INSPIRE: Hearts in the right place

By Carol Radin

Denise McGraw and Kristin Thompson truly put their hearts into their work.

As co-directors of the Syracuse American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, they have been giving their all to a one-day event that is really the culmination of 365 days of preparation and collaboration with community leaders and health professionals. Denise and Kristin do it because they know that the success of every year’s Heart Walk is driven by the Heart Association’s mission, to be “a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives.  

“When you lead with a mission, and you lead with a connection to folks, you achieve,” Kristin said.  

Denise and Kristin know the statistics for cardiovascular risks. Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer among Americans, and stroke is No. 5, which means that “health messaging,” as Denise terms it, is essential to get the word out about exercise, diet and wellness. 

With that in mind, she and Kristin generate sponsorships and community interest for programs beyond the Health Walk to promote healthy lifestyles to various populations. These events include “Hard Hats with Heart,” sponsored by IBEW local 43 for workers in the construction, electrical and engineering industries, and “Executive Wellness Summit,” sponsored by Key Bank for business executives. The two of them poke into every corner of lifestyle, advocating with other non-profit organizations to offer more movement-based toys during holiday toy drives; actively supporting legislation passed by Onondaga County to raise the age at which youth can buy cigarettes from 18 to 21, and printing advice on diet, exercise, and stress reduction to young and old alike, like the practical tip to look for the “heart” symbol on soup cans.

 Another program called “Loving Myself, Loving My Sisters” focuses on support for African-American women.  

“The risks of getting those diseases are even higher for African-Americans,” Kristin said. For her, it’s also personal.  “As an African-American, I look at myself, I look at my family.” At home, she suggests new ways of cooking to her grandparents and new opportunities for exercise to her family and friends. 

Denise, too, has a personal commitment to cardiovascular wellness. Seven years ago, she was on vacation with her family when she felt an unusual neck pain and headache. It was not due to bouncing on amusement rides and water slides, as she had thought — at age 47, she was having a stroke. 

“My purpose in life changed that day,” she said. “I was meant to use my voice to help others through education, understanding and awareness.” 

In 2013, Denise was the Passion Speaker for the 2013 Go Red Luncheon, sharing her story with over 500 attendees. Not long after, she interviewed for the Heart Walk director position, bringing to it her prior experience in health entrepreneurship, non-profit organizations ARISE and Vera House, and her own traumatic wake-up call. 

A year later, Kristin joined her as co-director. Though Kristin’s degree was in international business and world trade, she had decided to stay local, so she and Denise had seen each other in action when Kristin was the community events coordinator at SUNY Upstate. Even as a teenager, Kristin participated in Heart Walks with her mom, and went on to coordinate the Heart Walk teams for Upstate.   

Both women are animated and energized when they talk about their goals, and they appear to function in a kind of symbiosis. 

“We learn from each other,” Denise said. “We value each other. We respect each other.”  

“She’s like extended family now!” Kristin affirmed of Denise. “She’s a survivor. I care about her.” 

Denise and Kristin set a similar tone within the association, as they work side by side with this year’s Heart Walk Chair, Leslie Paul Luke, president and CEO of St. Joseph’s Health. Denise also speaks warmly of the many volunteers who “make our work possible.” On March 23, over 3000 participants, hundreds of volunteers, committed corporate sponsors and public officials will turn out for the Heart Walk. For Denise and Kristin, it’s one day when they’re putting their best practice to work: “We’re better together.”   


Heart Walk Event Information

When: Saturday, March 23

Where: SRC Arena and Events Center, 4585 W. Seneca Turnpike, Syracuse

Registration and Healthy Activities: 8:00 a.m.

Opening Ceremony 9 a.m.

5K Walk starts 10 a.m.

Closing Ceremony 11:45 a.m.

For pre-registration and more information, see

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