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Heart Camp For Kids With Disease

Every year, USA Weekend magazine honors ten Americans for making a difference in their communities.

On the cover of the current issue are two Californians who aim to battle a silent killer: childhood heart disease. For them, the fight is personal, The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith reports.

Mike Rivard and Yasi Emamian share a bond. They look like the picture of health, yet they are both survivors.

Rivard says, "My parents were told that I would most likely be bedridden by the time I was 18, and probably dead by the time I was in my early 20s."

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He's 60 now. Yasi just turned 10.

Rivard notes, "If you saw Yasi walking down the street, you would have no idea that there was a problem with her heart."

The problem was, neither did she, or her family, until one day in kindergarten.

Her mother, Jan Emamian, says, "She was running and fell down. And didn't get up."

Yasi adds, "All I remember, really, is that I was running, and I started to feel sort of funny, and everything looked sort of blurry - like everything's spinning around you. So, it's really scary."

Jan Emamian continues, "I was completely freaked out, because it never occurred to me that a 5-year-old would faint."

They were especially shocked with the eventual diagnosis: Congenital heart disease.

"I didn't really know that's possible for a kid my age to have that happen," Yasi says,"I'd thought that, like, older people were the only ones that had heart disease. But that is definitely not true."

According to the American Heart Association, more children die from heart disease than from all forms of cancer combined. But when it comes to funding, five times more money is spent on pediatric cancer research. Heart disease may be widespread. Awareness is not.

There are approximately 40,000 children born each year with congenital heart disease. People don't know this.

What Yasi knew was that her condition made her classmates uncomfortable.

She says, "They all started staying away from me, cause they thought they could catch it, like it was a cold or something."

And Yasi's mother was concerned by a cold reality.

Jan Emamian says, "The problem with this condition is that, untreated, or if she does things that she's not supposed to do, her heart will stop."

Yasi notes, "I really like to run and jump, and stuff, but I'm not allowed to."

It's bad enough feeling isolated, and then, to be told over and over, no.

Jan Emamian says, "'Oh Yasi, you can't do that. You have to stop.' The ultimate over-protective mother, just really really paranoid about everything she did."

Which brings us to how Rivard met Yasi. It was at a unique summer camp where Rivard is a counselor and where 150 kids learn they are no longer alone.

Yasi says, "It was the first time I'd ever met another child who had heart disease."

At the camp, scars that once haunted these kids are now a matter of pride, and with doctors and nurses, and constant monitoring with emergency kits never far away, but parents nowhere near.

Yasi says, "You get to do everything you're not allowed to do at home. It made me feel really good, 'cause I could just - I felt normal! Nobody treated me weird, or said: 'Don't run; don't run; something will happen!' "

Rivard points out, "They get to kayak; they get to swim. It's huge for them to be able to do that and to feel normal for the first time in their life."

Yasi adds, "You get to be a kid. You get to rock climb."

About her child, Jan Emamian notes, "She says, 'I climbed a rock wall.' I just was a little taken aback by the whole thing, thinking, 'This is a heart camp.' "

The camp helped connect kids and their parents about the reality of heart disease. Rivard wanted to spread the word much further.

He says, "Just out of the blue, I had this idea of: What if people went down and flew kites in honor of, or in memory of, people who suffered from heart disease?"

So last October, hundreds of kites filled the sky above Long Beach, Calif., each kite containing a message.

About Rivard, Jan Emamian says, "Instead of ever feeling sorry for the way he's had heart disease in his entire life, he's turned it around to make it positive, and try to make a positive change for these children, and to give them a voice, and give them hope."

Rivard wants kids to get tested, since many who have a congenital heart defect,don't even know it.

He says, "There are children dying every day of heart disease. And we can stop that. We can do something about it. And that's what I'm gonna do."

Making a difference, not just to help prevent deaths from heart disease, but also helping those who survive live their lives to the fullest.

USA Weekend also cited nine other volunteers selected out of hundreds of nominees who took part in Make A Difference Day last October. All of them get a check for $10,000. Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith served as one of the judges.

For more information visit the following Web sites: campdelcorazon.org; americanheart.org; and usaweekend.com. Mike Rivard's Web site: heartstringsamerica.org is under construction.

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