Hanna Meronk

My day job is community engagement manager for the South Central Wisconsin office of the Alzheimer’s Association. Fundraising is a large part of my job and people are often familiar with some of our major fundraisers.

We host two walks locally in Madison and Beloit and there are more than 600 Walk to End Alzheimer’s events nationally. The Longest Day is more of a DYI fundraiser that started about four years ago. We encourage people to do something that ties to their personal experience with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

The Alzheimer’s Association is committed to walking with families affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia throughout their journey. Many people are introduced to us through our walks.

Everyone who participates receives a pinwheel and the color ties to your relationship to Alzheimer’s or dementia: purple means you’ve lost someone; blue means you’re living with it; orange is general support and yellow means you’re a caregiver. At each walk, we have one white pinwheel: this symbolizes our first survivor.

We start the event with a Promise Garden ceremony. One person from each group talks about their journey—which is very impactful and often quite teary—and then we start the walk. It’s literally a sea of purple and very moving. Last year we had over 1300 walkers in Madison and more than 400 in Beloit.

People are becoming more comfortable talking about their experience with Alzheimer’s and dementia—awareness has skyrocketed.  The money we raise through our efforts goes to a combination of research and support and the vast majority of funds stays right here. Some is used directly at our office and some goes indirectly to the UW where it’s used for research. Members of my family have suffered from these diseases and it’s part of the reason I’m here doing this work. Five years ago, it wasn’t really on my radar and now it’s my world.

Our organization is quite small in terms of staff, but very much volunteer supported and led. Our volunteers are critical to our efforts and allow us to run some amazing programs. One is Spry Society. These are monthly events for early stage patients and caregivers. It’s an opportunity to put people outside their comfort zone, which engages portions of their brain they might not typically use.

We’re also very fortunate to have access to a dementia specialist, Joy Schmidt through our partnership with the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Dane County. She is invaluable.

My most memorable caffeine is the Red Bull I tried in college. It was your classic story of being up late studying for an exam and trying this to stay awake. I had no idea what it would do to me! I ended up running on a treadmill at 11:00. It kept me awake but served no other purpose. Caffeine and I aren’t a great match. I tend to save my caffeine consumption for walk days.

My current caffeine of choice is typically none. I am a big fan of the Mango Dragonfruit Refresher at Starbucks and the green smoothie at Barriques.

My favorite place for caffeine is typically local—I do like to support local businesses—but I do have a weakness for those Starbuck drinks!

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is Ellen DeGeneres. I love that she’s able to connect to people of all kinds and what a great job she does finding that little bit of positive in any situation. I wish more people were like Ellen!

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: helping older young adults.

Before I came to the Alzheimer’s Association, I was with the Boys and Girls Club in Berlin where I was the director of special events and marketing. As much as I love my current role, I could eventually see myself getting back into a youth-serving organization.

We have a variety of resources to help kids, but there’s a real gap once people hit age 18. You’re not fully an adult and you need a lot of support and someone to care about you. But there isn’t an organization designed to meet the needs of that population. I’d especially love to do something in the area of financial literacy.