When Lela Coons learned she had been nominated for the Carol Pendergast Award presented by the Warwick Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse, she immediately suggested someone else was more deserving of the honor and, in fact, named that person. But members of the coalition wouldn’t listen to her.
It is probably one of the few times they didn’t pay attention to a lady who has become such an advocate for children and those who can use a helping hand. Coons has been on the front lines when it comes to protecting and caring for children for years, giving testimony at legislative and Public Utility Commission hearings, speaking at school committee meetings and working in schools.
Thursday night at Tides Restaurant run by culinary students at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, Lela was presented the award made in the memory of a woman who likewise had a passion for helping children and to those who go above and beyond in protecting the well being and safety of Warwick children.
Surrounded by her family – Lela and her husband Dix adopted five children – Lela sat attentively as speakers lauded her work. Then, like a schoolteacher, she stood to point a finger at her audience and let them know “you are the people who touch the children.”
Lela and Dix met at Brigham Young University, where they were both students. As Dix recalls, he met her because he was dating her roommate. They married in 1956 and moved to Warwick five years later when he was offered a teaching job at Brown University. On summers, they would make cross-country trips back to Utah with their kids.
As the family grew and their adopted children started attending school, Lela became active in the PTA. She was persistent and an organizer, attributes that were quickly recognized. She served on the board of the National PTA for years and was its president. She also served on the American Mothers’ Board. She chaired the coalition up until recently.
Mayor Scott Avedisian expounded on her contribution.
“Our children are not her job. But she made it her job…and ours as well. You can use the word tireless, advocate, visionary. I would rather refer to her as the person who kept all of our feet to the fire…pushing for change, advocating for kids, being Lela,” he said.
Both Avedisian and Claire Flaherty, coalition vice chair and executive director of Volunteers of Warwick Schools, remarked on Lela’s faith.
Avedisian said her “quiet faith” has enabled her to accomplish great things.
“Lela is a woman who lives her faith in service to her God, her family and humanity,” said Flaherty.
Flaherty read several passages from the Bible, all referring to the power of light. She then read Matthew 5:14-16, which opens with, “You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
She then went on to say, “Lela has let her light shine before all, and we have seen her good works. Each of us who have been blessed by having Lela in our lives has been touched by her light.
City Council President Donna Travis called Lela a “long long-time friend” and a “very special lady.” Travis brought the council’s congratulations in the form of a resolution. There was also a resolution from Congressman James Langevin.
Lela listened to it being read attentively and then emphatically told her audience, “Vote for him.”
Karen Ostrowsky, coalition vice chair, called Lela “one of us,” although she had sure to add that she “is feisty.”
“You have been a role model for 25 years and still doing it…I thank you for teaching us, Lela.”
Lela outlined some of the work of the coalition, citing efforts aimed at identifying and protecting abused children and in school campaigns like those to address children who bully children. She even touched on computers, saying they are a wonder, but at the same time put children in “great danger.”
No doubt, even at 80, a birthday she celebrated on April 29, Lela will be letting her concerns be heard.