Nicole Ward - Executive Director of Make Them Know Your Name Heart Health Foundation
Born & raised in Cleveland, Nicole Ward truly captures the spirit of our city through her service to the community. She deeply embodies what it means to be dedicated to a cause and her passion for helping others shines through in all her efforts to raise awareness of and prevent emergencies caused by sudden cardiac arrest. With her extensive background in business and first-hand experience with the loss of a loved one to cardiac arrest, Nicole is uniquely qualified to make a lasting impact on any and every person she comes across.
After earning her Bachelor's in Business Administration and Master's in Journalism and Mass Communications with a focus on Public Relations, Nicole worked for the Cleveland Clinic for many years in both human resources and marketing. Beyond her business experience, she has always had a passion for real estate which led to her being a real estate investor and earning her license after retiring early from the Cleveland Clinic. As a lifelong learner, she is the perfect proof that the more knowledge you spread, the greater the impact you can make.
Following the shocking loss of her husband to sudden cardiac arrest, Nicole and her son Denzel set out to find the Make Them Know Your Name Foundation (MTKYN). With the mission of helping prevent heart-related fatalities in communities across the nation, the foundation has continued to grow since its establishment. Her son Denzel, well-known as the Pro Bowl cornerback for the Cleveland Browns, decided there was no better cause to support than the one that had affected his family so deeply.
In honor of their late husband and father, Nicole and her two sons have made it their mission to prevent the negative outcomes of sudden cardiac arrest from affecting more families. At only 46 years old, Paul G. Ward Jr. passed away from sudden cardiac arrest during a group fitness spin class. Nicole shared that, “No one performed CPR. No one used an AED which was located right outside the classroom doors. Which could have potentially saved his life. So what we try to do as an organization is to provide public facilities with AEDs and ensure that people know how to use them.” This unfortunate circumstance led the Ward family to their mission of preparing individuals for situations where tragedy can be prevented by the knowledge, use of, and access to an AED.
Today, Nicole serves as the Executive Director of the Make Them Know Your Name Foundation and has been leading the organization in its success as they continue to raise awareness and support heart health. She shared with us about the foundation's recent donation in partnership with Dr. Flannery, of University Hospitals the physician for the Cleveland Browns and Kaulig Companies. The initiative, titled “AED in 3”, aims to provide Automated External Defibrillators to schools to ensure that it is accessible for students and staff within three minutes or less. MTKYN contributed to the initiative that was able to award fifteen different schools in the area with AEDs since its launch in 2023.
Both Nicole herself and the MTKYN Foundation as a whole show so much support to the local community and have such an evident love for Cleveland. We asked Nicole to tell us a bit about how the community has returned that dedication and has shown her and the foundation support over the years. “One of the biggest ways the community has supported the foundation is when we put on an event, the community shows up. They're there,'' she shared.
Throughout the year, Make Them Know Your Name hosts several events to help drive awareness and broaden the knowledge of the general public when it comes to heart health. At their Pop Up In The Park event last summer MTKYN saw over 12,000 people show up to the event, eager and willing to learn. Nicole continued on to tell us that the best thing the community can do to show their support is to simply show up. “It gives us not only the opportunity to bring our community together, which is very important to us and our family but no matter what type of event it is, we always make sure that we stay aligned to our mission and vision by providing awareness and education about the importance of heart health,” Nicole said.
Hands-on demonstrations and thoughtful programming are at the forefront of every event the foundation hosts. In addition to offering fun-filled activities and insightful experiences, their events are always sure to include on-site mannequins and AED simulations so attendees can practice their skills and increase their preparedness.
The Make Them Know Your Name Foundation's third annual Cleveland All-Star Fitness Expo & Comedy Bash will take place on February 24th, 2024. This event is a creative way to work out in a fun, entertaining, and upbeat environment inside Cleveland Browns Stadium. There will be an opportunity to shop a wide variety of vendors, and have access to interactive health and wellness demonstrations such as hands-on CPR and AED training, screenings, and more! Unsurprisingly, the event always sells out and allows the organization to make a lasting impact on the community by providing the necessary resources to help increase the knowledge and life-saving skills of everyone in attendance.
