Jackie is seen here when she started her job at Center on the Hill in 2010. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

by Barbara Sherf

Three years ago a fit, red-headed powerhouse by the name of Jackie Yorko took on a tall job when she was named the first director of Center on the Hill, “The Place for Active Adults.” In the three years since it opened, Jackie has been credited by many with creating a caring place with diverse activities for active adults.

Now, sadly, she is leaving.

Rumors had been swirling, but as soon as the word hit the streets in the form of the Center’s newsletter last week, the phones at the Center, located in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, have been ringing non-stop.

There weren’t enough hours in the day for Yorko to “do lunches” with everyone who wanted to send her off, and so a reception is being held on her last day, Thursday, Sept. 12, from 4 to 6 p.m., at the Center on the Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. (We suspect Jackie will be on top of the logistics for the event.)

Yorko, who had previously been Director of Community Programs at Chestnut Hill Hospital, was hired by the Rev. Cynthia Jarvis to develop programming and a sense of community in the 5,000-square-foot renovated basement made possible by a bequest from the estate of church member Kay Matthews.

The director’s position is funded from an endowment given anonymously by a church member who has since died. In an interview last week, Rev. Jarvis looked back on Yorko’s accomplishments with a sense of nostalgia and admiration.

“She has done more than I or anyone could ever ask or imagine. She came with a vision of creating partnerships with other organizations and being a center for education and health,” said Rev. Jarvis. “As a church we have tried to lead with four words: energy, intelligence, imagination and love. Jackie has used those same four words in leading the Center on the Hill to become a community center and a welcoming presence that nobody could have imagined.”

Kudos are flying from all sides in what can only be described as the Jackie Yorko Fan Club. Peg Bachmann, who has been active in the church for 40 years and serves as a deacon, lauded Yorko’s efforts and will be sad to see her go.

“She is such a dynamic force,” said Peg, “and she has made the Center what it is today. She imbues interest and excitement and youth and has brought a plethora of programs that has brought a new spirit to our church. When you walked into her reception area, you were greeted with genuine interest, and that came across. I expect people will come en masse to pay their respects and say goodbye.”

Yorko, 57, will be moving to Richmond, Virginia, to be close to her mother and two of her five siblings. She will be overseeing special projects for a health and wellness institute known for lifestyle change management. With a graduate degree in Exercise Physiology, Yorko had a reputation for starting her day with early morning workouts at LA Fitness and Planet Fitness, and on weekends could often be seen taking long walks, jogging and biking from her Mt. Airy home (which she has sold) to points far and wide.

Getting a bit teary-eyed, Yorko said the reaction to the news has been a bit overwhelming. “People have called to say they are sorry to see me go, but most are happy with the idea of seeing me take a risk and doing something different, particularly women. They say, ‘Boy, I wish I could do the same thing,’ so there have been a lot of ‘atta girls’ and well wishes,” said Jackie, noting that her three children are risk-takers as well.

Daughter Jess, 23, is in the film industry in Los Angeles, and her twin sister, Danielle, who lives in San Francisco, just ended a two-month stint backpacking through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Her son, Scott, 27, who lives in Philadelphia, is a freelance writer. With his adventurous spirit, he has written for Outdoor Magazine and recently pitched the idea of covering rickshaw racing through India.

Wyndmoor resident Betsy Wallace worked side by side with Yorko to get the Time4Time Exchange time bank off the ground this past year, and the pair recently received a grant to sustain the project. “I will miss her energy and her laugh and sense of humor,” said Wallace. “She keeps saying if it weren’t for me, the time bank wouldn’t have worked. But if it weren’t for Jackie, it would not have gotten off the ground. She got the church behind it, and I value that she follows through. She is willing to discover and explore, and that is what she is going to do be doing in the next chapter.”

Wendy Liebling of Liebling Elder Care is another in the Jackie Yorko Fan Club.

“Jackie has been a great asset to the community. She is thoughtful and dedicated to connecting people to one another, to opportunities for enrichment, to resources and fun. I will be among the many folks who will miss her energy and enthusiasm.”

Hill House resident Velma Whitlock remembered a bus trip Yorko oversaw in her role at Chestnut Hill Hospital. “We had gone to Cape Cod, and there were some difficulties, but she was terrific in spite of it all. I fell in love with her then and there. She is so friendly and a really neat person,” said Whitlock. “She will be missed.”

Chestnut Hill Business Association representative Kate O’Neill worked with Jackie on a personal and professional basis. “If she said she’d be there at 3 o’clock to help you move, she was there. She was the same in her professional dealings. She was just good about being there and following through on her commitments,” said O’Neill.

Lynne Mason of Chestnut Hill Meals on Wheels said her organization has received both clients and volunteers as a direct result of Yorko’s efforts.

“I had a really lovely working experience with her on the community luncheons every month,” said Lynne. “She is extremely organized and warm and caring in terms of the luncheon program. You know it does takes a village for all of our programs to thrive and prosper. The more that we can do to join together just enhances everything, and Jackie has been at the forefront in doing that.”

Joanne Fagerstrom, a physical therapist who has been teaching Awareness through Movement and Super Bones Exercise Classes at the Center, also praised Jackie, as did Catherine Brzozowski, marketing director at Chestnut Hill Hospital, and Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment Executive Director Mary Zell, who worked closely with Jackie on a number of programs.

“My impression of Jackie,” said Zell, “is that she is a smart lady and a really good human being as well as a great partner for me personally and the Center for Enrichment in the past several years. We wish her well in her next phase.”

Although no one person could replace Jackie, Elkins Park resident Leslie A. Lefer has been brought on board to take the Center to the next level. Rev. Jarvis made the hire after receiving a dozen applications and interviewing a half-dozen candidates with Yorko. “Jackie keeps saying it’s a job you do from the heart,” said Rev. Jarvis, “and we were looking for that from the next person. You are not going to get rich running the Center, but you are enriched by it.”

There is no need to RSVP for the reception on Sept. 12, 4 to 6 p.m., at Center on the Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave. Light refreshments and heavy well wishes will be served.

Barbara Sherf is a member of the Jackie Yorko Fan Club and has done workshops at the Center as part of her Capture Life Stories business. Photos of Jackie can be e-mailed to Barb for a photo tribute. Barbara can be reached at 215-233-8022 or Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.