Lawrenceville, GA

A Business Beats the Odds and Thrives after Covid-19

Bebe Nicholson

At 72 years old, the owner did not know if she would ever reopen her business.

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Mary King Lee, Ms. Senior Georgia, poses with her granddaughter, also a pageant winner:Facebook photo used with permission

In March of 2020, Covid-19 shattered Mary King Lee’s business and her dreams. She believed her company, the business she had worked so hard to build, was dead.

At 72 years old, she didn’t know if she would ever reopen. How could a woman her age start over again?

But two months ago, Mary got a surprise. Former clients called to ask, “When are you coming back?”

Encouraged, she began the daunting task of contacting former customers and approaching potential new ones. To her amazement, two months later, she not only reopened. She is busier than ever, her company not only surviving but thriving.

The day I dropped by to interview her about her post-Covid comeback, she asked me to join the exercise class she teaches at Anytime Fitness in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

“We’re going to pole dance today,” Mary said as soon as I had found a spot among her other customers.

The group, in their sixties and seventies, laughed nervously until she added, “We’re not really going to pole dance, but we’re going to use poles in our routine.”

Cranking up the music on her I-phone, she swayed to the rhythm of Michael Jackson’s Beat It and instructed everyone to grab a pole.

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Working with poles at Anytime Fitness in Lawrenceville, Georgia:photo by author

Poles were just one of the props she used to add interest and variety to her movement class for seniors. Each participant was also equipped with a pair of two-pound weights, resistance bands, and a rubber ball.

Legs up, hands out, hips to the left and hips to the right. We stretched, moved, kicked and swayed, but there was no time to get complacent. Mary changed the routine frequently; enough to challenge but not overwhelm.

She is aware of the importance of exercise and the limitations of age, but limitations aren’t something she dwells on. Instead, she urges people to stay fit, have fun, and “enjoy the time we have on this earth.”

To Mary, enjoying our time means being as healthy as possible, both mentally and physically.

She kept the music going, along with the banter.

“I just came from teaching a Memory Care class,” she said as we moved our hips to a chant of left hip, right hip, hip, hip, hip. “We were doing this routine and one woman shouted, ‘Hip Hip Hooray!”

A murmur of laughter swept through the group.

After class, a participant with long, blonde hair introduced herself to me and said, “I walk three miles every morning, but this class makes me feel better than anything else I do. I’m using muscles I never used before.” When she told me she was in her seventies, I couldn’t believe it.

Mary emphasized to the class how important it is to keep moving. “What’s your brain for?” She asked, then answered her own question. “Your brain tells your body to move. These exercise help keep your brain sharp so you can keep your body moving.”

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Mary traveled to Atlantic City for the Ms. Senior America event:Facebook photo, used with permission

Mary’s company, Sixty Plus for Seniors, keeps her traveling throughout the metro-Atlanta area to assisted living complexes, memory care facilities, and fitness centers to lead Silver Sneakers and other exercise classes.

She is also on staff with Anytime Fitness in Lawrenceville, Georgia, a new position, and she works as a personal trainer for those who desire one-on-one training.

Covid-19 and the End of Her Business

When Covid-19 infiltrated our world in March of 2020, assisted living homes, memory care facilities, and nursing homes were the first casualties. They shuttered their doors and went into lockdown mode.

Residents were isolated, family and friends were unable to visit, and people like Mary, who depended on senior living facilities for their livelihood, were out of work.

Her classes ended in rapid succession as the virus spread and fears mounted. Some of her former clients, in high-risk categories, succumbed to the virus. Others deteriorated mentally and physically from the pandemic-induced isolation.

Mary was eligible for pandemic unemployment, which helped her survive the devastating loss of the business she had worked so hard to build.

“I didn’t think my business would ever come back,” she says of those bleak days when people were sheltering in place, social distancing, working from home or not working.

She didn’t know, at 72, what she would do.

Sometimes Achieving Wild Dreams is Possible

It had been challenging enough to start her business in 2014, when she was already what most refer to as a “senior citizen.” But she was working as a concierge in an assisted living facility, and she saw a need for more senior involvement and activity. Older people needed something to keep them active, moving, and excited about life.

The idea of starting her own business seemed like a wild dream. But she had entertained wild dreams before, and they had worked out.

When she was sixty, Mary entered the Ms. Senior Georgia pageant and won the talent portion of the contest. A year later, she entered and won the crown.

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Mary in Atlantic City competition:Facebook photo used with permission

Pageant involvement was an opening for her to dance with the Georgia Senior Follies, and a couple of years later, she traveled to Atlantic City to compete in the Ms. Senior America pageant.

She and her daughter got so involved in the pageant world that they became administrators for the Ms. Senior Georgia America pageant and ran a successful contest until Covid-19 closed that business, too.

But winning the Ms. Senior Georgia Pageant showed Mary dreams could come true, so she didn’t let age deter her from starting her own exercise business.

She became certified to teach Silver Sneakers. Not wanting to limit her options, she also studied to become certified in Ageless Grace, a brain fitness program based on neuroplasticity that activates all 5 functions of the brain.

Then, wanting to be qualified for the “whole package,” she became a certified nutritionist.

Drumming up business was not only a matter of earning the necessary certifications. Most entrepreneurs will tell you success is also a matter of “pounding the pavement,” or making cold calls.

Mary used her connections as a concierge, her connections as a former Ms. Senior Georgia, and she began calling on assisted living facilities.

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Mary won the talent competition before she won the pageant:Facebook photo used with permission

Through effort and persistence, she saw her business take off. But Covid-19 brought an abrupt end to it all.

Senior homes, the places she relied on to continue her career, were the first places to close and the last ones to reopen.

But a couple of months ago, as people and businesses cautiously emerged from the pandemic lockdown, she began getting the calls.

People had grown sedentary. Many had gained weight. They wanted to get fit again; to move and laugh and dance together.

Crucial to Her Comeback

“One thing that was crucial to my comeback was the relationships I made when I was working,” Mary said. “People didn’t forget.”

Part of the relationship she built with her clientele was based on fun and humor. “You want people to be fit, but you want to have fun, too.”

Mary says making money is important. It is for any business. “But you genuinely want to help people. That’s when you’ll be satisfied,” she said.

We talked a few more minutes, then she was off to make more money, help more people, and keep her fitness business for seniors as a vibrant and growing part of the community.

Covid-19 was not enough to close her business permanently. Reopening has shown her that older people want to stay flexible, fit, and active for as long as they can, and her classes are designed to help them accomplish this.

#Reopening

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I've worked as editor, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, and book publisher. My writing includes lifestyle, humor, travel, relationship, family, politics, faith and health articles, along with three published books. In my various careers, I've been a journalist, retail manager, nonprofit director, flight attendant, freelancer and mom. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

Alpharetta, GA
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