At age 85 Joyce Cooper is hoping to make a comeback. Cooper, who turns 85 on Jan. 18, is optimistic that she will soon be healthy enough to go back to work as a long-time volunteer at Garner Area Ministries. Her health problems have kept Cooper away from GAM’s offices for the last three months.
Cooper, who said she felt called by God to become a volunteer at GAM almost a quarter-century ago, has been sidelined in recent months with hip and knee problems, which have kept her out of action at GAM where she has spent thousands of hours working for free to help meet the needs of Garner’s poorest citizens. “I have improved; I’m better,” Cooper said in a telephone interview.
During these last three months Cooper even had to spend three weeks in a wheelchair, but she is on her feet again, using a walker. Her plan is get back to GAM on Friday and Saturday afternoons to help out – the clothing room is always piled high with bags and boxes that need sorting. The work never seems to end.
”I sure do miss being over there,“ said Cooper, one of Garner’s most outstanding citizens. Running a full-scale thrift store and doling out money, food and clothing to the poor is no easy task. To do the job for free is almost unheard of. Oh yeah, and as president of GAM’s board, Cooper also had myriad administrative responsibilities and trained and supervised a large staff of volunteers.
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Cooper got her start at GAM after she retired in 1992 from Garner Elementary School where she was a teacher’s assistant for 18 years. Her pastor at Ebenezer United Methodist Church on Rock Quarry Road asked Cooper if she would attend a GAM annual meeting in his place. At the meeting Cooper learned all about GAM’s work, and said she “fell in love with it that night.”
“I know I was led here for a reason,” Cooper said. “I know this is where God wants me to be.”
When she came on board, Cooper learned the ropes of the operation from the late Maxine Bennett, one of the founders of GAM, when it began back in 1982. Bennett always encouraged Cooper to do more, and Cooper agreed to be the person who did face-to-face interviews with clients to determine a person’s need and set up an assistance plan.
At first Cooper told Bennett, “You don’t want me. I’ll give away everything you have.” But Bennett said, “You’ll learn.”
“And I did learn,” Cooper said.
Thanks to Providence (again), Cooper has left GAM in capable hands. Carol Oriel is now board president. Oriel and Cooper taught together at Garner Elementary. At just the right moment, Oriel stopped by GAM to make a donation. At the door she was greeted by her former co-worker.
“One day I went to drop off some clothes, and Joyce happened to come to the door at the right time, at just that moment when when I was dropping stuff off,” Oriel said. “It was just really something.”
Cooper said to Oriel, “When you retire you’re going to have to start working with us.”
Oriel remembered the encounter, and came back to volunteer. “We always say God had joined us together at that moment,” Oriel said. “Joyce is just a wonderful woman. I like to call her the shining light because she just always has a smile, and is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.”
For Cooper, recruiting Oriel ended up being a two-for-one special. Tom Oriel, Carol’s husband, now serves as GAM’s pantry manager, a big job that requires keeping GAM’s cupboards, shelves, refrigerators and freezers supplied with goods to feed the scores of hungry individuals and families that come each day. The Oriels are members of Garner First Presbyterian Church.
Cooper is a widow and mother of three. Her husband, Andrew J. Cooper, died in 1986 from heart disease. Her son, Thomas Cooper, died from complications from a brain tumor on Feb. 6, 2008 at age 44. Her two other children are Steven Cooper and Linda Cooper Cooley.
As Christmas approaches, Cooper says Garner Area Ministries will be at its busiest. While the outpouring of donations is crucial at this time, Cooper said the needs of the poor are year-round.
“It’s nice to be able to to have an abundance for them for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but all in between they need the staples,” she said. “They need the canned vegetables, the bread and the frozen meat and so forth.”
In 2015, GAM spent more than $129,000 assisting clients with their bills. The pantry supplies an average of 300 families with food each month. GAM also offers free clothing to the needy.
Cooper said the many churches, civic groups, Scout troops and clubs in Garner are always ready to come through to help GAM when there is a need.
“I have to say the Garner area churches are very loyal,” she said. “When there’s a need, if we put the word out they’ll do a food drive for us or whatever.”
For Cooper, working with those in need has its own rewards.
“I never worked a day, probably ever, when some person who came in that day was in desperate need, and that I was there that day because that person was coming in that we really needed to help,” Cooper said. “Always, there was one person that you were so thankful you were there to help.”
The Garner community is also thankful to Cooper for doing the work that inspires our town and her citizens to do better.