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Behind Dancing for The ARK's Stars

  • Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Each spring since 2011 hundreds flock to watch local celebrities two-step and tango for the popular Dancing with The ARK’s Stars dance contest, but the event is more than just spectacle.

The ARK refers to its dancers as stars because “most of the people who agree to dance do it because The ARK means something to them,” said Cheryl Moniz, The ARK’s development director.

The eight dancers are star fundraisers and star advocates for The ARK, which provides temporary respite care for those with Alzheimer’s and their families.

Of all types of dementia – an umbrella term for diseases that affect memory and thinking – Alzheimer’s is the most common. The disease, nicknamed “the long goodbye,” causes a person to lose their memory and also affects behavior and thinking. Most people with Alzheimer’s are 65 years or older, although early-onset Alzheimer’s can occur in people as young as 40 years old. There is no known cure, but there are drugs that can slow the disease’s progression.

The local statistics are staggering – there are more than 9,000 registered cases of dementia in the Lowcountry, which may only be a fraction of the real number of cases. In the state, there are approximately 80,000 people living with Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association predicts by 2025, South Carolina will be home to more than 125,000 with dementia.

Compare those numbers with “10,” the average number of people with Alzheimer’s who visit The ARK, at 206 Central Ave., per day.

Often among them is 83-year-old Dr. Lidia Vallarino, a retired research chemist and professor, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008. Vallarino’s daughter, Dorchester County Probate Judge Mary Blunt, has been using The ARK’s services to help with her mother’s caregiving.

“She’ll be able to stay at home two years longer through this program,” said Blunt. “It helps them keep what they have.”

As a probate judge, Blunt deals with Alzheimer’s both personally and professionally.

If a person becomes incapacitated, such as through Alzheimer’s, but doesn’t have legal documents in order, families have to go to probate court to obtain guardianship or conservatorship.

“We know our families very well, they’re our case forever until the incapacitated person passes away,” Blunt said. According to her, the court has more than 300 open cases.

Knowing how strenuous it is to take care of her mother, Blunt encourages the caregivers in her cases to take care of themselves and use support services available to them, like respite care and counseling at The ARK.

“What Cheryl, Peg, Nancy, Anne and Micky do is top-quality, top-notch service. You’re never going to find anything as good as them,” she said.

The ARK only operates for four hours each day, but the care they offer is enough of a break for caretakers to go to work or run errands without worrying about loved ones.

“I think [caregivers] leave feeling uplifted, like they know what to do. We get a dialogue and discussion going,” said Blunt. “I wouldn’t even talk about how my mom had Alzheimer’s at all before.”

Moniz explained, “(We) try to make everyone comfortable. People leave our office laughing and happy. There is never a sad day at The ARK.”

From her experience using the service, Blunt agreed: “Caregivers leave feeling like they got what they needed.”

Still, there is more The ARK can do.

They service five counties – Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley, Colleton and Orangeburg – but have to travel to reach all coverage areas, meaning people who live farther away aren’t getting as much help as they could. Also, since its beginning 18 years ago, The ARK has used space in St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, but Moniz said they share the space with other groups and need to expand to their own facility.

Most importantly, The ARK is a nonprofit, so it relies on grant funds and donations to operate. Those who use The ARK’s services do have to pay tuition, but Moniz said roughly 75 percent of participants receive scholarships to supplement the cost.

The facility relies heavily on its fundraising events – the Race for The ARK in August and Dancing with The ARK’s Stars in March.

To ensure the dancing event is a success, Blunt has been the “Mirror Ball” sponsor since its inception, donating more than $5,000 each year to put on the event.

And it has been a success: In 2011, its first year, the event raise $15,000 for The ARK. The following year that amount nearly doubled. Last year, in 2013, they raised $48,000.

“We’re hoping to reach that magic number, $50,000, this year,” Moniz said.

Blunt said she’s been more than happy to contribute to the event’s success.

“I’ve told my mom we do this in her honor. She doesn’t remember, but it’s exciting every time we tell her,” Blunt said. “It’s a wonderful organization and we consider ourselves lucky and honored to help them. It makes me feel proud I’m doing something for my mom. This is something she would have done.”

The 2014 Dancing with The ARK’s Stars is being held at Pinewood Preparatory School, 1114 Orangeburg Road, on March 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $50 in advance, $60 at the door.

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