SHIRLEY -- As Grace Soultanian, 12, of Shirley, continues to be a voice for sudden cardiac arrest awareness in schools and recreational areas in Nashoba Valley, she has pushed her efforts to the state level and picked up a new partner along the way.
Three bills focusing greater attention on the need for automated external defibrillators and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation training sit at the Statehouse waiting to be signed. Soultanian has become a voice for the bills' support.
Grace went to the Statehouse in September to speak to the joint committee on public health about the three bills. One would require schools to have AEDs on site and the other two would require instruction in CPR and the use of defibrillators as a high school graduation requirement.
"It was amazing to watch the room go silent and listen a 12-year-old speak," Soultanian's mother, Elizabeth Epkins said.
Senior Government Relations Director of the American Heart Association Allyson Perron said, "The bill was heard in late September, but there hasn't been movement yet. The bills have been filed for years now, so to bring someone like Grace to show how easy (CPR is), should only move the process along faster."
On Sept. 30, Soultanian was accompanied by Perron, John and Luann Ellsessar and Tyler, Ben and Dawn Symes for a taping of state Sen. Richard Moore's cable show, "The Moore on the Hill Show," to discuss why this legislation is so important.
About a year ago, Soultanian began a Youth Venture project called "Heartstrong," raising nearly $4,000 toward her goal of placing AEDs in every school and recreational area in Ayer and Shirley.
Her inspiration was a boy she never met.
John and Luann Ellsessar, of Sutton, lost their 16-year-old son, Michael, in 2010 from a blow to the chest during a football game. Michael went into sudden cardiac arrest and was not administered an AED within the three-to-six minutes when he might have been saved.
Tyler Symes, of Milford, went into sudden cardiac arrest during a hockey game just four weeks later. Symes was administered an AED and survived.
Motivated by these stories, Soultanian has fundraised and placed five AEDs in schools and recreational areas in Ayer and Shirley as well as educated and trained coaches and players on the importance of being CPR-certified. Soultanian attends the Francis W. Parker Charter School and has found that they, too, do not have an AED on site. The Ellsessars have donated an AED to Soultanian to place wherever she would like. She plans to present the Parker School with one this month.
Knowing that Ayer and Shirley are now equipped with AEDs, Grace began to look farther afield.
"I thought I would make my goal bigger," Soultanian said.
Austin Lynn, 13, of Littleton, has agreed to take on the challenge with Soultanian in Littleton after his mother piqued his interest.
"My mom had seen some of the great things that Gracie's mom had posted (on Facebook) about her Youth Venture and commented on how great this project is," Lynn said.
"We both play sports and can identify with the possibility that it could be either of us or our friends or loved ones that suffered from cardiac arrest," said Grace.
As Littleton schools are covered with AEDs, Soultanian and Lynn plan to get the recreation department covered as well as spread CPR training to the middle school.
"The high school recently had its sophomores and juniors CPR-trained, so Austin and I are going to see if we can get the middle school kids CPR- and AED-trained," Soultanian said. "We are raising awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and are showing even kids our age can make a difference. Knowing how to do CPR and use an AED can save a life!"
After the two complete their work in Littleton, they "are going to go to the next town, picking up yet another partner and helping him or her get going," Soultanian said. "We know it will take some time, but we want to go community-by-community in all of North Central Massachusetts.
Follow Soultanian and Lynn's efforts by liking their Facebook page, "Heartstrong, A United Way Youth Venture."