Seniors stay young at heart by helping their community

In the Region


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 a program called "Life is a Beach," which she performs for various groups.

In this instance, Fonte was the guest speaker at a recent 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 checkups 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 the club president, Roy Mentzer. "We come here to have fun, be together and hopefully make a difference in the world."

The senior citizens club has more than 200 members ages 55 to 98 and 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 care packages that are sent to National Guardsmen 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 a Guard unit.

Although that unit has since returned, 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.

Why does she do it?

Marini said she not only gets personal satisfaction but also a deep sense of belonging.

"I love being a contributing member of society and giving back to the community," said Marini. "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 the Havre de Grace Elementary and Havre de Grace Middle Schools.

"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 also works to meet the needs of infants, said Goebel.

Since 2003, about 10 members of Young at Heart have handmade more than 5000 articles, including quilted blankets, hats and clothing infants born at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

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

The program is funded through private donations totaling more than $1,000, and about $1,600 per year from Havre de Grace.

And the items are well-received by the families who get them, said Anne Gibson, a nurse at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.

"The things these ladies make for the babies add a personal touch to the hospital stay," said Gibson.

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