Fourteen-year-old Alyssa Dressler babysat her two younger brothers while making final preparations to participate in the Youth World Barrel Race Championships in Georgia two days later.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for the extremely active and social Selinsgrove ninth-grader on that Tuesday — July 14, 2015 — when chaos came in the form of an undiagnosed heart issue. Dressler died suddenly of cardiomyopathy, leaving behind a group of family and friends who have struggled to pick up the pieces ever since.
“We now call every Tuesday ‘Terrible Tuesday,’” said Tammie Gallo, Dressler’s grandmother. “People think you should just get over it — but this is something you just can’t get over. Everything changed that day for all of us.”
Julie Ranck, Gallo’s sister and Dressler’s great-aunt, agreed.
“Alyssa was a beautiful little girl — a typical spirited teenager that liked to be on her phone and loved taking pictures. She had this ability to take simple objects and make it look very special in a picture,” Ranck said. “Everybody misses her — and we searched for a way to keep her memory alive while helping make a difference for other families.”
That initiative resulted a year ago in the founding of the Alyssa Dressler Foundation — a nonprofit founded on Feb. 1, 2018, with the goal of educating the public about heart conditions in young people and providing screenings to help find potential issues that would otherwise go undiagnosed.
“Every three days, someone dies from sudden cardiac arrest, and some of those people had no idea anything was wrong until it was too late,” Gallo said. “It is the leading killer for student-athletes — one out of every 100 kids are found to have previously undiscovered heart conditions.”
After a year of fundraising and participation in a variety of community events including the Snyder County Night Out, Boscov’s Friend and Family night and a recent health fair at the Susquehanna Valley Mall, the Alyssa Dressler Foundation is hosting the first of what it hopes becomes a twice-a-year free student heart screening clinic.
The screening will be held Saturday, Feb. 23, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Selinsgrove High School and is open to any student in central Pennsylvania ages 12-19 not already under the care of a cardiologist. Those who participate will receive a free vitals check and electrocardiogram — for students whose results indicate the need for additional testing, an echocardiogram will be provided on site for free.
“The average number of kids at screenings like this that need additional testing is usually 10-12 percent,” Ranck said. “We are hoping to screen around 150 students, and we encourage them and their parents to join in. They will be given some CPR and AED education and other information will be provided.”
Appointments are required for the event and can be arranged at the foundation website, www.alyssadressler.org.
“We are partnering with Evangelical and Geisinger and are so thankful for the medical staff that will be on hand and volunteering their own time,” Ranck said.
Over its first year, the foundation has raised money to purchase two AED machines — donating them to the Selinsgrove REC center and the East Snyder Park in Penn Township.
The group’s primary fundraiser is a memorial barrel race at the stable where Dressler trained — JK&L Stables near Middleburg.
“The community gets involved — we receive donated items for a raffle and family and friends donate stuff for the food stand,” said Gallo. “All proceeds go to the foundation and its efforts to educate the public about heart issues.”
The efforts of the Alyssa Dressler Foundation have helped smooth off the rough edges of a terrible tragedy for Gallo, but the pain of loss is still there for Gallo and the family.
“I don’t know if it gets any easier, but some days it seems to help,” she said. “A lot of people have been touched by the story and you never know what sort of impact you can have until you start a conversation.
“That’s what this foundation is doing — starting conversations, educating people locally and hopefully we can do something to help another family not have to experience the heartache we have since that Tuesday several years ago.”
For more information about Alyssa Dressler and the foundation, visit www.alyssadressler.org