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It's official: Laiti and Pichotta are outstanding volunteers

Lake County's Outstanding Seniors for 2013 are Marge Laiti of Two Harbors and former Finland resident, Jack Pichotta. They were honored last Thursday at Lake County Fair. They are now eligible for the title of Minnesota Outstanding Senior Volunteer. Photo by Tammy Francois.

Elders from throughout the North Shore communities attended the annual senior luncheon at the Lake County Fair last Thursday. The event included music by Mel Annala, door prize drawings, a menu of summer favorites --chicken pasta salad, fruit cup, cake and coffee -- and the announcement of Lake County's Outstanding Senior Volunteer.

The honorees, Marge Laiti of Two Harbors and Jack Pichotta, who until recently, lived in Finland, were nominated by Community Partners and Northshore Area Partners, respectively. The organizations aim to "enable older persons to remain independent in their own homes" through a variety of supports and services. Both Laiti and Pichotta were recognized for their contributions to seniors, children and their communities.

"Marge regularly visited a woman with early onset Alzheimer's as well as others who lived alone and needed a friendly visit and a helping hand. Marge is very kind and has a special place in her heart for the elderly," said Kirsten Cruikshank, Director of Community Partners. Laiti also serves as a council member and deacon in her community of faith, United Church of Two Harbors, making home visits to elderly shut-ins.

"She brings a positive spirit to everything she does. She has genuine care and concern for everyone she meets," said United Church Pastor Lawrence Lee. In addition to brightening the days of seniors in the community, Laiti has forged relationships with the younger set, too.

Known as "Grandma Marge," she is a foster grandparent at the Minnehaha, where she works one-on one and in small groups as a literacy mentor, reading to and playing games with pre-readers and listening to emerging readers as they practice their new skills. Under Laiti's care and tutelage -- 15 hours per week for five years -- the kids have blossomed.

"I have been in and out of the schools with my own kids and the way she works with kids is really special," said Cruikshank. "The school has seen an improvement in literacy scores among the children that Marge works with...and the teachers say, 'everyone wants to work with Grandma Marge.'" Perhaps it is not a surprise then, that a woman who gives her time to kids and elders would bring the two together. Laiti is the intergenerational program leader at Ecumen Care Center and Assisted Living.

"Most Friday afternoons you can find Marge and the children feeding the birds, watering the flowers and providing much needed visits and hugs to the older adults we serve," said Mary Driscoll-Ault, Nutrition Services Director and parent of one of the students Laiti takes to Ecumen.

Marge has a very easy and gentle smile; she has changed the lives of our children and also the residents of our campus."

Not an easy act to follow, Mabel Tarlton, introduced the afternoon's second honoree, Jack Pichotta. Pichotta is perhaps best known as the founder, with wife Genea, of the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella in the early 70s. The center, now Wolf Ridge-ELC in Finland, is an international model of environmental education. Pichotta also served on the Lake Superior School District board for 11 years and became an integral part of the northwoods communities where he's lived.

"For the past eight years," recounted Tarlton, "Jack has provided innumerable volunteer service hours assisting others with a smile and positive energy. Jack has delivered frozen meals for our frozen meal program since its inception...he's always willing to provide rides to medical appointments, which often take the better part of the day." He takes time to visit with elders and play a hand or two of cards, added Tarlton, who said she is certain that there are many unmentioned ways in which Pichotta serves his community. His generosity and good will, however are woven into the fabric of the region.

"There are many people in the community that have benefited from his gentle guidance and support. We are a fortunate community to have Jack with his calm voice of reason, common sense and willingness to support," Tarlton continued. "Lake County would be honored to have him represent us as our outstanding senior."

Both Laiti and Pichotta received certificates of recognition and are now eligible for the honor of Minnesota Outstanding Senior Volunteer which will be awarded at the State Fair in early September.

The senior day luncheon concluded with words of thanks to all the senior volunteers from emcee Bunny Thomson:

"Thank you for what you do for the community and thank you for what you do for each other," she said.