In addition to showing up when it matters, the Cleveland community has also shown their support for the Ward Family & MTKYK through donations and sponsorships. The Foundation receives many requests for their support in providing AEDs and the donations can greatly help to supply these organizations and businesses with the necessary safety equipment and techniques. We at Woman Up have seen firsthand how the Cleveland community can support and show up for various organizations and causes and the Make Them Know Your Name Foundation is no exception.
We talked about the importance of providing education in addition to access when it comes to emergency equipment and asked what Nicole had to say about access vs action. “There are a lot of myths and things that are still associated with CPR and AEDs. People still think you have to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They are hesitant, ‘Am I going to make the situation worse?’ ‘Can I be sued?’ They just don’t know that there's a good samaritan law that protects them and that only hands-on CPR is necessary and just as effective. Same with the AED, is behind this glass case and sometimes even says for professional use only. If you just press a button it tells you exactly what to do and it’s very easy to use. We not only want to provide them with the equipment they need but also provide them with the training,” Nicole told us.
As women, we know the power of support, especially when it comes to sisterhood. Many of us have people to thank for their unconditional love and for encouraging us to follow our passions. We asked Nicole to share a bit about a woman who has inspired her in the realm of heart health. “Linda Noble has a heart of gold and a spirit that’s just unmatched. I just remember during my time at the Cleveland Clinic she would come to my desk every Friday and we would always pray together. She would pray for Denzel and pray for our family. She always knew the exact words to say,” Nicole told us.
Relating to heart health and outside of her work, Linda has given Nicole the encouragement and hope she needed to move forward both personally and professionally. “Not only was she an inspiration because of her spirit, kindness, and support, but she is also a very strong woman who has faced a lot when it comes to heart health. She was diagnosed with heart failure at a very young age and had 2 heart transplants, a kidney transplant, and was on the transplant list many times. All throughout that process, no matter what she was going through, she always remained positive and was always concerned about others, not putting the focus and worry on herself. I think a lot of time in situations that’s half the battle, is your mindset.”
Finally, Nicole described what Linda’s support has meant to her over the years and perfectly captured the power of strong female friendships and how they can shape our lives for the better. “She’s doing well today and we still maintain a friendship. If I could even just have a little bit of the spirit and strength that she has, I would be doing well. I don’t think she realizes how much she means to me and what she has done for me on a personal level.” Nicole's story of their relationship serves us all as the perfect reminder to tell the women in your life how much they mean to you and how important it is to show up for one another, through the highs and lows.
In addition to our shared feminine experience of meaningful friendships, we as women also often share the flaw of not giving ourselves enough credit for what we do or how far we have come. We asked Nicole to tell us more about what she is proud of herself for and talk a bit about what she considers to be her greatest achievements so far. It is no surprise that she first mentions her family as her pride and joy saying, “I am most proud of helping to raise two very strong minded, yet humble and caring sons. That represents what I think every parent would wish for when their kids become adults. They’re unique in their own ways and accomplish so much in their own right. As a parent that's the only thing you can hope for.”
She also gave herself some well-deserved recognition saying, “I am most proud of myself in a lot of ways for being able to come to this point where I am today knowing what I faced and what our family faced with the loss of my husband. It could have gone one of two ways. One of the things I remember my mom telling me when I was growing up was that ‘How you act and how you respond to situations is how your child will react and respond. I remember when my husband passed away I didn’t want my kids to feel like they couldn’t move forward. In my mind, even though it was a very tough inspiration, I just felt like I had to appear strong. I was proud of being able to work through a situation that was so painful.”
Starting this foundation with its focus on heart health was Nicole’s opportunity to change what was painful for her into her life's purpose and an effort to help others. The understanding of cardiac arrest and its preventability showed Nicole that she could pass her knowledge on to those it can help. She even shared with us that the formation of the organization and its continued efforts of awareness have helped her to navigate her loss and ultimately feel positive about the difference she is making by helping others and potentially saving someone else's life.
