AIKEN --- Straight out of college, Tandra Cooks just wanted a job.
After a few months, she found her niche through the unemployment office and didn't even realize it.
The job was program director at Aiken County Recreation Center. What that meant, Ms. Cooks wasn't really sure.
"Honestly, I didn't know what I was interviewing for, but I'm glad I came."
Now five years into her position, she's the bright voice that greets visitors with a heartwarming "Hi," and a strong hug.
Her intuition and knack for knowing people's hearts have helped her make the center a place where people share their stories and lives with each other.
"She brought a lot of youth and energy," said Emory Langston, the assistant director of Aiken County Parks, Recreation and Tourism. "When she first came she was just a breath of fresh air over there, but she has a very active senior group and has really found her niche with the senior population."
Each month, Ms. Cooks organizes events for the center focusing mostly on children and seniors in the Graniteville area. Afternoons and summers include children's camps.
But she spends much of her day keeping her older buddies busy playing bingo and having coffee.
"My seniors like to get out and do more than just watch soap operas," she said.
Some of her pet projects involve health awareness.
"The program that means the most to me is the diabetes fair," she said. "I've lived with it (diabetes) for 24 years. It's something a lot of people don't take seriously, and by the time they find out they have it, it can sometimes be too late."
Saturday's Bridal Fair is another favorite project, for which she spends months organizing. She clips engagement announcements from the newspaper so she can send out invitations and works with companies for displays.
"It takes a lot of hard work, but I'm hoping that when it's my turn to be engaged and get married I can find bridal fairs like this in the area," she said.
When she began working at the center, Ms. Cooks said, many of the programs were "stale." Her energy helped her generate numerous ideas for programs.
"If they like it, they come and they come in big numbers," she said. "If not, it's just my family here supporting me."
She wants to make the center more of a community effort -- which would include the involvement of more businesses.
"If we get together and try to work together on some of the programs, we can get a larger turnout and offer more things," she said.
Ms. Cooks said she wasn't sure what she signed up for five years ago, and it has been more work than she expected.
"I think I was put here for a reason," she said as she laughs about the downsides. "Those times where I'm so ready to go home or ready to leave children, those are moments that give me patience.
"Sometimes people just want a different face and a different person that's not going to judge them, and I offer that here."
Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDUCATION: Winthrop University, 2002, bachelor of arts in family consumer science
QUOTE: "Once you see the people you are serving and their smiles, and just the feedback from them, it's well worth it. I'll be in Wal-Mart and hear the kids say 'That's the lady from the center.' It makes me feel like I'm doing a good job."