Julie Russo, vice president of communications at McKee Homes, a home builder in Fayetteville, N.C., has a personal, passionate drive to end the horror of Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's is a brain disease that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Patients who have late-stage Alzheimer's become unable to carry on a conversation or respond to their environment.
"I don't ever want my kids to go through what my husband went through, so I am going to do whatever I can to help the scientists raise money and help find a cure," Russo says.
Pat McKee and Julie Russo at McKee Homes' 2016 Walk To End Alzheimer's in Fayetteville, AR. Photo courtesy of McKee Homes.
Russo's husband is Pat McKee, co-owner of McKee Homes. Russo says her husband watched his mother Shirley take care of his father Joe for 12 years before Joe died of complications from Alzheimer's in 2010.
Builder establishes memorial fund for research
2010 was also the year McKee and his brother Mike started their home-building company, and founded the Joe McKee Memorial Fund.
Annually, the builder contributes about $50,000 to the fund. That total includes a portion of the profit from every home McKee builds and sells.
The money is disbursed to several charities with the largest chunk -- $35,000 in 2018 -- going to the two North Carolina chapters of the Alzheimer's Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization.
The Alzheimer's Association provides care and support to people affected by the disease, funds research into treatments and the search for a cure, and advocates for government involvement in research and care initiatives.
Employees Keep Walking to end Alzheimer's
McKee Homes also organizes and sponsors an annual Walk To End Alzheimer's in Fayetteville. The builder started the walk in 2011.
That year, Russo sent emails and information packets to bankers, mortgage companies, trade partners – "anyone who would listen to me" – in the community, asking them to get involved as sponsors.
The first inaugural walk was held in a McKee Homes active adult community. The event raised $20,000 for the Alzheimer's Association. The walk became an annual event of which McKee Homes is still a major sponsor. Similar events are held annually in more than 600 U.S. communities.
McKee Homes employees help out at 2016 Walk To End Alzheimer's in Fayetteville, AR. Photo courtesy of McKee Homes / Anne Johnson
In 2017, more than 850 people participated in the Fayetteville walk, and raised $76,000. That wasn't a record, but still a substantial amount for the event. Collectively, the seven walks from 2011-17 have raised more than $475,000 for the Alzheimer's group.
This year McKee Homes will again be a sponsor for the local walk, which will be held Sept. 8, 2018, in Festival Park in downtown Fayetteville. McKee employees and their families normally participate as event volunteers.
Russo, a former school teacher, oversees the home builder's involvement and actively spreads the word.
"Whenever I am at a community event, I (hand out) my business card. On the back, it says, 'Alzheimer's Association – Fayetteville Walk' with the date. We are always talking to people about the mission and the cause," she says.
Mission further connects builder with home buyers
McKee Homes' commitment to donate a portion of every home sold to the cause has also helped the company connect with prospective buyers. Some of them turn up at McKee Homes sales offices and share their own stories about how Alzheimer's has affected them.
Russo says many of the stories involve a mom being a caregiver for a dad. That shared experience creates a connection with McKee Homes.
"That's not why we do it," Russo says, "but it is cool to have those connections with our buyers."
McKee's 18 salespeople are ready to respond to buyers who ask about Alzheimer's and want to know what they can do to help.
Russo says, "Our salespeople are trained to say, 'Here is the 800-number' and 'we have a Walk To End Alzheimer's coming up in this area.' They all know the story of Joe McKee and they're able to tell the story."
Contributions don’t end there
A world without Alzheimer's isn't the only cause McKee Homes supports.
Others have included the Kids Peace Annual Chair-i-table Action, which benefits children in foster care; the Fayetteville Urban Ministry, which supports the local community, and the Cape Fear Guardian Ad Litem Association, a voice for abused, neglected and dependent children in the state court system.
Still, the effort to end Alzheimer's is closest to the McKee family's hearts. The debilitating disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
"The more people that talk about Alzheimer's, the more awareness is raised," Russo says. "People (used to be) embarrassed to talk about it much. The more we talk about it, the less embarrassed we become."
McKee Homes plans to build 300 homes in North Carolina in 2018. Buyers include first-time purchasers, move-up homeowners and active adults. Prices range from $250,000 to $400,000.