For elementary school students, gym class offers a welcome respite from the monotony of the classroom. But while gym is certainly stimulating, it rarely has much of an impact past elevating students' heart rates.

On Feb. 13, 400 students at Mays Landing's Hess Complex made gym class much more, jumping rope in gym class as part of the American Heart Association's annual Jump Rope for Heart event, which raises funds for the fight against heart disease.

Parent Eric Aiken donated his time registering participants and supervising the event, saying the combination of fun and good deeds makes for a quality lesson for the kids.

"I'm all about getting them out of class once in a while and getting them some exercise," said Aiken, whose 8-year-old daughter participated in the program the past two years. "They're cooped up doing stuff. They need to get out and blow some steam off, and this is a good cause. It raises a lot of money."

Hess School health teacher Carol Bennett first involved Mays Landing students in the program in 1990 while at Hess' predecessor, Duberson Elementary School. She brought it to Hess when she transferred there in 1993, and has held it each year since.

Hess has raised tens of thousands of dollars in its more than 20 years in the program, and last year led Atlantic and Cape May counties with a $10,646 haul. Clayton Davenport Elementary, in Egg Harbor Township, was 10th on the list with $2,074 raised.

This year's total is not yet available, as Bennett will continue to accept donations through March 1.

While many of Hess' nearly 1,500 students have brought or will bring in pledges for the program, because of space constraints only the first hundred students in each grade who registered for the event itself were able to participate, Bennett said.

The actual event may only be one day, but Bennett makes a point of encouraging heart health year round. She teaches cardiovascular fitness lessons in health once per week and organizes morning fitness and intramural sports programs to keep the kids active.

Despite the year-round emphasis on heart health, the jump rope event is still the highlight of the year for Bennett and the kids.

"I look forward to it because afterwards the kids are so excited," Bennett said. "They want to do it tomorrow, so after doing this now, maybe they'll get a rope and go home or do it, or maybe they'll play more on the playground."

Each year, several parents and staffers donate their time overseeing the event. Barbara Connelly is one of the most dedicated volunteers, having given her time for the past 14 or 15 years, she said.

She started volunteering when her daughter Alexis, now 19, was at Hess. Now, her youngest, Madison, 10, and David, 8, take part in the program. Jump Rope For Heart is a good program for many reasons, she said, chief among them that it allows kids to contribute to a cause.

"It's a break in their day, plus friendship, bonding," Connelly said. "They know they're helping out somebody else, and that's what we really need. They have to remember to help somebody else out."

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