PITTSFIELD -- Deborah Collins, of Pittsfield, is the oldest of seven children, and she took it upon herself to be to be a mother for her siblings after their mother died of breast cancer.
At ease helping others, she became a social worker, and then she married and lovingly raised four children.
However, nearly four years ago, a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease unexpectedly upended her life.
Her many loved ones wouldn't sit idly by.
The Collins family raised $19,512 for the Sept. 21 Alzheimer's Association-sponsored Walk to End Alzheimer's in Cheshire, which was more than double the total of the second-ranked team, according to the association's website.
"It's just one avenue for us to acknowledge our support for our sister," said Jim Brennan, of Long Meadow, who personally donated $500 and also raised $5,945 for the cause. "We want to be there to support her."
In three years, Deborah's family have raised more than $42,000 through online solicitations, according to daughter-in-law Emily Collins. Two dozen family and friends from across the country gathered for the four-mile walk at the Ashuwillticook Trail in Cheshire.
Following Deborah's diagnosis, family members learned of the local walk and rushed to join. They raised $10,000 the first year, and the fundraising has grown every year as the family taps a larger network, Emily said.
The family's team was named "Queen Deb's Bees" because, as the oldest sibling, Deborah was anointed the "Queen Bee," a nickname that has persisted over decades, according to Emily.
"We were surprised, for sure," Emily said, marvelling at the fundraising. "We thought that $15,000 was going to be a stretch for us. Every year we are shocked and comforted by how much support we have received."
Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and analytical skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. Experts suggest that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer's disease, according to the federal National Institute on Aging.
Family members say Deborah, 59, stopped driving two years ago. She is no longer able to do basic tasks such as doing laundry and making meals. She was a constant presence in her children's lives, but now her children find ways to be around their mother.
Deborah's husband, and her primary caretaker, Kelly Collins, said he donated $1,000 to the effort. The family would like to support finding a cure.
"I've realized what a debilitating disease it is -- stealing memories, functionality and independence -- and how it really isolates people," Collins said. "We want to raise as much awareness as we can to find a cure, while being as supportive as we can to my wife."
Deborah's son, Brennan Collins, raised $630, and he knows from participating in the walk many others would like to see a cure. Every year, the walk conjures similiar emotions for him.
"You don't know if you'll go in feeling sadness or feeling comforted seeing so many people in the same position. Or you feel uncomfortable because there are so many in the same position," he said. "I think every year you feel all those feelings. You feel sad, feel a sense of comfort, and also happiness because this is a way for us to do something about it."