SAVANNAH, Ga (WSAV) — The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) named Mary Willis, of McDonough, Georgia, the first-place winner of its national 2022 Alzheimer’s Awareness Scholarship Essay Contest and awarded her a $5,000 college scholarship. 

Willis was chosen from nearly 1,800 entries nationwide for her essay about her grandmother Frances, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when Mary was just nine-years-old, and the lessons she learned during her grandmother’s time with the illness. 

Her essay described her close relationship with her grandmother Frances, and, despite how hard it has been seeing Alzheimer’s change her grandmother, that it taught her much about herself and helped her understand that her greatest remembrances of her were the ones that shaped her into the person she is today.

Mary Willis (L), with her grandmother Frances (C) and her mom Christy Willis.

“I grew up going to church with her and just watching how involved she was with the faith and just how much she wanted to make a difference in other people,” she told WSAV. “I just loved how she would smile at others and I think that’s why I have the personality that I do today and just how much I love talking to people. That was one of the qualities that just always stood out to me.”

In addition to going to church with her grandmother, Willis also enjoyed special sleepovers at her home.

“I absolutely loved it because she would let me sit in her bed and she would make me PB&J’s on the white bread, which my family did not have at home, so it was like a special treat. She would cut the crust off it and just let me sit in her bed and watch movies.”

Even through those sweet moments, Willis knew her grandmother to be a hard worker who sacrificed a lot for her family.

“My work ethic in every aspect of my life represents the two jobs she worked to send my mother to college. I strive to be the best student and teammate possible as I remember what my grandmother gave up to give my mom her best shot. My drive to be the best person I can be, not just for myself, but for those around me reflects the type of person she was. My grandmother inspires me daily to change the world even if it starts small,” she wrote. 

Frances’ hard work and sacrifice paid off as her daughter Christy Willis, who is now retired, graduated college and went on to become the chief financial officer for Henry County Schools and Willis the founder of the Passion Project in which students across Henry County collected donations for memory care settings and see firsthand the effects the disease has on those diagnosed as well as their family and friends. Willis is also an Auburn University student who plans to open a chapter of the Passion Project there as well.

“When I was at orientation, I actually kind of noticed that there wasn’t really anything big there talking about dementia or Alzheimer’s and I was like ‘Oh, this is going to be perfect! I really hope to open up a chapter of the Passion Project and just get other students that may have had similar experiences like, as me with their grandparents going through dementia or someone close to them to be kind of that support system first and foremost.”

Willis believes that anyone can change the world even if it starts small, like Frances inspired her to do.

“You can really work for anything you wish to accomplish. Even if you didn’t grow up super-wealthy, or with a lot, you can always work for something and there are people that are supporting you and want you to achieve. My mom worked her hardest to be where she’s at now but it stemmed from my grandmother. She had that support from my grandmother. When you look at people that are trying their hardest for you to have the best shot, it really helps you work harder as well.”

According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with the disease, those with the late-onset type symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s occurs between a person’s 30s and mid-60s and is very rare. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults.

AFA’s annual Alzheimer’s Awareness Scholarship Essay Contest asks high school seniors to describe how Alzheimer’s disease has impacted their lives, what they have learned about themselves, their families, and their community in the face of this disease, and what their plans are for bringing awareness to the disease in the future. This year, AFA awarded almost $90,000 in college scholarships to 117 students from across the country.  

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide support, services and education to individuals, families and caregivers affected by Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias nationwide and to fund research for better treatment and a cure. Its services include a National Toll-Free Helpline (866-232-8484) staffed by licensed social workers, the National Memory Screening Program, educational conferences and materials, and “AFA Partners in Care” dementia care training for healthcare professionals. For more information click here.