Woodside woman chairs Alzheimer's benefit

She also volunteers with art therapy program

By Kate Daly

Special to the Almanac

Mary Helfrich used to live where the fire station now stands on the Alameda de las Pulgas in West Menlo Park, in a neighborhood once filled with horses. She recalls "riding the trails" from the Menlo Circus Club in Atherton to Searsville Lake in Woodside, long before Interstate 280 was even an idea.

Now in her 80s, Ms. Helfrich doesn't say much, but repeatedly paints horses while humming a tune as she focuses on completing a picture every week. An art teacher in her past, she is the most regular participant in the Alzheimer's Association's art therapy program at her assisted living facility, Canyon House, in Menlo Park.

One of her paintings will be auctioned off at the eighth annual Memories in the Making Art & Wine Auction on Friday, March 4, from 6 to 9:30 p.m., at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

The event is a fundraiser for the Alzheimer's Association, which supports research and awareness on a national level. The organization manages the art program at 28 sites in the Bay Area including Rosener House in Menlo Park.

Ms. Helfrich has been painting at Canyon House for five years. That's where she met Kerry DeBenedetti of Woodside, the chairperson of this year's auction.

Ms. DeBenedetti's mother, Carol Parker, had Alzheimer's and lived at the Canyon House until her passing in 2009. Ms. DeBenedetti had worked with elementary school artists before, and decided to switch over to volunteering with older artists when she found out about the art therapy program for people with dementia.

She now facilitates two classes every Monday and starts each session by setting out watercolors and pictures to copy. Each time, a handful of people shows up to paint for the hour. Some of the participants have never painted before, but she has noticed when they create art they express themselves in new ways. "Memory happens," she said. "It surprises the staff and the families. Things come up that family members haven't heard about or talked about for years."

Last year when Ellen Ingebritsen of Portola Valley was a student at Woodside High School she helped out at the Canyon House classes. She described a dramatic change occurring in Ms. Helfrich's paintings after experiencing a stroke.

"She was painting a picture of a man in a canoe fishing on a lake. After she had her stroke her painting came out as purple spirals and squiggles, very abstract," Ms. Ingebritsen said. "A couple of weeks later she had the same picture in front of her and had this amazing recovery, and painted the canoe and man fishing gorgeously."

Ms. DeBenedetti added, "There was a time when I thought Mary wasn't going to come back," but she did and continues to show up each week. "She has always been pretty quiet ... it is hard to get things out and to formulate," Ms. DeBenedetti said, but they still have conversations about their mutual interest in horses, and that can put a smile on both their faces.

INFORMATION: Tickets for the "Memories in the Making" Art & Wine Auction will be on sale until Feb. 21 and cost $125 per person or $1,000 for a table of 10. The auction will be held from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 4, at the Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain View. There will be complimentary wine and hors d'oeuvres and entertainment by the Magnolia Jazz Band. Silent and live auctions will feature items such as fine wines, getaways, and jewelry, in addition to paintings, some of which go for thousands of dollars. Visit or call 962-8111 to purchase tickets.

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