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Lu Cotton (left) was nominated by her sister Elaine Malheim for the Home Instead Salute to Senior Service volunteer award. Malheim won the same award in North Dakota a few years ago.

Cotton wins statewide senior volunteer contest

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Volunteering runs in Lu Cotton’s family.

The 77-year-old Two Harbors woman was named the winner of a statewide senior volunteer contest earlier this month. Her sister won the same award in North Dakota a few years ago and her husband was named the Lake County Outstanding Senior Volunteer in 2012.

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“It’s just something I like to do,” Cotton said of volunteering. “It makes us happy.”

Cotton was nominated by her sister, Elaine Malheim, for the Home Instead Salute to Senior Service award. She won the statewide competition after a two-month voting period. She has plenty of “official” volunteering gigs on her resume – like her work with Community Partners, Habitat for Humanity, Rotary International and Socially Active Seniors – but after a conversation with Cotton, it’s easy to see that most of her time is dedicated to helping others, even outside of her organized involvement.

Her canned applesauce and famous bran muffins find their way to many local pantry shelves, free of charge. She’s made hundreds of quilts and given them to family, friends or anyone who needs one. She officiated a wedding for which her only compensation was a bottle of Jack Daniels.

“I enjoyed every drop,” she said with a laugh.

Cotton is constantly busy and those in her path reap the benefits. She’s always been the first to raise her hand to help, whether her son’s Cub Scout troop needed a leader or a friend’s daughter needed help with her start-up business.

“I like to help a stranger,” Cotton said. “You don’t know how you’re going to touch someone.”

She’s been volunteering with Community Partners for more than a decade. Community Partners is a local nonprofit that helps seniors stay in their homes, and she and her husband Gene started helping in 2003 by doing household chores and small repairs for local seniors. In 2010, she started driving, taking seniors to medical appointments or the grocery store.

“She has helped a lot of people,” said Linda Johnson, the volunteer coordinator for Community Partners. “She does things but she wants to be kept in the background.”

In fact, the reason Cotton campaigned to win the award was for the money – the honor comes with a $500 award, which she split between Community Partners and another local nonprofit, Socially Active Seniors.

Johnson said that Cotton has a talent for getting their shyest clients to come out of their shells.

“Sometimes they just need a hug,” Cotton said. “They need to be reached out to.”

At 77, Cotton herself is a senior, but she said she will continue volunteering as long as she is healthy.

Another regular gig for the Cottons is hosting visitors from other countries. They’ve hosted high school exchange students for long periods and Rotary International guests for shorter visits.

The payback for welcoming strangers into their home has been varied, but by all accounts valuable. One Japanese Rotarian taught the Cotton children origami, and for the next dozen years or so, an origami swan adorned all outgoing wedding gifts. A neighbor’s foreign exchange student from South America was close friends with their son and still visits Minnesota regularly.

The Cottons also use their vacation time to volunteer, going on work trips with Rotary International many times over the years. They will typically work most of the trip and spend the last few days sightseeing. Cotton’s husband Gene said helping others makes the trips richer.

“Volunteering is its own reward,” Gene said.

Cotton’s sister Malheim still keeps busy in Fargo, N.D., with volunteer work, too. Her favorite project is sewing dresses for dolls, which a local bank gives away as Christmas gifts to needy families.

She summarized the mantra of the family simply: “You do what you can as long as you can.”

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