Unsung Hero

Using her volunteer spirit, Brenda Cole has permanently sewn herself into the fabric of the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation. On Friday afternoon, Cole was presented the 2013 Axel W. Carlson “Unsung Hero Award for her dedication to the Sewing Room at Community Helping Hands.

For the past three years, Cole has gone from a complete stranger at Community Helping Hands to supervising the Sewing Room – a place where young, pregnant women in need of assistance are taught to sew and quilt. According to Pastor Amy Rohler, executive director of Community Helping Hands, and one of Cole’s nominators, lessons learned in the Sewing Room go above and beyond sewing. Cole has recently partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension to provide budgeting and parenting classes to “her girls.”

“There have been countless women who have learned some valuable skills and felt a great deal of pride in what they have been able to make on their own,” Rohler said.

In 2008, Cole and her husband, David, stumbled upon Community Helping Hands’ Thrift Shop on a trip to The Gateway Center. Cole commented to Dorothy Mrugala, depot and showroom manager, that her fabric shelves were a mess and Mrugala quickly put her to work. For the next few months, Cole, with the help of her husband, cleaned out the storage room on the third floor. She moved fabric by the cartload to her home where it was measured, cut and returned to the Thrift Shop to be sold.

A lifetime Jamestown resident, Cole taught herself how to sew at the age of 13 after purchasing a sewing machine with money she earned from babysitting. Since then, she has made baby clothes, quilts, cool ties (an item used by U.S. troops in the Middle East to cool the body), “chemo caps” (for cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy), pet toys, heart pillows for breast cancer survivors and much, much more. A majority of items Cole has made have been given away to those in need through WCA Hospital, Community Helping Hands, the Humane Society and various church groups.

In 2010, Rohler met with Cole after hearing about her love of sewing. Rohler offered her the supervising position in the Sewing Room and encouraged Cole to bring all of her talents with her. Since then, Cole has taught “her girls” how to sew and create a number of crafts that have been distributed throughout the Chautauqua Region to those in need. At the end of their time together, each woman is allowed to make a baby quilt to take home for their new baby.

According to Cole, the Sewing Room is about more than sewing. “These girls have gone through a lot,” Cole said. “Sometimes they just want to sit and talk a bit.”

Since 1986, the Axel W. Carlson Award has been a tribute to the “unsung heroes” of our community. Carlson was a Swedish immigrant who believed in helping others without reward or recognition. Upon his death in 1981, it was discovered he left a substantial portion of his estate to help others. He started a number of funds at the Community Foundation to continue his charitable giving and in 1985 the Foundation allocated some of that money to this award.

Every year, the Foundation awards an individual the title “Unsung Hero” in honor of Carlson. As part of the award the foundation has donated to the following organizations in Cole’s honor: Community Helping Hands, Women’s Services of Chautauqua County and Westside Rescue.