Anna Woidyla has turned a painful time into a cause to fight for.
"I love doing it. I'm turning my personal experience into my passion," the 15-year-old said of raising awareness for dementia.
"It's inspired me to keep going. People are seeing my dedication to it, and they're getting involved and getting motivated through that. That's why I started doing it, and it's what's keeping me going."
On Jan. 9, 2017, she lost her grandmother, Doris Curtis, to dementia. Since then, Woidyla has worked to raise awareness and motivate others to get involved.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. By 2050, the number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million people.
The latest step in Woidyla's fight was Saturday's Alexandria Lakes Area Walk to End Alzheimer's at Big Ole Central Park in Alexandria, where she and members of her family took part in the fight.
"The Alzheimer's disease has been affecting our family for years," Anna's mother, Nancy, said of their numerous family members who have faced challenges because of the disease. She is thankful that her daughter has gotten the whole family involved. "She's advocating for us, saying, 'This really is affecting us. We need to do something.'"
Woidyla's work began long before the walk. This summer, she finished a run where she won first place at the regional, state and national levels for a project of essays called "Defeat Dementia" through Osakis FCCLA.
"I talked about how being informed, motivated and involved can change our future and the future of Alzheimer's," Woidyla said. "Doing those steps, it really changes the future."
She has led by example in her call for action. Her efforts also ended with her family being selected as the honorary family for Saturday's walk.
"We got picked because of Anna's project and her young age, and how much she got involved in the advocacy," Nancy said. "One of my mom's comments to us all the time was, 'I wish I had a new brain. I need to fix my brain.' That always stuck in Anna's mind.
"I said, 'Well, mom, we can't do that.' But I never (stopped) to think there are other things we can do. We need to work on it for the rest of us."
Saturday's walk also featured a Flower Garden, and the Woidylas took a purple flower because they have lost someone to Alzheimer's. There were different colors, as well, but the ultimate goal remains a white flower - the first survivor of Alzheimer's disease.
"That's what we're striving for," Nancy said.
The road is more of a journey than a walk, but Saturday's event marked another important step in finding a cure. For Woidyla, the work has been a worthwhile - and necessary - investment.
"It's an incredible experience," she said. "I never imagined our family being so involved."