In good shape: Laverne Schaffer does crossovers with exercise bands in the Silver Sneakers class at the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park. (DAVID PIERINI/Staff Photographer)

In May, 78-year-old Leila Hill was the West Cook YMCA’s “Senior of the Month.” The vibrant, gregarious and indefatigable senior deserves the recognition. When asked about it, she smiles and says, “The YMCA saved my life.”

Thirty-eight years ago, Hill, a resident of the Austin neighborhood, joined the YMCA in Oak Park to learn how to swim, a desire she has harbored since childhood.

“In the South, you didn’t have those benefits, as a black person, to really go to the pools because they didn’t have them for us,” recalls Hill, who was born in Bessemer, Ala. “I remember when I finished all the courses here and got my Red Cross card. I swam a mile, and they gave me a cup that says, ‘Damn, I’m Good.'”

Prior to that, her life served up some significant challenges.

At age 17 she took over parenting her three younger siblings after her parents died. In addition to fulfilling her role as their guardian, she earned a high school and college degree. During her teaching career, she rose to the ranks of assistant dean.

At age 42, two years after she learned how to swim, Hill’s life slammed to a halt. During a serious auto accident, she was crushed between two cars, cutting one knee cap in half and shattering the other.

“There is a big scar on my leg now,” says Hill. “When I got to the hospital, it was like my leg was hamburger so they just grabbed it and threw it in the garbage. So there’s a big spot there where there’s no meat.”

After 31 days in the hospital, Hill received the green light to go to the YMCA and swim, as part of her recuperative physical therapy.

And that’s what she did.

For three long months, Hill’s brother chauffeured her to the pool. At poolside, she found a group of friends who helped her settle into the water, as one of her legs was in a cast and the other leg was completely wrapped.

Although she did the work to heal herself, she credits her YMCA “pool pals” with helping her endure it all. Gradually, she swam her way back to being able to walk with a cane 6-8 months later.

At home at the Y

Since then, thanks in part to the senior programming, “Fit Over Fifty,” which Jill Moorhead, the YMCA’s wellness coordinator runs, Hill and her friends congregate at the West Cook Y several times a week to exercise and socialize.

“We have some very fit 89-year-olds, and everyone gets along quite well,” says Moorhead. “[In addition to the fitness classes] they do field trips, play bingo twice a week, and have gone bowling. The senior programming will grow because we just want all our seniors to feel comfortable — like they’re at home here.”

A member for 38 years, Hill says she feels right at home.

“My health wouldn’t be as good as it is if it wasn’t for the Y,” she says.

West Cook YMCA

Complete address: 255 S. Marion St., Oak Park, IL 60302
General office number: 708-383-5200
Leadership contact name & title: Jan Pate, president & CEO

Statement of purpose: The West Cook YMCA, rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, is dedicated to developing the spirit, mind, and body of all persons through quality leadership programs and services, in cooperation with community groups, for the common good.

How long have you been in existence? Since 1903

Ways volunteers can help: Tutor children, help out in the Garden of Eatin’ Edible Garden, make PADS lunches, staff the Community Learning Center.

To volunteer, call: Chris Doonan, 708-434-0218

Useful donations other than money: Children’s sports equipment or furniture in good condition. Contact us for more options.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....