DuBOIS — A local man dressed in purple carries a brightly-colored flower as he walks to remember his wife of 50 years at the DuBois City Park.
Big Run resident Tom Berryhill, 82, not only faithfully participates in the Walk to End Alzheimer's year after year, but holds his own fundraising campaign throughout the year.
Berryhill is a retired Pennsylvania State Trooper of 39 years, and also a Marine Corps veteran.
Tom's wife, Sonja “Sonie” Berryhill, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and vascular dementia around the age of 69. The vascular dementia, caused by an impaired blood supply to the brain, caused Sonie to suffer from unpredictable and frequent seizures.
As part of the "Promise Garden" mission, Tom writes Sonja's name on a purple flower — the color that represents a loved one lost to the disease — holding it throughout the walk and then planting it in the grass.
For a while, Tom was Sonie's primary caregiver, until Home Health began to make visits three times a week, he said. When she realized she couldn't recognize how to work the stove or drive a car, she quit doing those things voluntarily and never put up a fight.
“She smiled and she knew me, but she couldn't do anything,” he said.
Although Sonie suffered from a debilitating illness, she was blessed in certain ways, Tom says. She never tried to wander off, and didn't lash out in anger, as many Alzheimer's patients do.
“She would have seizures, and then come back smiling like nothing ever happened,” he said. “She was always smiling.”
Tom is dedicated to carrying on Sonja's smile through helping those just like her.
He volunteers three days a week, for a few hours a day, at Christ the King Manor of DuBois, where he visits with the Alzheimer's and dementia-diagnosed residents. He helps organize activities, serve lunch and offer them fellowship.
“They love volunteers — it just makes their day when you spend a minute with them,” he said. “Some of them don't get visitors.”
Tom was the Walk's highest fundraiser at the 2017 event, among a dozen or more teams, and was honored on stage, he said. He also surpassed his goal of raising $1,500 for this year's, he said, and has reached $1,600 as of this week.
Many of his donations come through friends, family and strangers, and via Facebook and email, he added.
The dedication Berryhill shows through his community commitment, fundraising and volunteering is all in honor of the woman he loved. He has made many wonderful friends at Christ the King, both patients and employees, following their lives and stories through his daily visits.
“The compassion and love Tom shows while volunteering his time is truly admirable and inspiring,” said Larissa Bernardo, who is a beautician at the senior care home. “He makes the employees and residents feel respected and important. Christ the King is beyond lucky to have Tom around.”
The year his wife passed, Tom raised $3,000, and even attended the Alzheimer's Walk the day after her funeral in October of 2013.
He has many memories with Sonie, and some still bring him to tears. Before she stopped speaking, he remembers the last words she ever said to him — “I love you so much."
Alzheimer's is an especially tragic disease, since there is still no cure, Tom said.
All the community can do is support one another, Tom says, raising awareness and funds to combat an illness that impacts many patients, caregivers and family members.
“I don't know if they'll ever find a cure, but we try,” he said.