Miles and miles of friendships

20 years of striding through a Glen Burnie mall spawns a support group for seniors

August 10, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

They have shared countless cups of coffee, picnics in the park and rambunctious holiday parties. They have comforted each other through illness and the deaths of spouses. And together they have walked around the mall tens of thousands of times.

On Thursday, the Marley Station Milers celebrated 20 years of striding through the mall hallways before the shops open. They watched a slide show of memorable moments - who could forget the time a member dressed as a bunch of grapes or a can of soup on Halloween? - and talked about the close friendships that grew during two decades of morning strolls.

"It became a social club," said David Burke, a retired lawyer who with his wife, Beryl, has walked the mall since 1988. "We were all strangers when we started, but we became friends."

About two dozen of the original mall walkers joined the Burkes, both 82, for a photo after the reception. Since the group began, the walkers have seen many changes on their walks around the mall. Stores have opened and closed, and new department stores have arrived. The bakery where they used to eat croissants, sip coffee and chat became a shoe store.

The walkers have changed, too. Some of the original members have grown too ill or too fragile to continue to walk. Others have moved to assisted-living facilities far from the Glen Burnie mall. Several have died. What began as a walking group has become in some ways a support group for the aging.

"The friendships that have developed are unreal," said Audrey Smith, 78, a homemaker from Glen Burnie. "I've taken some of them to doctors or to the hospital. There's not a one of them that wouldn't do the same for you."

When her husband died six years ago, the Milers rallied around to comfort her, Smith said, adding that the long talks over coffee have proven as beneficial to the members' health as the walks.

Baltimore Washington Medical Center, then called North Arundel Hospital, founded the group to provide a safe, comfortable place for people to exercise, said mall marketing director Todd Jerscheid, who has worked with the group since its inception. It is now sponsored by Gold's Gym, which supplied the T-shirts that more than a hundred mall walkers wore to Thursday's event.

Over the years, several thousand people have been part of the group, and 300 to 400 people participate in the mall walks each week, Jerscheid said.

Sheila Juba, 53, has made more than 5,000 laps through the mall in the past eight years. Each trip around the shopping center is about half a mile, "but you have to go into all the little nooks and crannies," the Glen Burnie resident said.

She joined the Milers about eight years ago to keep herself busy after her son died. Now she walks five days a week, and her mother, Donna Pfannteistein, 78, joins her on most days.

As the walkers chatted after the reception, retired Westinghouse employee Kitty Speal, 75, invited people to a dinner later in the month. Many of the walkers meet up for picnics, road trips to the West Virginia slot machines and even an occasional cruise.

Over coffee in the China Bowl restaurant with her husband and another couple, Helen Szech, 78, reflected on her laps through the mall.

"It's easy to find friends here," she said. "And it's just a good way to start your day, to get up early and walk."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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