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The Nickels' "Walking for Jaden" team poses for a photo during the 2012 event at Target Field in Minneapolis.

Heartwarming: Worthington girl featured in Heart Association campaign

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WORTHINGTON -- To her friends and family, Jaden Nickel is a rock star --an 8-year-old (soon to be 9) girl with a laidback personality who is their own personal medical miracle.

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But by the time spring rolls around, a much wider audience will recognize Jaden's face and know her story. Jaden, the daughter of Jeff and Tina Nickel of Worthington, has been selected to be one of the faces for the American Heart Association's upcoming campaign. As a result, she will be featured in the February issue of Minnesota Monthly magazine, and her image will also be used in promotional posters in bus stops throughout the Twin Cities area.

The unique opportunity came about because of the Nickel family's involvement with the Twin Cities Heart Walk, which raises money for the AHA. Jaden was born with a heart defect -- endocardial cushion defect -- that has required multiple surgeries and will continue to be an issue throughout her life. Her treatment has all taken place in the Twin Cities, so the Nickels participate in the annual fundraiser to support the research and treatments that have sustained their daughter's life. Their walk team includes extended family and friends.

"A few months ago, we got a call from the AHA, thanking us for all the money we've raised and asking why we were part of the Twin Cities Heart Walk," while living almost 200 miles away, related Tina. "We've been doing it for eight years. So we shared our story about how all of Jaden's doctors and surgeries have been up there, so we want to keep it up there. Evidently they want to branch out and make the walk more about the community teams as well as the corporate teams and wanted ideas on how they could do that. After a few more conversations, they said, 'We'd like to use Jaden's story as part of our Heart Association advertisements."'

The magazine featuring Jaden will hit newsstands this week and should already be in the mail to subscribers. The billboard/poster campaign will come a bit later, timed to promote the 2013 Heart Walk, which is scheduled for May 4. Overall, the campaign will feature five long-standing Heart Walk volunteers and will include billboards, bus shelter posters and posters on transit buses. The details are still being worked out, but it's likely that Jaden's image will be used on 15 bus shelter posters, and she will also be featured in a public service announcement that will air on FOX9/KMSP in the Twin Cities.

"Jaden and her family were selected because of their commitment to the mission of the American Heart Association and our goals to raise awareness for heart disease and funding for life-saving research," said Meghan Perry, vice president of the Twin Cities Heart Walk. "Since 2005, Jaden and her family have raised over $25,000 for the Heart Walk.

"Heart defects are the No. 1 birth defect in this country, with one in 100 babies being born with a congenital heart defect," continued Perry. "As an amazing survivor, Jaden inspires what we do at the American Heart Association every day because she is living proof that advancements in research save lives. We honor her life and her generous spirit."

The Nickels were excited about the prospect of contributing in another way to their favorite cause, although a bit reluctant to have the spotlight focus too brightly on their young daughter.

"I really think it's cool that Jaden got asked, but I do know there are a couple of other kids in the community who have had heart surgeries, but you don't hear much about the Heart Association down here, and they all have to travel quite a ways to get any help," Tina said.

The Nickels traveled to the Twin Cities for the photo shoot, where they met some of the directors of the AHA. In one of the photos for Minnesota Monthly, Jaden is pictured with Eric Elliott, the 2013 Heart Walk chairman. A bit hesitant at first about the process, Jaden got more relaxed and began to smile and let her personality shine through, Tina related about the experience.

Because the campaign focus is on the Twin Cities, it's unlikely Jaden's image will make it to billboards in southwest Minnesota. But the Nickels plan to make a trip to see the bus stop displays when they go up in April. And, as always, they will be up there for the Heart Walk in May. Last year's Twin Cities Heart Walk numbered 25,000 attendees and raised $2.3 million. It was the fourth largest Heart Walk in the country.

"We've made the Heart Walk a family and friends tradition every year," said Tina. "We probably have about 40 people, maybe a minimum of 25, who participate."

Now in second grade with two younger siblings, Spenser, 6, and Tayler, 2, Jaden pretty much leads a normal life, although her heart issues do pose some limitations.

"She is going to need future surgeries," said Tina. "The last one was when she was 5. They replaced her mitral valve with a bigger size valve. They hope it will last until she's teenager -- it just depends on how fast it grows. Unfortunately or fortunately, she's growing fast. She will always be on Coumadin (a blood thinner), so she can't do contact sports."

The Twin Cities 2013 Heart Walk will be from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 4 at Target Field in Minneapolis. It is free to attend, but donations are encouraged. A health fair will be from 7 to 10:30 a.m. with free health screenings, free CPR training, family games and entertainment and giveaways, followed by opening ceremonies and then a walk at 11:30 a.m. through downtown Minneapolis. For more information or to set up a fundraising team, visit www.twincitiesheartwalk.org.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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