Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Transplant recipient and American Heart Association volunteer, Manny Rios

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- February is American Heart Month. In honor of that, we have the story of one young man who knows how important heart health can be. Manny Rios had a heart transplant when he was 10 years old. Now, he’s 14, and working with the American Heart Association to help other kids stay healthy.

Rios stands in his living room, passing a softball back and forth between his hands. If you ask him what sports he likes—he’ll give you a list.

“Football, soccer, basketball, tennis, hockey,” he said, naming a few.

The Kenosha home he shares with him mom, Anna, is filling up with all kinds of balls.

“Manny's goal is 60,” Anna Rios said of the collection. “And then if he gets to 60, his next big goal is 100.”

It’s a collection for the American Heart Association.

“He has a huge following, so I have no doubt that he's going to get to 100 pieces of playground equipment,” laughed Bethany Klein, the director of the American Heart Association’s Heart and Stroke Ball.

“Normally, people would be bringing a ball to the ball, so they would bring it to the Pfister Hotel,” she said of the yearly event, which went virtual this year because of the pandemic.

With the ball going online, people like Manny and his mom have boxes of balls in their living room—collecting equipment that will be donated to help other kids stay active.

“Manny really likes to be active, playing sports and stuff, so what better way for him to help collect balls to give to kids,” said Anna Rios.

The equipment will go to kids all over our area.

“Schools all over southeastern WI, from Racine, Kenosha, West Bend, Milwaukee,” Klein said.

The ability to stay active is something Manny doesn’t take for granted. Baby pictures show him with a tiny football in his hands while he lays in a hospital bed.

“He had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, so, like half a heart,” his mom explained.

Rios remembered the diagnosis when Manny was just six days old.

“We ended up Flight for Life to Children's. Originally, they thought he had an infection attacking the organs, and it turned out he had half a heart,” she said.

For the first 10 years of his life, Manny lived with his condition, until he no longer could.

“He couldn't be active anymore. He couldn't walk through a grocery store for five minutes without getting tired. Turns out, Manny was going into heart failure,” Rios said.

In 2017, Manny had a heart transplant. Anna has shared his story through photos and videos on her Facebook page.

“Manny's way to stay active was to dance,” she said.

Through it all, there are videos of Manny doing just that—dancing and singing in the hospital. Now, he does it at home. His favorite song to dance to is Mambo #5. Anna said he doesn’t get it from her.

“No, I am not a dancer. He just likes to dance,” she said. “He's very active, outgoing.”

And if you only meet Manny for a few minutes, it’s clear that he isn’t shy.

“I've always been there to encourage Manny to do things, not to be afraid and stuff,” his mom said. “And I just want him to have a normal life as much as possible.”

Which brings us back to Manny’s ball drive, and the goals he’s set for himself. He has already surpassed his goal of 60 balls, and his sister threw a pie in Manny’s face.

“Thanks for the donations! Here’s to 60 balls,” she can be heard saying in the video Anna Rios took.

There’s another reward if he hits 100 balls collected, which his mom said he is very close to surpassing.

“I throw my mom, my grandma and my sister a pie in the face,” he said with a sly smile. Asked if that’s something he’d like to do—Manny said, “Yes!”

“I'm fine with it, it's all good,” his mom said at the prospect of getting a pie in the face.

Manny and the American Heart Association will be collecting balls, frisbees and jump ropes through the month of April.

“Being active is a great way to teach kids to start building that healthy foundation for a lifestyle,” Klein said. “So they're less susceptible of getting diabetes and heart disease as adults.”

You can find out how to donate by contacting Milwaukee’s American Heart Association

If you’d like to nominate someone for Natalie’s Everyday Heroes, send Natalie an email at NShepherd@cbs58.com.

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