Gale Ahrens’ first volunteer experience at the Timbers of Shorewood was nearly two years ago when she and her husband Al helped out at the Senior Prom.
Al wore a suit and Ahrens wore her favorite black and white dress to match the prom’s theme. They staffed the door, filled water glasses, and strung decorations for the prom, an easy task for 6-foot 4-inch Al.
To Ahrens’ amusement, Al was the hit of the party.
“I’d go to the ladies’ tables with my pitcher and they’d point to my husband and say, ‘No. I want it from him,’ ” Ahrens said. “I’d tell them his pitcher was empty and mine was full, but they said, ‘That’s OK. We’ll wait.”
Ahrens had so much fun that night that she became a dedicated Timbers volunteer. Her favorite events are the monthly birthday parties, as well as holiday celebrations.
The miniature village The Timbers displays in the downstairs meeting room in December enthralled Ahrens, as did the decorated Christmas trees — 27 by Ahrens’ count — each one representing a different country.
Yet what especially impressed Ahrens was the residents’ enthusiasm for each and every event. “They would be lined upstairs in their wheelchairs and walkers waiting to get into the elevators,” Ahrens said.
Shelly Goggins, the director of activities at The Timbers, has known Ahrens five months and is thrilled with Ahrens’ ready willingness to help.
“She doesn’t need much notice,” Goggins said. “If I called her up and said I needed her tomorrow, she’d be there.”
For Ahrens, volunteering at The Timbers brings back fond memories of the years she worked with seniors for the Park Ridge and Skokie park districts. Ahrens had majored in parks and recreation at Western Illinois University.
At Park Ridge, Ahrens’ duties included planning events, trips and activities and developing a mimeographed newsletter for 1,200 seniors. The seniors Ahrens served quickly became a close part of her life.
“When Al and I got married, I printed our wedding invitation on the back of the newsletter,” Ahrens said. “After the wedding, we gave out these little rice packs. The seniors didn’t know they were supposed to open them, so they bombarded us with these balls.”
From Park Ridge, Ahrens went to Skokie where she, a Catholic girl, became an adopted granddaughter to hundreds of Jewish women. This poorer area had fewer resources for events, so Ahrens heavily relied on creativity and ingenuity to make them as festive as possible.
For instance, at the bi-weekly bingo nights, Ahrens distributed cans of vegetables as prizes. “They were a big deal with the seniors,” she said, “I’d go to the grocery store and buy vegetables by the case.”
For the festive Hanukah dinners that served 120 seniors, Ahrens and six of the women gathered in the kitchen and cooked; Ahrens learned to make acceptable latkes. For party entertainment, Ahrens relied on in-house talent, such as a senior that could play guitar or sing.
As the years passed, Ahrens, Al and their three children relocated several times until they returned to the area. Now that her children have grown, Ahrens relishes working once again with seniors in a positive environment.
“The Timbers is such a warm place,” Ahrens said. “You feel it the moment you walk in. I wish I could remember the names better. I know all the stories, but now that I’m older, the names are a challenge.”
By Denise Unland
Joliet Herald News – February 6, 2011