WATERLOO — A group of runners from Cedar Falls High School gathered at Riverfront Stadium Saturday for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
“We’re part of the cross country team,” said 16-year-old Devin O’Loughlin, one of about 30 girls from the team who were participating in the two mile walk on trails near the stadium. They got involved with the fundraising effort after learning that coach Don Williams had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
They were among an estimated 600 walkers at the event, sponsored by the East Central Iowa Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks neurons in the brain, resulting in loss of memory, thinking, and language skills as well as behavioral changes. This is about the 20th year a walk has been held in Waterloo.
Williams, who strives to encourage greater awareness of the disorder, talked to the athletes about his diagnosis last November and what he’s been going through since.
“I shared my experience with them, they got on board,” he said. “I’d say 80 to 90 percent (of the team members) are here. Excited so many showed up.
“I’d been kind of experiencing symptoms for a year or two,” he noted, before getting the diagnosis. “Kind of in denial.”
Already Williams has retired from his finance position at Orchard Hill Church and he expects the same thing will happen with coaching.
“This is my 28th year,” he said, leading Cedar Falls’ girls cross country. “It will probably be my last. I’m starting to show more and more symptoms.”
Williams was also joined at the walk by his son and granddaughter, some friends, the team’s assistant coach, and parents of the runners.
Their efforts have raised “close to $2,000 already,” he said, and they can keep gathering donations until Dec. 30.
Collectively, participants had raised $56,000 as of Friday toward a goal this year of $98,000. Donations can still be made online at alz.org/walk by selecting the Waterloo event.
Melissa Pence, executive director of the association’s East Central Iowa Chapter, said funds raised will go towards education programs, support groups, care consultations, a 24-hour helpline and “also contribute to the research being done for Alzheimer’s.”
Elaine Eshbaugh, a University of Northern Iowa associate professor, emceed a ceremony at the stadium right before the walk. She noted that more than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s and the cost of care has reached “hundreds of billions” of dollars.
“It’s destroyed our families, our finances and our future,” she said. “We all have a reason to end Alzheimer’s.”
Eshbaugh highlighted “ambassadors” in the crowd representing the variety of people involved with the walk, each of which had a different color flower-themed pinwheel. Orange was for people without a personal connection to Alzheimer’s, yellow for a caregiver, purple for those who lost someone to the disease and blue for those living with it. A single white pinwheel one of the participants held is for the day when a cure is found.
Abby and Beau Batterson — walking for the first time with their 6-year-old daughter, Lily — have lost family to the disease.
“I had a grandmother with dementia and a grandfather with dementia,” said Abby, of Waterloo. “So, we’ve seen first-hand how difficult and overwhelming it is.”
They raised funds for a team from the Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging, where Abby works. “It’s really important not only for our personal lives, but my professional life,” she said.
Les and Janet Christensen, who were pushing their granddaughter in a stroller, have also experienced Alzheimer’s up close. The mother of a good friend and their son-in-law’s grandmother both died with the disease. They also have other friends whose mothers are currently struggling with the disease.
“You could go on and on,” said Janet. “It’s just affected so many people in our lives.”
It becomes common, said Les, “when you get in your 60s and you have friends with their parents still alive.”
“I’ve done this walk three times in the last six years,” added Janet. “It’s close to our hearts.”