Changemakers: Essence Banks

Heart N Hands welcomes volunteers, both individuals and groups. Anyone interested is welcome to visit their website and reach out by email. You can also sponsor an event or support the organization with donations.

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In addition, attending the free and public events hosted by Heart N Hands is a great way to help show your support. Follow their social media to see which events will take place near you soon.;;

The Heart N Hands story began in a doctor’s office. After experiencing symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations, Essence Banks persisted in speaking with her doctors to find a cause. They ran tests and found over 90 percent blockage in her arteries.

“I didn’t have any of the typical symptoms at 30. I was fit and ate healthy and never smoked,” said Banks. People around her were in disbelief that a young, fit woman was diagnosed with heart disease.

Once she received treatment and had stents placed, Banks has felt fine ever since. But this health scare propelled her into advocacy work to spread the word: heart health matters. In fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After celebrating 10 years as a heart disease survivor, Banks founded the Heart N Hands organization to continue advocacy work for young women and girls. She felt that young women between the ages of 10 to 18 needed this information to make heart-healthy decisions from a young age. As Banks explained, an estimated 80 percent of heart disease is preventable by making lifestyle changes, such as eating healthily, refraining from smoking, and exercising regularly.

The Heart N Hands team partners with organizations to help educate girls about heart health. Girl Scout troops, Girls on the Run, athletic teams and many more organizations have invited Banks to share information about heart health in an interactive way. First, the programs include a lecture component with information about making healthy lifestyle choices. They may also feature a cooking demonstration. Programs wrap up with a fun sports session, such as yoga or Zumba, to get the girls moving.

In addition, Heart N Hands participates in the yearly Believe in Girls Event (the B.I.G. Event) hosted by the Girl Scouts Louisiana East (GSLE). Girls can learn how to perform Hands-Only CPR and earn a Love Your Heart patch.

With pandemic restrictions waning, Heart N Hands is planning to host more outdoor events at locations such as NORD facilities and the Lafitte Greenway.

During COVID, Banks offered virtual Heart N Hands programs with stretching sessions and meditations. Banks and her son also started running, eventually training for a 5K by following an app. With no in-person races to join, Heart N Hands hosted a virtual 5K race. People from all over the world participated, with everyone running the same weekend. Now an annual event, the Running for the Heart 5K run/walk features both an in-person race along Bayou St. John, as well as a virtual option. The Houston chapter of Heart N Hands also hosts a concurrent 5K at Generation Park.

Along these lines, the Heart N Hands team is also gearing up to offer a series of lessons to teach girls about heart health and track and field events.

In addition to the New Orleans team, Heart N Hands has also launched in Houston, Atlanta, and Nashville. “It’s a huge thing. It’s cool to see other cities participating and bringing out women and girls,” said Banks, who hopes to continue with the expansion.

For the most part, it’s an exciting time for the organization as Heart N Hands continues to grow and develop. Banks credits the partners, board of directors, and sponsors for continuing to think outside the box and do more in the health and fitness realm.

Overall, Banks encourages women to listen to their bodies and health. “It’s something you can take seriously,” said Banks. “Don’t sit around and wait for doctors to say whether you have high blood pressure.” She recommends talking to your doctor about your own risk for heart disease. Ask questions about your cholesterol level and mention any underlying symptoms or concerns you’re experiencing. Lastly, talk about heart health with your family, and make note of any family members who have been diagnosed with heart disease.

As Banks sees it, overall awareness of heart disease is increasing, thanks to efforts from Heart N Hands and similar organizations. “This is why I love the work: we touch everybody, and it is not specific to any community. Every girl can benefit from this.”