Greenbriar resident Helen Cross, 91, has apparently found the secret to staying youthful: Keep moving, and old age can't catch up with you.
She walks two miles a day, volunteers at an elementary school and, last Sunday, she trekked three miles around Burke Lake to raise money for Western Fairfax Christian Ministries' (WFCM) Kids in Crisis program.
"She's wonderful," said WFCM Executive Director Dorothy Fonow. "If I'm doing half as good as that by the time I'm 91, I'll feel happy. And if she can do that walk, anyone can. I really do believe age is a mindset — and Helen's about 25."
The event was called the Walk of Faith, and Kids in Crisis helps families in financial binds because of seriously ill children. "I enjoyed doing it," said Cross. "And I liked knowing that it's to help children."
Spry, alert and in good health, she lives with her son and daughter-in-law, George and Karen Cross, who've been in Greenbriar since 1977. A couple weeks ago, George asked her if she'd like to go on the walk with him. It was actually a four-mile event, but he got clearance for her to walk just half that amount.
"I thought four miles would be a bit much for her and, in some areas along the course, there were no services in case of an emergency," he explained. (As it turned out, though, she actually walked three miles and did fine).
Cross signed up through the family's church, Pender United Methodist. Since it was a fund-raiser, said George, 66, he figured she could do her part there, too. "I thought she could raise $15 so she could feel like she contributed," he said. Instead, said Fonow, she raised $625.
"She did it out of the goodness of her heart," said Fonow. "And she's obviously well-loved in her church. She's got a good spirit — she's very upbeat and is just lovely; she's a dear."
Members of the congregation learned about Cross' participation through word of mouth and via flyers sent to the Sunday School classes. "An awful lot of people know her, and it just caught fire," said her son. "I thought it would be something she'd enjoy doing, and people all over church thought it was a really neat deal."
"She was thrilled every night when I gave her a report of who'd contributed," said Karen. "George and I wouldn't have been able to raise 10 bucks. But when people found out she was walking, they all wanted to contribute. They'd come up and say to her, 'Here's $5 — I'm so glad you're walking.'"
Mother and son walked from the ampitheater to the north end of Burke Lake, back down to the dam and uphill to return to the ampitheater. "We had a good time," she said. "It was an interesting walk, seeing the forest and the people. I was awful glad George told me about it."
"The sky was blue, and it was a beautiful day," said George. "When we got back, there were friends from church waiting for us, and it was nice to visit with them," added his mom. She said doing the walk was her way of helping others and, if not for events such as this, people might not even be aware of the need.
Since she's a seasoned walker, Cross found the course fairly easy. The toughest part, she said, was coming back: "At the very end, we had to go uphill to the ampitheater and parking lot."
Besides son George, she has a daughter Norma, 65, of Raleigh, N.C., two grandchildren and two greatgrandchildren. Before her husband Gordon died in 1990, they were married 56 years. And she's always gotten lots of exercise.
"I was a student at Syracuse University and graduated in 1934," said Cross. "I worked in the library and I climbed the stairs there a lot." She later became a librarian, working 20 years for a school in McGraw, N.Y., with grades kindergarten through 12 all under one roof. In 1965, the school even dedicated its yearbook to her. She also served five years as a librarian for a public library in Cortland, N.Y.
But that's not all. "Her husband was a dairy farmer and, when I met her in 1963, she was not only a librarian, but she'd get up and help Gordon in the barn with the cows," said daughter-in-law Karen. "Then after working at school, she'd come home and work in the barn again and then make dinner. I was exhausted just watching her. I think that's what made her strong."
And not even advancing years could slow her down. In May 1990, at age 77, Cross completed a 35-mile swim in Cortland's YWCA pool. It took her two months, but she did it. "It was part of a Y program to simulate swimming all of nearby Seneca Lake," said her son.
She also did the 500-yard freestyle swim several times in the New York State Senior Games. But at age 86, she had to come out of the pool. Said George: "She tore her rotator cuff in her left arm and had to stop swimming, or she'd still be doing it."
In January 1991, Cross began 12 years of volunteering at a nursing home in Cortland. "She'd visit the patients to brighten their day and also led a Bible study," said her son. "And in her late 80s, she participated in the Crop Walk, pushing people in wheelchairs; they were from a trauma center near where she lived. I took her to the doctor, and he said, 'She's doing what?'"
"I always enjoyed walking," said Cross. "I think exercise is good for a person." She's lived with George and Karen since March 2002, and just recently, said her son, "Her doctor said her feet are a generation younger than her age because of all the walking she's done."
In Greenbriar, she walks an average of two miles a day. "It's nice walking here," she said. "I don't have to worry about traffic." She also enjoys reading mysteries, biographies and a bit of poetry and, added Karen, "She has 10 magazine subscriptions."
But Cross attributes her good health to all that walking. "I think it helps," she said. "And even if it was hurting me, I'd keep doing it." Never one to remain idle, she also volunteers on Thursdays at Navy Elementary. The school's mascot is the dolphin, so she's considered a "senior dolphin."
"She and the other volunteers do things the teachers need, like cutting, pasting and collating," said Karen. "She's in her third year of doing it." Said Cross: "I like the volunteer work, and it's fun to see the kids."
As for Sunday's walk, Karen said Cross always wanted to help children, so the event was a "perfect fit." Besides, she added, "We're happy that she'll have this memory. If her feet can give satisfaction and make money, too, that's good."
So what did Cross do after walking around Burke Lake? Not surprisingly, said George, "She came home and took a walk."