Gena Cook is no stranger to loss. In May of 2016, her beloved 19-year-old son unexpectedly passed away. In October of that same year, she lost her father in a tragic ATV accident. Three years later, to the day, she lost her mother to cancer. Of the many things that she’s passionate about, Gena’s family is at the very top of that list. Since that first unimaginable loss in 2016 of her son Tom, life, for her, has never been the same.
But out of deepest grief, often comes an awareness of the needs of others. And it was the same for Gena. “In 2016, in the space of five months, I had lost my past and my future,” Gena says. “Though numb and going through the motions, I became increasingly aware of stories of the tremendous increase in the number of children in foster care due to the opioid epidemic.” As Gena walked her own valley of grief over the loss of her son and father, she couldn’t imagine how these children must feel having been pulled from their homes. “They have literally lost their whole world,” she says.
A background of giving.
Gena grew up in the family business. Her father and uncle owned the iconic Lighthouse Restaurant in downtown Winston-Salem. At nine-years-old, she was typing the daily menu specials, at 10, transcribing the payroll. By 12, she was waitressing every day after school. She got her college degree in computer programming and, at 21, assumed the role as Financial Controller in a small assembly and packaging company, wherein she wrote the computer programs that managed the inventory, job flow status, and management reports to run the day-to-day operations of the business. Even then, she looked for those in need. “The staff was, by and large, composed of single mothers. I often held parties in the day time for their children because I wanted the children to know the important work their mothers were doing all day to support them. I also wanted to let them know that they were integral to the reason their mothers worked.”
Her most important work.
Soon, Gena became a mother herself to Tom, and to her daughter, Sarah. “I retired so that I could pursue the one job that I believed to the be most important work I would ever do. And that was to be a mom.” During her children’s years, she was involved in the school PTA and as a grade parent. As her children grew and life changed, she was drawn back to the family business as a bookkeeper. Today, Gena maintains the books for 21 companies and oversees the family owned properties.
But that hasn’t stopped her from finding ways to love on her community. The needs of children in foster care continued to tug at her heart. After supporting the SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now) program for many years through donations, she was drawn to helping the children of Crossnore. “Supporting the kids at Crossnore is my way of honoring the great love I have for my own children and acknowledging that through great pain and loss can come great gains and accomplishments. I wanted to do something to let them know that they were not forgotten, that they were loved and thought of and wanted.”
A new partnership with Crossnore.
And so began Gena’s generous partnership with Crossnore. She began by throwing the children on our Winston-Salem campus a back-to-school picnic. Her brother, Steve Doumas, owns Camel City BBQ Factory, so she enlisted his help and had the Camel City food truck come out to provide lunch. She also had Joy Parrish, “The Ice Cream Lady” bring her ice cream truck and provided ice cream treats for all the kids. She gave away cinch sacks filled with school supplies – pencils, notebooks, crayons, and packs of paper.
She didn’t stop there. During the COVID lockdown, she sent the food trucks out again and provided another meal for all of our residential children and staff. She sent boredom buster packages with outdoor flying discs, sidewalk chalk, glow-in-the-dark bracelets, and necklaces. “I order almost everything through Amazon Smile, so in addition to the kids getting supplies, a percentage of my purchases are also shared with Crossnore. I have sent art supplies, markers, crayons, rolls of art paper. I often look to see what Crossnore needs on their Amazon wish list and try to help fulfill their requests.”
Everyone can do something.
Gena believes anyone can help. “There is a ton people can do to help these kids. Shop on Amazon Smile, buy from the Amazon wish list, donate gift cards to local restaurants, rent blow up houses or obstacle courses. Maybe a local PTA or church group could raise money to provide a fun day for the kids or a movie night. Maybe someone can supply musical instruments and come show them how to play. Kazoos, ocarinas, and harmonicas aren’t expensive. Just don’t forget the ear plugs for the cottage parents!” She has big plans for the future too. “I would love to have a liaison group with Crossnore and the community – sort of like what the PTA does between the school and parents – so that kids become integral to the community. As they age, they’ll know that there are business mentors, college mentors, and life coaches in the community who will continue to support them on a successful path.”
Only just beginning.
“I am not done looking for ways to help the kids of Crossnore,” Gena says. “I am just beginning. I would urge people to look for ways to help and mentor, but especially for the older kids.” Gena is living proof that one person really can make a difference. “Children are our future,” she says. “Isn’t it worth a little of your time to invest in them?” Gena describes herself as an “intrinsically private” person. She was out of her comfort zone when asked for an interview. A woman who likes to be quietly behind the scenes – whether keeping the books, loving her own children, or investing in the future of others, she stepped out and agreed to this article. Not because of the light it is shining on her, but in hopes that it would set off the spark for others to do the same. “In that case,” she says, “I will gladly sit awkwardly in the spotlight.”