UW-La Crosse alumna starts popular school event that promotes physical activity, raises hundreds of millions for heart health
It started with a couple dozen jump ropes and a gymnasium full of kids. A UW-La Crosse alumna and physical education teacher wanted her students to develop a love for all kinds of physical activity and was searching for a new, creative way to exercise that would also raise money for a cause.
Jean Barkow, ’56, started the first “Jump-Rope-A-thon” in March 1978 at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee. That tradition continued for four decades and eventually spanned the globe.
Soon after the inaugural event, the Jump Rope For Heart program was launched nationwide, co-sponsored by Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America) and the American Heart Association. Jump Rope For Heart generated more than $750 million by 2014 to fund research and education about heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans.
“Jean wanted to do an activity that both taught the importance of heart health but also raised awareness of an issue, says Brett Fuller, who oversees all health and physical education for Milwaukee Public Schools. “The very first Jump-Rope-A-Thon was such a wonderful idea that within two years it became a national program.”
Although the SHAPE America and American Heart Association partnership has since expired, Barkow’s legacy of inspiring physical activity and heart health awareness lives on.
“It is great for agility and hand-eye coordination and great for your heart. Plus, all you need is a small space and a jump rope.”
“Jean’s initial idea of combining physical activity with community service efforts in support of the American Heart Association sparked a movement that has grown significantly these past 40 years,” said Tanya Edwards, executive vice president of Community Health and Development for the AHA. “Volunteers like Jean who match their passion with purpose, are invaluable to the American Heart Association’s ability to reach schools nationwide and create a legacy of positive, healthy impact on the lives of millions of children.”
Barkow’s first event brought together about 24 jumpers from various physical education classes who raised more than $2,000 for the American Heart Association. When it was done, Barkow wrote to superintendents, principals and physical education teachers across Wisconsin and the U.S. to share the successful program idea.
Eventually, 36,530 schools participated in Jump Rope for Heart, according to AHA. Funds raised support AHA’s efforts to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
The event also supported SHAPE America and every state physical education association as well, says Fuller.
Alumnus and Physical Education Teacher Mark Shuda, ’89, has been leading a Jump Rope for Heart event at Southern Bluffs Elementary for 20 years. He took the program over from a previous instructor and added on, eventually creating the Southern Bluffs WIZARDS jump rope team. The team travels to other schools to perform jump rope tricks while motivating students about Jump Rope for Heart.
Southern Bluffs typically raises anywhere from $7,000-10,000 per year for the American Heart Association. Not only does JRFH teach students about community service and responsibility, it also is a great physical activity, says Shuda. “Jumping rope is the best thing since sliced bread!” he says. “It is great for agility and hand-eye coordination and great for your heart. Plus, all you need is a small space and a jump rope.”
Emelyn (Burdick) Kalinowski, ’56, a retired adapted physical education specialist in San Jose, California, worked with many of her district’s 18 elementary schools to help them set up Jump Rope for Heart competitions.
It was successful because it benefited all involved — JRFH, SHAPE America, the schools, the teachers, and most of all the students, she says.
“The students really benefited by improving their fitness, helping their coordination and developmental growth — plus the social aspect of working with their JRFH Teams,” she says.
The Jump Rope-A-thon was an extension of Barkow’s can-do attitude and ambition for teaching.
“I taught every sport there was …and I had every kind of equipment from archery to golf to tennis to downhill skiing — everything,” she says. “I wanted my students to experience something they might end up being interested in for their whole life.”
Before teaching, Barkow was studying physical education at what is now UW-La Crosse. She has many fond memories including her gymnastics instructor who required her to perform increasingly difficult physical acts of lifting, balancing and jumping over great heights and distances. In modern dance class, students exercised their creative muscles by developing dances that played of such disparate things as a frying pan with bacon and a flock of swans.
“I loved it. I loved going to all of the classes. I learned something from every teacher,” says Barkow. “I got a lot from La Crosse, and that was all I needed to carry on ideas and expand them.”
Barkow loved her teaching career in physical education so much she found ways to continue it during summers and even after she retired. She worked in Riverside’s administrative office for an additional eight years after her retirement in physical education.
Fuller calls Barkow a trailblazer in her field.
That’s why Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, where Barkow spent her career, named its gymnasium after her.
During the ceremony four years ago, Barkow was honored as a drape was pulled off the wall outside the gymnasium revealing the, “Jean Barkow Gymnasium. Home Of Jump Rope For Heart 1978.”
“I teared up,” recalls Barkow. “I thought, my God, I can’t believe it.”
Funds to help hearts
Since 1978, Jump Rope For Heart and another program, Hoops For Heart, have raised more than $1.4 billion for research and educational programs with the goal of building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke, according to AHA.