Call Colette!

Local volunteer leads the way

By Drew Myron

Colette Cox, a longtime Wamic resident, is happy to help when called upon. Photo by Drew Myron

Want to learn to read, ride, hitch or cook? Need a ham, haircut or helping hand? Call Colette!

“Colette Cox is the glue in our community,” says Gail Schiel, who has known and worked with Colette for 20 years. “She really holds it together.”

Colette has spent more than 50 years getting things done in the small town of Wamic. From the food pantry to literacy lessons, she leads the way.

“There’s almost no role in our community that Colette has not fulfilled,” says Gail, rattling off a long list of contributions. “She was 4-H horse leader, school board member, grange officer, town beautician. She’s the one who sees a need in our community and goes about figuring a way to meet it.”

Located near Tygh Valley and Pine Hollow, Wamic is an unincorporated community with a population of fewer than 100 people. Still, the needs are many, and chances are high Colette will spring to action with a solution.

A few years ago, Colette partnered with Columbia Gorge Food Bank and started a community food pantry. Located within the Wamic Community Center, the Neighbor to

Neighbor Food Pantry is open 2 days a month and serves 100 people.

Colette served as grand marshal of Barlow Trail Rendezvous Day 2022. Photo courtesy of Barlow Rendezvous

“We’re a poor community,” Colette says. “The pandemic hit, and I knew we really, really needed it. Just like the cities, we have poverty, drug addiction, homeless. There’s a gap between wealthy and poor. I knew there was a need, but I had no idea how much need.”

From the pantry grew interest in cooking lessons. Colette forged a partnership between the Barlow Gate Grange and South Wasco Alliance to offer low-cost cooking workshops. Classes, led by community members, have included lessons in making jams, tamales, breads and soups, with efforts to include Latino and Native American families.

A few years ago, Colette noticed many of the area’s agricultural workers had difficulty reading. She rallied a group of volunteers and created English as a Second Language classes. The group met twice weekly and drew 26 students. With the help of the program, one participant was able to earn U.S. citizenship.

A natural recruiter, Colette has a knack for bringing people together.

“People want to help each other,” she says. “They don’t know how to get involved. I just ask them.”

A longtime member of the Barlow Gate Grange, Colette serves as vice president. “The Grange has a saying, ‘Many hands make light work,’” she says. “Everybody takes on a little part so it isn’t one person doing everything.”

Some would say Colette is doing everything. As a show of appreciation, last summer Colette was named grand marshal of the Barlow Trail Rendezvous Day— an event she helped resurrect after the pandemic took its toll.

Colette fills hearts, minds and bellies as she makes meals at Barlow Grange. Photo courtesy of Barlow Grange

“There are a lot of people doing more than me, who are more deserving,” she says. “I love people. I don’t like the attention.” Colette says helping out is natural. It’s the farm way.

“Working on a farm, you do whatever needs doing, bucking, baling,” she says. “That’s how people out here are.”

Born in LaGrande, Colette spent childhood days at her grandparents’ farm. When she was 6, her family moved to The Dalles. Her father, an electrician, worked for The Dalles Dam. Hundreds of families relocated to the area, and the influx of children were derided as “dam kids.”

“We were looked down on,” Colette says. The harsh treatment, however, planted a powerful seed of empathy. Shunned, she befriended other outcasts.

“I very much sympathize with those who have been discriminated against,” Colette says.

Colette moved to Wamic in 1969. She has been married to her husband, Billy, for 40 years. Together, the couple raised five children.

The busy mother also worked at the local lumber mill and was the nation’s first female fully certified lumber grader. In the lumber yard, she handled heavy loads of pine and fir as she searched for knots, holes and splits. At just 110 pounds, the petite woman was a surprising force of strength.

“Most men were encouraging and helpful, but a few … there was a little bit of harassment,” she says, gritting her teeth at the memory of life in the 1970 and ’80s. She says some female workers were grabbed and groped.

“That’s what you had to put up with back then,” she says.

From 1980 to 2012, Colette worked as a beautician, operating a beauty salon from her home.

She served as a 4-H leader for 20 years, working with youngsters to hone the art and skill of horsemanship. The students enjoyed trail rides, camping trips, fair projects and more.

At 75, Colette still loves to ride. In the warm months, she takes to the trail two to three times a week.

Colette and Billy also ran an adult foster home. For more than 20 years, they cared for sick and elderly people in their home. When she’s not helping others, Colette is learning new things. Always a self-starter, she taught herself the craft of horsehair hitching. The intricate weaving is created from a series of strands wound and knotted. The patterns are then made into belts, bridles, rugs and more.

“I don’t sit still for long,” Colette says with a grin.