By Tim Henney
Lois Miller, a vibrant 89, never reminded me of Winston Churchill until a couple of weekends ago when I saw her in influential action with fellow Cottage volunteers on the rolling lawn of her waterfront home in Laclede.
Sir Winston is said to have said, “I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded. In fact, if anything, I am the prod.” That’s Lois. The prod. A gentle, joyful, positive prod, but a prod.
Had she lived in London during the 1940 blitz she could have helped Sir Winston inspire the British people to victory. With a management gift they can’t teach at Harvard or Stanford Business, Lois guides a force of 25 dedicated, grateful volunteers at The Cottage Home and Garden thrift store, bracketed by railroad tracks, on North Boyer Ave.
Excuse me? Grateful volunteers? At a thrift store? Well, it sure looked and sounded that way to me as I sipped a brew and munched Caesar salad in Laclede. Collegiality and unpretention characterized the lakeside gathering of Cottage volunteers that Lois and husband Don hosted to salute another successful year on behalf of Panhandle Special Needs Inc. (PSNI).
As matriarch, Lois individually complimented the 20 or so guests comfortably seated in a wide circle under big trees by the sparkling river, each spoke lovingly of the Cottage, of their colleagues, and how much it all means. Not just the joy of such effort because of kind leadership, but because of the immeasurable good the Cottage does for the 100 or so participants in Panhandle Special Needs. Developmentally disabled participants with issues from Autism to Down Syndrome, PSNI prepares them for jobs — then finds jobs for them with local partners like Lignetics. It’s a win-win situation for helpers and helped alike.
“I can’t imagine life without the Cottage,” said one indispensable volunteer in a flowered hat worthy of NYC’s famed Easter parade. Said another sitting next to her, “I feel so fortunate just to be able to go there, to be with all of you — sometimes I just pinch myself.”
Those sentiments might have been from Alice Van Essen, 93, or Donna Harper, 90 (at a mere almost 86 I felt like a child among such great ladies). Or they could have been expressed by Claudia Ashby or Diane Newcomer or Bonnie or Rich Aitken. Every guest in the casual circle, not all of them aged, voiced the same message when Lois invited comment: Being a Cottage volunteer is a thing to be treasured.
This writer’s 1957 bride, Jacquelynn, volunteers Monday afternoons and looks forward to her shift all week. She shares duties with Suzanne Drevick and Mary Jones. The three musketeers. They never heard of one another prior to joining the Cottage team. Now they’re buddies. And Geri Anderton, PSNI works services supervisor right across the gravel driveway. Upbeat and busy as a whirling dervish, Geri splits her time between the Cottage and PSNI, helping everyone keep connected, pulling together. But Lois sets the direction and tone. Many is the big time corporate CEO who might actually know how to earn his obscene salary and big bonuses if he could study and absorb her style. Heart. Passion. Dedication. Love for both mission and staff. Knowing that happy helpers make a winning effort. Being a role model, a force for good, without the corporate posturing. Leading comes easily and authentically for the Cottage boss.
Just ask Wendy Hansen Sater. Known to a zillion locals as the creative genius at the Hoot Owl restaurant, Wendy catered the lawn party in Laclede. Ask PSNI’s Suzette White or Jean Post, both of them pleased and proud to be there. With ever-growing responsibilities at Panhandle Special Needs across the gravel driveway, The Cottage seeks and warmly welcomes new volunteers. A benevolent, caring attitude toward others is the only requirement, so far as I can tell. Ask lawn party girls Sandy Dufault, Betty Faletto or Sarah Roemhildt what makes the Cottage so remarkable. So satisfying. They’ll tell you it’s helping disabled people lead happier, richer lives. And doing so with Lois cracking the whip.
If you think you might want to jump aboard, you can find her on 208 263 1794. Sir Winston would, if he could.