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Celebrating Volunteers: A love story shaping the way for Fox Valley families to better understand dementia

Posted at 6:17 AM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 08:49:21-05

FOX VALLEY REGION (NBC 26) — As we continue to recognize amazing people in our community, meet a man whose love story is helping shape the way for Fox Valley families to learn more about dementia.

It's a part of our Celebrating Volunteer series with the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. Meet Walt Zerrenner, last year's winner for the Paul and Elaine Groth Mentoring Award. Nominations are now open for this year's awards, click here to check them out.

"It was 55 years, November 20," Walt smiled.

For Walt and his wife Aline, their future looks a little different than what they planned. Aline, diagnosed with dementia about 12 years ago.

"We used to go to Carmella's," he said. "Aline loved Carmella's, they always gave her a free dessert."

While the couple may not be able to do the things they used to, some of that in part to the pandemic, Walt decided years ago, he wanted to do more to help. In 2014, they attended the first Memory Cafe offered in the Fox Valley, and that's where a lot of his work began.

"I had never thought of some of the things I was doing as mentoring," he said.

Walt became very involved with the Fox Valley Memory Project, even starting his own support group helping husband's whose wives have dementia.

"When you talk about mentoring, when I mentor with the men's group, I also get mentored by the men that are there because I'm hearing their stories and what they're dealing with."

That's why Walt, didn't see it coming when he won the Paul and Elaine Groth Mentoring Award last year.

"She says, "congratulations, you won," and I said, 'really? I didn't even know I was nominated,'" he light-heartedly said.

Today, Walt still stays pretty pretty busy: co-authoring a book, working with veterans, as well as those with cognitive disabilities at BEAMING, Inc.

"It's very rewarding. Kind of an analogous to when I used to teach skiing, down-hill skiing and little kids who'd never been on skis before, and by the end they're coming down by themselves, it's kind of the same feeling."

While Walt said today he misses taking Aline out the most as she's lived in a home for the last six years, still talking and visiting while he can during a pandemic, there's one piece of advice he wants you to take away:

"I think the most impactful thing for me and the community is, don't have this dementia stigma. Be out there, do the things you can still do. Certainly, this is not what we had planned for our retirement funds and our retirement years, we wanted to travel the world and do things. But accept the things you cannot do anymore and appreciate the things you can do."

Walt donated his $5,000 award from the Mielke Family Foundation to the Fox Valley Memory Project. If you know someone who would fit this award for mentoring and leadership in the community, click here. Nominations close February 5.