For the past eight years, Heritage Lakes Elementary School in Carol Stream has taken part in a fundraiser aimed at supporting the American Heart Association. But nearly five years ago, the meaning of the event became all too real.
On Feb. 15, 2005, Brittany Valene was walking to choir practice with friends before school when she became dizzy and collapsed. Nearly 20 minutes of CPR and a trip to Central DuPage Hospital were unsuccessful in resuscitating her and she died a short time later, just two days before her ninth birthday.
"It made all of the kids realize that heart disease isn't just something that could happen later in your life," said physical education teacher Bari Flores, who helped start the event at the school.
"You could deal with this from the day you were born because you weren't blessed to be born with a healthy heart."
Brittany suffered from long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that often can result in a fast, irregular heartbeat. After she died, the school renamed the fundraiser after her.
"I was very honored and humbled by the fact they wanted to change the whole program," said Brittany's father, Tony Valene, who also suffers from long QT syndrome. "It's tough to put into words."
The fundraiser began Friday and will conclude with students taking part in heart-health sessions in their gym classes Feb. 10-12.
The drive typically raises between $15,000 and $20,000. Last year, it raised $13,000.
More importantly, however, it generates awareness of heart disease in children. Valene said he can see the difference when he sees posters students design for the event.
"The kids definitely get it," Valene said. "You can tell they're getting the gist of the whole program."
When Brittany died, organizers had to decide whether to go on with the program because it happened about a week before the event.
"We went ahead because that's what Brittany would have wanted," said Jay Stream Middle School Principal Craig Shank, who was a physical education teacher at Heritage Lakes at the time. "It ended up being almost like therapy for these kids."
And the class has not forgotten Brittany. To this day, several students from Brittany's class, now in eighth grade, try to raise awareness of long QT year-round.
"They truly understand the meaning behind it and it's a great connection of what we teach in physical education for a lifetime of health and fitness," Flores said. "If you don't have a healthy heart, you can't have a healthy life."