By Mary Tilghman
8:35 AM EDT, May 1, 2013
Esther Bonnet, 100, is always thinking about new plans for Action in Maturity — as she has since she co-founded the transportation service for seniors more than 40 years ago.
During a recent visit from Elizabeth Briscoe, AIM's executive director, Bonnet peppered her with some ideas. Sunday bus service, once part of AIM, might need to be revived, she proposed.
She also knows a few people she'd like to invite to sit on the board of directors, and has a couple of fundraising suggestions.
AIM will honor its co-founders, Bonnet and Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, with a reception Thursday, May 2, at 5:30 p.m., at Keswick Multi-Care Center's Auditorium and Garden Patio in Hampden.
Bonnet has been the creative force behind AIM, which it promotes itself as "a senior citizen center without walls," since the early 1970s, before it even had a name. She still marvels at how far the organization has come.
"The growth of AIM has been tremendous," said the longtime Roland Park resident, who now lives at the Symphony Manor retirement community on Roland Avenue.
AIM, based at St. Mary's Outreach Center in Hampden, uses transportation and community outreach to provide activities and services that improve the lives of older people and allow them to live independently as long as possible, according to its website, http://www.actioninmaturity.com.
AIM's catchment area runs north to the Baltimore County line, south to Pratt Street, east to the Harford Road and west to just beyond Sinai Hospital. It's services include transporting seniors to shopping, concerts, the theater, lectures, museums, health screenings, movies, sporting events and personal appointments.
Aim is funded through the Baltimore City Department of Health Office of Aging under the Older Americana Act. Funding also comes from membership dues and public and private grants.
Bonnet remains committed to the organization that now serves some 2,100 north Baltimore residents.
"I just became more and more interested in older people," Bonnet said. "It seemed to become part of my life."
While she was working and volunteering with retirees, Bonnet said she also volunteered with the children who came to the school library at Barclay Elementary School in Charles Village.
"It was a wonderful balance and I've loved every minute of it."
Bonnet came to Baltimore from Boston in the 1960s with her husband, Philip, a physician on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health.
A mother of five, and now grandmother of 10 and great grandmother of seven, Bonnet has always been active in the community. In addition to her volunteer work at Barclay, as part of the Hopkins Women's Club, was active in Family and Children Services of Central Maryland as both a volunteer and paid staff member.
She served on the board of the Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation and played a role in the development of Stadium Place on the former site of Memorial Stadium. In fact, she just retired from the Stadium Place board.
Bonnet established the group that became Action in Maturity with Clarke under the auspices of the then-nascent Greater Homewood Community Association. She still sits on the board.
"Greater Homewood was formed as a way to bring different neighborhoods in north Baltimore in communication with each other and enhance the quality of life," said Clarke, who was an early president of the association. Meeting the needs of the growing number of retired residents was part of that, she added.
It began with a simple activity. Bonnet and Clarke arranged to show a Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy movie at the Baltimore Museum of Art. They distributed fliers to churches and the neighborhoods.
"The BMA theater was packed," Bonnet said, a note of pride in her voice even four decades later.
Spurred by their success, a newly-formed seniors committee rounded up churches to serve as meeting places and began planning activities, lunches, movies, lectures — anything that would pique the interest of retirees and get them out of their houses.
Neighborhood support helped the organization flourish. Johns Hopkins University provided financial support and a staff member served on the board. Churches, including Friends Meeting House, University Baptist, and a now-closed church at 4100 Roland Ave., provided the cornerstones. They enabled residents to meet near their homes, instead of traveling to a senior center outside of their community
"Each center was very different," with different interests and needs.
"The churches really supported our activities and we didn't have to pay rent," Bonnet recalled.
With the passage of Title III of the Older Americans Act in 1973, the seniors committee received funding from Baltimore City's Office on Aging and, at the suggestion of member Edith Menkel, gave themselves the name Action in Maturity. Then they hired their first director.
"It really was (Bonnet's) brainchild," said Briscoe, in her fifth year as executive director of AIM. "It was the future of the delivery of senior services."
Get on the bus
They quickly recognized the need for transportation and got to work buying an eight-seat mini-bus, according to both Bonnet and Clarke. The fare was 10 cents.
"There wasn't any way to travel around the Homewood area to shop or go to the doctor's office," Clarke said.
"It was simple and low-key," Bonnet said. And it was an instant hit.
"You could count on it," Clarke said.
Transportation remains an essential service.
"That's the part that has endured," Clarke said. "The need has increased."
About half of AIM's members rely on its three buses — soon to be four, Briscoe said. All are wheelchair accessible.
No other community has been able to replicate the program, Clarke said.
"It's very difficult to run a transportation system," she said. "But it's well worth it because it keeps people independent."
As the demographics changed, so did AIM.
AIM became independent of the Homewood association in 1992 and expanded its borders to include more of north Baltimore. It grew again after receiving government grants in 2010 and 2012, according to Briscoe.
AIM now serves about 35-40 percent of the city area, Briscoe said.
Services have expanded, too. While there are still trips and book clubs, a new focus is social services — everything from help with applications for Medicare Part D to income tax returns to twice-monthly health programs to deliveries of fresh produce and even free cleaning supplies from Kathryn's Kloset, a Lutheran ministry.
"That's a big part of our outreach. It builds trust," Briscoe said. Once a relationship is established, reserved seniors are more likely to ask about other services, she said.
AIM's newest project is a joint venture with Keswick Multi-Care Center and MedStar Health, which owns Union Memorial Hospital. Prompted by the Affordable Care Act, they will work together to help seniors transition back to living at home after hospital and rehab stays, Briscoe said. The goal is to avoid return visits to the hospital, she said. The project will be launched at the May 2 celebration — which will also mark Keswick's 130th anniversary.
AIM continues to attract members from around north Baltimore.
"We've got the whole spectrum," Briscoe said. Residents of the Ambassador and Colonnade apartments belong to a book club. Roland Park Place residents take the bus to classes at Notre Dame of Maryland University. Once a month, members enjoy a free lunch. There will be a Mother's Day tea in May and Father's Day lunch in June.
Something new is always going on at AIM — while the original ideas endure. The shopping bus is still going strong, picking up people from every neighborhood in the service area.
"They all have the same purpose, to get the shopping done," Briscoe said.
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