Research shows unhealthy diets begin to influence cardiovascular disease markers as early as 3 years of age. To combat this, a major hospital, two nationally recognized nonprofits, and a leading private school in the nation are teaming up to give 12,000 underprivileged children in Broward County proper health education that they may not be receiving.

The Cleveland Clinic FloridaAmerican Heart AssociationBoys & Girls Clubs of Broward County, and American Heritage Schools are joining efforts through the Healthy Heart Initiative to teach underrepresented children ages 6 to 9 how to eat healthy, live longer, and change society. The goal of the Healthy Heart Initiative is to expand the turnkey program throughout the county, state, and the U.S.

Starting with the launch of a pilot class on January 8th at two Boys & Girls Clubs in Broward (Florence A. De George Club and Rick and Rita Case Club), high school students in the Pre-Med Program at American Heritage Schools, Broward campus teach the children after school. Subjects range from the heart and body, carbs, and how to plate a meal, to saying no to cigarettes and drugs, and physical fitness. Mentoring the pre-med students is Dr. Roberto Cubeddu, MD, interventional cardiologist specializing in structural heart disease at the Cleveland Clinic Florida, who has studied research on the eating habits of impoverished children and replicated many of his findings into the Healthy Heart Initiative.

“We hope to change how we influence and educate young children to improve their knowledge so they don’t end up in Dr. Cubeddu’s office 30 years down the road,” says Lindsay Leblang, VP of Development at the American Heart Association (AHA) of Greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The American Heart Association provides evidence based research to support this work and has served as the catalyst to bring together these community stakeholders to ensure maximum impact. “We are grateful for the impact on our overall health that these four organizations can make together in the community. This initiative is focused on addressing our social influencers of health,” Leblang says, “which are caused by barriers to healthcare, access to food, and comprehensive education."

Two years in the making, Abhi Sriganeshan, a 12th grader at American Heritage Schools (AHS) and co-president of the Heritage Pre-Med Society, has worked diligently with her peers to create the project proposal and curriculum for Healthy Heart. They worked under the direction of AHS Pre-Med teacher and department chair, Dr. Carlos Pulido, MD, and AHS Assistant Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Sari Weltmann, M.Ed. Abhi is also one of the student teachers of the pilot classes. “I feel grateful to have the opportunity to make an impact on my community at this young age, and it brings me joy to work with the children and have them remember me as someone who wants to help, teach, and play with them,” she says.

The curriculum is based on the “backward design” model, or creating modules with the end goal in mind, explains Weltmann. “It’s definitely an eye-opening experience for our teens,” she says, “because they are learning to do what their own teachers do for them every single day: manage and engage children in order to achieve their educational goals. Our pre-med students have to marry their own knowledge and ideas with younger children's variety of backgrounds, prior- experiences, and personalities. Bringing the planned curriculum to life is where the greatest joy for them lies."

This undertaking confirmed Abhi’s desire to study Public Health in college and continue working with projects like Healthy Heart around the world. “We are proud to give our students this valuable peer to peer teaching opportunity and combine efforts with influential organizations in our community to help ensure longevity for kids whose lives might have taken a different path,” says Dr. Douglas Laurie, President of American Heritage Schools and current Board Chair of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County.

The Boys & Girls Clubs provide a safe place for kids in kindergarten through 12th grades to go after school and participate in enriching programs that help build academic success, good character and citizenship, and a healthy lifestyle. Chris Gentile, Chief Development Officer at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County sums it up, “The Healthy Heart Initiative helps give them an opportunity to be better and live longer and gives us a really good feeling to know when the kids leave our clubs, they are set for the future.”