February is the month that prompts many Minnesotans to think about broken hearts -- and not because of jilted Valentines.

February is American Heart Month, time to put the spotlight on a disease responsible for one in four American deaths each year. But hearts come in different sizes, and a little-known Minnesota nonprofit focuses on the tiniest.

Parents for Heart is a lifeline for the devastated parents whose babies are born with life-threatening heart disease.

"As a parent of a child with heart disease, it feels like you're on a road less traveled," said Alison Barrick, a parent volunteer with the group. "There's a big difference between reading statistics online and meeting families whose kids are playing T-Ball, in Boy Scouts and not terribly held back."

An estimated one of every 100 children in the United States has congenital heart disease. Parents for Heart works with Twin Cities hospitals to reach out to the parents of these kids, and does so with an annual budget of about $10,000, less than what many nonprofits earn at a one-night gala.

Barrick was reeling when she learned one of her twin sons would be born with one functioning ventricle. He underwent his first open-heart surgery in 2010 when he was 3 days old.

"Going through the surgeries was probably the hardest part," said Barrick. "There's so many unknowns. You're so scared."

Through Parents For Heart (www.parentsforheart.org), she met parents and their nearly grown children who had successfully managed the disease. She also learned about the most recent research on the issue. And she decided to give back.

Barrick, for example, said a mother-to-be contacted her because her baby was diagnosed with a heart condition.

"When her son was born, I went to the hospital to visit her," she said. "When he had his first surgery, I was able to bring her family some meals. We've become good friends."

"It's a really common story," she added. "We all find each other and help."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511