MARY THOITS AMONG 27 SENIORS HONORED FOR LIVES OF VOLUNTEERISMBy Dave Wielenga
Mary Thoits comes from a time in which a teenaged girl—she was 16 in 1939—might not be taught how to drive a car, might have to wait until she was 30 to get a license. But Thoits also comes from a place—a personal perspective on life—in which that young girl would respond to such a limitation by riding her bike out to the local airfield in Grand Rapids, MI, and learning how to fly a plane.
Thoits earned a pilot’s license in 1941, and three years later became a commercial flight instructor. During World War II, she was flying military planes across the country before they were sent to the theaters of battle. And last year, on her 87th birthday, Thoits celebrated by flying a small aircraft around Catalina Island.
But last week, when Thoits was honored by Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, it was for the simple act of volunteering. Same with the 26 others—all seniors from among the two million people in the 4th District that Knabe represents—who were feted during the 46th annual Older Americans Recognition Day.
A dozen of the 27 honorees come from cities within the Greater Long Beach area, including my mother, Kathy Wielenga, from Bellflower. She and my father, Jack, spoke about their life of volunteerism—which, locally, goes back to 1954—during an interview on last Thursday’s (May 26) episode of Greater Long Beach Radio.
Also among the honorees was Mary Ann King, known as Miss Mary Ann when she was hostess of the morning children’s television show Romper Room on Channel 13 in the 1960s, but now a member of the Regional Occcupational Program Educational Bridge Foundation in Hacienda Heights. “ King brought along the “magic mirror” she once looked through to talk to the children on the Romper Room program.
“At this cherished age, people have choices,” Knabe reflected during a luncheon honoring the volunteers on the eighth-floor patio of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles. “They can either sit back and reflect on their lives or they can continue to set the pace. The people here today are still pacesetters.”
Thoits established the pace at the Long Beach Senior Studies program at Long Beach City College almost since its inception 30 years ago, transforming it from a place where games of bingo and cards were centerpiece activities.
“In the early days of the center, there was a recreation director in charge,” Thoits explained. “There’s nothing negative about that, nothing wrong with playing cards or bingo. But one day I was talking with a fellow who was there playing these games and he seemed so bright—well, I found out he had two Masters Degrees, and what he really wanted was some mental stimulation.”
Thoits began classes that ranged from national public policy topics to global conflicts. She instituted the annual Senior of the Year awards luncheon that honors outstanding service in the community.
“There’s a misconception about who our seniors are,” says Thoits. “Personally, I love to know why things happen—and how, when necessary, I can change them. I am a curious person. It turns out, I am not alone.”
LINDA BARTOW (nominated by the San Pedro Senior Center) has been an active volunteer for nine years. She began as a food server with the senior nutrition program. Her hobby has always been hand crocheting and sewing for her children and grandchildren. When the seniors asked her to teach them those skills, the San Pedro Service Center sewing class began. Linda makes blankets for the homeless and needy families and crochets beanie hats for the sick in hospitals, especially children with cancer. Linda’s class has made aprons for the children and teachers of the San Pedro Center Day Care as well as sleeping blankets for the children. At Christmas, Linda takes extra care to make sure seniors in convalescent hospitals receive a small gift consisting of a warm scarf and handmade slippers.
ROBERTA DAVIS (nominated by the City of Paramount) became involved in the Paramount Elderly Nutrition Program in 2000. She volunteers five days a week, wrapping the silverware and serving trays of food during the lunch program.
DON ENRIQUES (nominated by the City of Cerritos Recreation Services) is a volunteer marshal at the Cerritos Iron-Wood Nine Golf Course. His outgoing, caring and friendly personality combines with his punctuality, hardworking and task-oriented characteristics. Don has fostered countless friendships with staff and patrons during his 12 years as a volunteer. Don began golfing at age 20 and began marshaling at the Cerritos Iron-Wood Nine Golf when he retired in 1999 to spend more time outdoors. He has volunteered more than 3,500 hours for the City of Cerritos. He has been a member of the Suburban Optimist club for more than 20 years, and is a previous Mayor’s Award recipient.
