A purple tutu, a purple bedazzled cap and her grandmother’s photo on the front of her T-shirt — her purple aura continues to float behind her with the glittering streamers of the wand she carries.
Gabby Ramos, 6, is a young Alzheimer’s soldier who participated in the Inland Empire Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Ontario, California, Oct. 10. Just a week before, she and her older sisters held a lemonade stand to raise a bit of their own financial support for the disease that took their grandmother’s life.
By the time Gabby is in her 40s, 13.8 million Americans will have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“The way to help protect your future is by being active now,” said Francisco Villalobos, a six-year participant at the Inland Empire Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
More than 1,500 Alzheimer’s disease activists gathered together for the walk, which raised more than $200,000 for Alzheimer’s research, care and support.
Carolina Vargas, Girl Scout leader for troop 18014, said the walk was a time to heighten the awareness among the young girls in her troop and remember those who had Alzheimer’s. The troop came out to support walkers and pass out water-bottles in 100-degree heat.
“It is not just for the old people anymore, we need to take care of ourselves now and be healthy and be there for each other — not to ever forget that they were there for us and we must be there for them,” Vargas said.
Rich Gardner, friend and neighbor to California Baptist University, was among the crowds. Around his neck he wore the iconic purple flower necklace -— the symbol of a loved one. “Debbie Gardner” was scrawled across the front.
Gardner’s wife died in 2014. Like the swarms of Inland Empire residents walking for awareness in Ontario, the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease began migrating throughout Debbie’s brain before she was 50 years old.
Rich and Debbie made their way over to the CBU campus often throughout the year before her death in an effort to find diversions outside of the house. Over time, CBU’s campus proved to be more than just an outing for the couple.
“It melted my heart to see her get hugs — that personal connection,” Gardner said. “So many people are afraid to interact. They know there’s this disease and they do not know how to react.”
This was the connection made for many CBU students to the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease.
Tami Fleming, head cheer coach at CBU, said the women who met Debbie through her visits to cheer practices experienced a change in their perception of the disease.
“Once these women had the opportunity to hug someone and know someone and, quite honestly, watch her disintegration, it became a lot more personal,” Fleming said. “The women became more passionate about it.”
In the fall of 2013, Debbie’s supporters at the annual walk were a group of purple-clad CBU cheerleaders.
This year, Gardner, self-proclaimed “Alzheimer’s Awareness Ninja,” is jump-starting the Ontario walk and the month of November — the National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month — with a strategic plan of action for Riverside and CBU students: social media and a new, determined generation.
While Gardner said other generations have, for the most part, shied away from the shadow cast by Alzheimer’s, millennials have shown great potential for raising even more awareness.
“Every generation has seemed to ignore this, but this is a generation that knows how to use social media,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he has chosen again to reach out to the CBU community. Beginning in November, the CBU cheer team will start Gardner’s idea of a “Cheerleader Challenge.”
Similar to the Ice-Bucket Challenge that raised awareness for ALS in 2014, the cheer team will challenge three other
teams to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s disease.
The challenges, supported by the #EndAlz hashtag, will raise awareness through cheer teams across the nation.
Because of Gardner’s awareness efforts, Riverside is
currently in the process of becoming a part of The Purple Cities Alliance — a coalition of dementia-friendly cities across the nation.
To join the fight in raising awareness, use #EndALZ and #Walk2EndALZ.