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Humble housewife honored for helping those with Parkinson's

Ann Hanson won the Silverstein Community Service Award for her dedication and hard work in organizing and maintaining a support group in Alexandria for Parkinson's disease. (Caroline Roers/Echo Press)

Ann Hanson never thought she would win an award, she never thought she would be in charge of a support group and she never thought Parkinson's disease would be a prominent aspect of her life.

But as she stood in the front of the room with a meek smile on her face at the Silverstein Community Award Dinner and Benefit in Golden Valley, it all hit her.

"I got my first standing ovation there. I'm just not used to this; I'm just a humble housewife. So it was the kids say, awesome," she said.

Hanson was one of three recipients of the Paul M. Silverstein Community Service award from the Struthers Parkinson's Center. The award is given to individuals who have worked to raise awareness, improve programs and services and/or advanced research for the Parkinson's community of the Upper Midwest.

Receiving an award was one of the last things on Hanson's mind when she decided to start the Alexandria Parkinson's support group 16 years ago. What was on her mind was her husband, Elvin.

She and Elvin retired in Alexandria in 1992. Around that same time, Elvin was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

"Between the two of us, we decided it was time to attend a Parkinson's support group," she recalled. "But the closest support group to us was in Glenwood. I knew so many people in Alexandria affected by Parkinson's, so it seemed strange to me that there wasn't one here."

So in January of 1997, Hanson organized the first Alexandria Parkinson's support group with the help of Cheryl Larson, parish health nurse at First Lutheran Church.

"She knew the struggles that families living with Parkinson's deal with and she wanted to be a support to others in the same situation that she was in," Valerie Trumm said in her nomination letter.

At the first meeting, neither Hanson nor Cheryl knew how many people to expect. Hanson said they would have been happy to help three or four people. But the women were ecstatic when 16 showed up.

Over the last 15 years, the group has grown to more than 50 people from Alexandria, Parkers Prairie, Starbuck and Ashby.

The purpose of the group is to provide holistic support, networking, sharing and education about the disease to Parkinson's patients and their families.

"We hear everything. We hear the joys, the sorrows and the frustrations and the way different people resolve them. You can read all the information you want about doctor such and such said this, but you learn a lot of things on your own. And we share those things. We get to know each other as people and as families," she said.

Support group meetings include guest speakers, coffee, small group discussions and a plethora of Parkinson's literature, all of which Hanson coordinates.

Up until this point, the only meeting leadership experience Hanson had was organizing the meetings for her son's Boy Scout troop. But she took the challenge of organizing and maintaining the Parkinson's support group head on and loved every minute of it.

After 15 years though, she decided it was time for someone else to lead.

"That last year was really sentimental. Every meeting and story shared I wondered how I could possibly give it up. I loved it," she said.

Since retiring in 2012, Hanson continues to maintain her membership with the national society and volunteers her services to fill in during meetings.

She also organized a "Parkinson's widows' group" that provides continued fellowship and support for caregivers who lost their spouses.

"I guess this is just my passion. I like the people and I believe in the cause. I really can't imagine my life without it," she said.

That kind of drive is what inspired Trumm to nominate her for the award. In closing her letter, Trumm wrote, "I cannot think of a more dedicated individual in our area who had worked to raise public awareness and improve programs and services for those in the Parkinson's community."

"I had never dreamed that I would be a candidate. I have not donated a lot of money and I have not done anything statewide before. Everything I have done is local, but I was selected and I am just so overjoyed by it," Hanson said.

To show their gratitude for everything Hanson does for them, Alexandria residents also threw her an open house on July 15 in her honor.

"I have been queen for the day twice this summer because I had the award event and then the open house," she said. "I have not necessarily felt deserving but oh, it has been very gratifying and thrilling."