By Leslie Holland, Dallas Resident
Senior Director, Marketing and Communications, Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia Chapter
Cynthia “Cyndi” Church has long used pageantry as an outlet to express herself. Her mother, Judith Birdsong, known to family members as Honey, was always her biggest supporter. “She was a glamour mom,” Cyndi says. “My sisters were tomboys and involved in sports, and there I was in sequins. My mom would put on sequins and join me to show her support.”
Cyndi turned her love of pageantry into a career. A costume designer by trade, she has also been the winter guard coach at Creekview High School in Canton for seven years. Winter guard is an indoor color guard sport in which teams perform choreographed dances and routines at performing arts competitions, such as the Southern Association for Performance Arts and Winter Guard International championships.
When Cyndi realized the creative position allowed her the opportunity to honor her mother and their relationship, she knew just what she wanted to do.
Sweet Tribute to Honey
Cyndi used her talents and those of the team to honor Honey’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease. Honey, now eighty, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at sixty-two.
“Mom was a very high-functioning, multitasking woman before the disease, and when I saw her health deteriorating, I wanted to come up with a concept to honor her,” Cyndi explains. She designed a routine for the Creekview Winter Guard team that combined her love of pageantry and her mother’s Alzheimer’s journey in a way that would be meaningful without being sad or depressing, but the effort was more difficult than she expected.
“When we first started working on this program,” Cyndi reports, “I was having a hard time. I was really struggling with it. I sat with all those feelings, and the anger at this disease was coming through. I had to acknowledge it, sit with it, and process it. Then I was able to move forward and make it a real tribute.”
Cyndi’s tribute became the Creekview Winter Guard’s 2022-2023 competition season performance, a program titled Still Here. Throughout the competition season, the team performed on a sixty- by ninety-foot vinyl tarp with the words “Still Here” and forget-me-not flowers printed on it. The students released flower petals as they performed. Forget-me-nots are symbols of remembrance and are often associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
She also incorporated verbiage from Still Alice, a novel turned into a critically acclaimed film starring Julianne Moore as a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The performance also included inspirational lines from One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, a primetime special featuring musical icon Tony Bennett, now ninety-six years old, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2017.
Cyndi wanted the performance to be beautiful and moving, but she wasn’t sure what the reaction of the team would be. She feared members wouldn’t connect with it, but her fears were unfounded. “[The students] opened up and started sharing their stories, and they are dealing with the Alzheimer’s and dementia journey way more than I thought,” she says.
One student shared with Cyndi that his grandmother moved into his home so that his family could become full-time caregivers. Another student lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s during the performance season. Yet another student shared about her own grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and how a complicated family dynamic made it even more painful, but because of the team’s theme and support, she felt for the first time like she wasn’t alone. The performance helped her deal with her emotions and talk about her family’s struggles.
Cyndi also supports the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Cherokee County and combined the competition experience with fundraising for her Walk to End Alzheimer’s team. Before each competition performance the students sat in the crowd, greeted audience members, and gave them a card with a QR code to donate to the fundraiser if they felt led. According to Dan Phillips, manager of the Cherokee County Walk to End Alzheimer’s, the Creekview Winter Guard team raised a whopping $4,345 for the 2022 Walk to End Alzheimer’s event and was one of the top five fundraising teams in Cherokee County.
“So many people shared their personal stories with the team members. The money we raised was great, but what it did for the students was even more wonderful,” Cyndi says.
Creekview rising senior Madi Auces says her first reaction to the routine was, “Wow, this is a really heavy subject. Programs are usually upbeat and fun, so I had to wrap my brain around it, and it turned out to be a really impactful experience.” Madi says her great-grandfather died of Alzheimer’s a few months ago. “It took doing the show for me to really see every side of it, not only the days when he was angry or he was upset with the world, but also when I could see glimpses of his old self. When he passed away [I was able] to tap into the beauty of it, because the whole time I thought, ‘This is so sad.’ I had to tap into that piece of it to see that it’s not sad; it’s a beautiful story. You can tell the story of their entire life, which is beautiful,” she shares.
Rising senior Christian Viviers says the program hit home with him also. “I was really excited about the program at first. My abuela [grandmother] moved in with us in the middle of last year’s season, and she has frontotemporal dementia. I literally see it every day, and the program gave me a different perspective. I saw only the hardships [of the illness], and I didn’t see the beauty of it before.” Christian adds that Alzheimer’s and dementia have affected many members of his family, and this season’s program showed him the importance of taking in every moment with his grandmother. He shares that his family has had four generations affected by the disease. A lesson he says he learned is that it’s important to carry on each person’s legacy.
Class of 2023 Winter Guard member Colby O’Connor was the highest team fundraiser during the season. She created an online fundraiser, and many people responded to her request, shared their stories, and donated. “It was inspiring to see all those people donating and coming together for this cause,” Colby says, “and when we met new people at our performances, it was really cool to make a common connection with them. When we performed I wanted to send this message directly to them, to let them know they’re not alone in this journey.” Colby adds that she will always remember the camaraderie of the experience and how the team members all learned together and worked together to tell this important story.
As for the coach, Cyndi said the season and the team was better than she had hoped. “They impacted a lot of people. They were lovely and giving. It was a heavy topic, and they took it on and took pride in it. They dove in completely and made it something I never even imagined it could be.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, there is support available. The Alzheimer’s Association has a Helpline staffed by master’s-level social workers available day and night. That number is 800-272-3900.
To get involved in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, visit GeorgiaWalk.org.
Did You Know?
More than 6.7 million people nationally have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Over 150,000 Georgia residents are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease.
How to Register
Across the nation, the Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s is full of flowers, each carried by someone committed to ending this disease, because, like flowers, Walk to End Alzheimer’s participants don’t stop when something’s in their way. They keep raising funds and awareness for a breakthrough in the fight against Alzheimer’s and all other forms of dementia.
Register today and add your flower to the fight to end Alzheimer’s.
Scan this QR code with your phone’s camera (or click), or visit GeorgiaWalk.org, where you can register to walk, join a team, or donate to a fundraising team for the 2023 Cherokee County Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
The 2023 Cherokee County Walk to End Alzheimer’s will take place on Saturday, October 21, 2023, at Etowah River Park in Canton.
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