Pictured, from left: Rachel Cole’s mother, Emily, Rachel Cole, Kristi Kent and Morgan Lavender celebrate Cole’s contributions to her community with the Hometown Hero Award. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
A once unsung community champion garnered a sentimental honor in March, with friends and family gathering to witness her contributions receive notable recognition. The Gadsden Public Library’s Rachel Cole earned the local Hometown Hero Award, joining a collection of passionate and caring citizens who consider their communities far greater than a place to live, while emerging as advocates for all who dwell around them.
The Hometown Hero Award originated around 15 years ago, designed to honor compassionate citizens in the Etowah County community who possess a genuine heart of service. These individuals commit themselves to bettering all around them, never giving for mere recognition alone, but contributing because they love their community and fellow citizens. The award grants the opportunity to spotlight individuals or volunteer groups for their outstanding diligence to their community, acts of bravery or efforts to transform lives in Etowah County. All Hometown Hero Award recipients receive $100 to donate to the charity of their choice.
“I was in shock,” said Cole, describing the moment when she received the award. “I was so taken aback and grateful to be honored by people who mean the world to me. I couldn’t have ever imagined receiving an award like this – I feel it’s still like a dream. [To receive the Hometown Hero Award] is an honor and a way of life for me. I believe it represents 2 Corinthians 9:7, which reads, ‘Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’”
“Rachel is so involved in the community here,” said Modern Woodmen representative Morgan Lavender, who presented Cole with the award alongside Kristi Kent. “She is always going the extra mile. If help is needed, she always says ‘yes!’ with a smile. Rachel is encouraging, has a heart and calling for service and is always willing to give a helping hand. She would never expect or want recognition – which is why this is extra special!”
Cole expressed her enthusiastic gratitude for the award and her overwhelming surprise at Lavender and Kent, who kept the award a secret. Cole discussed her admiration and love for Lavender and Kent as both incredible influences in her life, describing Lavender as a strong, loving Christian woman and Kent as an amazing teacher and guide who took Cole under her wing, helping her transform into the woman she is today.
With her benevolent and empathetic nature, Cole personifies all characteristics the Hometown Hero Award represents – illustrating a committed and selfless person whose desire to uplift others remains evident to all who know her. Cole currently serves as a board member for the Love Center and Special Programming for Achievement Network (SPAN), CommUnity Thanksgiving Committee Chair and secretary for the Etowah County Master Gardeners. She was recently promoted to Public Services Specialist at the Gadsden Public Library.
Cole began her career at the GPL in March 2017, working as a part-time circulation clerk. She soon connected with the library’s charitable mission and discovered a love for assisting the public. With much determination and research, Cole gained a deeper understanding of each department throughout the GPL and the programs and services it provides for the community. Her continuous hard work resulted in a full-time position in the Teen Department alongside Nicole Tudor, who would become a dear friend. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and library renovations, Tudor accepted a position with the Gadsden City School System and Cole applied (and earned) the library’s Teen Department Manager position, where she aided youth day-in and day-out, creating a safe and welcoming space for teens to gather, learn and grow as individuals.
“It is so moving to see how passionate the recipients [like Rachel] are about their ‘why’ they give or volunteer,” said Lavender, who noted hearing personal backstories such as Rachel’s past reinforce the reason behind actions. “It is always moving to see someone’s passion and love for something they care about – it really shows their heart. Often, you even hear a personal testimony about why they started serving in that capacity in the first place…how God placed it on their heart.”
Cole shared that former life experiences shaped her perspective and inspired her to aid her community however possible. Cole endured a physically and emotionally abusive marriage for 10 years, separated from her family while living in South Carolina. As a woman of faith, Cole expressed that in several dangerous situations, she would hide and pray fervently for God’s deliverance. She promised Him if He granted her a way of escape, she would serve Him and help others sustaining circumstances similar to her own.
While planning a fundraiser for The Love Center alongside Kent, who Cole considers one of her mentors, Cole had a profound epiphany – she realized at that moment, she represented the manifestation of her prayer to God; she was fulfilling her promise to Him. Cole believes God led her to this point in life, guiding her from His protection and preservation during that decade of darkness to His abundant promises today, where she walks in peace as a bright light, illuminating others for His glory. As she accepts the recognition as a Hometown Hero, she does so with the knowledge that it is God who answered her prayers, sowing seeds of generosity and extending efforts of His mercy to others as He does for her.
“If you look around hard enough, you will see pain and hunger – people in need of things you and I take for granted,” said Cole. “I have been in the situation where I didn’t have anything…not even a bar of soap to wash my body. I serve because I care and because God wants me to. I serve because I’ve been there, and I want to help. I will try my hardest to help people in the capacity I am able, and I am always able to love if nothing else.”