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Memories of granddad inspire teacher to plan fundraiser

LOCKPORT – Robby Syruws has fond memories of his grandfather, Leonard Berard, humming along to old favorites.

“My Grandpa loved music and was always humming or whistling a song, mainly Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Syruws said. “He liked the ‘Sound of Music’ and old-fashioned show tunes.”

A battle with Alzheimer’s disease raged more than a dozen years and ravaged Berard’s mind and challenged his body before he passed away at 83 in 2011, Syruws said.

But, even while battling a disease that would rob him of his ability to recognize most family and friends, the Town of Niagara carpenter “continued to sing in some sort of way,” his grandson recalled. “Music was key for him and that’s the memory I have of him.”

As a way to honor his grandfather and raise awareness and funds for the Alzheimer’s Association of Western New York, Syruws and his friends will perform “Music for Memories” at 7 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Historic Palace Theatre, 2 East Ave., Lockport. Tickets are $10 and available at the door, which opens at 6 p.m.

The evening will feature a night of Broadway tunes sung by Syruws and Anne DeFazio, Kelly Ersing and Katie Merrill, accompanied by pianist Marnie Williams Aldrow.

Syruws, a fourth-grade teacher at the Charter School for Applied Technologies in Buffalo, said that while acting and performing in the area, “I’ve met some crazy talented people. So, I reached out to a few of my closest friends.

“Anne is a music teacher in Niagara Wheatfield, Kelly is a music teacher in Tonawanda and Katie is an art teacher at DeSales Catholic School,” Syruws said. “They are graciously giving of their time and talent to help me put this together.”

Alzheimer’s is the only one among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. More than five million Americans battle the disease and one in three seniors die from it or another dementia.

Syruws, a North Tonawanda resident, recently took some time to chat about his special relationship with his grandfather, whom he called, “Papa,” while growing up in Lewiston. He also talked about his personal interest in raising awareness and funding for the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Please tell me about your grandfather.

He was diagnosed in the 1990s and he had a long haul with Alzheimer’s. We watched him slowly deteriorate. So many people hear of Alzheimer’s, and they just think of losing your mind, but there is the whole physical component. It gets hard to take care of yourself. You lose relationships with your family and friends.

It was a very hard thing to watch him go through. I was in early high school. And, it took a toll on my grandmother, who took care of him.

I was very fortunate because I was one of the few people he would remember. Even towards the end, there was still a little response to my name, but I had always had a special connection with my Grandpa.

Did your family receive services through the Alzheimer’s Association during your grandfather’s illness?

Yes. The Alzheimer’s Association provided volunteer caregivers and they would come and stay with Grandpa, and that would free up Grandma a few hours each week. They did that until he finally had to go into a nursing home.

Have you been involved in other fundraisers for the organization?

Yes. I started doing the Memory Walk (the Walk to End Alzheimer’s), which takes place in the fall, over 12 years ago. In fact, I did it with my Grandpa for a few years. He was in a wheelchair, but we were still able to do it.

Now we have a group of about 10 to 15 family and friends who do the walk in Artpark each year. We call ourselves “Len’s Friends” for my grandfather. One of his volunteer caregivers came up with that name.

Because I’ve participated for so many years, they reached out to me and I am serving on the walk committee this year.

How did the idea for the “Music for Memories” come about?

I’m a firm believer that if you have a talent, you should use it to create some good. My grandfather never saw me perform because I kind of came out of my shell later in life. But I do a lot of performing and acting in the area.

We’ll do everything from the classic standards to current Broadway hits. We end the performance with “mad libs.” The audience gets a form in their program where they write down a noun or adjective and we’ve all chosen a song in advance of this, but it has words missing. The audience suggests the words we plug in, but we don’t see them until we sing. It’s comedic, improvisational and it gives the audience the chance to participate. We tried it last time (in 2014) and it went over well.

The Palace Theatre is being very generous to us and we are very fortunate to have that beautiful space. We’ll also have 50/50 raffles and sell elephant cookies in the lobby to raise more funds. They symbolize Alzheimer’s because elephants never forget.

And, we’ll have a representative from the Alzheimer’s Association in the lobby with information available, because we want to educate people about this, as well.

What will the funds be used for?

One hundred percent of the funds we raise will go to educational programs, patient care and research. Research is key. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in U.S. and there is no cure and no way to slow it down.

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For more information on the disease, visit: www.alz.org.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.