Sherry Adams and Neel Sudhakaran

As we celebrate our campus-wide $1 Million fundraising milestone of community giving for the American Heart Association, we would like to recognize some of the very special people who are responsible for helping us reach this goal –Stratford’s own Heart Heroes. First, we thank our founder Sherry Adams for her vision to inspire an ongoing, active culture of care. From our very first Danville campus that opened in 1999, Sherry made sure that giving was an essential part of the Stratford experience and students had ownership of the giving process – choosing where and how they contributed to their community. This experience has created a thriving pay-it-forward tradition at Stratford. The American Heart Association is just one of many charitable efforts that our school community has prioritized over the years – one that has become a beloved cause across our campuses. 

This brings us to our next two Heart Heroes, former Stratford teacher Dawn Ellner who inspired our fundraising partnership with the American Heart Association, and Stratford Middle School graduate Neel Sudhkaran who has recently become an official Heart Hero Youth Ambassador for the AHA. 

How it all began

Dawn Ellner was a young teacher at our Los Gatos campus when she became the inspiration to raise funds for the American Heart Association and subsequently the motivational speaker for our Jumprope for Heart events. Dawn activated our families, leaders, and staffers with her very personal heart disease story. We recently spoke to Dawn to share our amazing news. She generously recounted the start of the Stratford AHA partnership journey.

Dawn’s Story

Teacher, Dawn Ellner, jumps rope to give back to the community.

Dawn jumps rope for a good cause

“It warms my heart to hear that Stratford has raised over 1 million in total contributions to the American Heart Association. This fundraiser means so much to me because I have a personal history of Heart Disease. In 2001, at the age of 28, I had a Heart Attack, which led to 3 heart surgeries spread over 4 years. I was working for Sherry Adams, Stratford School’s founder, at the time, and her support was invaluable as I worked to get my health back under control. In 2004, my Cardiologist led a team Heart Walk fundraiser for the American Heart Association and asked me to join. That year, I raised over $10,000 for the AHA. I started the Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser at Stratford because I have personally benefited from the results of fundraisers like these. The American Heart Association funded research for the first drug-coated stents to keep blocked arteries open. These stents were approved by the FDA in 2003, just in time to put 3 of them into my heart – saving my life after complications during surgery. 

I have enjoyed being a spokesperson and sharing my story at Jump Rope for Heart events at Stratford because it has helped families make a connection between the money they were raising and tangible results in someone they knew personally. Jump Rope for Heart events opened up important conversations with Stratford Students about how heart disease has impacted their own families and what they can do to keep their hearts healthy. Many students even went home to have conversations about heart health with their family members, which resulted in families eating healthier and exercising together. I hope Stratford Students continue their dedication to heart health through education, discussion, action, and AHA fundraising for years to come.”

Community Giving: Jumping rope for the American Heart Association

Dawn’s story is a powerful example of how the simple act of raising a few dollars along with building awareness can truly make a life-saving impact over time. We have continued to hear stories throughout the years from our students who have also been affected by heart disease in their own families. One of those students is Neel Sudhakaran. Neel is currently in High School, a graduate of our San Jose Middle School campus. Through his fundraising efforts, Neel has become a Youth Ambassador for the AHA and has raised over $75,000 through his own fundraising efforts that started when Neel was an Elementary student at Stratford. Neel recently gave a heartfelt presentation to some of the AHA board members and we asked him to share his inspirational words from that event.

Neel’s Story

Community Giving: Neel Sudakaran and brother receive fundraising awards.

Neel and his brother accept fundraising awards from AHA

“I was introduced to the American Heart Association and the Kids Heart Challenge program almost 11 years ago—when it was still known as Jump Rope for Heart. Back then, my original reasons for participating revolved around showing school spirit, but the more I fundraised, the more I realized how much I really enjoyed doing so. Not to mention, the program was also teaching me important skills about entrepreneurship, and it helped me realize the value of money early on. All too soon, however, the American Heart Association’s mission became a lot closer to my heart. When I was 12, my maternal grandfather suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Since then, I’ve strived to spread awareness about cardiovascular disease (CVD)—and how important it is for kids to have good heart health. 

I was the second-highest fundraiser for the Kids Heart Challenge program two years in a row, and I had amazing opportunities to network with doctors, researchers, and fellow student leaders—many of whom gave me advice I’ll hold on to for the rest of my life. But outside of my personal experience, I firmly believe that Kids Heart Challenge is one of the most influential health and wellness programs out there. Most of today’s youth incorrectly assume that heart disease is a quote “old people issue” because we’re at the point now in cardiovascular medicine where we’ve severely decreased the number of fatalities from CVD each year. However, our mission is far from complete, as although that is true, the number of people affected with some form of cardiovascular disease has been increasing—especially among young people in society. This is especially concerning considering that research by AHA-affiliated organizations shows that your cardiovascular health from as early as age 5 can impact your overall physical health into your 50s, 60s, and beyond. And nowadays, children are more predisposed to CVD than ever. 

Neel Sudhakaran, AHA Youth Ambassador

The American Heart Association has set a bold goal for 2024: to be champions of health equity, and advance cardiovascular health for all. A huge part of that revolves around spreading awareness among the youth. It’s important that our strategy for sharing messages about healthcare and cardiovascular disease is conversational, and not transactional. As professionals, leaders, and experts surrounding cardiovascular health, we need to intervene in the daily ecosystem of these children. Conversations about heart health, stress, and related mental health issues need to become a part of their daily lives—and something that is openly discussed, and not just shoved under the rug. It’s also imperative we bring the conversation closer to them: while we may have most of the knowledge and research surrounding cardiovascular health, it’s a lot more powerful for the youth to hear our mission being resonated by figures of authority and trust within their daily lives—like teachers. If we can make our mission a part of the environment around them, we can nurture and instill the values and principles of heart health early on—and it will last these children a lifetime.”

Looking Ahead

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving” – Mother Theresa

Kids for Heart ChallengeWith the annual AHA Kids Heart Challenge, every year our students get the chance to begin anew, learning about their heart health and working to help others with their special heart challenges. As you heard from Neel, it is an exciting time for them. The gift of giving to the American Heart Association truly goes both ways. Our students learn that their effort to help impact the lives of others often has just as great an impact on their own lives while deepening their connection to their community. As we continue our work to change and improve lives outside of our own and look toward reaching that next AHA giving milestone, we will carry the inspiration of Dawn and Neel, and the vision and culture of care of Sherry Adams with us. Together, we can do extraordinary things – Now on to that next milestone!