Food for thought: Florence’s CHEER legacy worthy of cheers

Florence Mason holds back tears as she reads the plaque commemorating the dedication of CHEER’s future central kitchen in her honor. At right is CHEER CEO Director Ken Bock. In back, is Beckett Wheatley, Chief Operating Officer for CHEER Inc. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

GEORGETOWN — Christmas Day 2019 marks the end of a notable era for CHEER Inc. – an agency that serves senior citizens of Sussex County.

Florence Mason’s retirement plans have been simmering for some time and the time she says has come to make it official and permanent. CHEER’s Operation Christmas will conclude her 27-year career as nutrition program director for CHEER.

After overseeing the nutrition program that made possible millions of hot meals delivered to Sussex seniors and helping to launch numerous fundraisers and related CHEER events, she plans to cross the Chesapeake Bay and begin her post-employment retirement chapter closer to family in Pasadena, Maryland.

“As I close this chapter in my life … I go with fond memories. I go with love and admiration for the people that I worked with,” said Ms. Mason.

She does not quietly ride off into the sunset without recognition. Local, county and state elected officials and CHEER officials offered tributes, stories and memories coupled with parting gifts at a Dec. 20 tribute dinner at the CHEER Community Center.

The well-attended event recognized the “extraordinary contributions that she has made on behalf of tens of thousands of Sussex County senior citizens, and the millions and millions of the meals that have been served over that time under her guidance and care,” said CHEER CEO Ken Bock. “I can’t think of anybody that better embodies the spirit, the heart and the character of the CHEER organization — than Florence.”

Tributes at the dinner were presented by State Sen. Dave Wilson, State Rep. Ruth Briggs King, Georgetown Mayor Bill West and Sussex County Sheriff Robert T. Lee. Congratulatory letters were shared from U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper, Gov. John Carney and Arlene Littleton, CHEER’s former executive director who hired Ms. Mason in 1992 and worked with Ms. Mason for many years.

“From Day 1, I recognized Florence as a team player and a strong leader,” Ms. Littleton stated in her letter. “Florence is respected by all. Florence supervised by example, never asking others to do anything that she wouldn’t do herself. I have seen her on her hands and knees scrubbing a kitchen floor. But that is the way she wanted her kitchen floors to look.”

Mr. Bock worked in collaboration with Ms. Mason for a decade and a half. “Over those 15 years, I’ve come to know a few things about Florence Mason. Florence Mason’s car is the first one in the parking lot, and all too often it is the last one to leave every night.”

“This was never a job to Florence. This was a calling. She treated it with all the respect, energy and dignity that it deserves,” said Mr. Bock.

During Ms. Mason’s tenure, CHEER’s nutrition grew by leaps and bounds, currently at about 1,700 meals daily five days a week. In addition to homebound recipients, the nutrition program services CHEER’s activity centers, two independent centers and the adult daycare program.

And the agency grew in other ways. Among those on that list: March for Meals, Older Americans Day, CHEER’s Car, Truck, Bike Show, craft/hobby shows, military/veterans’ recognition events, holiday feats a night of gospel.

In many of these events, Ms. Mason collaborated with CHEER board of director vice president Walter Koopman, whom she refers to as one of her “partners in crime.” Her other “partner” is Robin Green, assistant nutrition program director for CHEER who worked with Ms. Mason for 18 years.

“Fifteen years ago, she talked about retiring. Tonight, I think it’s for real. I thank you from here,” said Mr. Koopman, pointing to his heart. “And I’m going to miss you, honey. I’m going to miss you.”

Ms. Mason, who previously worked for two-plus decades as food service director at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital, leaves as CHEER is embarking on an exciting new chapter.

Design for a new central kitchen is in the works, groundbreaking is tentatively set for next summer and the modern facility is expected to be in operation in spring 2021. It will replace the undersized, outdated kitchen quarters at the Thurman Adams State Service Center.

“I’m excited for CHEER,” said Ms. Mason, noting CHEER is getting “ready to break ground on a new kitchen, with state of art equipment that is not held together with chewing gum and paper clips. Can you believe that – a big kitchen to double the amount we’re doing now!”

Ms. Mason’s legacy will continue with every meal prepared in the new kitchen at CHEER Community Center. By unanimous decision, CHEER’s governing board and staff are dedicating the central kitchen “in honor of Florence Mason, who developed CHEER’s nutrition program with passion for helping others.”

“In actuality there is no one person,” said Ms. Mason. “There is no ‘I’ in team. I could not have done it; I couldn’t have accomplished anything without each and every one of you that has worked with me now and during the years. No one person is an island and it takes a village to raise a child and it takes a village and a team to pull it together, what we do for our seniors in Sussex County.”

“Thank you for every memory, every accomplishment that we have done in 27 years,” said Ms. Mason. “I love you all.”