Time and time again we have seen firsthand that those who have been through tough experiences feel called to make a difference for others and pave the way for them to navigate difficulty and even overcome their struggles entirely. Nicole said it best, “You really do look at things differently than you did prior too and you think ‘How can I prevent this from happening again or happening to someone else?’”
One of the things that resonated with us most during our conversation with Nicole was when she told us a bit about how MTKYK came to be and what motivated her to make a difference. “Our mission and goal is to positively impact the heart disease epidemic and try to ensure no other family has to experience what we’ve gone through. We try to do that through education, training, providing resources, and even more importantly, instilling the confidence in people to be able to and want to take action when faced with emergencies such as sudden cardiac arrest,” she said.
As an individual, Nicole has evolved so much since her initial introduction to the importance of heart health. At the time her husband passed, Nicole had to navigate being on her own. On the verge of being empty nesters, her life was turned upside down and she was instantly left to learn about herself and work through her understanding of life. She mentioned her faith and self-reflection as ways in which she began to rebuild her strength and find a sense of peace. “ I found myself evolving and changing. When it first happened I tried to keep myself busy and then Covid happened so I was really alone to work on myself and understand the situation. Getting closer to God and believing and meditating, I felt myself changing and getting stronger. I felt like I did start to evolve.”
Professionally, Nicole hopes to see the Make You Know Your Name Foundation continue to evolve alongside her as they host events and positively impact the statistics related to heart health. She hopes to see the organization expand outside of Ohio and continue to make a difference in people's lives. Ultimately, she shares with us the most meaningful impact she hopes to make through MTKYN, “The statistics and the data show that if you wait for EMS to arrive if you haven’t done anything, it is too late. For every minute that passes, the chances of survival decrease by 10%. On average it can take up to 7 minutes for EMS to arrive. Here in Cleveland Ohio, it's more like 12 minutes if not longer. But we have the power. We have the control to make a difference in those numbers. Heart disease doesn’t have to be the number one killer. It's quality and quantity. It's very important with quality that you understand the proper techniques that are needed to save someone's life but the quantity, the more people who know how to do it, the chances of survival for that individual are much greater.”
For Nicole and MTKYK, it truly is about awareness and the passing of knowledge. Being able to tell their story and use it to help others is the driving force behind the foundation and its efforts. Taking their experience and learning from it has led to the education of so many others and will ultimately impact the prevention of heart health-related deaths in our community and beyond.
Nicole left us with one last impactful piece of knowledge that has still stuck with us as we revisit our conversation for this month's blog. To close, she said, “With those statistics, they say, it's not a matter of if it's going to happen to someone you know or someone you love, it's a matter of when it's going to happen to someone you know or someone you love. And don’t you want to feel confident and comfortable knowing that the person you care about knows this technique? That is the power in learning CPR and how to use the AED.”
We encourage everyone to continue to research both heart health and the MTKYN Foundation and get involved in any way they can to contribute to their mission. Nicole suggests attending their events, making donations, volunteering with the organization, and continuing to spread the word as ways anyone can make a difference. During American Heart Health Month, we hope that everyone will take a moment to check on their own health and the health of those around them as well as take action to further their knowledge and build upon their preparedness skills.
Nicole is a pillar of strength in her family, in our Cleveland community, and in the entire world of women striving to make a difference. Her story is one of determination, reflection, kindness, and love. Beyond her personal evolution, she remains steadfast in her goal to lead the way for others to become more educated and resourceful when it comes to their health and the health of those around them. Despite coming face to face with the loss of a loved one and the life-altering journey of navigating a new normal, Nicole has become a leader and teacher to all individuals willing to learn more about how they can help prevent the negative results of sudden cardiac episodes. Her compassion, understanding, and thoughtfulness are unmatched and the impact that Nicole and her sons have on the community is not only undeniable but is truly evident in the support that our city continues to show them. We so deeply admire Nicole and the rest of the team at the Make Them Know Your Name Foundation for their continued efforts to increase the safety of all those who are diagnosed with heart health issues and their dedication to ensuring a future where the outcome of cardiac episodes is forever changed for the better.