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Walking for life: Ephrata’s Early Bird Walkers Club celebrates 25 years

What originally began as a breakfast club blossomed into a group of 50 seniors who walk each Monday at different locations in Lancaster, such as trails, campuses and school grounds.

It’s not an easy feat to wake up at dawn and go for a walk, especially in inclement weather. But there’s a group of seniors that do just that every Monday. They are the Early Bird Walkers Club of WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital and they just celebrated 25 years. With the oldest member about to turn 99, this group sets a fine example of how a little bit of exercise and socializing can do wonders for your health.

Linda Woods Huber, a health educator and fitness consultant with WellSpan, started the program. What originally began as a breakfast club blossomed into a club of 50 seniors who walk each Monday at different locations in Lancaster, such as trails, campuses and school grounds. The second Monday of the month, the group meets at the hospital for a walk around town, followed by breakfast in the cafeteria and a senior health topic with a guest speaker.

“The more research we know now with fitness is to stay active,” says Huber. “Seniors know the more they stay active, the healthier they’ll be.

Cathy Hofmann is the club’s organizer and also a health and fitness educator for the Wellness Center.

“These are health-minded senior citizens who want to be active and want to be with people,” she explains. “They have a very healthy lifestyle.”

The walkers enjoy the health benefits of walking, but are also appreciative of the friends they meet and the social aspects of getting together for a walk. Whether they walk for exercise or to socialize, it’s clear this club is a very important part to each member’s lives.

The oldest member of the group, Beatrice “Bea” Messner, is 98 and an original member of the group. She began walking after she lost her husband.

“I think it was out of loneliness that I started walking,” Messner said. “My husband had passed away and, even though I had family, I felt alone and wanted to get out.”

Messner said you walk for health reasons.

“We’re a social group. You get to know each other and look forward to seeing one another,” she said.

Huber’s mother, Katie Kochel, 91, is one of the original walkers. She walked with the help of a cane and locked arms with her friend Anna Martin.

“My daughter pushed me into it,” Kochel laughed. Although she’s certainly appreciative of the club, as well.

“You make a lot of friends,” said Kochel about the group. “And there are so many health benefits.”

“It motivated me to get exercise. I now try to walk more and ride my stationary bike,” adds Martin.

Olene Beiler, 86, also an original member and a dedicated walker, gets out 350 days a year. In addition to seeing major health benefits, she was able to stop taking her osteoporosis medicine because of her dedication to exercise. She joined the group to make new friends.

“I was retired and I felt I had to get out with people. It was something that sounded interesting,” she said.

Lolly Davis was happy to find a lot in common with the walkers when she joined the group.

“It’s great meeting all the people, they are all so nice. I really love it. We exchange stories, we talk about health issues. It’s just very refreshing,” she said.

Russell Weidler, 88, started walking about six years ago.

“My friend got me to come,” he said when asked how he heard of the Early Bird Walkers. “It makes you feel better when you walk. I gotta push myself. I could have stayed in bed. But it does you good to walk, even if you don’t feel like it.”

The group walks every Monday at 7:30 a.m. and walks are only canceled if there is a school delay or cancellation. They walk is all weather, including rain and snow.

One time there was a rain storm,” recalls Messner. “The faster we walked, the harder the rain came down. We had to walk through deep puddles. Cathy had a certificate and a rubber duckie for us the next week. That was fun. I still have my duckie. He sits in my bath tub.”

“One year it was 10 degrees and I thought ‘We shouldn’t be walking,’” recalled Huber of a very brisk walk years ago. “We had about 10 people show up and we walked around the parking lot. I made up certificates that I gave out the next week that said, ‘I survived the 10-degree walk.’”

What began as a simple walk around town has done wonders for many seniors in 25 years. Whether it’s the exercise that keeps them going or the lasting memories and friendships they have made along the way, these seniors are grateful for their Monday mornings together. They celebrate birthdays, holidays and special events together and they have become a family of walkers.

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