You get a lot of phone calls when you’re an elected official. For Raymond Mills, one call in particular not only led to a passion for him, but ultimately provided increased opportunities and quality of life for area senior citizens. It’s Mills’ commitment to senior needs throughout the years that recently earned him a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Claude Pepper Award, presented annually to two outstanding senior citizen advocates whose work or volunteer activities have a positive effect on the lives of older adults. The other award was given to Denise Hubbard. Mills will accept his award on Thursday, Sept. 15 prior to the Senior Expo Committee meeting at the Grand Traverse Area Agency on Aging. When he served as the village of Bellaire’s president in the ‘90s, a local resident reached out to him about the need for seniors to have a place of their own. She explained that there was no dedicated space for seniors to enjoy fellowship, meals, and recreation. Mills said places such as libraries, schools, and government buildings in Antrim County had served these needs temporarily, but would then need to shift their use for various reasons, leaving seniors with no designated place to go. About an hour after the conversation took place, Mills quips that the apple pie delivered to his home is what got him started helping the senior population, but it was more than that. “They were bounced around constantly,” Mills explained. “That’s what got me involved.” Along with many other local residents, Mills was instrumental in starting Area Seniors, Inc. in 1994. The organization became a non-profit in 1995 and from there, fundraising began with the goal of building a Senior Center for the Commission on Aging (COA), which came to fruition in 1997. Since the construction of that first building at 308 E. Cayuga St. in Bellaire, an entire compound has sprung up around it. Mills spearheaded additional parking, walking paths and storage buildings, as well as fundraising efforts to build senior apartments in close proximity to the center. A pavilion for activities, picnics and Friday farmers markets went up in 2000, and a new activity center and park were completed in 2011. Mills is clearly proud of this one-stop senior haven, excitedly opening up the activity center after hours to show it off, but he’s quick to point out that many hands went into its creation. “It isn’t just Ray Mills,” he said. “If our team and our volunteers weren’t there, we wouldn’t have what we have.” Still, the leadership he provides has made a big difference in his community, according to Marcia Varble, Area Seniors, Inc. board secretary. She nominated Mills for the award, writing that he “continues to dream of ideas and spearhead the fundraising or grant writing to accomplish what needs to be done.” “It is very difficult to imagine the community without Mr. Mills,” Varble continued. “He has touched so many lives over the years … his involvement benefits the Area Seniors, Inc. organization as well as the lives of seniors in Antrim County.” As part of the Claude Pepper award, Mills has designated a $1,000 contribution from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan be donated to Area Seniors, Inc. He said the money will be used to help fund additional parking at the site so that even more seniors can comfortably and safely enjoy the facilities. Mills will turn 78 in October, which means he regularly enjoys the fruits of his own labor as a senior citizen. “Stay active as long as you can and not only physically, but mentally too. You’ll last a lot longer,” he said, when asked the secret to a long and happy, healthy life. He would know.
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