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The legacy of the latest Her Heart Challenge group

Last Modified: February 01, 2024

Heart Health, Healthy Mind


It’s fair to say that each class of women who participate in The Parkview Heart Institute Her Heart Challenge is unique. This is certainly true for the latest group, which included Cynthia Gabbard.

“I had gained quite a bit of weight and was frustrated with myself,” Cynthia shared. “Late one night, I was messing around on Facebook and came across a link to the Her Heart Challenge. I’d never heard of it before.” Cynthia submitted her application and within a short period, received a call from Jill Zahm, MSN, RN-C, AHN-BC, program coordinator, Parkview Heart Institute, to come in for an interview.

For the 2023-2024 class, the Parkview Heart Institute (PHI) coordinators had room for 25 participants, selected based on both their application and interview answers. “During her interview for the challenge, Cynthia briefly discussed her involvement with The Yellow Frame Project and her artwork,” Jill recalled.

Throughout the process, Cynthia had a feeling that she was where she needed to be. “The last thing Jill said to me at the interview was that they look for participants who are ready for change. And I remember leaving thinking, I’m ready, I hope I get picked.”  A short time later, Cynthia got the call that she’d been selected for the Her Heart Challenge.

Reclaiming her creativity

The artwork Cynthia mentioned in her initial meeting with the coordinators is tied to a highly impactful facet of her life–her mental health. Nearly 30 years ago, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that affects mood and can be difficult to manage long-term. “I’d done a couple paintings in high school, but the bipolar disorder made me profoundly depressed. There was a time I thought I’d lost my creativity and feared I’d never get it back,” Cynthia shared. “It took years to find medications to relieve that depression, it was a real struggle. But in 2017, nearly three decades after my diagnosis, I was able to reconnect with painting.”

Once she rekindled her passion and talent, Cynthia began sharing her work. “It was so exciting and so empowering, and it just took off! The neatest thing was that my paintings connected with others and cheered them up.” Cynthia painted mental health-inspired pieces for the downtown Allen County Public Library, Art of Hope and Recovery Café.

“It became very therapeutic,” Cynthia said. “I love hearing other people’s interpretations of my work and what it says to them. It makes me realize how much art touches people. It makes the mess worth it.”

An idea is born

Part of the challenge is in-person meetings with presentations from guest speakers on a range of health topics. “The evening that Dr. [Mark] O’Shaughnessy spoke, he touched on emotional health and the heart, and it started a bigger conversation,” Jill said.

While Cynthia had briefly mentioned her history with bipolar disorder and her artwork in the group’s initial meeting, hearing the presentation sparked a desire to dig deeper. “The night Dr. O was there, we ended up having a really cool conversation about the need for more attention around mental health,” Cynthia said. “Jill had to leave early, but Angela Raymer [coordinator, Parkview Heart Institute,] was there, and I’d seen the video she did with the drum circle. I really believe in mind-body health and know she does, too, so I talked to her after the meeting. I shared my enthusiasm and told her I’d love to share my art with other women in the group, thinking maybe it would help someone else. Angela spoke to Jill about it the next day.”

It was an absolute “yes” from Jill.

Art in progress

“I gave Cynthia full reign and set up a meeting for all the ladies to come in,” Jill said.

Considering the Her Heart Challenge logo, Cynthia knew she wanted to incorporate a heart. “I liked the idea of women, with the heart around them,” she said. “And then, when Angela and I came up with the title, ‘Love Makes Hope Grow,’ it was easy to picture them in a garden.”

Cynthia had a canvas, and another member of the group organized the details to turn the painting gathering into a chili carry-in. Cynthia began the session by sharing her journey with mental health and how painting had restored joy in her life. “I brought along several of my paintings and set them in the front and along one side wall,” she shared. “As I talked, I found myself picking up a few paintings and telling them the titles and what they meant to me. Later, several women told me that was their favorite part of the night. It meant so much to me. “Then, it was time for the group work to begin.  

