Fundraising to end Alzheimer’s disease, one potato bead at a time

Country Meadows resident Emma Chobot shows her potato necklace, the first one made. Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
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We’re not talking about small potatoes when a group of ladies get together to raise more than $1,000 in just two years to aid those who have Alzheimer’s disease and families.

Let’s get literal: small potatoes, as in the size of beads.

Maureen Sirianni, who coordinates both validation training and memory support at the Country Meadows Retirement Community in South Fayette Township, brought up her facility’s potato jewelry at a luau-themed kickoff at Southpointe for the Sept. 13 Walk to End Alzheimer’s fundraiser. Ending Alzheimer’s is not going to be done without an awful lot of cash, and Sirianni had some examples for those who hate to ask others to open their wallets.

One of Sirianni’s co-workers, Jean Demeis, Country Meadows’ director of independent services, came across the wearable tubers a few years ago. “They were doing it at one of the campuses,” Demeis said. “It seemed kind of fun. I thought, ‘Let’s give it a whirl.’”

Looking over the potato necklaces and bracelets are Country Meadows residents, from left, Nora Monte, Emma Chobot, Fran Smith and Gert Sheppard, 90. Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
The jewelry makers from Country Meadows-South Fayette independent living unit peel potatoes, chop them into chunks, skewer them on bamboo and let them dry for about a week. As the beads shrink, some develop a rock-like shape and others are as wrinkled as giant raisins. Regardless, they are light in weight. Once the chunks are thoroughly dry, they paint them, varnish them and string them on double strands of dental floss with an assortment of purchased beads to add sparkle. The strands are what’s known as “matinee length” so they fit over the head without a clasp.

“Where are the bracelets, Jean?” asked Ethel Unetich on a recent morning at Country Meadows.

Buyers had snapped them up so quickly that just one was available. The ladies were thinking of adding earrings to their line.

“We’re pretty proud of our potato,” said Isabelle Smith, 87. “I can’t tell you how many we’ve sold over and over and over. They all look pretty.” The necklaces go for $10 apiece.

Barbara Weber, 86, is not a crafter by nature, but she was intrigued when she first saw the strung-out potato creations, calling them “the prettiest beads I’ve ever seen.” In no time she had joined the weekly sessions to paint and string. “When you tell (people) they’re made out of potatoes, they just look at you.”

Promotion is part of the game, so the potato beads are liable to pop up anywhere at Country Meadows, where black-and-gold necklaces will be sold in September, the same month as the Steelers’ football season opener.

September is also when Walks to End Alzheimer’s start. The Alzheimer’s Association has set a goal of $62,500 for its Washington County walk at Washington Park, where participants will step off at 9 a.m. from the Stone Pavilion.

Last year’s Washington County Walk to End Alzheimer’s raised $54,634. A total of 333 participants walked as part of 29 teams, according to Abby Spreng, events manager for the Alzheimer’s Association in Pittsburgh. The first Alzheimer’s fundraising walk in Washington County, under the banner of the “Memory Walk,” took place in 2000. From that year through 2013, walkers in Washington County have raised $469,718. In addition to research, the money is earmarked for consultations, responding to helpline calls, community-based programs, support groups and matching people with clinical trials.

Mary Lynn Spilak, Washington County director of Aging Services, called the Washington Park event “a one-and-a-half mile social walk, so I don’t think you have to be in great physical shape.”

Having to collect money, even for a good cause, may turn off some people, so Sirianni had some pointers for places of business that are fielding teams.

She suggested selling an opportunity to wear casual clothing at the workplace. Selling a parking space dubbed the best spot on the lot draws interest. “In the middle of winter, that they get to park next to the building is worth it,” she said. Another of her tips: “Attach lottery tickets to anything and they will buy it.”

While a spirit of competition between teams might exist, they share a common purpose. Sirianni told a gathering at the North Shore kickoff at PNC Park, “It’s not who you work for, it’s who you walk for.” She is a team captain for both the Washington County and North Shore walks.

Others took on the roles of motivational speakers at the Washington County kickoff.

“I’ve always thought of Alzheimer’s as the scarlet A,” said Chris Beros, a registered nurse and advocate on behalf of those who have the disease. But, in talking about Alzheimer’s and confronting it, she hopes to wipe away any lingering shame.

The mother of former Washington County Commissioner Bracken Burns, Jane Cecelia Burns, developed dementia, which he called “the ugly sister of Alzheimer’s.”

She died April 24, 1994.

His sorrow over her condition mobilized him, and he hopes to inspire others to raise money that will make a difference. “We collectively are here to put a stop to that,” he said of the disease.

“I don’t want my granddaughter to have it,” Burns said. “I don’t want her husband to have it. I don’t want your niece to have it. I don’t want you to have it. I want it to stop, and the only way we’re going to get it to stop is to come together, focus on it and attack it frontally.

“We can’t look the other way. We have to look it in the eye and say, ‘You’re going down.’ I’m going to raise the money. I’m going to draw the attention. I’m going to give the speech. I’m going to do whatever has to be done until there is no such thing as Alzheimer’s. It’s been done before, and it can be done again.”