PENINSULA — A few years ago, Kathryn Mills fell while vacuuming her Cuyahoga Falls home.
While she was stuck on the floor for nine hours with a broken left hip, out of reach of a phone that would allow her to call for help, she made a promise.
"I really said to the Lord, if you get me out of this where I can become self-maintaining again, I want to give back,” she said.
Mills, 89, volunteers in four positions at Cuyahoga Valley National Park as the park’s second-oldest volunteer.
Mills was born and raised in Cleveland by her single mother, Lillian Arnold, after her father left when she was around 3 years old. They were “like sisters,” she said.
Her mother, who owned her own business, instilled in her the importance of helping others and giving back — a philosophy that has guided her for nearly nine decades.
“My mom raised me keeping the childlike spirit within me,” she said. “And when you lose the childlike spirit, then it becomes a monetary existence.”
Over the years, Mills worked at a telephone company, as a buyer at department and discount stores and as a song-and-dance comedian before working for Purina — where she worked with dog shows, mostly on the West Coast, for close to 30 years.
Mills moved to Cuyahoga Falls about eight years ago with her former husband, Eugene Peters, a World War II veteran who over the years worked for American Greetings and as a driving instructor and tax practitioner, to be closer to their son, Bill, in Medina and daughter, Kathy, in Stow.
They’d divorced while their children, now in their late 50s, were in high school — but they always remained close. Peters died soon after the move.
Her fall happened after she retired from Purina. Mills spent nearly a year recovering at Traditions at Bath Road, a Cuyahoga Falls nursing home now called Continuing Healthcare of Cuyahoga Falls.
After she was released and cleared to drive, she spent another year volunteering at the nursing home that had helped restore her independence.
"I am not a retired person who is counting the days that I'm retiring and hoping that the sofa is open that I can sit on,” she said.
Mills started volunteering at the national park after her son, who had been going on group hikes in the park, mentioned his mother to Pam Machuga, a park ranger working in community engagement who’s worked at CVNP for about 25 years.
Through that connection, Mills started volunteering with the park last November.
"I think the national park is as close to heaven as you can get,” Mills said.
Bill Peters, in his 37th year hosting the weekly Metal on Metal radio show on WJCU, said his mom loves staying active and “is not the sitting-on-the-couch/TV-watching-all-day type of person.”
“It's amazing how quickly she reinvented herself with these jobs at the national park, especially considering her age,” Peters said. “She is truly a very special, one-of-a-kind person — and I'm not just saying that because she's my mom — who leaves a positive impression with everyone she meets. She is an inspiration to all who know her.”
Machuga said as part of the community engagement program, which includes about 80 to 100 volunteers, Mills started out tying bells to be given out after community readings of "The Polar Express" as part of the park’s Read with a Ranger program.
But when Mills found out what the bells were for, she wanted to be more involved, volunteering at the readings in November and December.
Machuga said Mills is great with people, an important trait in a program that values being welcoming and genuine.
"I marvel at the woman. Eighty-nine years old and she still wants to contribute,” Machuga said.
“I hope I have that energy when I am that age,” Machuga added.
Along with volunteering with community engagement, Mills also volunteers at the Stanford House in the park, which the Conservancy for CVNP manages; the park's Trail Mix store in Peninsula; and at events in the community that the park takes part in.
At the Stanford House, she works in the office on Saturdays, ordering linens and maintaining the office. She works in the Trail Mix store on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. At the store, she realized she could no longer be on her feet for hours at a time, so she works two-hour shifts — staying longer if she’s feeling up for it.
Mills prepares for each shift wondering what's just ahead.
"You never know who you're gonna meet,” she said. “When I come here, it is a blind date because I do not know the people [who are] going to be coming through the door.”
Mills is planning to volunteer in the park as long as she's able.
“I’m planning to hit over 100,” she added.
The grandmother of two, who turns 90 in January, encouraged others to volunteer — calling it an equalizing activity that anyone can do.
“Everybody has something to offer. Everybody,” she said. “I don't care who they are, and I don't care how much money they got, I don't care how poor they are, makes no difference. That is not what defines you as a person.”
She said people interested in volunteering just need to start, even if it’s only once a month.
Volunteers learn to do things for others without expecting anything in return, even when they’re not volunteering, Mills said. And volunteers shouldn’t be “me” people, she said.
“It is nothing that you get notoriety, and then you shouldn't want notoriety anyway when you're volunteering,” she said. “The only reward you should have is the person that walks away from you has a smile on their face.”
Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, email@example.com and @EmilyMills818.