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Solemates founder Fran Call (L) leading the group on a lakeside walk

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Mercer Island Voices

Solemates Builds Community One Step at a Time

Walking is great for fitness, but did you know that it can also foster community? For the past 27 years, a group of Mercer Island senior citizens called “Solemates” has gone walking together every Wednesday, rain or shine. 

“You know, we certainly exercise a little bit, but it's the socializing that's beneficial,” said Fran Call (83), the retired English teacher who founded Solemates. “As we grow older, we tend not to be in organizations so much as we were when we had children in school. We tend to stay at home and not see people. So, this is an opportunity to get out in a group and find people who have similar interests. We have happy hours together, we have coffee together, we volunteer together.”

Gerry Holley (93) has walked with the group since its founding. She said, “I had not been doing exercises as much as I wanted. I saw on the Mercer Island community news that there was a senior group that was going to start walking 3 to 4 miles every Wednesday. And so, I thought I'd try it.” There were only seven people on the first day. These days the group numbers roughly 60 men and women.

While Holley started walking with the group for physical fitness, she soon learned of the social benefits. “We all celebrate with you, send you cards, celebrate your anniversaries, birthdays, birth of a grandchild. If you have an illness or a death in the family, we are all with you. So, it's very close,” said Holley.

Gerry Kapur (84) whose husband, Kal, also walks with Solemates said, “We get information plus stories about our kids and about what we're doing with our lives, the struggles we go through, our physical ailments, what doctors we see. We go to the symphony and to plays together. 

Part of socializing together involves shared volunteer work for a variety of causes. Some of these charities include Seattle Children's Hospital, Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, and building tiny houses.

Bonnie Cundiff (81) joined Solemates when she moved to Mercer Island four-and-a-half years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She said, “I felt welcomed. I can't say enough about what it has meant to me, and the ability to integrate into a larger community.” Since then, Cundiff has encouraged the group to build two tiny homes, as well as sew curtains for hundreds more. She notes that there is a group of Solemates who knit comfort shawls and prayer shawls for those who are grieving.

Marilyn O'Neill (81), who has been walking with the group for about 15 years said that Solemates adds structure to her life. “Wednesday is sacred. I don’t do anything else. I'm sorry if there is a Bible study at church. This is what I do on Wednesday. It frames the week for me, and that’s powerful. And, usually, we have coffee afterward.”

Whether it is walking for fitness or socializing for mental health, Solemates builds community one step at a time. Founder, Fran Call, jokes that it is a lot like camp for senior citizens. Asked how Solemates has changed her life, Call said, “It ties me down, but it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I enjoy it thoroughly or I wouldn’t do it.”

  • Mercer Island Solemates walks rain or shine
  • Solemates founder Fran Call (L) leading the group on a lakeside walk
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