Walking for future Alzheimer’s survivors

Published 9:37 pm Monday, September 16, 2019

Hundreds of participants gathered at YMCA Camp Arrowhead in Suffolk on Saturday in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s.

The 2019 Western Tidewater Walk to End Alzheimer’s was relocated to YMCA Camp Arrowhead on Kenyon Road after being held in previous years at Constant’s Wharf Park in downtown Suffolk. This new venue allowed for more parking and a pleasant, wooded trail for participants.

Gino Colombara, executive director for the Alzheimer’s Association Southeastern Virginia Chapter, said that both the beautiful new location and sunny weather supported this community of people touched by Alzheimer’s.

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“That’s what the Walk to End Alzheimer’s is all about,” Colombara said. “It’s bringing (this) community together and letting people know that they’re not alone in navigating the maze of this disease.”

More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to alz.org, and there are more than 16 million caregivers of people living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias nationwide. It’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., and in this country, someone develops the disease every 65 seconds.

The Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research, and is held annually in more than 600 communities nationwide.

More than 280 participants signed up for the Suffolk Walk this year. Champions, teams, walkers, donors and sponsors have fundraised $63,354 as of Monday evening, according to alz.org.

Many were together at YMCA Camp Arrowhead on Saturday to walk in honor of their loved ones and share their stories.

“This is a way we can come share our stories and help each other out,” said Karla Kelly with Suffolk Business Women.

Kelly’s mother, Diana Smith, died in 2018 from Alzheimer’s. On Saturday she wore a purple shirt — the color of the Alzheimer’s movement — with a picture of her mother on it.

She said it’s “overwhelming” to see everybody come together at the Suffolk Walk.

“Your heart grows to see the community come together, and with the Suffolk Business Women, they really came through and raised so much for us,” Kelly said. “It made me so proud this year, and next year is going to be amazing too.”

During her opening ceremony remarks, Lin Harbold, chair of the 2019 Western Tidewater Walk to End Alzheimer’s, spoke about her own mother that she lost to Alzheimer’s.

“We watched as this terrible disease ravaged her mind and her body,” Harbold said. “I felt powerless as I watched my mother’s body deteriorate (and) her condition got worse, but then I realized there was something powerful and positive I could do to fight back: the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.”

It’s the same motivation that’s driven Sarah Smith, her husband Larry Smith Jr. and their family, as this was their 14th year participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

Sarah Smith walks in honor of her grandmother, who died more than four years ago, and Larry Smith Jr. walks for his father, who died last year. Sarah Smith said the Walk gave her something she could do when she felt like she couldn’t do anything for her grandmother’s condition.

“There was nothing I could do, (but) the Walk gave me something that I could do,” she said. “I could raise money and raise awareness. That’s why we participate every year.”

It’s through such advocacy efforts that funding for Alzheimer’s research in the U.S. has increased from $448 million in 2011 to $2.3 billion in 2019.

“It’s really the voices that people are making heard to our representatives to make sure that they fund this critical (research), so that way we can have our first of many, many survivors of Alzheimer’s,” Colombara said.

This dream is represented by a white Promise Garden flower. Every registered walker at the event received a Promise Garden flower that signified their relation to disease.

Participants diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another dementia received blue flowers, caregivers yellow flowers, purple for people who have lost someone to the disease and orange for people who don’t have a personal connection, but still support the Alzheimer’s Association.

During the opening ceremony, participants held up their respective flowers in solidarity. Their shared hope is that one day Alzheimer’s survivors will carry white flowers.

“The white flower brings a focal point to why we’re all here today: to end (this) disease and really have our survivors of Alzheimer’s,” Colombara said.