Like many children, Izabella Johnson enjoys jumping rope. But her motives run deeper than simply having fun; the Hill City 8-year-old does it to pay tribute to her late brother, Chance.
Izabella participates in Jump Rope for Heart, a fundraising event co-sponsored by the American Heart Association and the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). The program is designed to keep kids active and healthy while raising awareness of heart disease. It’s open to primarily elementary and middle school students across the U.S. and many other countries, as well.
Izabella, a third-grader at Hill City Elementary School, is the youngest of Sarah and Brian Johnson’s five children; her siblings are Brenden (21), Jaxon (16), and Marisa (15). Another brother, Chance, was born with a heart condition and spent a year and a half in a hospital in Omaha. He got to a point where his heart was okay, but passed away due to a blood clot and other complications right before Christmas, 2009. Even though Izabella never met her brother, she is passionate about paying tribute to him through her participation in Jump Rope for Heart.
“I really wanted to help people like Chance,” she explains. “I didn’t want them to die like him.”
She was inspired by older sister Marisa, who stayed with her mom and brother in Omaha throughout Chance’s hospitalization. Marisa was very involved in his daily care and got to know the nurses and hospital staff quite well. When they came back home, she joined Jump Rope for Heart and ended up training Izabella when she got to be old enough to participate.
Both girls’ fundraising efforts have been wildly successful, spurring a friendly little family competition. Izabella has been her school’s top Jump Rope for Heart earner for the past two years, collecting over $1,000 each time. Aware that Marisa claimed that honor for three consecutive years, Izabella says, “I want to beat my sister. She has [the title] three years, so I have two more!”
As the name of the program suggests, kids who join Jump Rope for Heart (the event in Hill City is open to all elementary school students) do a lot of jumping rope, typically during PE class. After setting a jumping goal, they raise funds by going door-to-door and collecting money once they have reached their goal. In a nod to modern times, there’s even a Jump Rope for Heart app available for smartphones and tablets that allows people from anywhere to participate. This is especially helpful for out-of-state friends and family members who want to contribute. Izabella, who is often accompanied by Marisa for moral support, makes it a point to share Chance’s story with others so they will know why she is asking for donations.
It’s not a surprise to Sarah that the Hill City community has been so supportive of both daughters’ efforts. “We had a lot of great support when we were going through that year and a half,” she says. “There were lots of people looking out for the boys while they were here in school, and lots of online communication and support for Marisa and I when we were down in Omaha.”
Jump Rope for Heart lasts three to four weeks each spring and includes a community performance where handouts and other educational materials are available for parents and anybody else interested in learning more about heart disease. There’s an award ceremony when the program concludes; last year, when Izabella’s PE teacher, Andra Swanson, announced the winner, she was prepared with a speech she had written herself and practiced in front of the family.
All of this makes Izabella’s parents very proud of their daughter, especially given the fact that she never got to meet Chance. “It kind of makes me want to cry,” Sarah admits. “I think it’s pretty awesome that she has asked questions and taken all of our stories about her brother and put them into this idea about helping other kids with heart conditions. It’s been really great to see the kindness that Marisa has taught her sister, and Izabella taking it all and putting it together and inspiring people to help. We call her our ‘Rainbow baby.’ She was our baby after losing a child, so she really takes that to heart, too. It’s important to her to uphold a rainbow symbol.”
When she isn’t jumping rope in honor of Chance, Izabella enjoys basketball, piano, singing, ice skating, and playing with Ava, the family’s St. Bernard/poodle mix. Despite the range in ages, the Johnsons are a close-knit family. They enjoy hiking, camping, going to the movies, and attending events with Brian and Jaxon, both of whom are volunteer firefighters in Hill City. Their favorite family activity just might be playing Monopoly; they have four different boards from which to choose.
And always, they make sure to keep Chance’s memory alive. A scrapbook and photo album with care pages from the hospital is a treasured family heirloom; it contains all correspondence from friends and loved ones during that difficult period in their lives, including their thoughts and prayers. They have been able to share it all with Izabella, helping to forge a connection with a brother she never met but clearly loves.
Izabella is undecided about her future plans, but for now, her goal is singular: Jump Rope for Heart kicks off in March, and she’s got some work to do if she intends on beating her sister!
written by Mark Petruska photos by Jesse Brown Nelson featured in the spring 2020 issue of BHParent magazine