As February, known as love and heart month, winds down, it cannot be repeated enough: exercise, diet, and healthful habits must be practiced, not just now but during every month of the year.

Too often, people who have had heart attacks or have various heart conditions and worry about taxing their heart, take the opposite approach — they step gingerly and do less exercise, believing that they are causing less stress to their heart.

But what is needed most for everyone, especially those with heart issues, is exercise and moving to strengthen our hearts.

Nine-year-old Francisco “Frankie” Saldivar Jr., knows this and he’s spreading the word as a kid with a very “special heart” and a young ambassador with the American Heart Association. He helps to promote the organization’s Kids Heart Challenge, an in-school program that promotes physical and mental health for students.

The Kids Heart Challenge means so much for Frankie and his parents.

Frankie was born with three heart murmurs and a septal heart defect that required open-heart surgery when he just 5 years old. For his parents, Maria and her husband Francisco Sr. they had never heard of this condition before he was born and had no idea that their brand new baby boy, their only child would be later facing a major surgery. Doctors had told them previously that they would “monitor” the condition.

A septal defect, which is a hole in the heart, causes blood to get pumped back into the lungs rather than back to the body forcing the heart to work much harder.

For Frankie’s parents, hearing that their child needed open heart and a bypass operation quickly put them into high gear. “It’s not you what you expect to hear that a child would need,” Maria said.

Afterall most people, when hearing about this major surgery, think of adults who are often seniors.

“We had to explain to our little man that he needed to have open heart surgery which is a hard thing to explain to a 5-year-old.

He was a trooper and a fighter,” Maria said.

After surgery, Frankie absolutely refused to use a diaper and insisted on using the restroom. The nurses told him he had a lot of lines in him, but he insisted, and it took a team to get him there — “it was like him taking his first steps again,” his mother recalls.

“We could see that even through he was only 5-years-old, this [insistence] dictated his recovery and signified how strong a child he was,” Maria said. “It was very difficult, but this kid was, ‘Nope, I’m going to walk to the toilet.’ He combatted the pain and was a warrior. My husband and I were amazed,” she said.

Since that time they have done much to safeguard his care, although most recently the pandemic has increased the challenges for Frankie, especially now that he has returned back to school.

“When we first went into the pandemic, it was the biggest scare — we made sure that when the vaccination was available to him, we made sure he got it,” Maria said. “He has been safe, thank God. At school he keeps his mask on and we remind him to socially distance. We make sure to stay on top of it because he also has asthma.”

She said they have to be especially aware of his environment because he is “high-risk.”

“People don’t understand when they don’t get vaccinated the harm it can cause to the immunocompromised,” she pointed out. “We take his vitals daily, and although he appears very strong, we make sure to wash our hands before we touch or kiss him.”

Frankie Becomes An Ambassador

When asked what he likes about being an “ambassador” and participating in the Kids Heart Challenge, Frankie answers quickly with an awareness beyond his years. “It helps people understand my story and other kids’ stories,” he said.

“When he heard he could be an ambassador, he was ecstatic and he became more aware of other kids like him. More than anything, he wants to help other kids like him,” Maria adds.

“At first he was super embarrassed about the scar at the center of his chest that he was left with after surgery, and he didn’t want anyone to see it. But during a Zoom challenge for kids with the American Heart Association, called ‘#show your scar’ to create awareness for kids who have congenital heart defects, when he and other kids were asked to show their scars and he realized there were other kids who had it too – that really helped him.”

Frankie said, “I’m not the only one and I don’t want other kids to be scared like I was, and I don’t want them to be embarrassed like I was. The Kids Heart Challenge is important because it’s really fun, and you get to help kids with special hearts.”

The Kids Heart Challenge and American Heart Challenge programs also give students an opportunity to raise funds in support of the American Heart Association.

Frankie raised $260 last year and so far has raised $125 in donations in 2022. He has a goal to raise $500 this year.

“I feel better now and now I can run like ‘Sonic’ fast,” he said. “I have to get my heart checked at least once a year and I have to eat healthy and stay active to make sure my heart stays healthy.

“I do Taekwondo and sparring, I play baseball, I like to swim, and at home I have a basketball court where I run and shoot baskets. I like to ride my bike super-fast and I like to play fetch with my dog Bruno.”

Maria said her son “is always enthusiastic about any opportunity to help another kid or family who is scared out there and that’s why we take the opportunity to educate not only those who are already aware but those who aren’t aware — there is a reason why doctors tell you not to miss your heart appointments.”

She said her household is conscious about healthy food choices. It’s important to keep “heart healthy” and “heart happy” and make sure that everyone knows including kids. “

“When we think about eating foods, we ask, is this healthy for our heart and we as his parents also go to work out and go to kickboxing — we have to set the example for him — he acknowledges and understands but he’s still a kid and we have to insure that our children will see and follow our example.”

The Kids Heart Challenge

Frankie is one of more than 400,000 students from 676 schools across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and Ventura Counties who have been participating in Kids Heart Challenge and the American Heart Challenge.

The over 40-year-old program has expanded beyond the gym to also build on the strong connection between physical and mental health. Kids Heart Challenge offers a variety of physical activities to get elementary students’ hearts pumping, such as dance, basketball or jumping rope paired with digital missions to learn life-saving skills like Hands-Only CPR™.

The American Heart Challenge also offers a service-learning program for middle and high school students, which helps boost heart health and self-esteem, while reducing stress and anxiety through activities that include yoga, dance and obstacle courses to help prepare kids for success by supporting their physical and emotional well-being. 

Maria said Frankie may still need future operations but she is very grateful for all of the people who have helped her family.

My son came home one day and said proudly, ‘I am a health hero,” and I said, “Congratulations!”

“He told me, ‘I want to keep saving more lives,’” said Maria, “and we shall support him 100 percent.”

If you would like to help Frankie raise money for the Kids Heart Challenge go to: https://bndfr.com/f99vq.

Schools interested in participating in either Kids Heart Challenge or American Heart Challenge can still register for the current school year and receive expanded curriculum resources for both classrooms and in-home learning environments. To learn more about other school programs please visit www.heart.org/schoolsFor more information on the American Heart Association go to:  heart.org, Facebook, Twitter or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.