by Sue Ann Rybak
Leslie Lefer, the executive director of Center on the Hill, was barely holding back the tears in her eyes after she announced she was leaving her position at the center at the end of Jan. 2019 to be closer to her 82-year-old mother, Mary Lefer.
Last month, her father Dr. Allan Lefer passed away at 82 years old after a long battle with cancer. Before he died, he asked Lefer and her husband if they would move to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina to take care of Leslie’s mother.
“The decision to take care of my Mom was not a difficult one,” Lefer wrote in the center’s newsletter. “However, the idea of leaving the Center on the Hill and you, the wonderful people who come through the Center’s doors, has been excruciating to say the least.”
Rev. Cynthia Jarvis, minister at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, said she is sad to see Lefer leave.
“We are all heartbroken that Leslie is leaving, even though we understand and support her commitment to her mother’s care,” Jarvis wrote in an email. “I remember when Jackie Yorko left, we feared no one could do what Jackie did. Then came Leslie! Like Jackie, Leslie put her distinctive mark on the Center on the Hill, a mark that will last for years. During her tenure, the program expanded its scope, the numbers of active adults increased, and the sense of community deepened. Leslie’s energy, intelligence, imagination and love have touched us all.”
Lefer replaced Jackie Yorko in 2013. Prior to her position at Center on the Hill, Lefer worked as a senior organization development professional at various nonprofits, educational institutions and corporations to design and deliver staff and leadership development programs.
Lefer, 52, of Elkins Park, said a lot of her job is just listening and connecting people with the right resources in the community.
“I love this job, and it’s going to be difficult to leave,” she said. “However, I am looking forward to spending some time with my mom.”
Lefer said she wants to find a place like the Center on the Hill in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina for her mother.
“She has been a caregiver for my father for the last two to three years, running him to the doctor and the hospital,” she said. “I want her to be able to take art classes. I am looking forward to helping her become more active and engaged, and I think she will thrive if she does that.”
Lefer added she is really going to miss the people at Center on the Hill.
“Every day is different,” she said “The people who come here want to learn; they want to be engaged. They want to be healthy. They are taking computer classes, opera classes and learning French. I wish I had the energy that they had. I am just so impressed.”
When Lefer first took the position, she was worried about what kind of classes she was going to offer.
“A lot of the great programs here come from the people who attend the Center on the Hill,” she said. “Over the years, people have said, ‘What about this?’ And I said, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought about that let me look into that. I like that they feel comfortable saying that this sounds interesting; then, they can help people get excited about it.”
Lauri Barish, executive director of Chestnut Hill Meals on Wheels, was surprised to hear of Lefer’s departure.
“Leslie Lefer is such as asset to the Center on the Hill and the order adult community,” said Lauri Barish. “We have enjoyed partnering with her through the years and certainly wish her well in her next adventure. She will be missed.”
Center on the Hill member Cathy McKinney, 72, described Lefer as a “fabulous person.”
“When I first retired I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I thought maybe I would go back to work, but then I met Leslie and became involved in Center on the Hill. It really was a God sent for me because I wasn’t sure.”
McKinney said she had been to other centers, but they were nothing like Center on the Hill. She said she loved the welcoming atmosphere and wide variety of trips and programs at the center.
“Leslie is perfect for the job because she addresses ageism in a proper manner,” she said. “She understands that people are aging and have different needs.
McKinney recalled a time she was in a room waiting for a presentation with roughly 20 or 25 people.
“The first five people tell her it’s too hot, and the next five tell her it’s too cold,” she said, “And she actually addresses everyone’s needs.”
She added that while the center is a lovely place, Lefer works hard to make it “meaningful for the seniors.”
For example, she said Lefer helped to create a diabetes education class with a facilitator to help participants meet goals.
McKinney said Lefer is “definitely tuned into what seniors want.” She added when a member mentioned they were interested in an opera class, “Leslie somehow got Leigh Munro, [who played ‘Carlotta Giudicelli’ in Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”] ‘the real deal’ to teach an opera class.”
She added that Lefer genuinely listens to people’s suggestions and then somehow makes it happen.
Sue Fitzpatrick, another member of Center on the Hill, agreed with McKinney.
“Leslie has created programs for people with varying degrees of physical abilities,” she said. “Leslie genuinely loves being around people. She’s upbeat and incredibly kindhearted. I know that if she doesn’t see someone around the center in a while, she gets concerned. She might even call them to make sure they are okay.”
Fitzpatrick said Leslie makes the center feel like one big family.
“She’s created a really friendly welcoming environment,” she said. “The warmth, the friendliness, the compassion, and the kindness you receive there really are an extension of Leslie and the effort she puts into making the center everything it is.”
One senior told Lefer when “I come here I feel like you are welcoming me into your home. That’s how welcoming you are.”
Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215248-8804.