By Tori Wittenbrock
Associate Sports Editor
GREEN BAY – As the Phoenix work deeper into the 2023–24 season, they are quickly approaching their Attacking Alzheimer’s theme night that they will host on Friday, Oct. 27 at 6 p.m. in the Kress.
“We are partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association and they’ve been wonderful in helping out to spread awareness and research for Alzheimer’s, which is really important since it is 100% deadly and there is no cure right now,” said Phoenix Women’s Volleyball Head Coach Abbey Southerland.
“The game they play helps in a number of ways. They raised just under $9,000 in donations last year, so for one, it helps out monetarily,” said Walk to End Alzheimer’s Director Cari Josephson. “It helps from an awareness standpoint as well, breaking down stigma and letting people know there are resources out there.”
The Phoenix will be honoring caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s at the game by providing them with a free ticket and allowing them to stand on the court between the second and third period, allowing them to share stories with each other and feel connected and supported.
Josephson said that the idea for the game has been carefully thought out to maximize support for the community of people plagued with the tragic disease. “They talked about doing a caregiver highlight during the game, but thought, ‘Why stop at one?’ That’s when they decided to bring them down between the second and third periods and have them come down on the court to honor them, because caregiving is really hard work.”
“Caregivers can feel really alone. It’s a really bad place to be in terms of having to take care of someone with Alzheimer’s. It can be very taxing, and you can end up feeling really alone if you have no support,” said Southerland.
Josephson said that she has been the director of the Walk to End Alzheimer’s for about three years now, and though she does not have a personal connection to the disease, she said she has seen the way that it can affect the lives of others.
Josephson also said that the association’s connection with UW-Green Bay Athletics has been established for a number of years now.
“Our connection really started through Southerland, back when she was with UW-Stevens Point since she knew the planning committee.”
The Walk to End Alzheimer’s was hosted in Green Bay on Sept. 16, and brings out around 600 people each year, including athletes from UW-Green Bay.
Last year, multiple athletes from the Phoenix Women’s Volleyball team showed up on walk day to show their support.
“Abbey’s dad Rob was speaking last year so they were there to support him and he will be holding the purple flower this year,” said Josephson. The purple flower is held by someone who has lost someone to the disease.
“It was a really cool experience last year. It was completely unplanned. I didn’t say a whole lot about walk day because I knew they had a game that afternoon. They came out and walked and did sidewalk chalk,” said Josephson. “A number of them did just want to step out and support a cause that means so much to them.”
Though an important cause to many, Southerland has a personal connection to the disease after losing her mom, Rhonda, to the disease last year.
“I’ve been through a really horrible ten year journey, so I think that just being out there as a resource for these girls and sharing my experience shows my strength, even though it’s not always easy for me to do,” said Southerland.
However, Sutherland said that the support goes both ways. While she tries her best to always be there for her team, she knows that the women on the team are in her corner as well.
“A lot of the girls were out there (at the walk) supporting my dad. He spent some time with the players and was really moved by it.”
“I know they are focusing on finding fun and important ideas to make the game even better this year since they lost Rhonda,” said Josephson.
Southerland said that it is really important to have people show up for the game and show their support, not only for the team, but for a great cause.
“Especially in the past year, there has been a lot of movement towards finding a medicine that slows down the progression of the disease, so research is really important. My dad talks all the time about how important support was for our family with meal trains from family and friends. There are people that don’t have that kind of support that monetary help goes towards, so donations and funding is really impactful,” said Southerland.
Although the disease affects many families, there is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding in circulation about the disease.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of people are affected by Alzheimer’s that aren’t elderly. My mom was diagnosed at 56, showing signs in her 50s which is just tragic. A lot of players on the team are affected by it through their family members. I like to be there to support them through my own knowledge and experiences,” said Southerland.
Through her support, not only as a coach, but also as a mentor Southerland hopes to be a pillar of support for the female athletes on her team.
“I’m coaching volleyball, but really I’m also coaching life. I’m trying to raise young women that can help their community and everything they are doing now is really impacting their community a lot. By me sharing my story and showing support it really helps them to be able to form a connection through the support and empathy I can show them,” said Southerland.
“Me being vulnerable helps form connections for some of these young women dealing with the difficulties that accompany the disease.”
The Phoenix women’s volleyball team, while ready to play in an important game against Robert Morris University, also knows that they will be playing for a lot more that night.
“Come out to feel connected if you are a caregiver or know people affected by Alzheimer’s. You can really make a difference and the best part is that you get to do it while supporting a great group of women. Volleyball is a really great sport to watch and this is a great game to be a part of,” said Southerland.