David Jonas plans annual galas that have raised millions for the Greater Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
In his role as senior development manager, corporate initiatives for the chapter, he manages Memory Ball Dancing Stars, a “Dancing With the Stars”-like fundraiser in Baltimore.
Jonas, 57, has a personal connection to the disease. His mother developed early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2020. His father became her primary caregiver and Jonas her secondary.
Both parents have since passed away. Jonas’ aunt and his partner’s aunt were also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“You come to understand what the caregivers are going through, the long goodbye that people talk about when someone says their loved one has Alzheimer’s,” Jonas said.
Jonas lives in Bolton Hill in West Baltimore with his partner Cordell Smith, a federal government employee. Jonas aligns with Reform Judaism and said he is in search of the right temple.
In his youth, he belonged to Congregation Rodfei Zedek in historic Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side. His grandmother lost her family in the Holocaust, and that gave him a strong Jewish identity, Jonas said. “It’s very engrained in me that the traditions are followed and that I’m being true to my faith,” he said.
Jonas comes from a musical family and played the recorder, French horn and flute in his youth. He also sang in children and youth choirs. In Washington, D.C., where he lived for 15 years, he sung tenor in the Gay Men’s Chorus. Today, he performs with the New Wave Singers in Baltimore. His brother is a musician and cantor in Ashville, N.C.
Jonas has a 25-year background in nonprofit event planning, including fundraisers for the AIDS Walk, American Cancer Society and the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation. He has formed a team for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, for which there are six across the state.
Whenever Jonas wears an Alzheimer’s Association T-shirt, “people just come out of the woodwork saying, ‘I know somebody, I have a loved one,’” he said.
His job managing the Memory Ball, he said, is made possible by the many volunteers who eagerly get involved.
Most have a friend or family connection to someone with Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, he said.
“I love the passion and the commitment that the volunteers have for the organization, the fight to find a cure and the effort they put into raising funds and giving a good show,” he said.
Months before the gala, which this year takes place on May 6, Jonas recruits local business leaders to raise funds and perform a dance routine before an audience of 800 supporters at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
“The dancers are community leaders who are stepping up because they have a loved one or have been affected by Alzheimer’s,” Jonas said. “They want to do something to support the organization.”
Since 2017, Jonas has raised more than $2.8 million, ranking the gala as the Alzheimer’s Association’s sixth most profitable out of 64 in the nation.
Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than six million Americans, most of them age 65 or older, may have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s.
The 40-year-old Alzheimer’s Association is the world’s leading health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research. The funds raised go toward research, public education and grant-funded respite programs for full-time caregivers.
“We have a respite program where if someone is a full-time caregiver for their parents or loved one and just needs to take a few hours off, they can apply for a grant for someone to cover for them,” Jonas said.
Jonas said that the association sponsors police training on how to interact with someone they suspect might have Alzheimer’s. The same goes for corporations to recognize if a coworker might be showing signs of the disease.
Jonas tries to be a source of inspiration to the volunteers and dancers at the Memory Ball.
“I teach them to be loud and proud,” he said. “You are doing this on behalf of the organization, and people need to hear that you are out there on the front lines supporting the organization. Eight out of 10 times, people step up and say, ‘I’ll do something for you. I’ll donate to you. I’d love to join you.’”
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.