Step by Step: The Spirit of Giving Walks On

Step by Step: The Spirit of Giving Walks On

John and Kathleen Treanor have never been the type to sit still. Married for nearly 67 years, the longtime Mercy Home donors and Ireland natives have always been light on their feet and generous of heart. Their pace may have slowed in recent years, but the strides they continue to make for our Home are as strong as they’ve ever been.

Looking for a new challenge, 96-year-old John and 89-year-old Kathleen decided to incorporate fitness into their charitable giving routine, from their home in Northville, Michigan. The couple is currently raising money for our Home after John pledged to walk five kilometers and Kathleen committed to walking 15 kilometers before her 90th birthday on April 30.

The Treanors were inspired to lace up their walking shoes by their granddaughter Caitlin, who recently participated in America’s Shamrock Run and chose Mercy Home as her designated charity. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, Caitlin moved in with her grandparents to help with caretaking. 

“Caitlin has been exceptionally good to us,” Kathleen said, via videoconference. “She’s amazing in all the different things she does. She got John walking more than he ever did before. We love her with our hearts and souls.”

Ever quick with a witty quip, John chimed in with his Irish brogue. “She’s done some good carpentry work, too,” he said, referencing the railings Caitlin installed to help prevent him from falling.

All joking aside, the Treanors absolutely cherish the time they’ve spent with Caitlin, who accompanies her grandparents on their daily walks. Not only has she been integral to their well being as a cheerleader, she’s given them a new lease on life by infusing their walks with youthful celebrations of art, humor, and nature. 

The walks typically take place in the afternoon. For stability, John relies on his trusty walker, which is tricked out with a cup holder and revolving pieces of flair like sparkly wrapping paper, a beaded shamrock necklace, and Christmas lights. Kathleen, a self-described “spring chicken,” walks hands-free.

The trio typically walks a mile down their long driveway, which Caitlin has decorated with inspirational messages and warning marks for bumps and uneven pavement. 

“Sometimes I make chalk drawings and pictures along the way to keep them going,” she said. “Words of encouragement like ‘good job’ and ‘Let’s go athletes!’”

Each step brims with an air of reverence, merriment, and exuberance for each other and the world around them. The surrounding farmland provides an ideal backdrop upon which they perform. They often listen to Irish music and occasionally break out into song. Sometimes they recite poetry or Caitlin does traditional Irish dancing. Kathleen usually extends her walks past the driveway and onto the country road.

“There are horses in the fields and birds in the trees,” said Kathleen. “It’s pretty scenic. And Caitlin likes to gargle like a turkey, so the turkeys all come to visit us.”

John, who is all smiles, agrees. “I feel great after the walk,” he said.

In fact, John and Kathleen feel so good about their new walking regimen that they plan to continue their walks long after their fundraiser is over. Displaying the colorful goal thermometer that she drew up, Caitlin showed how that afternoon’s walk would fulfill her grandparent’s pledge. 

“They decided they’re going to set new goals after today,” she said.

Kathy Treanor—Caitlin’s mother—marvels at the benefits and gains she sees taking shape in her parents.

“Caitlin ended up making them happier and healthier than I’ve seen them in years,” she said. “Even their doctors have said ‘Your dad is healthier than he’s been because of his granddaughter.’ But aside from the exercise, it’s the laughter, the poetry, and the good spirit of giving and caring together that’s boosted their health.”

For the Treanors, this ageless vigor and verve are the ties that bind, which makes sense, because agility and nimbleness are what brought John and Kathleen together nearly 70 years ago in Detroit’s close-knit Irish community. If ever there was a young, fleet-footed couple, it was John and Kathleen. 

John ran the pitch for Padraig Pearse, a Gaelic football team that belonged to Detroit’s rich tradition of Irish football. Kathleen liked to attend the football games and socialize at the Gaelic League Irish Club. Aided by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, a charitable organization that helps Irish emigrants get settled in America, John and Kathleen found a sense of community and soon crossed paths at the Gaelic League Irish Club.

“We went dancing there all the time,” Kathleen fondly remembered. 

