TAMPA — Friends and family began calling Wednesday evening. They all wanted to congratulate Karen Bass on being named Principal of the Year by the American Heart Association.
But the celebration was short-lived.
Hours after Bass accepted the national honor, she received a very different kind of call: A stroke had sent Bass' 88-year-old aunt to a hospital in North Carolina. The prognosis was grave.
"It brought it back home again — how important this all really is," Bass said.
For Bass, principal of Mary E. Bryant Elementary School in North Tampa, this work is personal: She lost a husband, father and 20-year-old son to heart disease in an eight-year span in the 1990s.
Bass said she thought of her family as she accepted the heart association award Wednesday.
Bass beat out the leaders of 40,000 other schools across the country that participate in Jump Rope for Heart or Hoops for Heart, fundraising programs that require students to find sponsors and then jump rope or play basketball.
During the 2010-2011 school year, Bryant Elementary students raised $34,330 to benefit the heart association — more than any other school in the state.
"You can make your life and move on with it, but you never really forget," Bass said of losing such close loved ones. "I just hope what we're doing can make a difference for people in the future."
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A ripple of giggles and squeals trickles from student to student as Bass makes her way through the halls of Bryant Elementary.
Some of the younger children run to give her hugs, others offer high-fives.
"She's in charge of the school, so when the kids see what she does and what she thinks is important, that's how they want to be," physical education teacher Jason Silbert says.
And when the principal thinks it's cool to fight heart disease, so does everyone else.
"We're a heart-healthy school," says Early Exceptional Learning Program teacher Lois Shell, who leads a jogging club for second- through fifth-graders after school.
Since her arrival as principal in 2005, Bass has spearheaded and supported a slew of changes to the school grounds, curriculum and after-school offerings that emphasize health and wellness.
Aside from the jogging club, in which about 200 students are expected to participate this year, Bass has ushered in an outdoor fitness center and curriculum that emphasizes exercise, diet and healthy living.
The school has participated in Jump Rope for Heart since 2003. It has placed among the top five schools in the state for its fundraising since the 2008-2009 school year, when students raked in $18,299.
Collectively, students have given $196,166 to the American Heart Association over the past eight years.
"Every year I get many questions from other schools like, 'Mary E. Bryant raised how much money this year?' " heart association senior youth market director Jennifer Waite wrote in her nomination of Bass.
To keep students engaged and energized, teachers said, they offer unconventional rewards: Last school year, the physical education teachers told students they would shave their heads at the end of the collection cycle, and Bass offered to smooch a farm animal if students raised enough money.
"Oh, I don't jump rope, I just kiss the pig," Bass said, laughing.
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In 1991, Bass's husband, Thomas Last received the results of a stress test that told him he had "the heart of an 18-year-old."
Weeks later, high cholesterol he never knew existed caused his arteries to clog and a blood clot to form while he was jogging. He was 42 when he died.
Four years later, Bass's father, Paul Hamilton, 77, succumbed to a stroke.
Her 20-year-old son, Jared, died in 1999 in his sleep. Doctors blamed heart failure.
"It was a really rough time," Bass said, her voice slightly cracking. "But things that touch us the most can become the driving force in our lives."
Even with the news of her aunt — the latest of her family to succumb to heart disease — Bass said she remains hopeful.
"I don't know when, but I absolutely believe heart disease will either be manageable or eradicated," Bass said. "Someday."
Marissa Lang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.