honor at the AHA Chicago Heart Ball, a black-tie gala at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

“It’s a little weird,” Jones said. “It’s not false modesty. If they want to recognize me, you kind of have to honor that. But we’re just going to continue to do what we do.”

The school hasn’t hired a new P.E. teacher yet, but Jones is confident that the program he built isn’t going anywhere.

“It’ll be a new person and he or she might emphasize something different,” he said. “It may not be the same, but the program is going to be in good shape.”

The kids will likely see to that.

“I have a lot of kids who come up with from the primary school and they already know about this from their brother or sister or babysitter,” Jones said. “The first thing they say to me is ‘When do we start Jump Rope For Heart?’”