By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneMay 14, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- In every way, Edna Cole is home.
From the Exchange shopping area within a short walk of her Redstone Arsenal residence to the group of women she has gotten to know so well at the Redstone Arsenal Community Women's Club, from the kids in the neighborhood that she sometimes babysits to the officers and Soldiers she gets to know through Army Community Service, from friends and family in the community to the friends she has made serving in a hospitality role at Redstone events, "Ms. Edna" knows she is right at home.
And, as any good neighbor will tell you, being at home means feeling you are part of your community.
Cole is, indeed, part of the Redstone community in a big way. Since moving to Redstone Communities on post four years ago, she has become one of the Arsenal's leading volunteers, and was recognized by Army Community Service in April -- National Volunteer Month -- as Team Redstone's Volunteer of the Year for 2014.
"Everyone knows me as Ms. Edna. That's my Arsenal name," Cole said. "I volunteer with ceremonies and different programs for ACS. I help with thrift sales and seasonal events at Redstone Communities. I volunteer at AUSA golf tournaments.
"But my heart is with the women's club, and leading the club's hospitality work. That's what I really love. My car tag is RSACW for the women's club. I couldn't get the last C on it because you can only have five letters. Everyone knows my car is the 'hospitality mobile.'"
Cole, a Soldier's widow, moved to Redstone Arsenal for several reasons -- community, security, patriotic and military activities and special events, and access to on-post shopping, military services and medical care, to name a few.
"Charles told me: 'I will always take care of you,'" Cole said of her late husband.
"When I look around and see how the Lord has blessed me here to be safe, comfortable and living in a wonderful community, I look at my husband's picture and say, 'You're still taking care of me. So, you've kept your promise.'"
And in turn, Cole keeps a promise she made the day she moved into her one-story home in Redstone Communities.
"The first day I moved in, before I even started to unpack, I didn't really know what to do. All I knew was Army Community Service was where I needed to start to get involved and volunteer," she recalled.
"I said to myself, 'I have to get involved. This is home now. I want to be involved here.' So, Carie Green at ACS put me in touch with Tonya Daniels (then president of the women's club) and told me I would be happy starting with the women's club."
She was not only happy, Cole blossomed, getting involved with the club's hospitality committee and learning protocol from club member Sara Ballard.
"My husband and I met and married after he was in the Army. So, I had to learn all about the ranks and the procedures and military etiquette," Cole said. "Sara and I became the club's dynamic duo for hospitality. But then she had to pull back some because of work, so I took over as hospitality chair."
Ballard is still very much part of the club's hospitality committee as are assistants Sharon Samuelson and Marinita Haq, who help to lead the efforts of a committee of 12 volunteers.
"We help anyone we can help," Cole said. "We help with all the special events and with decorations during Christmas. We send birthday cards and get well cards. Wherever our help is needed, we're there."
Her work with the women's club led to other volunteer opportunities at Redstone, where she has donated more than 3,000 hours since 2010 to organizations on and off post to include: ACS, the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, Athens State at Toftoy Hall (where she has taken classes), Redstone Communities, Protestant Women of the Chapel, and Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation. Within the Huntsville community, there's her work at First Missionary Baptist Church, where she sings in five choirs, along with the Greater Huntsville Interdenominational Ministerial Fellowship and Huntsville R.S.V.P.
She is also still active in her home away from home -- Gadsden -- where she remains a volunteer with the Community Emergency Response Team, Etowah County Youth Summer Enrichment, Etowah County R.S.V.P., John M. Woods Missionary Circle, and Volunteers for the Central Carver Foundation and Museum (where her husband and his siblings attended high school). She is also a volunteer with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and received the NAACP's Freedom Fighter for a New Century, Branch Achievement Award in 2006 from the Etowah/Gadsden Branch of NAACP.
On any given week, Cole has a calendar that belies all her different interests. She comes and goes quite frequently and enjoys the people she spends her time with. She might have an outing with the "Keenagers," a senior citizen group at her church. Or there might be an event -- such as last Friday's Military Spouse Appreciation Day -- to participate in. Some weeks she is working hospitality for the women's club, some weeks she might be helping to hostess a special event at The Summit or the Links, and other weeks she makes a trip to Gadsden to see family and help out at one of her volunteer interests there. Two women's club activities that she particularly enjoys is volunteering under the big tent at the food counter at Oktoberfest and helping put up holiday decorations at The Summit.
But all her volunteer work isn't with an organized group. She is also known for being a "nana" to young children in her neighborhood whose own grandparents live far away.
