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AHA walk for heart research

Walkers cross the finish line at the 2009 American Heart Association Start! Heart Walk on Princeton Street in Orlando. Walks are held all over the country to raise money for vital research.

Walkers cross the finish line at the 2009 American Heart Association Start! Heart Walk on Princeton Street in Orlando. Walks are held all over the country to raise money for vital research.

Brittni Larson

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Riley Kelly was born with a hole in his heart. At just 2 days old, he had his first surgery. Three surgeries and lots of healing later, Riley lives life like any other 9-year-old.

“If you look at him, you can’t tell,” said Tom Kelly, Riley’s dad.

The little boy now maintains an “uninterrupted” life. Kelly said he’s extremely active and loves playing soccer and lacrosse. There’s one thing Kelly is sure of — his son wouldn’t have such a bright future if it wasn’t for the American Heart Association.

And so, as a father with a personal passion for the Heart cause, Kelly has spent the last eight years working to help the Association in what he says is the most critical way — raising funds for heart research.

Since 2002, Kelly has been a part of the AHA’s Start! Heart Walk annual fundraiser. This year, Kelly is the Walk’s community team leader, and he has raised $11,500 toward the cause, but has a goal of $15,000.

“We’ll get there,” said Kelly, whose team is associated with CNL Bank, where he is the senior vice president.

The Heart Walk is the AHA’s signature fundraiser of the year, with more than 1 million walkers participating in more than 450 events across the country. The goal is to raise funds to combat America’s No. 1 and No. 3 killers — heart disease and stroke.

This year, Loch Haven Park will be the start of the Walk at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 2, where an expected 11,000 greater Orlando residents will stroll to save lives. The view is inspiring, said Sy Saliba, the vice president of marketing and planning for Florida Hospital.

“It’s very satisfying … to see thousands of people standing together for a common cause,” said Saliba, also a member of the Heart Walk’s executive leadership team.

Kelly walks alongside Riley, his other two sons, his wife and friends each year.

“It’s very exhilarating,” he said.

All the Orlando Walk’s fundraising money will go to Central Florida heart education and research, Kelly said.

Making people aware

But the event isn’t just about celebrating the money raised, it’s also about educating and inspiring participants about their own heart health, said James Henningsen, the interim vice president of educational programs for Seminole State College.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to educate folks across Central Florida,” Henningsen said. “That’s one of our critical missions.”

Saliba said another goal is to make people realize that their heart is in their hands, and the AHA can give them the tools to make the right decisions about their heart health.

“It boils down to individual responsibility,” he said.

Henningsen agreed. He said he’s been stirred by the cause personally because of his family history of heart disease and his own struggle with it, and made the choice to change this year. He hopes to spread the word, and has started with his Seminole State “family.”

One goal of the Heart Walk is to get companies to get their employees to form Walk teams. Henningsen has done that at the college. They have 17 teams, with a total of 114 walkers, and have raised $5,500 of their $15,000 goal.

“It’s a great team-building experience,” Kelly said. “It also promotes good health, which leads to a better workplace.”

All three of the men said they can’t wait to see their goals — fundraising, inspiration and education — come together at the Walk.

“There’s a wonderful affirming feeling that comes from doing it,” Saliba said. “We’ve become addicted.”

Sign up!

You can still sign up to participate in this year’s Heart Walk at 8 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 2 at Loch Haven Park. Visit www.GreaterOrlandoHeartWalk.org to sign up. If you can’t join in the Walk, but want to help, there’s also a link to donate.