Article and Photos by Alice E. Gerard
Helping other people is something that has made Jan Yardley, the recipient of the Grand Island Golden Age Center’s 2020 Senior of the Year award, happy.
Being recognized for the support that she has given to others was, on the other hand, unexpected.
When she was informed that she won, Yardley, 68, said she was “surprised. I am so used to all my life that you always helped other people. It was sort of I’m just doing what I always do. It’s what I should do. It’s what my parents expected me to do.”
Growing up on a dead-end road in New Hampshire with her parents, Florence and Wallace, and brother Barry, she was used to going outside with her family on snowy days to shovel out the neighbors, whom she described as “all older people.”
“I even had my shovel. It had a metal blade and a wooden handle. It was kid-sized. All of the mailboxes were at the end of the street. I would go out with mom, and we would shovel out the mailboxes,” Yardley said.
More recently, during the 2020 lockdowns, Yardley used her sewing skills, instead of a shovel, to help other people.
“The pandemic was here, and being at home quarantined was not fun. What could I do to help? And so, that’s when I started making masks,” she said. “I probably made 2,000 masks, of all kinds. Because I’m right next to Kaegebein Elementary School, I made masks for all of the students and all of the staff there. That was 480 masks. I would make masks during the week, and I would put out a clothesline and, by late Saturday afternoon, all of the masks would be gone. People walking by would stop and would pick up a mask. I donated to ‘Masks for All’ that worked here on the Island. It gave masks to people during two weekends. I made masks that had windows, I made masks that were a solid color so that people could put on the logo of a business. I made different styles of masks.
“I worked out dimensions on different types of masks. I involved my daughter in it and some of her friends. It took a whole day for the two of us, just cutting out fabric to make the mask. She cut all of the elastic. I’d sew it, I’d give it to her, she’d turn it. I’d pleat it. Sew it again. Between the two of us, we put them individually into plastic bags. I know that there was a woman who was going to New York City to help there. She gave me some Buffalo Sabres fabric. We made masks for her and for the other nurses who went with her for them to wear and to give out to people there in New York. Anything that I could do to help someone, especially if they were going to help someone else. I didn’t charge for them.”
In addition to sewing masks, Yardley also enjoys making book pillows, which she sold at the Golden Age Center’s Oct. 23 “Holiday Happenings” event.
“When you see that you’ve got a pillow that has a handle on it, you can stick a book, a pencil, your glasses, a magazine, whatever you want in it” she said. “You could go on a picnic. Kids could put a little flashlight in it and find a little hidey hole and be comfortable and read. It’s the kinds of things that I like to promote.”
When Yardley, who is a retired teacher, isn’t sewing, she is reading. She belongs to three book clubs on Grand Island. She said she is open to reading all genres but that, currently, her favorite genre is historical fiction. Her love of books goes back to her childhood, when she was contemplating her future career.
“When I was in fourth grade, I either wanted to be a librarian or a teacher. And so, in the summertime, I took all of my books out into my playhouse,” she said. “I made up library cards, and I got a boy from the next street over to come and check out a book. And then, at supper time, I went to his house, knocked on the door, and told him that he had to give the book back. And that meant that I would not be a good librarian because, whenever the books came in, I would lock the doors and no one would be able to come and take the books until I was done. So, I became a teacher.
“I started out teaching preschoolers. I worked at Head Start. I worked at the Child Development Center at the state college. Then I went to the public school and taught kindergarten through sixth grade. It was a small school in small town. The town only had 1,100 people, and we would tuition our kids off to middle school in the city next door.”
Although Yardley never became a librarian, she now offers people the opportunity to choose books or to drop books off at her little free library.
“I have the little free library on Broadway,” she said. “I had read an article about a man from Minnesota, Todd Bol, who wanted to bring communities together by putting out a box that contained books for people. You take one and you give one. It’s just free sharing, and I like the idea of sharing books. It’s really nice and, just moving here, I got to meet my neighbors. Mine has grown from one box to two boxes and almost a bookcase. It’s not going to grow any bigger.”
Yardley moved to Grand Island approximately five years ago, after she retired from her teaching career.
“My daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Charlie, had been living out in California, and the business was looking to relocate some of the people back here,” she said. “They talked about it and decided. So, when they moved back here, I said that, when I retired, I was going to move here so I could be close to them and see them more often.”
Yardley said she enjoys living on Grand Island: “It feels very much like at home. It’s friendly. I wish there were a yarn shop and a fabric shop on the Island. Because I would never go off the Island. I like the Island very much. I love all of the trails. I love going down to Beaver Island. Sometimes, I go down at dusk to look at the animals: the deer and cranes and whatever.”
If she were to talk to children now, the retired teacher would tell them, “Try everything. You never know. It may be something that you have a hidden talent for. Or you may find out, once you’ve done it, whatever it is, that you enjoy it a lot more than you thought you might.”
As for adults, Yardley said she would encourage them to be lifelong learners.
“There is so much out in the world to discover. It never ends,” she said. “I find that I learn something new every day. Reading takes me to so many places and I can look at something that I’ve read in the past. I think about ‘The Orphan Collector” (a novel set during the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic by Ellen Marie Wiseman). You can learn from the past. I have a book on the flu, and I’m reading this, and it’s like we knew this. I saw a printout from a newspaper article from back then. Wear masks. Wash frequently. Stay within your family. All of the things that we should be doing now, and people are hollering. They don’t want to do this.”
“I love all of my new friends here,” Yardley said. “Retirement has not turned out to be what I thought it was going to be. I’m enjoying it greatly.”