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Hometown Heroes: Volunteer tireless in Alzheimer’s fight

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Published:   |   Updated: December 29, 2013 at 10:40 AM

SUN CITY CENTER — Connie Lesko has seen the evils of Alzheimer’s disease up close and knows how it can upend a life, zapping personality and strength. She carried both of her parents through it.

Now she chairs the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Sun City Center each October.

Lesko, says Katie Hood, director of development for the Alzheimer’s Association Florida Gulf Coast Chapter, is the person who always says “yes” — even when her plate is overflowing. And her efforts are making a difference.

Lesko’s familiarity with Alzheimer’s began when one of her parents — then, three years later, the other — showed symptoms of the debilitating brain disease. They both were 80 years old when Alzheimer’s struck.

“We probably left them in their own home a year longer than it was safe,” she said. Lesko, her brother and two sisters worked as a team in deciding how to proceed. Her parents eventually ended up in Plaza West, a secure living facility that is part of Freedom Plaza, a 135-acre senior living community in Sun City Center where Lesko now works as business development coordinator.

“There are millions of people on this same journey,” Lesko said. “My dad went from being a colorful, loving, patriotic man to being a challenging patient, just as he had been a challenging young man. My mother went from being a hardworking woman who hit the ground running each day — sewing, cooking and nurturing — to someone who in the last two years of her life could not walk or talk or feed herself. The only time we heard her voice was when she would sing the occasional hymn, if we played the music.”

Eventually, Lesko picked up the telephone and urged the local Alzheimer’s chapter to allow her to restart an annual walk for a cure, which had stopped years earlier due to a lack of participation in this community filled with seniors.

“I was persistent,” she said. The first year, 2009, she convinced 174 people to walk. They raised $20,326. This October, 360 walkers raised $40,840.

“I believe God puts you in a place for a purpose,” Lesko said. “And I don’t regret one minute of their disease because I had moments with my parents I would not have otherwise had. I was able to love them on a different level and they accepted my love on a different level.”

Their illness gave her a voice, she said. She hopes the work she does to coordinate the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s eventually might contribute to a cure or, at least, more effective treatment for those suffering from it.

“It is less about the walk and more about the fundraising,” Lesko said. And because October is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and competes with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a challenge, she said.

More than 5 million Americans have the disease at a given time, and that makes it a battle worth pursuing, she said. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. “The walk provides research for a cure and treatment. It is a resource” to help end the struggle, she said.

“Connie has been pivotal in keeping the walk going in Sun City Center,” Hood said. “And having that personal connection makes a difference. She is a very caring, loving person with a very big heart and what she is doing is making her community a better place.”

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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