Building Healthier Lives: Marla Sparks


Marla Sparks arrives at my front door wearing her signature black, red and silver color-combo and a bright smile that gives no indication of the personal tragedy that drives her work.


A resident of Shawano for more than 20 years, Sparks, 43, came to the American Heart Association-Fox Cities as their corporate events director in 2016.


She pursued a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois and has a diverse background in retail, hotel management, healthcare, sales, marketing and advertising. Today she considers herself a fierce warrior against heart disease.


Wife to Manny, her husband of 15 years, together for 26 – the couple has two children: Madelyn, age 13, and Mason, age 12. Her email signature states “my family is my why.” That’s a good place to begin.


W. You said you were led to the AHA because your personal life was impacted by cardiovascular disease and stroke. What happened?

Sparks: Well, two things. One – when I was pregnant with my son, we were going in for a checkup and the 3D ultrasound. I was very excited to see my child’s face. When we went in that’s when we found out that there was a hole in his heart. Something that we were so excited about turned out to be not so exciting – it was actually quite terrifying. It wasn’t life threatening, but it was something completely foreign. Thank God we were very blessed with the fact that it healed on its own through the course of time.


The second – three years ago, my father passed away. He had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. No one knew he had it and he dropped at work. His co-worker gave him CPR to bring him back.


W: I’m so sorry.

Sparks: They were able to bring him back enough that he was sitting upright and asking questions, but when they brought him to the hospital, he went through multiple surgeries. He ended up ultimately passing.


W: That’s terrible. I’m so sorry for your loss.

Sparks: Thank you..


W: With the mission of AHA being to build healthier lives, what are some ways you’ve incorporated changes, big or small, into your life?

Sparks: I’m definitely watching what I’m eating. I’m trying not to eat fried foods.


W: It’s hard!

Sparks: It is hard. And I’m a vegetarian, so the options are pretty much cut in half. But really more restaurants are offering healthier choices now. It’s really nice to see. Oftentimes they’ll have a side salad. Yes, those cheese curds are still there, but make sure you have a salad or something healthy to offset that. I’ve given up soda. As an alternative, I drink non-sweetened flavored seltzer water.


W: Are you talking about La Croix?

Sparks: Yes! That is my favorite.


W: What’s your favorite flavor?

Sparks: Peach pear. That’s my favorite.


W: Is your family involved with your work at all?

Sparks: My family inspires me every day – they’re tremendously supportive and fantastic AHA volunteers.


W: Do you have any pets?

Sparks: Yes, Veruca. She’s an 8-year-old 75-pound shelter dog. She thinks she’s the size of a Chihuahua. She loves to crawl up and sit on our lap.


W: I know you’re originally from Chicago. Just curious, what are the attractions and businesses there you recommend to anyone travelling to the big city?

Sparks: I would definitely say the Navy Pier. Shopping at Water Tower Place. The Sears Tower. And honestly, I would recommend a doubledecker bus tour. They show you everything.


W: Do you have any health goals for 2018?

Sparks: I would love to start a CossFit type class.


W: You mentioned that evening is your favorite part of your day because you get organized for tomorrow. Tell me a little bit about your routine.

Sparks: My days are really pretty busy with pre-planned appointments. After I unwind, I try my best to print any materials I need for the

following day so I have them ready. I get my mind clear and ready to tackle the next day. Since I’m home-office based, and I travel, I can’t just

turn around and get things if I forget. I get my outfit ready down to my accessories. I’ve got water and granola bars in my car.


When I say take a break I mean take a breather. When you’re working, you’re compelled to deliver. You want to deliver. You want to exceed those expectations. Her telling me: give yourself permission to step back. It’s okay if you don’t have the answer immediately. I appreciated



W: What would you want readers to know about the work done by the American Heart Association?

Sparks: All of the initiatives, education and fundraising we are doing today will impact people’s lives tomorrow. Our mission isn’t just to stop

heart attacks or save cardiac arrest victims with CPR. We’re focusing on how we can prevent heart attacks and strokes in the first place. Our mission is simple: Building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular disease and stroke. With help from our volunteers, partners in health, sponsors and donors, we are leaving a legacy for our community. w




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