Paving a Pathway to Fitness

A generous endowment fund aides programming at a recreation centre that has a positive impact on many Edmonton seniors’ lives

As she hiked along the 75 mud-caked kilometres of British Columbia’s West Coast Trail, Wallie Wilson came across a private beach.

Hundreds of pieces of colourful beach glass bordered the water. Astonished, Wilson wondered how they’d come to be there. She trudged through the sinking sand, her backpack sagging against her, and cupped a handful of glass to take home.

Wilson isn’t your typical hiker. She’s 65 and describes these physically taxing moments with pride – and self-deprecation.

“If this old lady could do it, surely you could do it,” she laughs.

But Wilson wasn’t as sure in 2009, when she decided to hike the trail and fulfill one of her lifelong dreams in honour of her 60th birthday. Her first step was becoming a member of Central Lions Seniors Association (CLSA) and signing up for a fitness pass at the Central Lions Recreation Centre.

“As soon as I walked into that building, I thought, ‘Wow.’ It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Edmonton.”

She remains in awe of the clean and modern facility, which is accented by colourful glass art. The senior-friendly equipment is equally impressive, including seven strength-training machines that are used while seated, reducing the risk of injuries. Adjusting their weights requires just the push of a button.

Support of benefactors such as Ron Rowswell, allows CLSA to offer high quality programs and experiences for its members. Much like Wilson, Rowswell prioritized fitness in his life. He wasn’t the traditional jock type, says his cousin Karen, but he had a flair for dancing and was a skilled swimmer, competing in the Gay Games in Australia in 2002. Above all, she says, Rowswell was a deeply generous person.

After his passing in 2013 at the age of 71, Rowswell left an estate that quintupled the grant from an Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) endowment fund he had established a decade earlier. His goal was to support seniors’ health, wellness and recreation through programming at Central Lions.

The grant, which amounts to four percent of Rowswell’s endowment fund each year, will help to realize Ron’s goal by supporting the opportunities afforded at Central Lions – a centre that a great many Edmonton seniors have come to cherish.

“The centre is an extremely friendly place, so it’s easy for seniors to walk in and feel comfortable,” says fitness co-ordinator Rita Suter. “It’s important to the health and well-being of the people here. It’s a chance for them to get out of their homes and get social interaction with people their age.”

Rowswell relished the congenial spirit of Central Lions, volunteering as a librarian and overseeing its book sales. He devoured news and politics, and was very intelligent and analytical – the phrase “a gentleman and scholar” would describe him well.

“He was a sensitive kind of guy, always good about remembering things about other people,” Karen says, noting that before they hosted dinner parties, Rowswell and his partner would write small notes about each dinner guest to remind themselves of their guests’ favourite things.

Rowswell’s generosity serendipitously found its way into Wallie Wilson’s life. A year before hiking the West Coast Trail, she embarked on a fitness program that included two classes and regular exercise in Central Lions Recreation Centre. She also met other travel enthusiasts her age who offered inspiration, including a woman who had hiked through Ireland with friends.

Last May, emboldened by her past adventures, Wilson hiked the 800-kilometre Camino Trail in Spain for more than a month. To prepare, she built her strength and endurance with Suter, whose advice to Wilson was to take “one step at a time.”

Today, Wilson refuses to stop moving. She just returned from a three-week trip to Mexico with her two grandchildren, where they snorkeled for the first time among schools of tropical fish.

“I was just thinking, ‘Thank goodness I’m able to do these things. I’m not just watching, I’m actually with them in the water,'” Wilson says. “I want to be fit enough to enjoy life.”