Eighteen months ago, in the midst of a severe funding crisis, Joanne Ahern didn't know whether she would have a senior center to operate in the future.
Today, the North Mecklenburg Senior Center is alive and well, serving hundreds of seniors with a wide variety of programs and services from its home base at the River Church on West Catawba Avenue in Cornelius.
While funding is an ongoing concern, many volunteers say it was Ahern's hands-on leadership more than anything that helped guide the center through rough waters last year.
"She's a nice director, very interested in the seniors and in the needs of the community" said Chet Brown, 71, of Huntersville, who has been coming to the center since "Day One" more than four years ago.
Day One for Ahern as director of the center was in February 2005, after she left her previous position at the Lake Norman YMCA. The senior center is one of four operated by Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
"It was pretty basic at the start," said Ahern. "We were essentially a senior center without walls. Most of our programs were held at remote locations, and we just had a tiny office near a strip mall on Highway 21."
As news of the senior center programs grew, so too did the need for a larger facility. Ahern, who lives in the Magnolia Estates neighborhood of Cornelius, noticed while driving home one day that the River Church was undergoing renovations. "I thought this would be an ideal location for our center and figured the church might be looking for additional use during the week."
Her hunch was correct. Within a few weeks an agreement was struck with church officials and the center was relocated. While the center is in Cornelius, Ahern said, seniors from the entire North Mecklenburg area, including Huntersville and Davidson, are urged to participate.
The seniors at the center had universal praise for Ahern's stewardship.
"She's a very hands-on type of leader" said Sandra Lestik, 66, of Cornelius. "She donates an incredible amount of time to her job and we always feel very comfortable confronting her with any issues of concern."
Ahern's success in North Mecklenburg is an exclamation point for a career that began near Pittsfield, Mass., as a health education teacher. After taking time off to raise her two children - David, 33, and Kathleen, 29 - Ahern resumed work at the YMCA in Pittsfield. Eventually she and her husband, Gerry, a financial planner, decided to "escape from the brutal winters in the northeast" and relocated to Cornelius. She worked at the Lake Norman YMCA until the senior center opened.
Her primary goal is to get seniors out of their homes and into group activities. "We're seeking to create as much independence for the seniors as we can. If they sit home, they hibernate. Studies have clearly shown that good health for seniors is a combination of mental, physical, social and spiritual stimulation. That's what we try to provide at the center."
Ahern had high praise for the seniors who volunteer their time at the center, particularly during the funding crisis last year. "The reaction of the seniors was incredible. They really stood up and did their thing."
She also heaped praise on the community for their support.
After 50-60 hour work weeks, Ahern enjoys gardening and music. She's an accomplished musician who plays French horn and bagpipes. She and her husband also enjoy traveling to the beach.
The future for Ahern: "Continuing my work at the senior center, interfacing with our regulars while also seeing more and more new faces come through our doors."