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Rally with the Community: The Heart & Stroke Walk

Author: South Valley Chamber
Published: September 4, 2018

We had the chance to sit down with Laura Western, Executive Director of the American Heart Association; and Lavinia Sasaki, Business Development Director of the American Heart Association. We chatted about their upcoming Heart & Stroke Walk – a celebration of money raised for lifesaving research. This interview has been edited down for brevity.

Tell me about the Heart & Stroke Walk. What and who does it benefit?
This is our 25th anniversary of the Heart & Stroke Walk. It’s a community event with 5,000-6,000 people who come together to celebrate money raised, survivors, and lifesaving research. We also use this walk as a leverage point to activate people to live healthier lives.

We will have a health and wellness expo area that everyone can visit throughout the entire event. Each booth has an activation of some sort. You’ll see standing yoga, a smoothie bike, rock climbing walls, an area dedicated to kids, a survivor area, activities for caretakers, and so much more. Then we kick off our miracle mile and afterward kick off our 5k fun run and walk. We wrap up the event at 10:30 and give away awards.

What is the Miracle Mile?
We have a one-mile area that is specifically for survivors to walk. And that one mile sometimes takes them the entire time. Following heart disease, heart surgery, or stroke, patients are sometimes in rehab for months and months. We’ve seen people struggle to make that one-mile victory walk, but there’s something pretty incredible about watching them cross that finish line.

It’s when we kick off the miracle mile that people can see who we are honoring in action. It really does give you this moment of gratitude for your own health, but also for the advancements made that have allowed people to extend their lives even after suffering a heart attack, heart disease, or a stroke.

How does the community pull together for this?
The community primarily rallies around this event through local companies. This year we’re working with about 42 companies that all engage their employees in spreading awareness. Another big part is family teams or “community teams.” They are made up of families who are rallying around a survivor they know. Maybe it’s someone they’ve lost or someone who is at the walk. We also have a lot of families with children who have been affected by heart disease or stroke.

What is it like to watch the Utah community rally together to fund lifesaving research?
We’re criers; I’m not going to lie. It’s really neat to think that 5,000-6,000 community members are coming together to celebrate what has been accomplished throughout this campaign. We’re celebrating the money raised, the people we’re standing next to, and the lives we are impacting together.

We have $18 million worth of research being done right in our backyard here in Utah. When someone is giving to the American Heart Association, they are giving money to lifesaving research that is happening locally.

What is your “why” for working at the American Heart Association?
Laura – My dad had heart disease and had gone through stints and pacemakers, but then he suffered a stroke and it completely changed his life. When the American Heart Association came to me, initially I thought “oh no.” And then I stopped and realized it was a moment that I could honor my dad’s life and legacy. I stayed with it for my dad, but also the future of my kids and grandkids.

Lavinia – My why has evolved. I studied community health in college, so that has always been a part of what drives me. Making a difference with community health is where my “why” started, but as I grew into this role, and now have worked with the AHA for three years, my “why” is the survivors. There is not one survivor who hasn’t personally touched me with their story. Every time I’m reminded why our work is so important. I feel like they motivate me to work harder on the job, but also take care of myself.

How can someone get involved with the American Heart Association?
The Heart Walk! It is where we market to the masses, rather than other specific programs. With Heart Walk, it gives you a taste of who we are as an organization and you can see the direct impact. There’s something pretty great about the Heart Walk. There’s an energy of getting thousands of people together and collectively saying “we’re going to make a change in our community one step at a time, one person at a time, one heart at a time.”

We’re also looking for leaders to help us – volunteer leaders, our executive leadership teams, committees, event days, and people at small companies or large companies. There’s a job for everyone.

If you are interested in getting involved or would like to participate in the Heart & Stroke Walk, please email Lavinia Sasaki at lavinia.sasaki@heart.org.