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Evelyn Edwards finds charity work is good therapy
Evelyn Edwards has learned during her 85 years on the planet that some of the most rewarding moments in life are the times of helping others.

Her parents modeled altruism for her at the height of the toughest time in American history, the Great Depression, while growing up in Manteca. Those early lessons of neighbor helping neighbor are what has guided her life of serving others. But while others have benefited from her acts of charity, she has helped herself in the process.

"If I sit and brood about the tragedies in my life..." said Edwards, trailing off into her main point. "I sometimes think of my charity as therapy. You get thinking about others and less of your own troubles."

Edwards lives alone as the longest continuous resident of Voyager's Cove Mobilehome Park, which opened in 1972 on Hatch Road in Ceres. She lived through the divorce of her first marriage destroyed by alcoholism, saw a second happy marriage end in death and buried two of three children, one who died in a tragic auto accident and another recently to cancer.

Born as Evelyn Silva on Oct. 23, 1927 in Manteca, Edwards grew up on a dairy which insulated her from the pain of "doing without" as others struggled economically. Her parents came to the U.S. from the Azores and diligently supplied for their five children through hard work. They had plenty of vegetables from the garden, milk and meat from butchered hogs and cattle, and eggs from the chickens. She remembers kids at Yosemite School in Manteca begging her to trade sandwiches because they contained meat.

"Some of theirs were nothing but mayonnaise and lettuce on store-bought bread," said Evelyn. "I was always kind of embarrassed of Mom's thick home-sliced bread but there was always a wedge of ham. We always had some kind of protein in our sandwiches. And I never understood why they wanted to trade for my big old homemade sandwiches. But it was because they were going through hard times."

Evelyn's dresses were faded and worn but lovingly starched by mom.

The hardest times hit the family when inspectors had to kill 18 cows that tested for tuberculosis. The loss hit the family budget hard for a long time. Her mother traded butter for peaches and bartered dressed rabbits for flour and other items.

Hard times caused people to come together, she remembers.

"I grew up being taught that if a neighbor needed a helping hand you went over and helped your neighbor, because if you needed a helping hand then they'd come and help you," said Evelyn.

Life changed for Evelyn during the eighth grade. An older sister got married at 16 and moved to Humboldt County where a difficult pregnancy prompted the family to move nearby to rally around her. Evelyn's dad worked in the mills while mom cared for the sister. Evelyn spent her freshman and sophomore years at Fortuna High School when World War II broke out.

"That's when you started to do all the work for the war effort," said Evelyn.

At the age of 13 Evelyn wrapped bandages and packed field kits for the Red Cross. At 15 she served coffee and doughnuts to servicemen at the USO. She remembers being on the high school campus and seeing convoys of servicemen pulling out for war and all the students rushing out to send them off with waves and cheers. The men hastily threw their addresses from the trucks in hopes for a pen-pal connection back at home. Evelyn's English teacher decided to have the students write to the servicemen to boost their morale and improve language skills of students.

The family eventually moved to St. Helena where brother Joe, who received a deferment, started his own dairy. Throughout WWII, Evelyn worked on dairies and on weekends was bussed to Mare Island Naval Air Station hospital in Vallejo where she volunteered as a candy striper. She remembers helping to write letters to home on behalf of war-created paraplegics.

"It made me grow up real fast," said Evelyn. "My generation grew up real fast, girls especially ... all the boys were in the service. We used to go out at harvest time because they couldn't get any help because the men were off fighting."

After graduating high school in 1945, Evelyn attended Lake Merritt Business College in Oakland for nine months. For most women in those days, college was nothing more than learning how to type, and take shorthand and dictation.

Evelyn's brother relocated the dairy to Manteca and the family came back to the Valley. Evelyn found work as a secretary for Manteca's privately owned telephone company. In 1947 Evelyn met and married Frank Toste and had three children by him - Carol Toste, who died of cancer in March; Michael Toste, a Modesto real estate agent; and Valerie Toste, who was killed in a tragic car crash at the age of 35.

The marriage fell apart, leaving Evelyn feeling like a failure and somewhat of a "man hater." However in 1957, to supplement her income, Evelyn became a babysitter for the daughter of divorcee Alvin Edwards. She fell in love with the girl and eventually married Alvin.

"That's what attracted me to Alvin - he was a terrific father. I got so attached to her I think that's why I married the dad. I didn't want to give her up."

Ceres become home

She had her own three children and he had his three. The Edwards' moved to the Modesto area as Alvin found work at Dairy Valley and rented a house on the dead-end section of Fourth Street that abuts to the south fields of Ceres High School. At that time there was a flower shop run by Margaret Barham at Fourth Street and Whitmore Avenue so Evelyn went to work there. They later built a house on Caswell Avenue and in 1961 moved in. All of the couple's children attended Ceres schools. Evelyn helped out where she could in her kids' lives, becoming a Scout and Brownie leader. She chaperoned for social occasions at various Ceres schools. She and Alvin were two of the eight founding members of the Ceres High School Boosters Club where they worked on fundraisers to buy sports equipment for the school. Their group raised funds and purchased the first camera to film the games for the teams to review.

About a decade later Evelyn and Alvin moved into Voyager's Cove Mobilehome Park. Alvin retired at age 62 from the Libby-Owens Ford plant in Lathrop and on an October 1989 drive to take care of Social Security matters in Modesto, Alvin suffered a heart attack while driving and died.

Evelyn decided to join the Ceres Woman's Club because a member and neighbor, Ova Lowrey, had invited her.

"She kept saying, 'You gotta get out of the house.'"

Evelyn immersed herself in the club's charity work. She took on the club presidency from 1994 to 1996 and is now the club parliamentarian. For 17 years she served as chairman of services to the Stanislaus County Women's Shelter.

"We helped gals who wanted to go on interviews for jobs and got donated clothes so they'd have some decent clothes to go for an interview." The club also assembled personal hygiene kits and won the support of the Procter & Gamble plant to donate goods from its south Modesto plant.

Evelyn has a simple philosophy about getting plugged in to help others.

"You don't have to look very far to find people who need help," said Edwards, who has also helped raise funds for Salvation Army camp scholarships, the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center, high school scholarships and the 62 plantations of forest trees through Pennies for Pines. The club also supplies Christmas meals at the Modesto Gospel Mission. The grandmother to 10 and great-grandmother to 11 also cooks and cleans at the club's fundraisers and bake sales, personally baking 100 loaves of bread for the annual Christmas boutique.

Duane Thompson, the husband of one of Evelyn's granddaughters, Lynn, thinks so much of Evelyn that he nominated her for "Citizen of the Year" last month.

"I feel it is people like her who helped this town to have its small-town feel for so long," said Thompson. "It is unfortunate that so many of us allow ourselves to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life that we do not allow ourselves more time to be committed to our community. We can all image the good that would come from more people like her."