MAHOMET — Students at Lincoln Trail Elementary welcomed physical education teacher Lu Rippy to the gym on Friday afternoon with a chant of "Rip-py! Rip-py!" and a round of applause.
The assembly was a surprise, honoring Rippy for the 20 years in which she's spearheaded the school's participation in the American Heart Association's Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser.
In the course of those 20 years, Lincoln Trail has raised over $450,000.
"I couldn't have done this without all of you and the students who were here before you," Rippy told the third- through fifth-graders at the assembly.
Staff at Jump Rope for Heart aren't sure of the exact amount the school has raised in the past 20 years, since data from a few of the early years isn't on record, but by all accounts Rippy and her students have contributed nearly half a million dollars for heart disease research.
In recent years, Lincoln Trail has raised around $30,000 annually — a number well above the average, according to Kathy Alexander, youth market affiliate consultant and director for Jump Rope for Heart.
In fact, the Mahomet grade school is ranked third in the state for fundraising and fourth in its 11-state Jump Rope for Heart affiliate.
"I think it's Lu," Alexander said of the reason for the school's success. "It's definitely Lu. She's magic."
Alexander said Rippy does a great job of building excitement at the school. Many local schools participate in Jump Rope for Heart, but under Rippy's direction the program at Lincoln Trail has become a highlight of the year for students and staff.
"It's such a tradition here," Principal Jeff Starwalt said, adding that students know about the event when they enter the school and can't wait to get involved.
Rippy starts the effort with a kickoff assembly each January. This year she rewrote the words to a classic Journey song to fit the mission of Jump Rope for Heart (in keeping with this year's "Rock the Beat" theme) and rounded up a student rock band to perform it for their classmates.
Over the years, she has also expanded the program's educational mission, filling Jump Rope for Heart week with guest speakers on the importance of good food and exercise. Earlier this week, a Zumba instructor helped fifth-graders get moving, while Carl Sather, a Carle physician specializing in weight management, gave third- and fourth-graders pointers on a healthy diet.
Meanwhile, the fundraising momentum is buoyed by a poster contest, the colorful results of which decorate the walls of the school. In the front hall, a Christmas tree is decked with handmade heart-themed ornaments — a new feature this year. Each class created an ornament that will be raffled off for additional donations of spare change.
Late this week the event culminated in fast-paced jump rope sessions in the school's gym, with kids competing to see who could jump the longest and trying their hands at the fancy footwork and challenging jump-rope tricks that Rippy teaches.
She attributes Lincoln Trail's embrace of the program to the enthusiasm that surrounds it each year.
"The kids like the excitement," she said. Plus, she added, they learn a "worthwhile lesson" — the importance of helping people with heart disease.
Jump Rope for Heart got its start in the Chicago area in 1977. It's now a nationwide program under the American Heart Association and American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Lincoln Trail has been participating in Jump Rope for Heart since the 1980s, when Rippy's predecessor Pat Warren heard about the program at a conference and decided to bring it to Mahomet.