Mary Lou Ritter: We're glad she has our back

We often hear someone referred to as a Renaissance man – someone who has an expansive and impressive skill set. On the other hand, you never hear reference to a Renaissance woman, but indeed, that’s what we have here in Mary Lou Ritter.

Mary Lou is one determined and focused woman. She came to the ReStore when she retired after serving 20 years as director of the Department of Aging Veterans Services.  She had never stepped into a ReStore before, but from her experience with Habitat, she knew what it was about.

Tinkering with tile

“Part of me also has liked to tinker around with stuff – build things at my house, design projects. Stuff like that,” Mary Lou explained. “Also most of my career has been focused on building support within the community– to develop services and programs to help communities succeed. So the mission of Habitat was really very compatible with what I like to do with my life. I decided that working at the store would be fun!”

Mary Lou walked right in and helped organize the tile section of the Portland ReStore when it was on SW Morrison near Water Street. No small task!

“Part of the challenge of retirement is that it’s easy to just sit around all the time. So I wanted something where I could be up and around doing stuff and helping people,” she said.

It was great working with store managers Shel Mae Reinwald and Malia Tam Sing, Mary Lou recalls, but what was surprising was the diversity of the products being sold at the ReStore.

And this is a woman who has a knack for tools. She designed her own home in 1989, assembling the best features of several designs to create a blueprint that embodied the concept of aging in place. She said it was a new idea then, and no one was really thinking much about it, so it forced her hand.  At the time, she was working within her community to design adult community housing options for seniors and people with disabilities. She brainstormed a few key people and architects who were also working on those projects, and came up with her own plan.

If we step back even further than that, you’ll find Mary Lou Ritter is a woman ahead of her time.  She received her degree in biological sciences from the University of Maryland when ecology wasn’t even an official subject yet.

“Many of my study projects involved assessing the microbes in estuaries and the Sargasso Sea to establish ‘population’ profiles.  What bacteria were there” Mary Lou stated, ” This was before there was a recognized science called ecology — the study of biological systems and populations.”

 She was also a part of the very first Earth Day.

Whew! What she can do!

At the ReStore, Mary Lou tried her hand at cashiering for awhile, then when the need arose she stepped into an administrative role, doing data entry for the volunteer tracking system, zip code data collection, developing excel spread sheets for tracking donation receipts, updating the business plan and assisting with the strategic planning process and general bookkeeping.

Mary Lou loved interacting with ReStore customers and “shooting the breeze” with regulars. Still, when the Portland ReStore moved to its current location on Cherry Blossom, she recognized the move was necessary. But, she said, there were some benefits to the old, drafty Water Street spot.

 “If you really want to be in touch with the needs of the invisible part of our community – the homeless – it’s right there in your face. That has pluses and minuses,” Mary Lou pointed out. “First of all it looks kind of scary to have all the tents and stuff and all the garbage around, but I didn’t mind the fact. To me it was a reminder of the needs in our community and that whole challenge of mental health services.”

“I like destroying things!”

At the Beaverton ReStore, Mary Lou was kept busy doing “tidy bowl” tasks, cleaning up one area of the store or another before she tried her hand at metal recycling. 

“I really like destroying things. That was a lot of fun!” Mary Lou laughs.

She separated out electrical and metal components for recycling, dismantling fluorescent light fixtures and dismembering sinks.  When it took more elbow grease than Mary Lou could muster, she called in “the dudes” for some assistance.

“You learn a little about leverage,” she said.

After a hiatus following the death of her husband, Mary Lou is back volunteering at The ReStore, taking charge of various administrative projects.  Other times she’s out camping with her kids, growing pole beans, jalapenos and habaneros, supporting  Ride Connection or laughing at her favorite film, “Ghostbusters.”  She’s a powerhouse  of skills – a Renaissance woman.  Facing a dilemma? A job that seems insurmountable? Who ya gonna call? We know who!

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