“We had a blast,” Cynthia said. Though she was surprised by some of the women’s apprehension. “I didn't know if I had any secret artists,” she said, “I didn’t want to offend anyone, so I painted the women in the middle and left the rest washed out so others could help me paint those in. But when they’d come up, nobody wanted to mess with the people. They were afraid they’d mess it up! Some were even afraid to put a flower on the canvas.”

Jill agreed, and added, “Cynthia had to almost put the brush in some of their hands, me included! But once they put brush to canvas, I could see and feel a change in them, a freeing that creativity brings to the spirit.”

For Cynthia, it’s about expression more than anything. “I reminded them it didn’t have to be perfect and showed them some techniques. In the end, everyone added something.”



Cynthia took the canvas home and continued working on the painting. “I wanted it to be as personal as possible for our group,” she said. She added a drum to represent an evening some of the women spent at a drum circle and worked to make the figures representative of their class.

Jill picked up the final piece, and, while it was hard for her to watch it go, Cynthia shared, “I'm really happy with it and I can tell Jill was, too.”  

A home for “Love Makes Hope Grow”

On January 3, 2024, many of the challenge participants gathered to dedicate their painting to the PHI and hear Cynthia’s moving speech. The painting was given a permanent residence on the 5th floor of PHI, in conference room 3, where Her Heart Challenge meetings are often held. 

“It’s exciting to know this brought our class together so we could leave a legacy,” Cynthia said. “I never would have dreamed it. For a very long time, my goal and passion has been empowering women through my art. I saw this as an opportunity and I’m so happy it came together.

women heart

“My affirmation during this challenge was: ‘I am a proud warrior: creative, wise, empathetic, loving, sensitive, resilient and strong. I am more than enough!’ It sits right by my computer. My art and what I have done with my art have helped me believe this.”

The project was so successful Jill has discussed the possibility of Cynthia returning to create more art with future challenge classes in the future.

“Watching Cynthia grow in confidence with the group and her willingness to share her heart for art and her talent with the group was an inspiration,” Jill shared. “I taught the art, humor and music therapy portion of the Holistic Nurse Prep course, and this validated everything I believe, the power of creativity to heal us mind, body and spirit.”


The concept of art as medicine is also a proven fact. “According to cardiology expert, Harlan M. Krumholz, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology and public health at Yale University School of Medicine, ‘Creative pursuits allow people to find their ‘flow state,’ a mental state in which they are so fully involved in an activity they become unaware of passing time.’ The benefits of flow include lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and reduced anxiety.

“While you should still get regular physicals and do what you can to reduce your risk factors, embracing your artistic interests will lower your stress level. Creative activities stimulate our brain function and alter our brain chemistry, but they can also boost mental and physical health. Painting, drawing, reading, crafting, yoga or dance all contribute to lower stress levels, decreased anxiety and can even increase productivity and self-esteem.  Doing what you love in your spare time can help you focus your attention in a way that is similar to meditating.”

Class of 2024

While the official challenge is over, participants are still invited to attend monthly optional meetings, and Cynthia’s group continues to stay in touch, providing encouragement and even step challenges.

In addition to leading support groups and writing about her journey with bipolar disorder, Cynthia continues her work with the The Yellow Frame Project and Mental Health America, spreading her message of inspiration and hope.

“You never have to look far to find other people who are hurting,” she said. “It means so much to do something and be with other people and feel the support. I couldn’t work for quite a while because of my illness. I was home with my two kids, and then, when they left, I felt useless. I was searching for my place, and through my art, I really found myself.

“When I was young, I painted but always worried about what people would think of it. It’s freeing to create it knowing it’s not perfect, but it will speak to someone. I’m not a master painter, but I like my art and I know it touches people. Art creates immediate connections. It's part of me, an extension of who I am, and I feel so blessed to be able to share it.”  

If you would like to participate in the next Her Heart Challenge, complete the application here. The Her Heart program is made possible by the generosity of donors to the Parkview Health Foundation. Learn more about the ways you can give to the Foundation by visiting



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