The first thing that stops you in your tracks about Lauren Bradley's experience with the Sweetheart program of the American Heart Association's Central Arkansas Office is that she never wanted to be in the program in the first place.
"My mom actually had to convince me to join. I wasn’t super interested to begin with," she says. "I’m pretty introverted and don’t like talking to a bunch of people. When I joined, I didn’t plan on talking to anybody."
Bradley not only participated in the 2013 installment but excelled beyond anything 1,000 other girls over 20 years of the program accomplished. Through Sweetheart, she logged an eye-popping 670 volunteer hours, basically over the course of a school year. It's a record that still stands.
"I honestly don’t know how I did it," says Bradley, now a senior history major at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
At the close of the experience, she was awarded both of the group's honors, the Allison Justiss Sweetheart Scholarship and the Sotomora Award for volunteering, a slam dunk if ever there was one.
"I joined and then I realized it was extremely educational and it wasn’t just about social events," Bradley says. "My absolute favorite thing I did was I initially volunteered in the emergency room. That was a pretty big deal because I think I was among the first Sweethearts that actually got to go down there. That was a really fun, fast-paced environment."
As tidy a circle as Bradley's Sweetheart success paints, it falls miles short of the real benefit she gained from the program, which seeks to educate each class of young women on matters consistent with AHA's mission of building healthier lives free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
For Bradley, the true benefit was that the program literally saved her life.
"There wasn’t anything that ran in my family that I was necessarily concerned about, but I started not feeling super great in eighth grade," she says. "I wasn’t sure how to describe it."
Between eighth grade and becoming a Sweetheart her sophomore year at eStem Public Charter High School in Little Rock, Bradley was examined by doctors who, one by one, failed to properly diagnose the problem.
"I was originally told that it was a magnesium deficiency, so I started taking magnesium," she says. "That, of course, didn’t do anything."
Reading the Sweetheart handbook, Bradley was shocked to find some of the symptoms described in the materials matched how she felt. It was enough to convince her parents to seek a cardiologist's opinion, but it still didn’t yield a satisfactory diagnosis.
"The easy things they’d given me to do were not helping," she says. "And I was a teenager, so it probably didn’t seem like that big of a deal because when I’d go to the heart doctor it’s mostly older people."
Bradley was convinced there a deeper problem that was being missed and, armed with her newfound knowledge, pushed back. At her insistence, she was put on a heart monitor that revealed supraventricular tachycardia, an abnormally fast heart rhythm. She was prescribed medication and today sees a cardiologist once every six months to monitor the condition.
"I was trying to explain that this is a big deal and I do not feel well," she says. "I don’t think the conversation went poorly. I think my cardiologist was very glad that I spoke up about it and was vocal. They wouldn’t have noticed [my condition] otherwise."
While Bradley's experience is certainly not typical, the practical applications of a Sweetheart's education in matters of heart disease and stroke play out in ways large and small every year says Tammy Quick, director of the Heart Ball, AHA-Arkansas's main fundraiser and the capstone of the Sweethearts' year.
"We want them to want to learn and be a part of the program and, admittedly, some of them come very begrudgingly because their parents want them to be part of the program," Quick says. "But those usually turn around.
"I had a dad call me one time and say, ‘Well, thanks a lot. We cannot have M&Ms at our house anymore.'"
The central Arkansas program was created by Eileen and Dr. Ricardo Sotomora in 1998 as a more community service-oriented alternative to debutantes. The central Arkansas group, which is open to high school sophomore girls, was modeled after an Oklahoma program of the same name and has since inspired Sweetheart groups in Hot Springs and northwest Arkansas.
"We are one of the best programs in the country," Quick says. "The Sweethearts’ presence, I think, really lets people know how serious we are about educating our youth about heart disease and stroke and prevention because that’s the only way we’re going to turn this ship around."
There is a patronage fee to participate in the Sweetheart program, technically making the group a fundraiser for the local AHA organization. However, a tremendous amount of community resources and partnerships are leveraged to lend rigor to the curriculum, which includes a minimum of 20 hours of community service and education.
"We tell them about the commitment, and it is a commitment because they’re not driving yet so it is a family commitment to get the minimum of 20 hours that’s within the program," Quick says. "We ask for their time and then we hope that we teach them all about advocacy and volunteerism and fundraising and being a part of your community."
The program's reputation for producing young women well-schooled in matters of heart health has resulted in steady growth in numbers. Today, the average class numbers around 70 but has been as high as 86. Not all embrace the mission of Sweetheart or its sponsoring organization as fervently as others, but it has produced its share of physicians and other health care professionals from among its ranks.
And for those who excel to the highest degree, AHA-Arkansas is rolling out a new program that will enable the girls to remain active during their junior year of high school. The new group, Above and Beyond Sweetheart Leadership (Sweetheart Leaders for short), debuted as a pilot program this summer.
"With a larger class of Sweethearts, you do the standard classes with heart healthy eating, stroke seminar and heart healthy hike which are good in big groups," Quick says. "We wanted to do a deeper dive for some of the girls that were interested in some areas that you can’t take even small groups into."
Sweetheart Leaders will focus on areas of leadership, volunteering, research, advocacy and growth, as well as provide peer-to-peer mentorship with the Sweetheart class and complete special projects.
"One of the things I’m the most excited about is UAMS has agreed to help us do a real research project," Quick says. "What we want to track is what effect did the Sweetheart program have on the girls. What did they change because of what they learned in the Sweetheart program? That would give us real concrete research on the value of the program."
Needless to say, Bradley's response to questions about her Sweetheart experience underlines just how profoundly life-changing it was.
"I feel now like it was so important because I learned so much about something I’d never thought about before," she says, "not only in general but about myself as well. I diagnosed myself with a heart condition, which most people would have probably thought is crazy, but it turned out to be true."