Members live up to club's name

Seniors in the Young at Heart group have fun while helping their community


Mary Ellen Fonte donned a black 1920s bathing suit. Then she stepped down off the stage and faced about 150 people.

"Women in the 1920s didn't go swimming. They bathed," said Fonte. "Their wool bathing suits weighed about 20 pounds when they got wet. So they went fanny dipping."

Some of the seniors in the audience cackled while others sat with quizzical looks waiting for an explanation. Fonte demonstrated.

"The women would lower their bottoms until they touched the water," she said squatting down and pretending to dab herself with water. "They barely got wet at all."

Fonte's demonstration was part of "Life is a Beach," a program that she performs for groups.

In this instance, Fonte was the guest speaker at a recent weekly meeting of the Young At Heart senior citizens group, held at the American Legion hall in Havre de Grace.

Although the meeting is mostly entertainment, the group is about much more.

Since the inception of the Havre de Grace club in 2002, the members have provided school supplies to youngsters who can't afford them, adopted a military unit in Iraq, made clothing and blankets for premature babies, conducted teddy bear drives, and helped provide for medical check-ups and food for the needy.

The projects are done in part to build unity, but also to keep the seniors active.

"We want to show people that age doesn't make a difference. Our seniors are putting back into the community many things the community has given us over the years," said club president Roy Mentzer. "We come here to have fun, be together and, hopefully, make a difference in the world."

The senior citizens club, which has more than 200 members ages 55 to 98, was formed by Janet Krokowski after an earlier group disbanded, said club member Dolly Goebel.

To help, two Havre de Grace City Council members used personal funds to buy the seniors the items they needed, Goebel said. The program has grown since then.

Janie Marini, 87, loves belonging, she said.

"This is a wonderful group," said Marini. "Where else can you join a club for $10 a year and have so much fun?"

Marini spearheads a project to raise money for phone cards and packages that are sent to National Guard units in Iraq. Marini raised the funds by asking the meeting attendees to donate at least a quarter a week. She raised enough to buy 310 calling cards and about a dozen large boxes filled with supplies for the troops.

"We sent white socks, shaving cream, razors, magazines, paper, pencils and all sorts of nonperishable items to the soldiers," she said. "They sent thank-you notes back, and we just loved it."

That unit has since returned, and Marini is looking for another local unit to adopt. "We want to keep sending stuff to help the soldiers out until they all come home," she said.

Marini said the projects give her personal satisfaction and a deep sense of belonging.

"I love being a contributing member of society and giving back to the community," she said. "Young at Heart is the best thing that ever happened to me."

Virginia Jones agreed.

Jones is the school liaison for the school supplies program, co-sponsored by Harford County Parks and Recreation, which benefits Havre de Grace Elementary School and Havre de Grace Middle School. In addition to school supplies, the group has donated winter coats, backpacks, socks, sweat suits and personal hygiene items.

"As a retired teacher, I saw firsthand the disadvantages some students have because of a lack of tools," Jones said. "The teachers were providing the supplies themselves and it makes me feel good to be able to help them out."

In addition to helping the school-age children, the group works to meet the needs of infants, Goebel said.

While on a church ministry trip about three years ago, Goebel, 76, met a woman who told her about a program she had started in Texas making clothing for premature babies. Goebel was so drawn to the idea that she started her own in Maryland. Because premature babies are cared for at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Goebel decided to focus on infants born at Upper Chesapeake Hospital in Bel Air.

Since 2003, about 10 members of Young at Heart have handmade more than 5,000 articles, including quilted blankets, hats and clothing. Although some of the seniors have dealt with their own health problems, they work diligently to make deliveries every two months to the hospital, Goebel said.

"One of our members is 95 years old, and she crochets little hats for the babies," Goebel said. "Age doesn't matter though. I plan on going as long as I can. This project keeps me young at heart."

The program is funded through private donations totaling more than $1,000 and by about $1,600 a year from the city of Havre de Grace.

The items are welcomed by the recipients, said Anne Gibson, a registered nurse at Upper Chesapeake Hospital.

"The things these ladies make for the babies add a personal touch to the hospital stay," she said. "It gives the hospital more of a homey environment. I wish I could take a photo of every baby that receives one of their creations so they could see the impact they are making."

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