By Michael Romain
ELMWOOD PARK — Longtime Maywood citizen and youth activist Barbara Cole was honored last month by the Tau Gamma Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (AKA). Cole received the chapter’s Outstanding Phenomenal African American Women in the Community award at its annual Roses and Ivy Luncheon at Elmcrest Banquets in Elmwood Park. In addition to honoring women who are active in the uplift of their communities, the Luncheon was also a tribute to the efforts of Tau Gamma Omega’s Tea Rose Educational Foundation.
“Our mission is to serve and improve the wellbeing of families in the community,” said Jacqueline Bright, Vice President of Tea Rose Foundational Program Initiatives, which focus on issues such as global poverty, social justice and human rights, economic security, health and education. The Foundation’s service projects, most of which are targeted in the Chicago’s West Side and Western Suburbs, include a mentoring program for seventh- and eighth-grade girls, Breast Cancer walks, home ownership awareness seminars, health forums, health fairs and voter registration drives. The Foundation also provides general scholarships to high school students and a special scholarship for students interested in pursuing the field of nursing.
One AKA read Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” at the dais, framing the afternoon’s theme. “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies / I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size / But when I start to tell them, / They think I’m telling lies …” A room full of proudly erect, pink and green-accented women (and a scattering of men), listened intently.
Ms. Cole was in phenomenal company. Other recipients of the Tea Rose Foundation’s aptly-titled Outstanding Phenomenal African American Women in the Community award included Stephanie Whyte, the Chief Health Officer of Chicago Public Schools, and Camille Y. Lilly, an Illinois state representative.
“I wouldn’t be here today without the help of the volunteers and mentors who work with me on a daily basis,” Cole said, before urging the coterie of supporters she brought with her to stand. They included Mary Morris, Lillie Childress, Isiah Brandon, Vladimir Thompson and a host of children that Cole, in her position as Executive Director of Maywood Youth Mentoring (MYM), has touched throughout the years.
The extent of Ms. Cole’s influence is nearly as wide as her presence, which seems ubiquitous nowadays–whether she’s pressuring the Park District for more resources, listening in on Village Board Meetings or facilitating her organization’s monthly youth breakfasts inside of the old Masonic Temple at 200 S. Fifth Avenue.
A retired technical writer and trainer at Lucent Technologies, Ms. Cole has served the United Way both as a “Loaned Executive” and as the President of the Maywood chapter for 13 years. Ms. Cole found Maywood Youth Mentoring in 1992 in order to “provide resources to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Maywood and surrounding communities,” according to the organization’s website. Since its founding, MYM has conducted intensive 12-week morning workshops on self-esteem and money management, provided free monthly breakfasts and weekly mentoring services for children in Maywood and other communities.
And yet, those formalities, as exhaustive as they may seem, still can’t describe the frenzied zeal with which Barbara Cole pursues her passion of helping and developing community youth, at least one of whom she always has beside her. The Luncheon was no different. Toward its end, as guests streamed out of the banquet facility or mingled to the jazzy sounds of Lady Sax, the live entertainer that titillated the buttoned-up audience throughout the ceremony, Ms. Cole’s children were right beside her in the phenomenal mix–taking pictures with honorees and other accomplished sorors. Still learning at their mentor’s knee. VFP