At 96-and-a-half years young, Mary McDonnell has decided to retire.
When you spend 49 years on a project, it may very well be time to step away.
Except McDonnell will still be very much a part of the Active Lifestyle Centre in Chatham, an organization she spearheaded nearly five decades ago. She’ll just be enjoying her time there as a member, instead of a member of various committees and dedicated volunteer.
It might not be as easy stepping back, however, as some think.
“It’s been fun. I’ll miss it,” she said at a party in her honour Friday at the ALC.
“It’s been a second home to me all these years,” she said. “I’ve met some great friends here over the years.”
That was evident Friday, when a near-constant stream of people came up to congratulate McDonnell for her years of service for the ALC.
One of them was Linda Lucas, executive director at the ALC for the past six years.
“Mary took me under her wing on the first day I started. She’s an inspiration to me,” she said. “She’s so helpful. Right up until last week, she was balancing out the till.”
McDonnell is so popular with everyone that Lucas said weekly lunch dates are already in the works with staff.
The concept of what is now the ALC started almost five decades ago. McDonnell, then a Bartosek, said she lost her husband back in 1968.
“My husband died early and I became a widow,” she said. “I was bored.”
She still had full-time work, but was looking for something more. It was then that McDonnell met up with other like-minded individuals and started the process to open the Maple City Centre for Older Adults (MCCOA).
“We were in this little restaurant and opened up,” she said, referring to a storefront location on Queen Street, which opened in 1970. “From there, we went to the Cultural Centre and ended up here.”
Well, “here” is the ALC, at 20 Merritt Ave. in Chatham. John Bradley donated the land, McDonnell said, and the provincial government pledged to donate $1 million if local fundraising could match that amount.
McDonnell said it took 10 years, but they did it. In 1990, the centre became a reality.
Today, the centre is known as the Active Lifestyle Centre, providing programs and services for adults in Chatham aged 50 and up.
The ALC continues to grow, and now has 1,500 members, and offers 60 different programs and events.
“We’re the largest (over-50) centre in southwestern Ontario,” McDonnell said. “When we started this centre, it got all the other little towns going (with centres of their own).”
Her daughters, Joanne Bartosek and Nancy Gagnon are members of the ALC and are actively involved at the centre.
McDonnell, who still lives on her own, plans to enjoy being a member of the over-90 club at the centre, where she and about 20 others enjoy the status of not having to pay membership fees at the centre.