MARLENE HARDY (nominated by City of Norwalk) has been a volunteer for more than 15 years at the Senior Center. She is the founding and current president of the Norwalk Senior Center, Inc., also known as the Bingo Board. The organization helps provide funding to enhance seniors programs. During Bingo, Marlene is the cashier, handles financial paperwork and works closely with the treasurer. Marlene is historian of Norwalk Coordinating Council. She volunteers at the Norwalk Angel Tree program that benefits children during the holiday season. Marlene is always willing to involve herself in various committees to improve and conserve the history of her community. She has earned the Keystone Service Award for exceptional community service.
BERTHA MERAZ (nominated by City of Hawaiian Gardens) was taught as a child the important of working together to make a better community. She has been involved in the PTA and free lunch program during the summer with her three boys, then her grandchildren. Her sister, Mary, introduced her to the senior center, where she began to volunteer. Bertha is now a senior and continues to help with nearly all the center’s events. During elections she volunteers as a poll worker. She is a past president and member of the Senior Advisory Board for five years.
MARY MILLS (nominated by Long Beach Dept. Parks and Recreation) has been involved with various aspects of the Long Beach Senior Center for 22 years. Her first volunteer assignment was answering phones, helping seniors connect with referral services and assisting with forms. Mary volunteers in the center’s thrift shop, receiving donations, sorting them, cleans and repairs them for selling. She always greets customers with a friendly smile and a manner that makes them feel welcome. Mary plays a significant role in the annual three-day Thrift Shop Rummage Sale, which brings in considerable revenue for the center. She encourages many other seniors to participate and volunteer at the center. In 2001, Mary was named Volunteer of the Year at the center.
NADINE MORRIS (nominated by the City of Downey Senior Recreation Club) has been a member for 17 years and president since 2004. The club meets once a week for about four hours to discuss and plan activities. Nadine facilitates the meetings, coordinates music for the dances, organizes seasonal banquets, attends to decorations and oversees financial matters. For the past 10 years, Nadine has volunteered more than 300 hours a year, always with grace and a smile on her face. Her goal is to always have a lace for seniors to come, socialize and dance.
MARGARET PYO (nominated by the City of Lakewood) began volunteering for Lakewood Meals on Wheels in 1991. She concentrates her skills in the kitchen, preparing and packing the food, working hard but with a cheery personality. She has also spent the past 17 years as a patient companion for Pathways Volunteer Hospice. Before coming to Lakewood, Margaret was a social worker in Hawaii and in Korea ran a leadership program for students to study after school. After all these years, Margaret says volunteering still feels right. The rules she lives by are “Truthful, Smiling and Giving.”
LORNA TELLINGHUISEM (nominated by the City of Artesia Senior Center) has volunteered at the center for more than 18 years and also serves on the Senior Site Council, which raises funds and plans activities. Lorna helps staff with day trips, parties and is always the first to volunteer to help set up for these events. For many years she taught a line-dancing class. When seniors are ill, Lorna volunteers to mail cards and flowers to their homes. Lorna says she will continue to volunteer as long as she is able. Her motto is, “People need people, and in helping others we help ourselves.”
FRANK VIRGA (nominated by the City of Signal Hill) has been active in the community since he moved here in 2001. Frank has served on the Art Selection Committee, the Needs Assessment Community Recreation Committee and the North Slope Advisory Committee, which advocates for preserving open space in Signal Hill. He is a past president of the Signal Hill Historical Society and treasurer of the Signal Hill Honorary Police Officers Association. Frank participated in the Preparedness Fair highlighting the importance of emergency awareness. In 2009, he was reappointed as a Civil Service Commissioner and is currently serving a four-year term. He serves on the Sustainable City Committee, which seeks long-term strategies that lessen the impact on the environment.
KATHY WIELENGA (nominated by the City of Bellflower) has been a resident of that city for more than 60 years and has been volunteering since 1954—from Cub Scout den mother to PTA president to St. Bernard’s Church to the Bellflower Y’s Club to exchange students from Denmark, Russia, Norway and Malaysia to the Bellflower Sister City Exchange with Los Mochis, Mexico. In fact, it was during a side trip to a remote mountain village during Bellflower’s 2004 visit to Los Mochis that Kathy had a stroke that debilitated the right side of her body. Although she now needs a power chair to get around town, she continues to volunteer as much as ever.