After marrying, John and Kathleen settled in the area, started a family, and raised seven children. John worked at DTE, a Detroit-based energy company and Kathleen worked at Stouffer’s Restaurant until she was nine months pregnant. As the family grew, Kathleen stayed home with the children. The Treanors also owned rental properties in Detroit, doing the renovations, painting, and maintenance themselves well into their 80s. In fact, they are just now selling off their last properties.

In no short order, John and Kathleen found what they were looking for when they both left Ireland in search of opportunity.

John hails from County Monaghan, in the northern Ulster province, while Kathleen is from the west—County Mayo in the Connacht province. 

“I came to the States to make a livelihood and better my chances with a better job,” said John. “There wasn’t a lot of work in Ireland at that time.”

John arrived in the late 1940’s, entering through Canada, where he worked a variety of manual labor jobs to save up money for a visa. He also needed to find someone in the U.S. who was willing to be his sponsor. Without one, he couldn’t enter. In the meantime, he worked construction, did farm work, drove trucks, and worked on the railroad. 

“I had no friends or anybody I knew in the United States,” he said.

Kathleen partially credits her longevity to her rugged upbringing in Ireland, which makes her daily strolls feel like a walk in the park.

“I was born and raised on a farm. I’ve had to dig potatoes, turnips, you name it,” she said. “We were pretty active on the farm. There was always a lot of work to do, like taking care of animals. We didn’t have any water, so I had to take a donkey and cart and get a barrel of water and bring it back home. My best friend in Ireland was a donkey named Paddy.”

Kathleen recalls how her mother instilled in her an appreciation and respect for all creatures great and small, whether it was chickens, hens, ducks…or others in need.

“She took care of anything that walked,” Kathleen said.

But it was her mother’s compassion toward the Irish travellers in their caravans that left the biggest impression on Kathleen—one that would later influence her own spirit of giving to people in need, like the kids and families we serve at Mercy Home. Other people were rude and dismissive toward the travellers, an ethnic minority, but not Kathleen’s mother.  

“She would always invite them in for tea and give them whatever she had to offer them to eat—maybe bread that she had baked—because they didn’t have any money,” Kathleen said. “She had a big heart.”

Bolstered by empathy, generosity, and a robust work ethic, Kathleen embarked on her own journey to United States in search of a better life. But before arriving in Detroit she lived in England for a year and a half, where she worked as a seamstress with her sister. Together, they did the embroidery for the costumes in the 1952 movie The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. 

Once John and Kathleen established themselves in Detroit, thanks to the support of community organizations, it was important for them to return the charitable spirit that helped them find their footing in America.  

“We’ve donated to a lot of different charities along the way,” Kathleen said.

In 1994, John and Kathleen saw an advertisement for Mercy Home. After learning more about how our Home is a port in the storm for abused and neglected children, the Treanors decided to support our Home, and we’ve been grateful ever since.

“I think there’s a lot of abuse in this country and every country for that matter,” said Kathleen. “It’s very sad to know that children get abused because they’re innocent.”

To counter these darker forces at play, the Treanors find strength in their faith. Every day during COVID, they have logged on to virtual Mass in a back room of their home, where they pray for the poor, homeless, and anybody who’s hurting. They even have Eucharists delivered to their home.

John says he believes in helping those in need because it keeps him on the right side of God. “When you’re helping children, you hope they remember you when they grow up,” he said. “It feels good.”

But now that other people are donating to their own fundraising campaign to help children at Mercy Home, the Treanors feel very humbled. In fact, they are so grateful that they’ve sent thank you notes to every person who donated.

“I just want to thank Mercy Home for recognizing my parents because they gave so quietly throughout their life,” said Kathy. “It is so nice that you recognize the donors the way you do and especially at this age, it means that much more.”

Both John and Kathleen remain somewhat stunned that they’ve been able to raise money for Mercy Home simply by putting one foot in front of the other. But that’s the way progress happens—step by step, day by day. That they’ve been able witness the power and potential of their own mobility is a life-affirming lesson for us all. 

From all of us at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to the Treanor family for inspiring new ways to give to kids and families in need.

“I appreciate everyone who donated,” said Kathleen. “Those who did really amaze me.”

John and Kathleen will officially be walking for our kids for the remainder of the month of April, so head over to their fundraising page and help them go as far as they can to support our boys and girls!

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