The unexpected death of locals Kathryn and Paul Russel's 2-year-old daughter, Caroline Grace, who had an undetected heart condition, set off the local "Sweetheart Program" that strives to both keep Caroline's memory alive and educate young women on heart health.
The program's "big event" is the Heart Ball. While typically held in February, the pandemic has not canceled this year's Heart Ball, it has just pushed it to May. As the program enters its 15th year, Kathryn spoke with HER Magazine about the program, how people can get involved, who in the community contributes to making it happen and even a little about Caroline.
What is the Sweetheart program?
Kathryn Russell: The Sweetheart program started in 2007 after the passing of (our) daughter Caroline Grace at the age of 2 from an undetected heart condition while in her sleep. After seeking answers we were approached by the American Heart Association about the possibility of reflecting Caroline's story through a message to all young women recruited to participate with our Sweethearts.
We search for girls with high morals and ethical standards, who have a true willingness to learn, as well as to serve. ... These girls make up the heart of the AHA program and help bring in a substantial benefit as a whole. We wanted to do this in order to prevent a tragedy from striking others, the Sweetheart program would become a means of channeling their grief into something positive. With this being the 15th annual program we have grown and have been blessed beyond measures with so many young ladies passing through the program.
While they are a Sweetheart they participate in many activities throughout several months. They volunteer with our exclusive Sweetheart sponsor NPMC, tour the cath lab, survival flight, certified in adult and infant CPR, they also are asked to write an essay about heart health that's graded by one of NPMC('s) cardiologists. They also have fun activities such as the Father/Daughter BBQ sponsored by Smoking N Style('s) Joe Johnson and a beautiful Mother/Daughter luncheon sponsored by Laurays the Diamond Center('s) Mr. Toddy Pitard that presents each girl with a special gift designed just for our Sweethearts that represents Caroline's life. ... Our beautiful Sweethearts also have a portrait session with Wonderlily Photography, Amber Nolan and Genevieve Townley.
Then there's the Heart Ball. The Heart Ball is a very special event aimed at showcasing the Sweethearts and rewarding them for their hard work and dedication to the program. ... Awards are given the night of the presentation of all Sweethearts. The top award is the $2,000 "Caroline Grace Russell Memorial Scholarship." ... This year we will have the heart ball at the new event center at Oaklawn May 15, 2021. If you are interested in next year's Sweethearts, please contact (me) at [email protected]
Caroline is remembered through this program and both (myself and my husband) Paul work hard in keeping her memory alive. (We) honor her life by educating girls on becoming heart healthy and spreading awareness about heart disease within their community in hope that they can make a difference in just one person's life.
My oldest son Harrison Russell -- 22 (and) headed to medical school -- also helps with Sweetheart program to help raise awareness about Heart Health. He's hands-on and he needs to be mentioned with us. I do believe the tragedy with his sister when he was only turning eight at the time had a huge impact on his life when he was very young and choices he's made with his career and following God's plan for him. ... He's involved each year.
How has COVID-19 impacted this year's event?
KR: COVID-19 has had obviously a huge impact on this year's group. As bad as this pandemic is, our goal is to keep our Sweethearts safe. So volunteering with NPMC has changed a bit through Zoom meetings with pediatricians, orthopedic surgeons, nurses, cardiologists and general surgeons. They have made special cards/gifts for the COVID patients and we had to adjust the CPR day by keeping them off-site of the hospital and keeping within social distancing while wearing their masks at all times. As challenging as this has been we have been able to adjust well and keep within the state's guidelines. Usually, our Heart Ball is held every February but we had to push it back to May 15th at Oaklawn Event Center. We've never in the history of our Heart Ball had it this far into the year. Also, Lifenet is usually a huge component to our program and because of COVID with LifeNet being first responders they are unable to participate in ride-alongs with them. Usually, this is one of our favorite events for the girls. Unfortunately, it could not happen this year.
Why is it important to educate younger women on the topic?
KR: It's not only important for younger women to be educated about heart disease which is the No. 1 killer in women and men but all ages need to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Time is very crucial when something to this magnitude happens to someone you know and love.
Our goal is to educate these young women on the importance of being heart healthy. It's quite simple if you watch what you eat, have some activity where you get up and move each day and refrain from smoking.
The American Heart Association's "My Life Check-Life's Simple 7" include core health behaviors: Smoking, physical activity, diet and weight to name a few, as well as cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose control that contribute to your overall cardiovascular health.
Most all of our Sweethearts do have extracurricular activities after school like volleyball, cheerleading track to name a few that keeps them very active. With heart disease being the number one killer in women in the United States it is very important for all ages to have knowledge about this topic.
Our Sweethearts are taught about the Cath Lab at NPMC and the procedure that is done in order for a cardiologist to see blockage. It's quite amazing how our physicians save lives daily.
I'm very proud to have partnered with NPMC and AHA to help spread awareness throughout our community about heart disease.
What was Caroline like?
KR: Little Caroline was so full of JOY!!!! She was busy all the time and interested in everything around her at all times. Her smile was contagious and she lit up the room when she made her presence known. Love is a word for her ... she loved hard and you felt it. At the age of two even though she lived a short life she left such an impression on the entire community.
We are so blessed to have had her as our daughter even for a short time. Her mission was accomplished here and we will know one day when we see her again.
How do you feel this event honors her memory?
KR: This event does such an amazing job! It takes all hands on deck to pull off a Heart Ball like no other. The Sweethearts warm our hearts by representing her life and her story throughout the community and help fundraise for the American Heart Association. We could never have this event to this magnitude without all the support from
ALL sponsors, volunteers that are behind the scenes and the passion we all have. We are grateful for the community in which we live for their continued support.