South Hills AgeWell helps new friends cruise along
FriendshipSea you soon

South Hills AgeWell helps new friends cruise along

'People are put into your life for a particular reason. And I believe it's really up to you, if you choose to follow that path.'

Barbara Supinka, Dolly Valenti and Mary Ann Sember. (Photo courtesy of Dolly Valenti)
Barbara Supinka, Dolly Valenti and Mary Ann Sember. (Photo courtesy of Dolly Valenti)

It’s no surprise that friendship is a salve to life’s wounds. But when new friends are mistaken for childhood pals, it’s a pleasant wonder.

Dolly Valenti met Barbara Supinka and Mary Ann Sember in October 2022 at the South Hills Jewish Community Center during a “Mahj Mania.”

The event offered new players a chance to learn the tile-based game.

Valenti knew little about mahjong and had just joined the JCC months earlier.

Sember played the game for about a year before the pandemic and understood its rules well enough to “help guide” new players, she said.

About eight people attended “Mahj Mania.”

During the event, Sember, Valenti and Supinka sat at the same table. None of the three women knew each other.

“We kind of clicked,” Valenti said. “Our personalities got along really well.”

The women returned to the JCC to play. Week after week, they continued.

“Then we started having lunch together,” Supinka said. “And it just blossomed from there.”

Along with attending concerts together, the group met at the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon. Sember, Valenti and Supinka continued frequenting the JCC, playing mahjong, eating together and even adding Reiki-infused sound bathing classes to the mix.

About a year after the three women met, Sember pitched an idea: She said that she and her husband were going on a nine-day cruise to the Caribbean and invited Valenti and Supinka to join.

Valeni was intrigued and gauged Supinka’s interest. Meanwhile, Sember told her friends about the amenities.

“I was luring them in with all the things on the ship that I really like,” Sember said. “They have a thermal spa that’s gigantic and soft music plays. There’s big jets that you can massage your back with. And then the best part about it is you go into the next room and you’re all damp, and you put a towel down, and they have ceramic lounges and you get on that thing — I call them the hot rocks — and the heat just comes right up from the bottom of this thing and it puts you to sleep in 30 seconds. I mean it’s just the most relaxing thing you ever did in your life.”

Cruiseship Koningsdam (Holland America Line), bij Rotterdam, 20 mei 2016 (Photo by Roel Hemkes via Flickr at

Once Supinka agreed to go on the cruise, Valenti acquiesced.

“We found a date and off we went, bon voyage,” Sember said.

Along with Sember’s husband, the women visited Curaçao and Aruba and experienced numerous amenities aboard the Holland America line. Having returned from the Caribbean more than a month ago, the women still talk about their time together.

Most of the conversations, they said, occur daily at the South Hills JCC.

“We all sit together and laugh and talk, and then we play mahj for a couple of hours,” Sember said.

“You’d think they’d known each other for decades — the way they interact and have a friendship,” Hayley Maher, program coordinator for AgeWell at the JCC South Hills, said.

“It would give the impression to someone that we have known each other for years, but we have not known each other long at all,” Valenti said. “We’re just very, very close, very good friends.”

When asked how people can develop such deep bonds later in life, Supinka said, “I don’t know. We just have similar interests — and we’re so taken by mahjong — that we just spend time together and learn more about each other, and that friendship deepens.”

Valenti said that she and her friends not only share a sense of humor, but that Supinka and Sember presented wonderful qualities during that first meeting: “They were compassionate people. They were interesting people. They were fun to be with. There were things that I felt like I learned from them.”

“Honestly, we happened to click, and I don’t believe it was by chance that we happened to be at the same place, at the same time, interested in the same thing. It’s more than that I believe,” she continued. “I believe people are put into your life for a particular reason. And I believe it’s really up to you, if you choose to follow that path.”

Valenti, 66, attended the JCC’s mahjong clinic in October 2022 — four months earlier, her husband died.

“After Jim passed away, one of the first things that I did was join a six-week bereavement group at our church.”

The space was “incredibly supportive” and offered somewhere to talk about a challenging period, Valenti said: “At the same time that I was dealing with my husband’s passing, my daughter had gotten engaged, and she was getting married, so I had extreme highs and lows going on for about a month, which was really difficult to deal with because on one day of the week you might be helping pick out a wedding dress. Two days later, you might be picking out your husband’s monument.”

When the bereavement meetings concluded, another session was starting.

“They were just going to do the same group again, same materials, and I thought, ‘It’s really not good for me to go into this again because I’m gonna get on the hamster wheel of just talking about grief,’” Valenti said. “I needed someplace to go. I needed something to do. I needed people to be around.”

The problem, though, was that “in doing things, or going places, people knew me as a couple,” she continued. “When I went to the JCC, and I met these people, it was like it started fresh right from the beginning. They only knew me as me. Now, over the course of time, they knew my story — that I lost my husband — because we shared all this stuff and we talked, and we cried, together. But it was easier for me I think to move forward in my healing with people knowing me just as me.”

Mahjong tiles. (Photo by Scott Schiller via Flickr at

Sember said that frequenting AgeWell is beneficial.

“I’m getting up there,” she said. “I’m pushing 77. It gets harder to meet people, to find people, to find people of like interest, to find people that you can keep healthy with. AgeWell was the best thing that ever happened to me — I 100% mean it. I’m an only child, so we don’t have a whole lot of family. And I traveled with my work, so when I retired I was really sort of friendless because everybody I knew didn’t live in this area. When I started to go to the JCC, that was nice because you kind of saw people on and off if you went to the same classes all the time, but AgeWell has given you the opportunity to really get to know people in depth.”

AgeWell at the JCC South Hills operates Mondays and Fridays 9 a.m. to noon. and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Individuals 60 and older can register to participate.

The program is “about making those social connections, getting out of the house and doing those things that are good for you,” Maher said.

Supinka has little difficulty creating new ties, but said she still appreciates AgeWell.

“I’m a pretty active person. I do a lot of different things,” she said. “Even though I don’t think it’s hard for me to make friends, the JCC has kind of opened a lot of doors because we’ve made many friends there — and mahjong at the JCC has really been the catalyst.”

For Valenti, AgeWell and the relationships formed there have been invaluable.

“I will always miss my husband. I will always love him. I will always think of him. But I have been able to continue with a healthy, productive and happy life knowing that we had our time and we had our season and it was beautiful,” she said. “I will always be grateful for that. But that part of my life is over. And now I have to learn to move on. And that’s kind of what I met, and I have.”

Sember, Valenti and Supinka can be found most days enjoying each other’s company at the South Hills JCC. There’s a period when they won’t be there, though: February 2025.

The new friends will be back on the seas. This time it’s for 12 days. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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