Detroit Lakes fifth grader Jake Erickson has had a busy week. Since Friday, Feb. 12, the Rossman Elementary School student has raised over $5,500 for the American Heart Association — the second highest youth fundraiser in the entire United States, as of Thursday, Feb. 18.

"It’s remarkable," said Angelique Goulet, director of youth market/school fundraising for the American Heart Association in Moorhead. "He’s a pretty special young man."

"We're (his parents) so proud of him for everything he's done to raise awareness, and dollars, for the American Heart Association," said Jake's mom, Amy Erickson, adding that he told her part of the reason why he wanted to do so was to help other kids "like him."

Jake was born with multiple heart defects, including coarctation (i.e., narrowing) of his aorta, and mitral valve dysplasia.

"He had four surgeries before he was even a year old," said Amy. His most recent — and hopefully, last, she added — took place this past September, when he and his parents made the trip to Boston Children's Hospital for surgery to repair his aortic valve.

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"He had a unicuspid aortic valve, which is quite rare," she said, adding that surgery they did in Boston was to repair — not replace — the valve, which is something that might not even have been possible a few years ago.

"The surgeon used pieces of his (Jake's) own pericardial tissue to do the repair," she said. The result? "Unbelievable and fantastic — the best outcome we could have hoped for."

Jake said he was pretty nervous going into this surgery, because for the first time, he was completely aware of the dangers it posed — as well as the scarring that might result.

"I was pretty worried about that (the scar)," he admitted, but said that it hadn't turned out too bad.

"Chicks dig scars," his mom joked — though Jake quickly retorted that this was more discouraging than encouraging.

A personal cause

In the last 10 years, the American Heart Association and Children's Heart Foundation have put $14 million toward pediatric heart defect research. With February being American Heart Month, Jake hopes his fundraising power sparks more research to help more people like him.

"His life was saved because of the kind of research the American Heart Association funds, and so anything we can do to help with that, we are in," Amy said.

While Jake has participated in Rossman Elementary School's Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser twice before, in first and third grade, he was a little disappointed to learn that the school wouldn't be doing one this year, due to COVID-19 safety concerns — so he decided to do it on his own.

The first couple of times he raised money for the American Heart Association, Jake said, his mom helped him out a lot — "but this year, it was more me," he added.

The reason? With his own surgery so fresh in his mind, he was a lot more aware of what the money would really be used for — and wanted to ensure that other kids who had similar conditions to his own might not need as many surgeries as he did to fix the problem.

So he made the phone calls and did most of the work for this fundraiser on his own — with outstanding results. To make sure his supporters knew how grateful he was, he recorded a video for Facebook.

Both Jake and Amy say that they plan to continue the fundraiser through the end of the month. Those who want to contribute may still do so, by visiting Jake's fundraising page on the American Heart Association website.

A message from Jake on the page reads as follows: "Would you help me save lives with the American Heart Association? I’m participating in my school’s Kids Heart Challenge and we’re raising money to help everyone have healthy and strong hearts. We’re also learning about kids with special hearts — hearts that don’t exactly work just right — and raising money to help kids like them by funding discoveries of new medicines and treatments. I’m also doing things like learning how to keep my own heart healthy, practicing gratitude to destress, taking daily healthy challenges and learning about CPR! I’m so excited to help save lives and help everyone have strong hearts. Will you please help me? Thank you!!"

The Erickson family, seen here in 2019, includes Amy (center), her husband Jed, their daughter Anika and sons Jake (in front) and Alex. (File photo)
The Erickson family, seen here in 2019, includes Amy (center), her husband Jed, their daughter Anika and sons Jake (in front) and Alex. (File photo)

A link to his fundraiser can also be found on his mom's Facebook page; those who would like to contribute, but prefer to do so via a cash or check donation rather than online, may call Amy at 218-841-2944 for more information.

Though Jake will be graduating from Rossman to Detroit Lakes Middle School next year — and the middle school does not currently participate in Jump Rope for Heart — he plans to continue raising money, and awareness, for the American Heart Association in the future.

"I don't want this to be the last time I help AHA," he said.

"We'll have plenty of opportunities in the future," Amy reassured him.