COEUR d'ALENE - The rhythmic sound of dozens of small feet hitting the gym floor, again and again, as children skipped over jump ropes, was not unlike the steady, pulsing beat of a healthy heart.
That was the point of the mass rope-skipping going on Thursday at Dalton Gardens Elementary - cardiac fitness.
"We're getting lots of exercise and making our hearts strong," said Kiley Cutler, 10.
The fourth-grader was among 30 children who turned out for the school's annual Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser for the American Heart Association.
"We're raising money for people with hearts that don't work," the little girl explained.
Parents sat in the gym and watched as their children jumped their way to heart health for themselves and others. Kiley's mom, Mindy Cutler, smiled and said she remembers going to Dalton as a child and jumping rope herself.
The Dalton students were jumping this year in honor of one of their own, Donna Farrell, or as the kids know her, "Miss Donna."
A 16-year aide at Dalton, working in the lunchroom, on the playground and more, Farrell had a heart transplant 20 years ago.
She sat in the bleachers at the school Thursday, smiling as she watched the Dalton kiddos swing their ropes and jump. The sign out in front of the Hanley Avenue school said, "Go Miss Donna!"
"I'm just touched," Farrell said.
Farrell was 36 years old and had just given birth to one of her five children when she had a heart attack and learned she needed a new heart. After spending time on a bypass machine, a donor was found.
Now a grandmother five times over, Farrell said she considers each day a blessing, and rather than frowning as she gets older, she said she appreciates having another year.
"It's been so rewarding to be here and be a part of life," she said.
One of the young students came up into the stands and pinned a button onFarrell's jacket deeming her a "heart ambassador."
"Isn't that sweet?" Farrell said.
Farrell said she considers her ability to work with children a gift, one she's able to give, and grateful to receive.
Farrell's own message regarding hearts and heart health is: "Be a donor."
Knowing the children are learning how to keep their hearts healthy pleases her, she said.
The jump rope event is a longtime national fundraiser and heart health education effort. It has taken place at Dalton Elementary every year for 25 years under the guidance of physical education teacher Joann Harvey.
"About 30 kids raise about $2,000 each year. It just amazes me," Harvey said.
Students at Ramsey Magnet School of Science, under physical education teacher Trena Burt, have been jumping rope for heart health for 14 years. Last year alone, 200 Ramsey students raised $5,900 for the heart association.
Harvey, also the physical education teacher at Atlas Elementary, will hold another jump rope fundraiser at Atlas Elementary on Wednesday.
There was a time, Harvey said, when all the district elementary schools participated in the AHA event. Harvey said she's not sure why participation has declined when the issue remains an important health concern.
The health education piece is a big part of February's "heart month" push, with a special focus on the cardiovascular system.
Students in Harvey's classes examine hearts from cows and deer. They learn how hearts function and why aerobic exercise is important.
There's a focus on healthy and unhealthy food choices.
Harvey said she never tells the children they should give up certain foods.
"I tell them that if they're going to eat them, remember to exercise," she said.
Through the years, Harvey estimates the kids at Atlas and Dalton have cumulatively raised nearly $70,000 for the American Heart Association.