By Steve Gunn
IPS News Service
IONIA - Every year, the staff and students at Ionia Public Schools' Rather Elementary take on a "service-learning project," to raise money for worthy charitable organizations.
This year the school partnered with the American Heart Association in a "Kids Heart Challenge." And that organization happens to mean a great deal to Rather second-grader Annabelle Tubergen and her mother, Stephanie Tubergen.
A few years ago, a frightening medical episode revealed that Stephanie Tubergen has a dangerous condition called Long QT Syndrome, which can cause sudden heart arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.
She learned that the condition can be genetic, so her four daughters were tested, and it turned out that two of them - Annebelle, 8, and her little sister Lorraine, 2 - both have it.
So when Annabelle learned that her school was raising money for the American Heart Association, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
She initially set her fundraising goal at $100. But the effort went so well that she raised it to $500. Then it went up to $1,000.
By the time the fundraising effort ended in March, Rather Elementary raised $2,411 for the American Heart Association, and Annabelle was responsible for more than half of that total - $1,125.
"She came home all excited (about the school project), and I said that's a great one for you to do," Stephanie Tubergen said. "So she sat down and wrote her story, I helped her put it on Facebook and share it around. She asked grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends to contribute. At one point we thought, OK, we hit our goal, but the money kept coming in, so we thought, this is great, let's make the goal bigger.
"We could not believe how much support we received."
The reason for the family's passion about heart issues dates back to a morning in 2016. Lorraine Tuburgen was an infant then, and Stephanie had just fed her, put her to bed and went to bed herself.
She suffered sudden cardiac arrest in her sleep, and luckily her husband was there to administer CPR and call emergency personnel.
"My husband thought I was dreaming," Stephanie said. "He tried to wake me up, I didn't respond, so he rolled me over and noticed that my face was grayish-blue.
"He called 911, dragged me to the floor, started CPR, and while he was performing that Annabelle walked in," Stephanie said. "You can hear on the 911 tape my husband telling her to go down to the door and let the ambulance people in, but she went downstairs and called 911 herself. She was only five at the time.
"When I woke up in the hospital a day later, I learned that I had gone more than 11 minutes without oxygen, and the odds of surviving that are like one percent."
Stephanie had an internal defibrillator surgically implanted, to automatically shock her heart if a similar incident occurred. Then she was tested and learned she has Type 2 Long QT Syndrome, which means sudden cardiac arrest can be triggered at any time if she is startled by something.
She had her daughters tested, learned that Annabelle and Lorraine shared her ailment, then she and her husband, Kurt Tubergen, helped Annebelle understand the condition and how to deal with it.
Annabelle has been fine since then, but is very aware of the type of challenges she faces, according to her mother.
"We had to tell her what was going in," Stephanie said. "We told her that sometimes her heart might beat a little funny, and she will know. It will pound real hard and fast, then stops. She's had heart monitors to check on things, once a year or so. She also takes beta blockers, which can help block any rush of adrenaline she could get."
While Stephanie and her daughters are doing fine, they jumped at the opportunity to help with the school fundraiser for the American Heart Association, with Annebelle leading the way.
Annabelle did not just wait for relatives and friends to respond, according to her mom. If someone had not contributed, she reminded them of that fact.
"She mentioned it to a lot of people in passing, and if she knew a family member that had not donated yet, she would call them," Stephanie said. "She put the pressure on pretty good."
"I felt really happy," Annabelle said about the total amount of money she raised.
Annabelle's second-grade class, led by teacher Tammy Duell, had the most donors and raised the most money in the school.
Many Rather students worked hard to get contributions for the American Heart Association, according to Principal Darin Magley. They also earned points and prizes by participating in heart-healthy activities, he said.
Through it all they learned some important lessons.
"It gets kids actively involved in reaching out and helping others who may be less fortunate," said Magley, who credited fifth-grade teacher Christina Frost for leading the building's effort. "it's really an opportunity to open kids' eyes to how blessed they are and how they can be a blessing to other people in need."