By Katina Caraganis
SHIRLEY — Twelve-year-old Gracie Soultanian stays busy.
A seventh-grader at Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, she plays on three basketball teams and works on the front lines to help prevent cardiac arrest in kids.
She’s also started her own nonprofit, Heartstrong, and is the recipient of the Young Hearts for Heroes 2014 Youth Advocacy Award from Parent Heart Watch for her efforts.
Parent Heart Watch is a nonprofit charity formed in 2005 by parents who lost a child to sudden cardiac arrest.
Her project initially started as a Youth Venture project with two friends from Shirley Middle School, Jackie Stiles and Allie Cebellero, last year.
Youth Venture helps kids and young adults who have big ideas but don’t know how to implement them gain access to the necessary resources.
The trio was inspired to act when they heard about a boy their age dying from cardiac arrest in Sutton.
Their initial goal was to raise money to purchase five automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, for public parks and beaches in Ayer and Shirley.
A portable units costs about $1,700. With the help of Bob Schriever of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, they were able to secure their units for $1,000 each.
Schriever, who lives in North Andover, was refereeing a football game between Wellesley High and Newton North High in Newton in September 2002.
Newton North’s athletic trainer was late arriving at the game because he had forgotten the AED in his office.
Schriever suffered his heart attack the night before, he said. He knew something was off, but he didn’t immediately seek treatment. He doesn’t remember much from that day, he said, but he remembers following the quarterback for about two steps and then falling to the ground.
As a result, he co-founded the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, based in Washington, D.C.
The Youth Venture project ended at the end of the year but Soultanian wanted to expand the project.
Her new goal is to eventually donate defibrillators to every school in the area and train kids how to use them.
“It’s so important. So many kids, especially kids my own age, don’t know what AEDs are, let alone how to use them,” she said.
“It’s so real to me. Seeing people at the conference I went to in North Carolina when I received my award opened my eyes to just how important this is. It needs to be more known. People don’t think it’ll happen to them. We need to start the chain of survival.”
“One of my biggest goals is to make people aware kids don’t need adults or nurses to use these machines or do CPR,” Soultanian said. “Kids can save a life and people don’t realize it.”
Her mother, Liz Epkins, is a nurse in Worcester. Epkins said kids can help each other in cases like this, and she’s tried to instill that in her daughter.
“I’m just thrilled. I am so proud and I am so blessed,” she said. “I feel like she is far beyond her years. She’s so smart and articulate.”
Soultanian is starting a CPR campaign to train teens and young adults. She is on an advocacy team for the American Heart Association.
She’s also hoping to make learning CPR a mandatory graduation requirement.
“So many people are talking about concussions right now. Obviously that’s important but you can survive from a concussion. You can’t if your sudden cardiac arrest goes untreated,” she said.
“So many schools either don’t have AEDs or they do but they’re far away from athletic fields or in locked offices. You need to be prepared and have them there. It just becomes so much more real when you meet someone affected by this.”
She said about one in 250 people have some sort of underlying heart condition and she hopes that by bringing out the risks of heart disease, those can become detected.
She plans to bring a heart-screening event to Parker in February 2015.
“I had no idea it could lead to this. Now that I’m here, I want to grow it even bigger,” she said.
She is hosting a fundraiser to help raise money for AEDs for all of Parker’s athletic teams. The AEDs will be present at all games and practices.
The event will take place on from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Saturday at Billiards Cafe in downtown Ayer.
Participants will learn to paint a famous piece of artwork. The capacity is 40 people and registration is required. If interested, sign up at wepaintsocial.com.
There will also be raffles for gift cards and Boston Celtics tickets.
Follow Katina Caraganis on Tout and Twitter @kcaraganis.