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Michigan girl champions cardiac health after surviving heart surgery as a baby

Faith Lonsway is a 12-year-old student at North Park Montessori School in Grand Rapids, which is about to begin fundraising for the American Heart Association.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — On a Friday, the afternoon sun peaks through the spacious windows inside the gym at North Park Montessori School. In a matter of moments, the room goes from being so quiet you can hear a pin drop, to being filled with the infectious laughter of children.

It's National Wear Red Day and the hundreds of youngsters in the room are dressed for the occasion. This is an important day for them because they're attending an assembly, and getting an education on an organ that makes life itself possible.

"Today was getting the kids excited about learning about heart health, and helping them understand the importance of spreading the word to everyone they know," said physical education teacher Kellie Kieren.

The North Park students were visited by the American Heart Association (AHA) and their mascot, "Hearty."

"It's important that these kids know about heart health, but also awareness. So many people in the community are affected by congenital heart disease (CHD)," said Julie Neuhaus who serves as the Youth Market Director for the AHA.

The assembly also serves as a kickoff to the nationwide Kids Heart Challenge fundraiser, which North Park Montessori will be participating in beginning February 27.

"We're telling the [younger] kids about the fundraiser and what's going to happen in the next month," said 12-year old Faith Lonsway.

"Basically we're raising money to help people with heart problems, that will be spent on medicine and stuff."

Faith's class isn't participating in this assembly. But on this day, she feels it's important to share her story, which began when she was born three months premature.

"When I was a baby, I had a valve that didn't open like it would have had I not been born so early. So then I had heart surgery, and it was successful," Faith said.

Faith isn't the only child at North Park Montessori with a story like this.

"We have a handful of students who had heart surgery. Most of them were babies when they had their heart surgeries, and you see their faces light up when they find out that they weren't alone, even in our building," Kellie said.

"They also love feeling that support from their classmates, and their classmates take pride in helping raise money to help other kids who are just like the kids sitting next to them."

Faith says having classmates who went through the same things she did gives her someone to relate to, and that she's happy to help raise money for children who will go through those struggles in the future.

"It just fills my heart with happiness that we can help people in need that have that problem," she said.

Money donated to the campaign could go to a number of things including technology and research that will help patients. But this is an effort that goes well beyond fundraising.

"One thing that I really love about the program this year specifically, is we're really wanting 1.8 million families to learn hands-only CPR. We've seen in recent events how CPR, if acted upon quickly, it does save lives," Julie said.

Kellie also says it's important to her that people learn the signs of heart attack and stroke. She knows first hand that it can save lives.

"I happened to see when my mom was having a stroke, and I could tell based on FAST and having learned that. It was able to help me get her to the hospital soon enough that she did not have any long term effects," she said.

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