Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes

Women with a Cause 2020: Kristen Gradney

Kristen Gradney’s volunteer work with the Capital Area American Heart Association comes straight from the heart—even if her efforts encompass the whole human body.

“While heart health is our focus, they recently revised their mission to say they want to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives,” says Gradney of the AHA. “It’s so great because it recognizes you have to care for the whole person and not just the heart.”

Gradney, 40, began volunteering with the AHA in 2013, planning for the organization’s annual Heart Walk and appearing on televised nutrition education segments as part of her job as a dietitian. AHA board member and mentor Coletta Barrett asked Gradney to join the AHA Capital Area Board of Directors in 2015. This invitation touched Gradney because her work with the organization is personal; her husband Chad underwent open heart surgery as a young man and is continuing to live with heart disease.

“This cause has always been near and dear to my heart, no pun intended,” says Gradney. “It just kind of came together that I was called to do it but I have a personal factor involved as well.”

Today, Gradney, who is the senior director of children’s health at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, serves as president of the American Heart Association’s Capital Area Board of Directors and is in her third term as a board member. She has also served as an executive leadership team member of Go Red for Women for the past three years and is a member of the Circle of Red, which the AHA defines as “a society of women who are in the fight against heart disease to win.”

Gradney advocates for nutrition-focused education and healthy choices in the Capital Area’s eight-parish region, especially in schools located in food deserts, areas without accessibility to affordable and nutritious food. Gradney also leads grocery store tours for those who have been identified as food insecure or at risk for heart disease and teaches which healthy foods to purchase and where they can be located in the store. Gradney also supports water access for children at schools to replace sugar-laden beverages, she says.

Gradney believes the Capital Area AHA is truly making a difference in the community. As part of its recent policy changes to address the whole person and not just heart health, new webinars have focused on social issues including racial injustice and identifying the risk factors of COVID-19.

“I feel like I was called to it,” she says. “Most importantly, my heart is around health equity and making sure that no matter what your race, sex or zip code is, you have access to health care and the resources you need to prevent heart disease.”