If you’ve won any kind of gift basket at a local charity event in Northwest Indiana recently, there’s a relatively good chance that Mary Swardson made it.
The self-taught creative has made charity gift baskets a cornerstone of the work she does both as an events coordinator at First Merchants Bank, and as someone who just likes to help organizations that help other people.
It all started when she began working in marketing and events for First Merchants Bank. (Her career spans 21 years with the organization, starting as a teller, then as a receptionist, then moving into marketing and then events).
“We would do bank promotions – like for checking accounts or other themed promotions. It was a need that had to be filled, so I filled it,” Swardson said, recalling how one year she did 40 garden-themed baskets for every branch of the bank.
Since January, Swardson has put together more than 55 high-end gift baskets for various charities on behalf of the bank, which will offer up the baskets to local organizations who want to raffle or auction them as a fundraiser.
Swardson has that special flair for event coordination outside of just gift baskets, though. She may be semi-retired, putting in about 2 ½ days a week, but she’s all in for the bank’s community and client events, including the upcoming Economic Outlook and Cyber Security events.
The exclusive events bring in nationally known speakers to educate clients and non-clients by invite only on important topics that affect their business and personal finances.
“Once I got the hang of it and got to know everyone, it’s become easier. You know what people’s expectations are, so you just make it happen. We like to do everything top of the line,” Swardson said.
It helps that she’s a people person.
“I love people. When we go on vacation, I’m the one who is always talking to everyone. My husband is known to say, ‘Thanks for talking to my wife’ to complete strangers,” Swardson laughed. She is also quick with a joke – particularly blonde jokes, which she has consciously chosen to master because she’s blonde herself.
Getting comfortable with people likely started at a young age when Swardson kicked herself out of her comfort zone in a big way.
Her love, Dale, was in the military, stationed in Japan. So she went there. And married him there. And she was only a teenager.
“I had never even flown on a plane before. So here I was, 19 years old, teaching a class for conversational English in another country,” she said, referencing the jobs she and Dale took in Japanese schools.
In a sense, they grew up together in those few years.
“It made us depend on each other. You didn’t have cell phones, it was very expensive - it was a different world than it was today,” Swardson recalled.
They must have done something right. Forty-nine years later, the couple is still together, propelling each other through life. It hasn’t been without hardship, though, and their solid marriage is likely what helped them through some difficult times, Swardson said.
The Swardsons lost a son to a car accident when he was only 30 years old, and Mary has lived through a lung cancer diagnosis. Family, friends, and her spiritual health have helped carry her through it all.
“For me, it’s the power of prayer and the people who have prayed for me,” she said, describing her anchors in life. “I pray, and I made a deal with the Blessed Virgin that if I survived cancer I would say at least one Rosary a day. I mean - what propels you to move forward other than prayer? I pray for others as well. I’m praying for the country right now,” Swardson said.
Swardson said she is in awe of her daughter, an integrative medicine nurse practitioner in Dyer who helps patients navigate care for the whole person.
“She is the only integrative medicine nurse practitioner in this area, and she connects patients with medications and other things that don’t interfere with their cancer treatments, but can make them feel better,” she said. “It’s a very specific field, and she’s helping people.”
Her husband, Dale, who is retired, volunteers at Community Hospital in Munster, and also took a side job driving for a local car dealership to pick up vehicles from around the state.
When they finally decide to retire in full, Swardson said she doesn’t see too much changing, other than spending a little more time in sunny Florida.
“We rent a condo on the ocean in Panama City in the panhandle. We have met people from all over and we all stay in the same place. We have Canadian friends, and friends from all over the U.S. now,” Swardson said. “It’s emerald green water, turquoise water, pure white sugar sand – you could be on the beach all day in your swimsuit and then you’ll need a jacket at night. It’s perfect,” she said.
Swardson also sees herself staying involved with local charities that she has come to know through event coordination and gift-basket making, such as Girls on the Run, Habitat for Humanity, United Way, Mental Health America, and others.
“We like to do walks, and get out and support them,” she said.
That, along with spending time with their children and four grandchildren, will keep them plenty busy in the years to come.