Cole feels that through her volunteer service she is doing the Lord's work.
"Wherever there is a need, I want to help. There are always needs and I believe in the words in the Bible that tell us we're servants and it's our duty to serve others. We are the extension of his hands and feet. I get joy out of being his hands and feet," she said.
Cole's husband was also a volunteer, spending many hours in service to others as a deacon at First Missionary Baptist Church in Alabama City near Gadsden, where he also was known for barbecuing on homecoming days. Together, the couple helped the needy in the Gadsden area.
"We did things together. At church, Charles led the Wednesday night Bible study service while I would formulate the outlines that he used," she recalled.
Cole met her husband -- retired Sgt. Charles Edward Cole, an infantryman who was a three-time Vietnam veteran and a Purple Heart recipient -- while the two of them worked for Prudential Insurance Company in Philadelphia. Both had been married before and had a 10-year friendship before they married. Cole retired first and got her certificate to teach so she could work in a church school. When Charles Cole retired, he moved back to Gadsden. The two kept up a correspondence, visited each other frequently and then decided to marry.
"He sent my engagement ring in the mail. I called him to see what it was all about. He said, 'You know what this means.' I said, 'You have to tell me.' So he asked, 'Will you marry me? You can make all the plans.'"
They married in 2002 and Cole moved to Gadsden. But the couple's happiness was short-lived. In May 2004, Charles Cole died of bone cancer.
"I always called him 'sweetheart' and he called me 'baby,'" Cole recalled. "He had severe PTSD, and I learned how to understand it and live with it. The most important thing was we were friends. He was my friend. We knew each other, and I trusted him and he trusted me. I had no doubts about that.
"All I wanted to do was make him comfortable. We had a beautiful time together. It was short but it was beautiful. We just enjoyed each other very much."
After her husband's death, Cole found herself living in a 13-room house by herself, a city girl living in the country. Even though she had a large, supportive family and church friends in Gadsden, Cole knew her life was too empty where she was.
"Charles and I had come to Redstone for the Retiree Appreciation Days," Cole said. "I loved visiting Redstone and learning about this community. After he passed, I still continued to come to Redstone and to the RAD."
In September 2009, Cole applied for housing on post and, in May 2010, she made the move to Redstone.
"I knew I wanted to be near the Exchange and Gate 8. I wanted a single house with everything on one floor, and everything handicapped accessible. This is a home where I can be comfortable as I get older," she said.
But getting older is not something that Cole worries about much. She has spent a lifetime thinking about others instead of herself.
"I began volunteering when I was 14 or 15 years old at the Water Complaint Department in Philadelphia," Cole said. "I wanted to work. But I had to be able to get working papers and I wasn't old enough. So, I spent the summer of 1961 volunteering for the first time."
An exuberant and happy-go-lucky lady, Cole greets everyone she meets with a smile. She's always eager to make a new friend or spend time talking to friends and family about what is going on in their lives. As with everyone, Cole has had disappointments and heartaches in her life, but each has made her more determined to find the blessings God has given to her.
"I always share with others that we all have seasons in our lives. We participate in each season as it comes to us. Each season has its own joy and happiness. Do good, be your best and when you do something good to God be the glory," she said.
"Every season brings a blessing. For this season, I'm putting my hands to what I can do right now."
Cole's busy schedule includes a new volunteer job as a Family Assistance Center trainee with Army Community Service and taking college courses at the Athens State branch at Redstone or online. She has an associate degree from Gadsden State, and is pursuing a bachelor's with a major in liberal studies and a minor in religion.
"Education is extremely important to me for two main reasons," she said. "One is to be a good example for younger people. No matter what happens in life -- work, illness, travel -- you still continue with your education. And, two, by getting an education you're better equipped to help others."
Cole encourages others to find their blessings in a life full of volunteering.
"When you first start to volunteer, make sure you are volunteering in an area that you enjoy. And, second, don't let life's obligations keep you from living. Live and enjoy life every day and do all you can for others," she said.
When she is not volunteering, Cole is enjoying her large extended family. She stays connected to her many family members and friends through Facebook. Between her and her husband, they have five children, 22 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. In Huntsville, her family support team includes godson Gregory Willis, friend Louise Wyche and cousin Terrance Vickerstaff.
"They call and come over to make sure of my well-being. It is a blessing to be surrounded by a caring and a loving family. And it's also a blessing to be surrounded by friends. This is my home, and I am proud to call the Redstone community my family," she said.