Cindy Harris, right, receives the Advocate of the Year Award from the Alzheimer’s Association during its annual forum in Washington, D.C. on April 1. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Harris)

Cindy Harris, right, receives the Advocate of the Year Award from the Alzheimer’s Association during its annual forum in Washington, D.C. on April 1. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Harris)

Soldotna advocate fights for Alzheimer’s awareness

Cindy Harris was named Advocate of the Year

This article has been edited with the correct name of the golf course that hosts the Golf Fore a Cure tournament.

A local Soldotna resident was honored as Advocate of the Year by the National Alzheimer’s Association during their annual forum last month in Washington, D.C.

The annual forum brings together thousands of advocates from around the country to celebrate their activism in local communities. This year Cindy Harris of Soldotna was declared Advocate of the Year for her pivotal role in putting Alaska on the map when it comes to Alzheimer’s advocacy.

Cindy Harris has spent more than four years as a volunteer advocate with the Alzheimer’s Association. Even before that she was no stranger to Alzheimer’s and the impact that it has on families and loved ones. Harris lost her mom to Alzheimer’s in 2010, and her aunts all suffered from the disease as well.

“It’s been in my family since before it had a name,” Harris said. “So I’m trying to find a cure before it gets to me.”

The death of Harris’ mom would end up being the catalyst for her activism in fighting the disease. What Harris quickly realized, however, was that she had to start from the ground up. Before Harris reached out to the Alzheimer’s Association in 2014, Alaska did not have much of a presence in the organization, she said. During her first year of volunteering, Harris organized the first local event for The Longest Day, which is a worldwide fundraising initiative from the Alzheimer’s Association that takes place every year on the summer solstice.

The first year consisted of Harris and a couple other volunteers grilling hot dogs and handing out informational packets at Soldotna Creek Park. A year later, Harris got in touch with the organizers of the annual Golf Fore a Cure tournament that takes place at Bird Homestead golf course in Funny River, and the two events have been combined ever since. Karen Berger, a fellow advocate who handles the fundraising for the golf tournament, said that Harris was actually her hairdresser before convincing her to join the organization. Berger said Harris reached out to her after the first Longest Day and by the next year Berger had hopped on board.

“We’re all very proud of Cindy. She earned that award,” Berger said. “She’s been knocking on senators’ doors and doing the legwork for years.”

Within a couple of years, the Alzheimer’s Association asked Harris to be Alaska’s ambassador to Congress. Typically each senator and representative is assigned an individual ambassador by the organization who keeps in contact with the legislators and lobbies them on Alzheimer’s-related funding and legislation. In Harris’ case, she became the ambassador to all three of Alaska’s members of Congress: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young.

“When they first asked me to be the ambassador I knew nothing about politics other than my own opinion,” Harris said. Harris’ advocacy has since led Alaska’s members of Congress to sponsor or co-sponsor several pieces of Alzheimer’s legislation, including the BOLD Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s Act, the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act and the Younger Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Act.

Harris has since brought on two other Alaska ambassadors to work with her and now deals directly with Murkowski, whom Harris called a “champion” for the cause. The current ambassador to Sullivan, Molly Pelligrom, was not surprised to hear that Harris had been named Advocate of the Year.

“If it wasn’t for her, Alaska would not have progressed as far as it has,” Pelligrom said. “She’s really been putting herself out there. We’re really proud of her.”

Murkowski spoke with Harris on April 2 after Harris was named Advocate of the Year and applauded her for her efforts.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Murkowski said in a media appearence last month. “There’s a lot of people out there that need people like (Cindy) wearing a purple sash and raising the flag.”

Alaska is still currently the only state that does not have an official chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, but Harris intends to change that. Harris said she has been working with the Washington and Oregon chapters to create an Alaska chapter that will likely be based in Anchorage. In the meantime, her focus has shifted to raising awareness about younger onset Alzheimer’s.

“People think that it’s an old person’s disease, but we have a person that was showing symptoms at 27, diagnosed at 33, and passed at 34,” Harris said. “So I’m trying to fight that misconception.”

Harris said that more than 200,000 people under the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s. One step to making those people’s lives easier is giving them access to support programs such as Meals on Wheels, which is currently only available to Americans over the age of 60. The Younger-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Act is Harris’s current pet project, as it would expand the support programs offered by the 1965 Older American’s Act to anyone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, regardless of age. The act has already received bipartisan support and has been co-sponsored by Murkowski in the Senate.

Harris has no intention of slowing down or stopping in her Alzheimer’s advocacy, and aside from pushing legislation in Congress she is gearing up for the fourth annual Longest Day Golf Tournament, which will take place this year on June 23.

“(Alzheimer’s) takes more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined,” Harris said. “If you have a brain, you should be concerned.”

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