People in your Neighborhood: YMCA senior volunteer defies age, Covid and hearing loss

Cheri Pogeler leads a dance class at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA.
Cheri Pogeler leads a dance class at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA.
(Photo by Tom Mills)

Check the class schedule at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA in Encinitas and chances are you’ll find Cheri Pogeler teaching one or two classes on any given weekday. That doesn’t count the classes she teaches at a local park. Pogeler teaches everything from Zumba to tap dancing to water aerobics. And oh, by the way, she’s 78 years old.

Pogeler is the Ms. Congeniality of the 11,000-member Encinitas Y. Associate Director Shannon Hughes says, “She is one of my very favorite people in the world. We let her call the shots, because we know she brings people in.” A fixture at the Y, you can’t miss her platinum blonde bouffant hair, colorful workout wardrobe and signature Texas drawl. And she never forgets a name.

Full disclosure, I’m a Y member, and a Cheri Pogeler fan. I’ve taken many of the classes she taught in addition to her job as group fitness coordinator. It’s a position she held for nearly 18 years. Then came the pandemic. Y members missed their workout routine, but, more importantly, their connection to friends and their social network.

Pogeler said, “It was just horrible, the loss of camaraderie, of being with others, so I decided to start these classes.” She contacted some of her regular students and started holding classes inside her local church. When the pastor put a stop to it, she moved to the church parking lot. When that was nixed, she held classes in her Encinitas garage. When a neighbor complained, Pogeler found a park across from the San Diego Botanic Gardens.

Cheri Pogeler when she was a child at the start of her dancing career.
Cheri Pogeler when she was a child at the start of her dancing career.
(Copyright of Cheri Pogeler)

While public gatherings were banned, the outdoor classes continued, with students keeping their distance from each other. They were so grateful for the chance to see each other and do something healthy. Jody Lorey was a regular. “She kept us all sane for two years,” she said. Those classes in the park continue to this day, independent from the YMCA. Another student, Debbie Young, says the pandemic workout sessions were a lifesaver. “We would stand around in a huge circle, staying connected in friendship.” Pogeler also led walking groups around the streets of Encinitas.

When the Y opened up again, Pogeler says, “I was so eager to get back, I told them I’d teach anything they need.” She would do it all for free, as a volunteer. Though offered her old job back, she’s been teaching without pay for the past three years. “I just decided it was my time to give back.” Pogeler and her husband, Allen, are also generous Y donors.

The Texas native was raised on a farm near El Paso and started taking ballet, tap and ballroom dancing when she was 5 years old. “I came out of the chute with this unstoppable energy,” Pogeler said. By her early 20s, a genetic condition had left her deaf in her right ear. Relocating to San Diego, Pogeler had a career as a technical writer and worked for Shea Homes in sales. She taught dance and fitness classes on the side, until taking a full-time position with the Y.

After wearing a hearing aid for decades in her one good ear, cochlear implant surgery changed her life three years ago. “Without it, I would be a deaf person in a wheelchair.” Most of those in her fitness classes had no idea of her hearing impairment.

Pogeler credits modern medicine for allowing her to be “a bionic old woman.” She has a titanium disc in her back, has undergone hip and knee replacements, and cataract surgery in both eyes. You’d never know it. Pogeler has the flexibility, energy and coordination anyone half her age would envy. She can still do the splits. And every day is a colorful fashion show of workout wear. Y member Young says “Cheri has a great sense of color and style that most people couldn’t pull off. It’s just Cheri. Everything matches and coordinates.” That often includes a flower in her big Texas hair. Young says, “I’d love to see her closet!”

Pogeler exudes the YMCA’s mission of spirit, mind, body. Says Y administrator Hughes, “She’s got a following. [After the pandemic] People would call up and say, I heard Cheri’s back. I want to join again.”

Many of Pogeler’s long-time students have also become good friends. Y member Lorey says, “She’s my hero. She’s inspiring. She’s always so energetic. She makes me want to move. I always feel better after her classes.” A group of her “regulars” agrees, “We all want to be Cheri when we grow up.”