Children’s smiles reward fundraisers

Jane Stueckemann , Opinions Editor

A child with a congenital heart defect is 20 percent more likely to die from their conditions than a child with cancer, according to Taylor Sultzbaugh, senior and co-president of Kickstart Kids’ Hearts.

Kickstart Kids’ Hearts is a club that started in September on Pitt-Johnstown’s campus. Sultzbaugh and co-president senior Kelsey Illuzzi started the club as part of an internship requirement for a class.

The internship was supervised by professor Kurt Pierce, Clinical Education Director.

“I have a health-related professions internship that I oversee that they used as a platform.

“The internship is to use their skills to leave a legacy in health care management and education,” Pierce said.

Since its beginning, the club’s mission has been to increase awareness for the prevalence of children’s heart defects, as well as support local children living with heart defects, Sultzbaugh said.

“Not many people know about how often this can happen. We want to help the families and children who have to deal with these conditions.”

Clinical Instructor Terri Price, Kickstart’s adviser, said she was most surprised with the wide variety of students who joined the club.

“I thought it would be respiratory (study) and nursing students; but, at our meetings, we’ve had students from every part of this campus,” Price said.

Members raise money to sponsor a different child with a heart defect each month. Sultzbaugh said he had been helping to disburse the money.

“We’ve been spending about $250 on each family to buy them gift cards for gas, coloring books and toys.”

Families of children with heart defects have an emotional burden, but also a financial burden because they have to make so many trips to various hospitals, such as the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, according to Price.

Illuzi said  the club’s donations may not result in medical improvement for the children.

“We may not be able to make any sort of medical improvement, but just being part of the reason they’re smiling when we meet them truly warms my heart,” Illuzzi said.

This sponsorship isn’t the only activity club members have been busy with. The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation hosted a social media contest, called “#Pens4Purpose”, in which students had to create a short video that demonstrated how their club positively affects the community.

The contest winners were to receive money that would be given to a charity in association with their club.

“We were the only club from any Pitt campus to submit a video, but we were one of seven finalists,” Sultzbaugh said.

Kickstart Kids’ Hearts won a grant in the contest by way of online votes and was awarded a $2,000 check that will benefit the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Children’s Heart Foundation.

“They’re doing great things,” Pierce said.

For Sultzbaugh, the importance of the club lies in the families they sponsor.

“The 8-year-old boy we sponsored was most impactful for me. When we met his mom, she told us how he had been through seven surgeries already, and it was a miracle that he was even alive.”

But she spoke so highly of his doctors, and she was so grateful for us. It made me feel like

we were actually making a difference,” Sultzbaugh said.

The club was able to give this child two tickets to an upcoming Penguins game, a gift basket and  Christmas cards from a local elementary school; Another $100 gas gift card was also included, according to Illuzzi.

The boy’s father, Brian Taylor, expressed his gratitude.

“It’s an example of people who are doing something to help those who deal with something unfortunate. It helps to know that there are people thinking about and caring for us,” Taylor said.

Kickstart members are planning a 5K Glow Run for March 24 on Pitt-Johnstown’s campus. It will benefit their monthly sponsor children, as well as the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Children’s Heart Foundation.