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Worthington Area YMCA campaign to benefit American Heart Association

Jaden Nickel of Worthington is featured in the American Heart Association Twin Cities Heart Walk campaign.

WORTHINGTON -- The Worthington Area YMCA and young Jaden Nickel are looking for some big-hearted individuals to step up and stroll forward in a new campaign to raise money for the American Heart Association.

Jaden, the daughter of Jeff and Tina Nickel of Worthington, was chosen earlier this year to be a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. Her picture is appearing on billboards and bus stop posters throughout the Twin Cities in promotion of the annual Twin Cities Heart Walk on May 4.

Now, the Worthington YMCA wants to add to the heart-healthy awareness campaign with one of its own. Teams have already begun registering for a program that asks participants to walk, bike, swim and/or run 170 miles -- the distance between Worthington and Target Field, where the Heart Walk takes place. The program kicked off Monday and will continue through May 3.

"It's a way for people to support the American Heart Association," said Tina Nickel, Jaden's mom and a fitness instructor and personal trainer at the local YMCA. "This is a way that people can contribute as well as get themselves jumpstarted in the direction of a healthy lifestyle -- what better way now, with spring right around the corner."

Andy Johnson, executive director at the Y, said the campaign was dreamed up by Y staff in a team effort. It combines the center's fitness challenge with a way to raise money for the American Heart Association.

"The Nickel family has been very special to us for a long time," Johnson said, adding that Tina was a YMCA swimming instructor while still in high school.

"When we found out Jaden was going to be the poster child (for the heart association), I just thought there would be a way we can support it," he said. "This is a way for us to branch out and do it as a community in support of the family."

The Nickels will attend the Twin Cities Heart Walk with a contingent of more than 40 family members and friends on May 4. They've been doing this every year since Jaden's birth (she celebrates her ninth birthday on Monday).

Jaden was born with endocardial cushion defect, which has required multiple surgeries thus far with more still in the future.

In the years since Jaden's birth, the Nickels have met countless families with their own stories about the impacts of heart disease. Through Jaden's selection as a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, the Nickels hope to bring more awareness to southwest Minnesota. The new YMCA campaign will do just that.

"Some people would like to contribute, but aren't able to go up to the cities for the Heart Walk," Tina said. That's when YMCA management brainstormed the idea to bring people together. If they can't drive up to the Twin Cities, they may as well walk, bike, run or swim that distance in their community.

As of Tuesday night, more than 70 individuals had already signed up to participate. People can do the challenge on their own or be part of a team of no more than four people. Registration is done at the YMCA's front desk, and people are asked to log their miles and turn them in each week so the YMCA can keep a running total of the number of miles logged.

"If you accomplish your miles, you get a T-shirt," Tina said.

There is a cost to participate, with half going to the American Heart Association in honor of Jaden and the remainder covering the cost of the T-shirts that will be given to each participant who completes the challenge.

"It's all for a good cause," Tina said, adding that when they were in the hospital with Jaden, they learned from the cardiologists that more than 50 percent of their research funds come from the American Heart Association.

"That's research to stop things from happening and help people live as close to normal lives," she said.

Helping raise funds and awareness for an organization like that can help so many people. So, the Nickels hope many strap on a pedometer and track their walking throughout the day, add to it by walking around the lake or on an indoor track, and perhaps even participate in a YMCA program.

"We have cycling classes and elipticals, and all those are ways to put miles on," she added. "It's a minimum of 14 miles in a cycling class."

The Big Hearts campaign at the YMCA could become an annual event, and that is exciting for the Nickel family.

"I'm really impressed at how many people are coming together," Tina said. "Our family is so overwhelmed with the support.

"From our family, personally, we just want to thank the Y staff and the whole Worthington community," she added. "It really is a great place to live, and for me, the Y is a great place to work."

The sooner people sign up to participate in the Big Hearts campaign, the more time they have to achieve the 170-mile goal. The campaign ends May 3, one day before the Twin Cities Heart Walk takes place at Target Field in Minneapolis.

For more information about the Heart Walk, visit

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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