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updated: 8/2/2013 4:19 PM

Lombard man to walk 750 miles for Alzheimer's cause

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  • William Glass of Lombard begins a 750-mile walking trek Monday to Atlanta, Ga., to raise funds for Alzheimer's research and tell as many people as he can about the disease's devastating effects and societal costs. Glass will walk the entire journey without a support van, carrying a 25-pound backpack with camping gear and everything he needs.

       William Glass of Lombard begins a 750-mile walking trek Monday to Atlanta, Ga., to raise funds for Alzheimer's research and tell as many people as he can about the disease's devastating effects and societal costs. Glass will walk the entire journey without a support van, carrying a 25-pound backpack with camping gear and everything he needs.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • William Glass of Lombard researches route logistics and legislator visits for the 750-mile journey to Atlanta, Ga., to raise funds for Alzheimer's research and inform as many people as he can about the disease's devastating effects and societal costs.

       William Glass of Lombard researches route logistics and legislator visits for the 750-mile journey to Atlanta, Ga., to raise funds for Alzheimer's research and inform as many people as he can about the disease's devastating effects and societal costs.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Eileen Glass, 72, is the motivation for William Glass' 750-mile walk to Atlanta for Alzheimer's research. Eileen, William's mother, was diagnosed with the cognitive disease three years ago.

      Eileen Glass, 72, is the motivation for William Glass' 750-mile walk to Atlanta for Alzheimer's research. Eileen, William's mother, was diagnosed with the cognitive disease three years ago.
    Courtesy of William Glass

  • Video: HOPE for Alzheimer's Act

 
 

On 750 miles of roads between Lombard and Atlanta, William Glass will be "the guy with the bright purple shoes," walking with a 25-pound pack on his back and his mom on his mind.

Glass' mother, Eileen, was diagnosed three years ago with Alzheimer's disease, and Glass says he doesn't want to lose any more time with her.

He's walking all the way from Lombard to Atlanta not only to be with his mom, but also to deliver a message about the disease that's stealing her memory.

Nearly everyone is affected in some way by Alzheimer's, Glass says, because more than 5 million Americans suffer from the cognitive disorder, another 15 million people take care of those patients, and the disease is expected to cost the nation $203 billion this year.

"I was blown away by the facts," said Glass, 37. "I just want to get out the awareness of how many more people have this disease and how much more funding we need."

Through his trek, he's trying to raise $10,000 for the Alzheimer's Association. Glass said he plans to meet with lawmakers in Chicago and along the way chat with locals at diners and coffee shops, and set up camp in church yards -- all to emphasize the importance of research against the memory-stealing disorder that affects so many.

"When I tell anybody my mom has Alzheimer's, I get that same sad look -- people understand," Glass said. "It says to me that everyone has been affected by this disease in one way or another."

Flowers for Mom

The Alzheimer's diagnosis Glass' mother received in 2010 dealt another blow to a family that already had experienced tragedy. Glass, the youngest of four children who grew up on a farm in Plainfield, said his father died when he was 3 months old. A year later, his oldest brother committed suicide at 12 years old, and Eileen Glass lost her first child.

Later, Eileen remarried, but the devout Catholic endured what Glass called a "challenging" relationship.

"It's really sad that she has been diagnosed with this because she's such a beautiful person," Glass said about his mother, now 72. "She had a very rough life."

As a boy, Glass said he often would go looking for wildflowers to cheer his mom up, sometimes only returning with dandelions or weeds, but always working to show he cared. He's calling his journey "Flowers for Mom" and bringing a single flower along with the camping gear he'll tote in a 25-pound backpack as he walks through six states.

When he arrives, likely sometime in September, Glass said he'll put whatever remains of the lone flower in a vase -- just like his mom would during his childhood -- and then they'll go on a walk.

"She always told me as a kid, 'If you ever need to get out and clear your mind, go for a walk,'" Glass said.

Walk of a lifetime

Glass quit his job as a bartender and waiter at a fine dining restaurant and started training about three months ago, practicing along the Illinois Prairie Path and building back strength so he can average 25 miles a day.

Glass will walk without the aid of a support van, so he's traveling light.

If -- or, more likely, when -- his bright purple New Balance sneakers wear out, he'll buy a new pair. When he needs food, he'll find somewhere to stop and more folks to educate about Alzheimer's. His new smartphone and charging equipment will remain by his side as a lifeline and a means to update the world about his progress.

Not a technology nerd or a social media guru, Glass started Twitter, Gmail and Facebook accounts specifically for this trip. People can follow his updates @7504alz on Twitter, email him at 7504alz@gmail.com or join the Flowers for Mom event page on Facebook.

Staff members at Lombard's Helen Plum Memorial Library helped Glass ramp up his online presence and gave him computer time to research his route. He's trying to avoid expressways while still hitting major towns in each state.

"If I go 10 miles in a day, so be it, or if it's 35 miles, I'm happy to do that as well," Glass said. "If it rains, I'll pitch my tent or go into a restaurant and talk to people."

Glass already has fans at the Alzheimer's Association, where staff members like Ellie Simpson say they are amazed by his go-with-the-flow attitude and determination.

"He really just wants to bring as much awareness to the cause as possible," said Simpson, manager of athletic events for the association's Greater Illinois Chapter. "I'm completely confident and he is completely confident in his ability to do it."

Ready to begin

When Monday dawns, Glass will meet with four Chicago-area U.S. representatives and then step off toward Valparaiso, Ind.

The legislative angle of his message promotes the HOPE for Alzheimer's Act. HOPE stands for health outcomes, planning and education in the name of the federal bill, which would create funding within Medicare for a package of services including a formal Alzheimer's diagnosis documented in medical records and care planning once the diagnosis is made.

Glass said he also will push legislators to allocate more funding for research. Alzheimer's is the most common form of the subset of diseases called dementia. It attacks the brain and causes slowly worsening symptoms that interfere with memory, thinking and everyday behaviors. It has no cure.

"There is something out there that is causing this and we do not know what it is," Glass said.

It's hard for Glass to say exactly how much the disease is affecting his mother. She acts like she remembers him and his siblings, but he said he's not sure what other people, phases or stories from her life she may be losing. That's why he's eager to embark on his trek to see her and make her proud.

"It will be a huge accomplishment and I cannot wait," Glass said. "I've been champing at the bit, and I'm ready to go."

Once Glass reaches Atlanta, he'll be there to stay. Friends in Lombard will ship his belongings from storage to his new apartment and he'll begin a couple jobs he has lined up. But more importantly, he'll be able to spend more time and make more memories with him mom.

"All us kids care about now is that she's happy," Glass said, "that she has a smile on her face."

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