BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
More than 700 guests celebrated at the 31st Annual Alzheimer’s Association Chicago Rita Hayworth Gala underwritten by Rolex recently at the Hilton Chicago.
Co-chairs Jon and Allie Harris ran with the theme “Pure Imagination” and featured candy-covered centerpieces, inspired by Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder. The star died from complications of Alzheimer’s in 2016; both Allie and Jon had grandparents who suffered from the tragic disease.
The gala, featuring Ken Arlen’s Evolution Orchestra and a live auction that included a jet to the Kentucky Derby with winner’s circle seats, raised $1.1 million.
Begun in New York in 1985 by Princess Yasmin Aga Kahn in honor of her mother Rita Hayworth, the gala recognizes individuals who have a personal connection to the disease and use their national platform to raise awareness and provide support for the more than 5 million Americans and the estimated 16 million who are serving as caregivers impacted by the disease. Under her leadership, over $74 million has been raised through the Chicago and New York Rita Hayworth galas. All funds raised through the galas support the Alzheimer’s Association’s research, care, and support programs.
This year’s Pure Imagination Award went to Karen Wilder, Gene’s wife of 25 years, and his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman for their public campaigns to increase awareness.
Natalie Morales, former Today Show host now anchoring Access Live, received the Caregiver Award for using her voice to highlight the disease and aid her mother-in-law who suffered from the disease for 15 years.
To learn more about the Alzheimer’s Association’s Chicago beginnings, we talked with Phoebe Stone Nitekman, whose grandfather Jerome H. Stone founded the organization when she was a child. Phoebe has made it her mission to continue her family’s legacy by rallying her peers in support of those impacted by Alzheimer’s.
As a young adult, Phoebe recognized and acted on an opportunity to engage the next generation of advocates by establishing the Young Champions Committee as a way for young professionals to get involved.
Phoebe, as you were growing up, what did you hear about the Association from your parents and grandparents? Do you remember going to the Rita Hayworth Gala as a child?
My first memory of the Rita Hayworth Gala is from 1988 when my mom chaired the gala. The theme was Stand By Me and Ben E. King came to perform his classic song. My sisters and I got all dressed up and came for the beginning of the night. We felt so special being there—even to a child it was obviously an important function, and we knew we were surrounded by powerful people doing significant work.
Tell us about your family’s three-generational commitment to fighting this devastating disease.
When my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the ‘70s, my grandfather attempted to research the disease and learn more about the symptoms and how the disease would progress. Of course, this was back in the day when you literally went to the library to do research. He traveled downtown to the Harold Washington Library, where he thought he would find the most information, and he was disappointed to realize that in all the medical reference books and journals there was merely one paragraph about Alzheimer’s disease. He then made it his mission to raise awareness and secure funding for research toward a cause.
Just a few years later, he officially founded The Alzheimer’s Association. Since that time several members of my family over three generations have worked to support the Association in many ways. I am honored to be my family’s current link to the Rita Hayworth Gala Steering Committee.
Do you feel that a cure will be found in the immediate future?
With all the incredible research happening over the last decade, I truly hoped that my grandfather would see a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in his lifetime. He died just three years ago, and even though he lived to be almost 102, he did not get to see his dream of a world without Alzheimer’s come true. I am certain that I will. I believe there is a patient living with Alzheimer’s now who will not die from the disease.
Having been involved with the Association for so long, I have heard the research updates over the years and it is amazing how close we are to a cure. Just a few months ago, I heard Maria Carrillo, Chief Science Officer for the Association, give a research update. I have heard Maria speak several times, and each time it is clear that the physicians and scientists are working tirelessly and figuring out so much more about the disease than ever before. This most recent update left me more hopeful than ever that I will live to see a cure.
How you are involved with the organization now?
I began regularly attending the Rita Hayworth Gala almost 20 years ago with my grandfather. I became more involved 10 years ago when my family chaired the event. In 2008 I represented the Stone family in preparation for the gala, working with the steering committee to plan for the event. At the gala I spoke to attendees about my family’s experience as well as our goals for the association. I noticed a major gap in representation for my age group, and in response I started a group called the Young Champions Committee. This is a group of young people who commit to fundraising for a table at the gala at a lower price point, which is more attainable.
I feel it is important to get the next generation involved now, as this disease begins to affect our parents’ generation. We are now a generation of caregivers and we are the ones who will soon celebrate a cure!
For further information, visit alz.org or call 800-272-3900.
Photo credit: Bill Richert