On this winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, we’re inspired by Ken Barfield, who lit up the ski slopes of Park City, Utah, for The Longest Day, a signature event of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Forty-one ski runs over 53,000 vertical feet at a maximum speed of 51.56 miles per hour.
That was how 71-year-old Ken Barfield chose to honor his mother, Tomiko Leona Nakamura Barfield, who passed from Alzheimer’s disease in 2018.
Ken figured that setting himself an unusual challenge — to see how many unique ski runs he could complete in a single day — would capture the imagination of the residents of his hometown of Park City, Utah, which is well-known for its skiing. It was a perfect activity for The Longest Day, the Alzheimer’s Association’s signature do-it-yourself fundraising event where participants shine a light on Alzheimer's and other dementia through a fundraising activity of their choice.
He asked friends and connections to donate for each ski run he made and spent every ride in the ski lift explaining what he was doing. He ended up exceeding his initial goal by 58 percent, raising $7,128 and becoming a member of the “Solstice Champions,” an elite group of top fundraisers for the event.
Honoring Little Miss Sunshine
Ken’s relentless approach — skiing every possible run at Deer Valley ski resort, including those rated at the highest level of difficulty, as many times as possible in a day — served as a tribute to his mother Leona, who was nicknamed “Little Miss Sunshine” by the staff at her assisted living facility.
Born in the 1930s in LaJunta, Colorado, to Japanese immigrant parents, Leona was about 4 feet 10 inches tall, and, through the end of her life, greeted everyone she met with vivacious eyes and a big smile whether she knew them or not. “‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was a characterization that could be made for her entire life,” Ken says. “Never a cross word. Definitely a model of leadership by example.”
Ken’s father, who is 96 years old and lives in Park City, is a retired United States military officer. Because of this father’s career, the family lived all over the world. Ken attended 11 different schools over 12 grades. “We were constantly moving, and my father was often stationed overseas while we were left alone with my mother, but there was never a complaint from her.” Later, after Ken’s parents divorced, his mother gave her time to others by volunteering for different organizations. “She was always beaming and always willing to help.” Ken attributes his mother’s selfless spirit to her Japanese heritage. “There's this collectivist attitude that the Japanese and many Asian cultures have. The belief is ‘it’s not about me, it's about all of us.’”
Navigating Through a Tough Diagnosis
Leona was living alone in San Francisco when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010. The confusion and fear that Ken and his siblings felt as they tried to seek help for their mother are what inspires him to volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association today.
Ken first became involved with the Alzheimer’s Association Utah Chapter in 2017 through his volunteer work with the Park City Rotary club. He and two other Rotary club members led highly successful Walk to End Alzheimer’s teams. The first year he participated, he pushed his mother in a wheelchair. By the second year, she had passed away, and Ken pushed an empty wheelchair to remember her.
Today, five years later, Ken is still pushing forward with his volunteer work. He serves as the Alzheimer’s Association Utah Chapter Chair so that he can help families facing dementia find the knowledge and support network they need.
Skiing Down the Slopes with Purpose
Ken also continues to raise funds to support the work of the Alzheimer’s Association. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Ken has focused his fundraising efforts on The Longest Day so that he can focus on activities he is passionate about. An admitted “dopamine addict,” he is not only an expert skier but also an accomplished mountain biker, marathon runner and golfer.
“I said, I'm going to do something that I know will excite people, so people will actually step up and say, ‘My gosh, that's a really cool idea, and I'm gonna support him!’” He advises those who are interested in joining The Longest Day to “pick something you enjoy, and your personal excitement will emanate. Your passion will pour out, and people will be inspired to support you.”
The Longest Day is about flexibility. Not only does it allow participants to do something they love to raise funds and awareness for a cause they care about, it also allows them to do their activity on a day that works for them. Some participants focus on the summer solstice; others, like Ken, choose to fundraise year-round, including days when the powder is perfect on the slopes.