SCOTT DEPOT — Peyton Aurelio is a normal 10-year-old girl. She's about to start fifth grade at Scott Teays Elementary, and she enjoys soccer, gymnastics and being with her friends. And she doesn't mind showing off her scar. Every year since kindergarten, Peyton has raised funds for the American Heart Association, which is something very close to home.
When she was 11 months old, Peyton's mother, Kim Aurelio, knew something was wrong. Peyton wouldn't gain weight and was labeled a failure to thrive (FTT). Eventually, doctors discovered she had a hole in her heart, and Peyton had to have open heart surgery.
"You're a new mom, first kid, and you're told, 'Hey, your kid's going to have open heart surgery,'" Kim said. "It was very scary. I instantly started crying. And within two weeks, we were in Morgantown, getting her heart repaired.
"She amazed me though because as soon as she had the surgery, they had her hooked up and all that, and once they unhooked her and took the sedation down, she's in the high-top crib bouncing up and down."
At a year old, Peyton was a heart baby for the AHA and was the poster baby for local Heart Walks, until she was old enough to fundraise on her own in school. Each year, Peyton has raised close to or even more than $1,300 for the AHA through the Kids Heart Challenge, previously known as Jump Rope for Heart.
She's been awarded prizes, including certificates, trophies and medals, for being the top fundraiser in the state, as well as at her school. She's also been recognized in the Kids Heart Challenge national magazine twice, most recently this year.
Kim said the most important part of the yearly fundraisers is raising awareness about heart defects and heart conditions. Peyton, and other students with heart conditions, stand up in front of their school, and Peyton shows her scar while sharing her story.
"We fundraise money for the American Heart Association to make kids aware that heart disease isn't just in old people, it's affecting young children of all ages, even from the time they're born," Kim said. "We pulled up probably four people from our school this past year; all of them had heart defects. And so we just try to get it out as much as possible and fundraise as much money as we can."
Kim said the Kids Heart Challenge differs from other fundraisers, and she hopes parents understand that.
"Heart disease affects everybody, and I know a lot of times when the heart flyers come home, people think, 'Oh, it's just one more fundraiser from the school,'" she said.
"But this fundraiser helps kids nationwide. And it helps parents like me get information that they need about helping their children and finding new ways to where kids like (Peyton) may not have had to have full blown open heart surgery, they can do other things. So the money goes to a good cause. It's not just one more fundraiser."
Through their work with the AHA, the Aurelio family has been able to attend a luncheon and webinar with members of AHA, as well as attend a Cincinnati Reds game, when the AHA partnered with the Reds.
"We got to go and parade around the Reds field," Kim said.
"They got to meet a couple of the baseball players. And so it was a great experience for the kids because they're on the jumbotron as they walk by and they're waving. So not many people can say that they've walked on the major league field, and we sat through the Reds game and loved every bit of it. It was awesome. Now she likes watching baseball games."
Kim said the AHA and its members have become like family to her during this journey with Peyton.
"The American Heart Association isn't just an association or someone we fundraise for - they've become our family," Kim said. "I couldn't ask for better people. They really are our family. And so to sit down and eat lunch with them and meet other people on the webinar from all across the United States - and they hand her an award for being such an active participant - it just is very moving."
Kim is part of a Heart Moms group on Facebook and said she encourages people to join. She also offered advice for other parents who have children with heart conditions.
"The scariest part is after your child comes out of surgery, and you walk in and there's all these machines and the tubes and everything everywhere," Kim said. "So it was beneficial when they started the Heart Moms group, because we were able to relate to each other. There's people in this group from all across the United States. So just stay strong. Kids are resilient. They'll bounce back."
Though Peyton hasn't needed any more surgery, she was hospitalized a few years ago for partial pericarditis, when her heart was surrounded by too much fluid. There has been no trouble since then, and Peyton's heart is monitored every year.
Peyton said she had some words of encouragement for kids going through similar experiences.
"Stay strong. You'll end up good no matter what," Peyton said.
Those interested in donating to the American Heart Association may do so at www.heart.org, to donate online or search local fundraisers. They may also search local schools participating in the Kids Heart Challenge to donate to. Scott Teays Elementary's Kids Heart Challenge takes place each February during Heart Month.