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Fifth-grader raises $2,500 for American Heart Association in honor of deceased father
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Natalie Gibson, physical education teacher at Lanier Elementary School, left, stands with Eli Ham during a ceremony honoring Ham for raising money towards heart health research on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019. Gibson is hoping to hang a sign honoring Eli and his father Mark, who passed away due to an undiagnosed heart defect. - photo by Austin Steele

Eli Ham, 11, is learning how to grow up fast, and he’s doing it the right way.

A fifth-grade student at Lanier Elementary in Hall County, Eli recently raised $2,500 for the American Heart Association, more than any other student in the school.

Eli raised the money in honor of his father, Mark, who died suddenly in his 30s in October 2017 from an undiagnosed heart defect.

“He has overcome some very difficult situations to succeed,” said Eli’s grandfather, Mark Ham.

Eli was honored by his classmates and teachers in a special ceremony in the school’s gym on Friday, Feb. 15.

“He took something that was very hard and turned it around and made it something better for a good cause,” Natalie Gibson, a physical education teacher, told the gathered students and Eli’s family.

Gibson said Eli set an example for what educators try to teach students every day, “to get outside their bubble” and help others.

“It feels really good,” Eli said. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a while.”

Eli initially set his goal at $2,000, but that was quickly raised and he upped his goal another $500, which he met.

“I’m very proud,” Eli said.

As the top fundraiser, Eli was presented with a certificate from the American Heart Association, and a “heart hero” badge.

But the best honor was a sign drawn on poster board to be hung in the school’s gym.

It read: Eli & Mark’s Gymnasium.

It will hang there for the remainder of the year, according to Principal John Wiggins.

Eli’s giving nature is an inheritance from his father that appears to extend through his entire family.

Eli’s cousin, Maddie, also is a star fundraiser. She pulled in nearly $2,200 last year for the American Heart Association while attending Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy in Gainesville.

Eli’s aunt, Jenny Givens, who teaches at Gainesville High, told the students gathered about Eli’s father.

“My brother was a man that always had a smile on his face,” she said. “And I see that smile on Eli every time I look at him. He has the biggest heart of anybody around. I want to encourage all of you to keep that smile … even in hard times. He got that from his dad.”

“I know his dad is looking down with that huge smile on his face right now,” Givens added.

Mark Ham said his son and Eli’s father, “was a good man and provided his son a great base and example to grow into a man we will all be proud of.”

Asked if he thought his father would be proud looking down on him, Eli said matter-of-factly, “I think he would.”

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