TAMPA – The OWLS of Northdale takes as many as 800 senior citizens to places where the fun is, but two members especially help keep the social group flying.
Marty and Sylvia Katz helped start the Older, Wiser, Lively Seniors group 10 years ago and they’ve contributed countless volunteer hours since then, from the first Dade City bus trip to the European vacations offered today.
“It lifts one’s spirits to know you have made a difference in someone’s life,” Sylvia Katz said. “We love the Northdale community and the OWLS.”
The Katzes left Livonia, Mich., near Detroit, and came here almost 40 years ago. They raised three children, all of whom live in Florida now. One is an Tampa attorney, another a math and science teacher in a Hillsborough County school and the youngest works as an environmentalist with Orange County.
Volunteerism is a big part of the Katzes’ lives, said Sylvia Katz said, who started a salary-free career donating hours in Michigan when her first two children were young.
“We three went door to door in extremely cold Michigan, January nights,” she said, “knocking on doors to collect for the March of Dimes.”
Her husband, Marty, likes to stay behind the scenes, she said.
“He and I both try to be as helpful as possible. We enjoy our work with the OWLS very much.”
They do a lot of scheduling — bus trips and tours, dinners, plays, Christmas pageants, tea room lunches, you name it.
The key, said Sylvia Katz, “is having people who are 50 and over and who want to have fun. We do not medicate and we do not change diapers, although I have pushed some wheelchairs in certain instances. We don’t look for people who can’t handle themselves.”
The OWLS were born after a neighbor suggested the Katzes join with a handful of others to seek out interesting people for lunch in a rec room at a nearby park.
“That was the beginning of the OWLS,” she said.
They began planning trips around the region. Now, members take the bus to places far beyond the area.
“I’ve always been the type to hit the byways rather than the expressways,” Sylvia Katz said.
The first outing was a bus trip to Dade City, she recalled, and the bus was packed.
“By the third month, well over 100 members had signed up and we kept on growing,” she said.
Now there are regular luncheons and a full schedule of trips and events that keep the Katzes and a devoted group of volunteers busy.
“People love it,” she said. “We have a wonderful group.”
Starting out, the Katzes never thought it would grow this much.
“We didn’t think about the size,” she said. “Everything grew from that. We learned from trial and error.”
Next year the OWLS are taking two trips to Europe — a cruise along the Rhine and a tour of Ireland.
There’s even a four-day Mystery Tour, at $600 per person, where members don’t know the destination until the bus arrives.
But most participants still opt for fun closer to home, like the TECO Manatee Viewing Center and horse racing at Tampa Bay Downs.
“We have a buffet lunch and they have a section set aside for us,” Katz said. “They even have a horse race named for us.”
The group also takes up collections for Metropolitan Ministries and Meals on Wheels, she said, filling barrels full of canned goods, food and money each November. Just last week, OWLS members filled five barrels with toys, she said.
A few years ago, the group found itself in Ybor City on a Friday night, attending a transvestite show.
“My group loved it so much,” Sylvia Katz said. “Those crazy people.”
Paulette Paganelli, a volunteer who has been with the OWLS since the beginning, she said the Katzes’ efforts are essential to the success of the group.
“They are very dedicated to the people who don’t have much money,” she said. “They do an awful lot of work. They deserve a pat on the back.”
Sylvia Katz declined to give her age, but acknowledges she meets the group’s minimum age requirement of 50 years old.
“We do admit to being over 50,” she said. “Seriously — we never say the ‘O’ word.”