Shelter from the Storm: Local Resident Inez McDonald Pledges to Improve COA Facility for Seniors

32 years ago, Inez McDonald left her desk in Washington D.C. and came directly to St. Augustine. After raising three daughters, she had enjoyed a successful career in public relations in the lobbying and nonprofit sectors in D.C.  When the time came to retire, Inez chose St. Augustine.

“It was the most laid back town you ever saw,” she remembered fondly. “It reminded me of the town I grew up in, St. Michael, Minnesota.”

Inez McDonald

In St. Augustine, Inez joined newcomers clubs and set about studying dance, a lifelong ambition. She studied all dance genres, and performed with a tap ensemble at assisted living centers and venues around town including at River House, Council on Aging’s lifelong learning center. She also took up ballroom dancing, and joined the Shores Riverview Club’s dance group, the St. Augustine Ballroom Formal Dance Club, and the USA Dance Club. Three years ago, she performed at the Romanza Festival at Lewis Auditorium in St. Augustine with professional ballroom partner, Michael Singleton.

“I have had the most wonderful retirement you can imagine,” Inez reflected. “I can’t believe I could have so much fun for this many years!”

At 97 years of age, Inez has set her sights upon another goal: to give back to the community she loves. She reached out to local nonprofit Council on Aging to find out how she could make a difference to seniors in the community.

Council on Aging (COA) has been serving the needs of seniors and caregivers in St. Johns County since 1973. At their headquarters at 180 Marine Street in St. Augustine, seniors have access to the Coastal Community Senior Center, one of six senior centers COA operates in the county, and the Sunshine Center, COA’s adult day care center. There participants are able to enjoy the company of friends, engaging activities, nutritious lunches, and in the case of the Sunshine Center, care in a secured environment for those dealing with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other brain injuries.

COA also provides transportation for those who require it through their Paratransit bus service and Sunshine Buses. Paratransit buses are equipped to accommodate assistive devices such as wheelchairs and walkers, and are able to transport participants from the bus to the programs safely.

Since COA’s main building was not originally designed as a senior center, when participants arrive, they must travel through the open air to the entrance of the facility. Unfortunately, that includes during inclement weather, when participants are exposed to rain, wind, and the hot Florida sun. Those seniors who walk slower, or who have walkers or wheelchairs, are often exposed to the weather longer than they would like to be, especially if they have to enter or exit the bus via the chair lift.  

COA’s front entrance at 180 Marine St. in St. Augustine. Improvements will protect seniors from weather conditions while they enter and exit the building and access senior programs.

Aware of these adverse circumstances, Inez made a generous pledge of $100,000 to allow COA to initiate plans to improve the situation. These plans include the construction of a portico at the entrance to COA’s facility, a covered walkway along the length of the front of the building, and improvements to the front elevation of the building. Once completed, vulnerable seniors will no longer be subject to the elements while they access COA’s life-affirming programs.

“I am so happy to be able to help local seniors,” Inez shared. “Once the project gets going, I think it’s really going to be striking. It will be more in keeping with COA’s River House across the street.”

As part of the project, COA plans to screen in the Sunshine Center deck, so participants can enjoy the fresh air and beauty of the COA garden no matter what the weather.

To complement the improvements, COA also plans to add a shaded, outdoor seating area with a water feature on the southeast corner of the building, so that seniors who utilize the parking lot will have a place to sit and rest while walking to the front entrance. COA is also drafting plans to screen the Sunshine Center’s outdoor deck, so that participants might sit outside year-round in the shade and enjoy the views of nature in COA’s garden no matter what the weather. 

“We cannot thank Inez enough for her generosity and for her vision,” said Becky Yanni, COA’s Executive Director. “We are so excited to be able to create more comfort, more pleasure, and more joy for the seniors we serve.”

To see this vision fully realized will take the generosity of additional community members who want to help make life better for seniors in St. Johns County. COA is asking members of the community and local businesses to join in the effort.

“As in everything we do, it takes the entire community to serve our elders,” Yanni explained. “We hope Inez’s gift will inspire others to join us in seeing this wonderful vision through to its completion.”

If you are interested in getting involved, please contact COA’s Tom Torretta at 904-209-3700. Donations may be made directly at www.coasjc.org/donate, or mailed to COA at 180 Marine St., St. Augustine, FL 32084. Please include the note “COA Renovation Project” with donations.

Participant and volunteer Bob Clairmont arrives at the Coastal Community Center with COA Paratransit Driver Sharon Patrick.

For more information on the many programs and services COA provides to seniors and caregivers in St. Johns County, please visit their website at www.coasjc.org, or call 904-209-3700.