WEST ORANGE, NJ – As heart disease continues to be the number one health threat for Americans, this year’s American Heart Association (AHA) Greater Northern New Jersey Heart Walk raised much needed funds to support the local organization’s initiatives to help people eat better, move more and live longer.

With the combined efforts of thousands of walkers, donors and volunteers who participated in and supported this event on Sunday morning at the Reservoir behind the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, more than $300,000 was raised to help fight heart disease and stroke.

“This is an exciting day for us as we achieve our $300,000 event goal, and close in on our half-a-million-dollar goal for the year,” said NNJ Hearth Association chair Stephen Zieniewicz, president and CEO of RWJ Barnabas Health. “This is a day to cherish the memories of loved ones and honored friends who lost their lives to heart disease and stroke. We are also here to honor survivors of this disease. They are symbols of hope and courage.”

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This annual event, which features a one-or three-mile non-competitive walk, is the cornerstone walking, recognition and celebration event that brings together thousands of people to help raise funds to support lifesaving cardiovascular research.

One survivor who spoke before the walk began was AhavaFelicidad, who called herself “a walking miracle.” Felicidad inspired the crowd with her story of overcoming congestive heart failure, which struck her when she was a 25-year-old mother.

“It started with a deep cough that sounded almost like pneumonia…I was constantly out of breath, and couldn’t walk up the stairs,” said Felicidad, who soon learned that her heart was enlarged and pumping at only 20 percent of capacity.

She was put on a heart transplant list, but was determined to fight the disease on her own terms. Felicidad started a diet and workout regime that has strengthened her heart over the past three years.

“I refused to give up,” said Felicidad, who urged people in similar circumstances to not be afraid to express their emotions to others and surround themselves with positive people. “Mothers should talk to their children about this disease if they have it…Your silence does not serve anyone.”

She was one of six people to receive the association’s Lifestyle Change Award, which was given out at the end of the opening ceremonies on Sunday.

Other recipients included Jill Ronda, who reversed her pre-diabetes diagnosis by giving up sugar and losing 40 pounds; Matthew Smith, who greatly lowered his blood pressure by losing 75 pounds; Catherine Pryor, who lost 60 pounds; Desheca Archer Copeland, who lost 30 pounds and can now take part in a six-mile run; and Alan Rodriguez, who could not be present.

The singing group Dapper Dans performed the national anthem. During the registration period, people benefitted from free health screenings, expert cardiovascular advice and health-related giveaways. All participants received a red wristband, which indicated to Turtle Back Zoo staff that they could enter the zoo for $5 on Sunday only.

A new element this year was the association’s Hearts of Hope initiative, which gave people an opportunity to support cutting-edge scientific research and education/advocacy programs by buying a heart that memorializes or pays tribute to a loved one affected by cardiovascular disease or stroke. There was an area up the hill that featured these hearts, which were customized with the names of loved ones.

Event sponsors included Bayer (Healthy for Good sponsor), RWJBarnabas Health (Kids Heart Challenge sponsor), and local sponsors were Dr. Scholl’s, BARD, NJM Insurance Group, Novartis, ADP, Brach Eichler LLC, Merck, Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, Kindred Hospital of New Jersey and Trinitas Regional Medical Center.