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Albany woman 'Chosen to Conquer'

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- There was no question that when Colette Jenkins decided to start a nonprofit whose purpose is to help women impacted by the horrors of multiple sclerosis, breast cancer and heart disease reclaim their self-esteem she would name the organization Chosen to Conquer.

That name, Jenkins insists, is an apt description of her newfound purpose in life.

"I was chosen by God to conquer this disease, to conquer MS," Jenkins, who started the nonprofit in 2008, said. "And I think seeing is believing. If someone looks in the mirror and sees MS, then they are MS. Chosen to Conquer is a way to empower women to again be a whole person, to be all they can be."

Jenkins' efforts so impressed a special committee with the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, her organization was named the chamber's 2011 Nonprofit of the Year.

"Are you serious? I was just amazed," Jenkins said when asked about the award handed out Nov. 18. "We're brand new here, and this honor clearly says to me that the need is present in this community."

Jenkins' improbable journey to founding Chosen to Conquer is one filled with twists and turns, joy and heartache and enough apparent divine intervention to last several lifetimes. But there's no question where the inspiration for that journey started: with her parents, Sam and Ann Roberts.

Sam Roberts worked with the Albany State University campus police until heart disease left him disabled, and Ann spent a distinguished career teaching youngsters. Each left an imprint on their daughter that has allowed her to become the giving person she is today.

"My dad was my rock, my buddy," Jenkins said as she eyes a portrait of her late father taken by professional photographer Adrian Jenkins, a photo that would spark a fairy-tale romance and marriage. "And my mother, there was a point when she had to take care of both of us. I realized that she is a lion."

After graduating Albany High School, Colette Jenkins and one of her friends enrolled in the new criminal justice program at Albany State University. They planned to become lawyers. But, following a series of seemingly unrelated events, the "120-pounds soaking wet girly-girl" Jenkins ended up serving five years as a trooper with the Georgia State Patrol.

"I worked as a dispatcher at Albany State, and during that time I worked out with a trooper -- Rufus Grace -- who was teaching me martial arts," Jenkins said. "I complained about not making much money working part-time at Albany State, and he said he could get me on with the State Patrol.

"I figured that would be part of a natural progression that would help me meet my goal of becoming an attorney."

However, Jenkins' progression proved to be in another area of law. She started as a radio operator with GSP, advanced to license examiner, commercial license examiner and, finally, state trooper.

"Trooper school was one of the hardest things I ever did," Jenkins said. "It was seven months of physical, emotional and mental challenges. But, other than giving birth to my daughter, it's the most satisfying thing I've ever done."

Jenkins said she developed a toughness she didn't know she had as a trooper, but shortly after she started the job a persistent problem developed. She started to fall inexplicably. She had trouble focusing at times, and she randomly experienced episodes of weakness that left her barely able to function.

Finally, she decided to leave her job with GSP and concentrate on a skill she'd learned while watching her mother as a young girl: cosmetology.

"In junior high, I was in this class where I was supposed to learn to play the flute," she says. "But I just wasn't feeling it. So while everyone else was playing their music, I'd bring my mother's lipstick and makeup and put it on myself and all the other girls in the class."

Jenkins started selling Mary Kay products and even advanced to sales director in the company. She married a man who worked with Georgia Pacific, and the couple moved to Kansas City, Mo. One day Jenkins was walking on a downtown street there when she collapsed. She couldn't get up and was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

"I'd gone to doctors when I was having issues before, and they kept saying my problems were stress-related," Jenkins said. "The ER doctor in Kansas City told me I had multiple sclerosis. Even then, in 1999, it was unheard of for an African-American to have MS. It was seen as a white person's disease."

Jenkins and her soon-to-be ex-husband returned to Albany in January of 2000. Ann Roberts cared for her wheelchair-bound daughter and her husband, whose heart disease grew progressively worse. A month later, Sam Roberts died.

"I'd made some progress, had gotten to where I could use a walker," Jenkins said. "But the stress surrounding my father's death sent me back to the wheelchair."

Jenkins visited a local American Legion post one day to handle some of her late father's business, and she saw a portrait of her dad. Since Sam Roberts rarely allowed his photo to be taken, she got the name of the photographer and visited his studio. There she met Adrian Jenkins, and a whirlwind courtship ensued.

A year later the couple married.

"The man I was married to before left when I got sick," Jenkins said. "Adrian would take me to his studio so he could care for me during the day."

One day a 100-year-old matron came into Adrian Jenkins' studio to have a portrait taken for a church program. That visit sparked something in Colette Jenkins.

"The lady's wig was a mess, so I asked if I could fix her up a little," Jenkins said. "I did her hair and put on a little lipstick and blush. When she looked in the mirror, she just beamed and said, 'Is that me?' I was so moved by her reaction, it didn't dawn on me until later that I'd gotten up and walked around to do this lady's makeover.

"I have no doubt that was God working through me."

Jenkins started looking for opportunities to help others, and one day another photographer suggested Janice Route Blaylock contact Jenkins to do her makeup for a photo shoot. The two women hit it off famously, but the next time they met Blaylock had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I feel that God chose for our paths to cross," Blaylock said. "Everything just clicked between us. When we sat down and talked for the first time, it felt like we'd known each other forever. It's easy for women to be intimidated by other beautiful women, but I discovered Colette Jenkins is just as beautiful on the inside as she is the outside.

"Colette was one of the people I sent a Christmas update to, and I was humbled to learn later that I was the impetus for her adding breast cancer as part of her Chosen to Conquer program. I feel honored to be associated with her program, and while I can only speak for myself, I believe God was guiding our footsteps."

Jenkins started a program she called Makeup for Life, through which she taught women -- especially those overcoming diseases -- how to properly apply makeup. Finally, she decided to formally develop a nonprofit program that would allow her to help women, like herself, who had MS, women affected by heart disease and women impacted by breast cancer.

And Chosen to Conquer became a reality.

Through the program, Jenkins teaches classes on skin care, hair care, makeup application, nutritional needs, how to prepare nutritious food, fitness and exercise programs, wardrobe do's and don'ts and maintenance classes for all of the skills. Through word of mouth, women impacted by the three diseases are coming to her in an effort to better deal with the aftermath.

"Colette was a customer (at Brooks Furniture in Albany), and we just hit it off," Kathy Beane, an administrator with the local furniture store, said. "In our conversation we discovered that each of us had MS, and she and I started the MS Walk together.

"I've seen people in her program who have been inspired on the health and fitness side, and I've seen her program help women gain strength and courage. Chosen to Conquer has helped them realize they can overcome their diseases."

Jenkins and Chosen to Conquer hold a "Beauty Through the Storm" formal each April for women who have completed the nonprofit's program. They become "conquerors" who spread the word to other women like themselves.

"The one thing I wanted to do is give this opportunity to women at no cost," Jenkins said. "We've gotten support from the community, but we need more to do the things we want to do. We want to expand our program to include men and children, and we want to be able to purchase equipment that allows us to be sensitive to each individual's condition, whether they're in a wheelchair or use a walker or if they have a prosthesis.

"We want to connect more with the medical community so that they can help us connect with each person on a holistic level: the mind, body and spirit."

As for her own malady, Jenkins deals with it every day. She has good days and bad, and she often has to force herself to get out of bed and start her day.

"But you know what?" she says. "When I'm doing something to help someone else, I'm usually not affected at all. When I'm doing what God has chosen me to do, I don't even think about MS."