LIVINGSTON, NJ — Longtime Livingston resident Grace Baker, who found refuge at the West Essex YMCA after her husband of 57 years died in 2013, received the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges’ Harry W. Lindeman Award for Healthy Living at the Metro Y’s 40th annual recognition dinner, held at the Hanover Manor in East Hanover on Wednesday.

According to the Y, Baker found comfort and support from members and staff at the YMCA, and she in turn became a source of solace for others coping with loss a loved one. She quickly became the center of an informal support group that, at her suggestion, morphed into an official YMCA bereavement group last year. 

“It’s because of Grace Baker that so many of our seniors now have many more happy times to share,” West Essex YMCA Executive Director Helen Flores said.

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“What the YMCA means to me is happiness, a place to go where I can smile,” Baker said. “It has an energy of love.”

The mother of four and grandmother of nine joined the YMCA 10 years ago, decades after her husband, Len, became a member. She said she had no interest in joining until she found out she could exercise in the pool despite never learning to swim. 

Soon, Baker became part of a group of women that met regularly at 2 p.m. to jog in the pool and talk.

“I was hooked,” she said, and added that the Y filled a different need after her husband died.

She would chat with other members also dealing with grief and find comfort.

“No one else knows what it’s like, unless they’ve gone through it,” Baker said. “It helps to get it out, talking to people who understand.”

Last year, in support of the Y’s annual campaign, Baker took the initiative to collect seniors’ stories about how the Y has impacted their lives.

“The result was a beautiful story of healthy living for seniors, and Grace Baker was at the very heart of that story,” Flores said.

Baker’s efforts led to the Y to name her the winner of this year’s Harry W. Lindeman Award for Healthy Living.