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COUNTYWIDE : Youngsters Put Their Hearts Into Studies

Ask 6-year-old Alexander Meyer to explain how the chicks in his kindergarten class are hatched, or to count to 100, and he will. With the same enthusiasm, he’ll also tell you how important a healthy heart is.

“You know what?” he said. “My grandmother died because her heart stopped.”

“My friend’s grandma also died of a heart attack,” interrupted Candice Longo, a fellow kindergartner at Chapman Hills Elementary School in Orange.

“Mr. Mike had a heart attack, too,” said Brent Omeste, referring to a street crossing guard who works at the school.

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Heart disease is such a health concern that the Orange County chapter of the American Heart Assn. believes that it is never too early to start teaching youngsters about the subject. To that end, the group is providing free kits, called Heart Treasure Chests, to kindergarten teachers throughout the county.

The kits contain books, charts, a stethoscope and filmstrips that help teach youngsters how to take care of their hearts. Also included in the package is a newsletter to the parents, suggesting ways to help the children develop healthy lifestyles.

“At this age, the kids are really interested in knowing about everything,” said Suzanne Smith, whose son, Travis, is in the class. “If you teach them young, I think they’ll grow up with good habits.”

After listening to a Treasure Chest lesson, the kindergartners talked enthusiastically about how to prevent heart disease.

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“You’ve gotta learn how to take care of your heart,” Aaron Vaughan said.

“Yeah,” chimed in Josh Gagne. “Like eat healthy food. You know, eat carrots and stuff like that.”

“Or exercise,” Meyer added.

The Treasure Chest program was launched in Texas seven years ago but spread to Southern California in 1985 when the Orange County chapter decided to make distribution of the kits a priority, said Dale Bonifield of the American Heart Assn.

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“We’re getting a wonderful response,” he said. “It’s great to see the kids’ eyes light up when they hear this.”

So far, Treasure Chests have reached about 7,000 kindergartners in more than 40 public and private schools in Irvine, Westminster, Tustin and Anaheim. The kits are partly funded through a $10,000 grant from the Pacific Mutual Foundation. The education effort will be expanded to more schools this year, Bonifield said.


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