A sad farewell

MARQUETTE – After devoting 12 years of time and loving effort to her work with senior citizens and children, Forsyth Senior Center Executive Director Julie Shaw is leaving her position for a new job.

The reaction from those who know her at the center has been universal.

“Julie loves everybody and everybody loves Julie,” said Keith Olive, Gwinn resident and regular participant at the center. “We’re going to miss her.”

Many of the 50-70 people who use the programs at the century-old community center every day have lived in the Gwinn area all their lives. The center serves seven townships in Marquette County.

“This community is the most awesome community to live in,” Shaw said. “We might be poor, but we care about each other so much that nobody goes without if we know there’s a need…I love my community so much – I’d do whatever it takes to help it thrive.”

Shaw, 49, will say goodbye Friday, though she and her husband will remain in Gwinn, having raised two children and lived there for 25 years. Forsyth Senior Center is accepting applications for her position until Thursday, July 3.

She originally applied for the position as executive director after caring for her father with Alzheimer’s Disease and deciding she wanted to help others in the same situation.

“I absolutely love this job, but I’m excited for a new challenge,” Shaw said. “I’m just looking for a change – a better balance in my life with my family and friends.”

Shaw will be a nursing facility transition outreach specialist at the Superior Alliance for Independent Living in Marquette, a member of the state- and nation-wide Disability Network dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities through community-inclusion, empowerment and education. She will travel throughout the western half of the U.P. among 15 nursing facilities to help people with challenges and lack of support in their transition out of nursing homes back into their communities.

“We’re going to miss her for all she does for us,” said Martha Fox, senior citizen and Gwinn resident of 10 years. “And she does an awful lot for us.”

Shaw began numerous programs in her time as director, including a support group for caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s; senior exercise programs like yoga and zumba; a men’s coffee group; ride-sharing for seniors; fundraisers for cancer patients and those in need; adopt-a-senior, which anonymously pairs seniors in need with a volunteer who provides specific needs like pillows or long underwear; a hot christmas meal with a system of volunteers who provide delivery; a memorial garden for seniors to maintain, and more.

“It’s life-changing for people,” Shaw said. “It truly turns their lives around to have a purpose, because when we’re seniors and we retire and we don’t have a place to go, we start feeling depressed and sad. (These programs) allow people to come and have a purpose and feel good about life again. Because we’re all going to be there some day.”

There are 15 employees at the center, but otherwise it runs completely on volunteer support.

“The team I have here has been the most supportive team of any team players that I’ve ever worked with,” Shaw said. “They’re awesome.”

She also serves on the Marquette and Alger Regional Educational Service Agency school board, providing autism-related support for local schools, and is chairman of the Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center, which provides medical care to individuals regardless of their ability to pay. In addition, Shaw heads up children’s programs at the community center like sports groups, a summer reading program and an after-school writing program, emphasizing inter-generational interaction and bonding.

Having studied special education, she said working with children and people with disabilities “has always been in her heart.”

“I’ve brought everything from pre-school children in to high school students who have served us our meals, because when you see seniors who don’t get to see their grandchildren very often light up when kids come into the room, nothing is more exciting than that,” she said.

Shaw said kids and seniors sometimes feel uncomfortable together, but they have a lot to learn from each other.

“It’s just so fun to watch,” she said. “You learn as much from a baby as you do from a senior, who has all the wisdom in the world. But the baby’s world is so sweet and innocent, and they can smile and laugh and not have a care in the world.”

She believes inter-generational programs should be more common, based on the results she has seen.

“That is what keeps your community together,” she said. “Giving people opportunities to stay healthy and happy and connected.”

Shaw has seen for herself the benefits of the programs she promotes – like yoga, zumba and Dancing with the Stars, a fundraiser for the U.P. Home Hospice Foundation in which she participated last year.

“Eighty-five pounds ago, I was crippled, my knees were bad and I could hardly walk, I was in so much pain,” she said. “And I couldn’t have done any of this without God, because I just prayed and said, ‘There are people that need me, God, who are bedridden, who I need to serve.’ And look – I’m not skinny, by any means, but I certainly am feeling great, my energy’s renewed and I can move on to do the next that He has chosen me to do.”

She credits God first, but also the love of her husband and family, who continue to provide inspiration and support through this transition.

“Julie is the most caring, loving, wonderful person,” said Bonnie Livermore, a resident and senior center participant. “She sets a good example to everyone. I’m going to miss her terribly.”

And Shaw will miss her seniors, kids and work as well. But it’s a decision based on where she feels God is leading her.

“I turn 50 this year, and I realized that life is short and I need to make the most of what I can do in this world,” she said. “I think it’s time to move on. I’m at a good place where everything is in great order here. I feel I can leave knowing that whoever’s going to come in will have hopefully an easy transition. These people are very loving and will just embrace the next employee too.”

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.