Dawn Cole

Dawn Cole, executive director of the Watertown Urban Mission, stands on Thursday, June 11, 2020, upon boxes of donations piled to the ceiling in the mission's basement on Factory Street. Sydney Schaefer/NNY Business

The fictional “Ms. Marvel” is a superheroine who has shape-shifting powers, teams up with other superheroes to fight injustice, and has a healing factor. She grabs the world’s attention through her integrity, character, sense of humor and actions. Every girl can see of piece of herself in Ms. Marvel.

Northern New York’s Ms. Marvel is just as enigmatic, delightful, and passionate as this Marvel Comic’s character, which was created in 2013. Our female superhero came into the world in the mid-1960s, born into an indistinguishable family of four children. They were modern-day wanderers – impoverished and moving in search of employment and a warm house throughout the tri-county area. In fact, her mother’s journal captured over 100 home addresses in the first 14 years of the north country’s Ms. Marvel’s life.

With her own vision of happiness and future, Northern New York’s Ms. Marvel left home when she was 16 and began a sojourn of discovery.

Much like the Chautauqua taken by the father and son in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, our heroine’s life journey has been filled with personal and professional adversity and triumph. With her simple beginnings as a teen waitress, the north country’s Ms. Marvel persevered and clawed her way up a steep career ladder. While employed as a housekeeper at Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown, a hospital executive discovered her writing ability, and encouraged her to enroll at Jefferson Community College. Despite having a full-time job, our Ms. Marvel not only earned her associate’s degree in business administration, but eventually completed her bachelor’s degree in marketing and public relations, and her master’s degree in organizational management.

Without the privilege of being able to attend school as a student without working, Ms. Marvel continued to push herself professionally over many years. From television to academia, tourism to manufacturing, our leading lady eventually landed a job as the deputy director of Community Action Planning Council of Jefferson County in 2010. It was that moment that her internal strengths became superpowers that would change lives and communities.

Rooted in an impoverished childhood and a fighting spirit, Ms. Marvel immersed herself into her new work, which included the programs Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead in a Just–Getting’–By-World, both designed to provide a structural process of self–discovery, self–empowerment and taking responsibility. These programs take a person with incredible life challenges, which may include poverty, unemployment, substance abuse problems and legal issues, and offers them a guided, self-propelled path to a better life.

Her passion and love for helping others flourished to the point where she launched the first Getting Ahead workshop in 2017 with 12 graduates. Because of her dedication and hard work, there have been 14 total workshops held to date, with 118 graduates in Jefferson County alone. Her work has driven her to help establish identical programs in Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

In 2018, she was offered her dream opportunity: to take the helm as executive director of a large nonprofit that provides food, social work, financial assistance, case management and educational programs for residents facing situational and generational poverty. She has flourished as a leader and manager: compassionate, fair, loyal – almost to a fault – funny and motivational. And during moments in the evening when she’s at home alone with her husband and we can’t see her, she’s exhausted, crying because of frustration, introspective, worried about her employees, exceedingly critical of herself, and longing for the superpower to make more hours in the day so that she can help more people.

I met Northern New York’s Ms. Marvel in July 2019 and realized that I was in the presence of someone with great character, intelligence and the emotional strength to push a locomotive up a steep hill. And in the year and a half since, I have marveled at all her accomplishments and impacts on our community. With only a subtle word or action, she brings out the best in each one of us. She is the embodiment of Marvel Comic’s superheroine, who fights with her wits, intellect and never-quit attitude.

March is the month we celebrating women: mothers, wives, girlfriends, partners, sisters, daughters and women in the workplace. It’s also time for us all to celebrate a female superhero – the north country’s own Ms. Marvel – Dawn Cole of Watertown Urban Mission.

Lt Col Jamie Cox, is a combat decorated and wounded US Marine Corps (Retired) aviator, is currently the President and CEO of the United Way of Northern New York.

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