Introducing The First Survivors

Every October, close to a thousand people get together in Stockton for a special walk. Many of them are wearing purple, and most walk with a windmill shaped like a flower. They are part of the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s (WTEA). Alzheimer’s is a really difficult disease for the person struggling with it, and possibly even more difficult for that person’s loved ones. We have programs like music to help keep people comfortable, but there’s no cure. We do have hope though. There’s hope because every single year, in 600 communities around the nation, neighbors get together and walk. Stockton is one of those communities who host the walk. Roughly a thousand people from Stockton and Lodi show up to take a stand against Alzheimer’s and fight for a cure. This year, Stockton will see an extra inspiring and powerful signal for hope: a white flower.

“I have so many emotions when it comes to the walk because it’s so beautiful. I think the thing that really hits me the most when we talk about the walk isn’t only the money that’s making such a measurable difference in our community, but it’s the flower ceremony,” explained Cheryl. Cheryl Shrock is the WTEA coordinator for the three different communities in the Central Valley, including Stockton. Every year, when people register, they receive a little windmill flower. The flowers come in 4 different colors, and they signify that person’s relationship with Alzheimer’s.

At the walk, you see people you know and you learn about what their relationship is to Alzheimer’s and it creates community. This year there’s a new flower, and it’s white. When Cheryl explained the white flower to me it got me really choked up. The white flower symbolizes hope. It’s for survivors. No, there’s no 80 year old who beat Alzheimer’s. Those white flowers are for our kids.

When you sign up for the WTEA there’s a question: Why do you walk? “7 years ago, on November 13th my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, so my dad has Alzheimer’s,” said Cheryl. “I walk because my dad was really special- he was! And to see his name out there just means a lot. You know, when you see who he was and who he is today… I just have no tolerance for it.” Her father celebrated his 86th birthday the day before this interview. Her mom took care of him at home for six years, but today he’s on hospice. Cheryl knows how painful Alzheimer’s disease is first-hand; that’s why she hustles to make sure each of the walks in her domain in a success. “My dad’s story is not unique. But there are stories all over the place that are just heartbreaking. These families keep me motivated every year to work hard.”

In my experience, people in Lodi have been quick to support local nonprofits, but a little more hesitant to support large nonprofits. Not that they don’t support large nonprofits’ missions, it’s just that a lot of folks like to see their money stay in our community and help their neighbors. Despite that, WTEA Stockton is on its way to raising $155,000. People are raising money because ending Alzheimer’s is a priority for people in Lodi and Stockton. Alzheimer’s is the 3rd leading cause of death in California. Every 65 seconds someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, and 1 in every 3 seniors has the disease. We have an aging nation and they don’t like the way those statistics look. That’s why they’re fighting back. “The reason we’ve done so well the past couple of years is we’re kind of at a level in the community where the stuff we’ve done actually can be measured, we can look at it and say we’re making a difference- yay!” The Alzheimer’s Association has a goal of finding a cure by 2025, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is. They’ve become the third largest research funder in the world. The largest research funder is the United States government, the second largest is the Chinese Government, and the third largest research funder is the Alzheimer’s Association. “We’re serious. We’re not messing around here,” said Cheryl.

That’s why this year, the Alzheimer’s Association is introducing the white flower.“At the flower ceremony you have somebody who represents each flower,” said Cheryl. This year the purple flower will be held by the top event fundraiser, Georgiann Rose with the Music for Alzheimer’s group. She walks in honor of her mom. “The white flower will be Georgina’s granddaughter and her great granddaughter which represents young people going a different generation that maybe won’t have to deal with Alzheimer’s.” Hearing Cheryl explain that makes me think of all of the families I see in Lodi and Stockton who have been caused so much pain by Alzheimer’s. The white flower symbolizes a dream that these people’s grandchildren will never have to know what it’s like to lose someone to Alzheimer’s. They’ll never have to watch their parents forget some of the most special memories in their lives. I know the adult children of people with Alzheimer’s are not only upset for their loss, but they’re afraid their memory also might go one day, and that their kids will also be forced to go through this devastating experience. That’s why people in Lodi and Stockton are joining a lot of other communities and saying, hell no. That’s why this white flower matters. “They start saying, hey, maybe it’s not helpless, maybe I can do something. They have hope.”

“First of all be so proud of the community because they really come together and show that they care.” Cheryl paused for a minute, then continued. “Stockton is one of the best communities because there is such a sense of community. You know I work in three different communities and Stockton is special because there is such a sense of community. All the skilled nursings and places like that, everybody works together and everybody wants to help and I don’t see that in the other communities. Everybody wants to help, everybody wants to do something, and people here in San Joaquin County they’re actually willing to take action to do something. This is where I live, let me do something to make a difference, let me honor my dad.” So people in Lodi and Stockton will be out on October 13th walking for a cure and supporting research in honor of their loved ones. If you’re out there, get your flower, be sure to stick around for the flower ceremony, and keep an eye out for Georgiann’s granddaughter and her white flower.