FLORENCE, S.C. – Although the Pee Dee Heart Walk isn’t until October, this is a critical time in fundraising for the American Heart Association and the Pee Dee Heart Walk Executives with Heart Challenge.

Led by Jill Lewis, the executive challenge chair and vice president of business development at Signature Wealth, the Heart Challenge was a “city-wide challenge issued to the business and community leaders to raise donations of $5,000 or more during the month of June and beyond to support the American Heart Association and their companies' Heart Walk initiative,” according to the American Heart Association.

The organization hoped to recruit 25 Executive Heart Heroes in raising $100,000 toward the overall Heart Walk goal of $250,000.

The 26th annual Pee Dee Heart Walk will take place on Oct. 5, beginning at 10 a.m. Other activities begin at 9 a.m. There is a one-mile and a three-mile route. Everyone is welcome to participate, including walkers with strollers and fur babies. There will be a kids' zone, and "the Balloon Man" will be there.

The Morning News is joining the Jump In with Jill Executive Challenge and forming a Heart Walk team.

“I got involved with the Pee Dee Heart Walk because I want people to know that 80 percent of heart disease is preventable,” Lewis said. “The ‘Jump In with Jill’ Challenge was born out of the need to get an early jump on our efforts. The Heart Walk will be held in October, but now is the time for the business community to get behind our cause.”

Chad Patterson, vice president of Raldex Hospitality, is this year’s chairman of the Heart Walk.

He, too, is dedicated to getting a jump start on fundraising.

“When I asked Jill to be the Executive Challenge chair, we both saw the importance of kicking the campaign off early this summer,” Patterson said. “When executive leadership is engaged from the beginning in a cause, it can energize fundraising and involvement.”

Last year approximately 1,800 people participated in the walk from 50 different companies, said Sheryl Love, senior director of development with the American Heart Association in Florence.

Last year's event raised a little more than $200,000.

“Our goal this year is $250,000,” Love said.

“The funds are used for education and research,” she said. “We funded 30 research grants last year totaling over $7 million. But we had 14 go unfunded because we lacked $2 million in funding, so we must all pull together to fund as many lifesaving research grants as possible.”

Love said this is a very important time for fundraising.

“Right now we have raised over $80,000,” she said two weeks ago. “We are just getting started with teams, but we have over 50 companies signed up. There is no cutoff date – people can sign up the morning of the walk.”

Love said the Heart Walk is one of the primary resources of “funding their mission of being a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives.”

“We are the largest voluntary health organization in the world and though our mission is huge and vast, our ‘why’ is right here in front of us every day,” Love said. “It is our children, our parents, our neighbors, our friends, our pastors, our teachers, our co-workers.”

She said heart disease is the No. 1 killer of South Carolinians, yet 80 percent is preventable.

“The lives of our loved ones, neighbors and friends, even our own lives could be at stake,” Lewis said. “I hope our community and business leaders will ’Jump In’ and help us support the American Heart Association through a personal gift, company sponsorship or walk team.”

Register to Jump In with Jill at peedeeheartwalk.org or to learn more call 843-773-8461 or contact American Heart Association Senior Director of Development Sheryl Love at sheryl.love@heart.org.

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