Serving More Than Cookies

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PHOTO BY MEGAN MANN / FOR THE OBSERVER

CONTRIBUTED BY MEGAN MANN FOR THE OBSERVER

Toni Cartlidge was a military child. She was born and raised in New York. Her father was in the National Guard and the “military lifestyle” is all she has ever known. Cartlidge began working at the military academy at West Point in 1986.

“I stayed in the same building all 30 years [until retirement in 2016] but just kept climbing the ladder,” Cartlidge said. “I did banquets for veterans, worked with the mess hall, became a budget analyst there. Pretty much anything they needed me to do, I did.”

The New York native made her move across the country to Opelika, Alabama, about five years ago.

“My husband was born and raised in Auburn,” she said. “We met at the military academy in New York where he worked too. We never thought much of each other but one day we finally talked, and the rest is history.”

Her husband, Tommy, is also a veteran. They were both ready to retire from the military academy and wanted a change, Cartlidge said. That’s when they made their move from New York. After working for 30 years straight, Cartlidge was not comfortable with sitting around and doing nothing after her retirement.

“After I retired, I needed to still find things to do for myself and the community, I like to stay busy,” she said.

She decided to combine her passion for community service and giving back into a new business idea — baking cookies for veterans.

“One day I called up a nursing home that housed veterans in Alexander City and just asked if I could bring them cookies,” she said. “I ended up baking about 2,000 the first time and me, my husband and our son brought them there.”

Ever since that day, Cartlidge and her family have continued to prepare cookies for the veterans and deliver them to the nursing home.

“It’s a cookie to you and me but to them, it meant outside love,” she said. “That is what they call it. I just became very involved in it, it was something that really means a lot to me. To see a veteran get so excited about me, who is a nobody, come in and make them cookies, to see the smiles on their face for a cookie, you don’t think something so simple would do that.”

Cartlidge also decided to help out wherever she was needed in these veterans’ homes. She would bake cookies for different events, including a yard sale where she sold her cookies to help them pay for the veteran’s trips.

Through her weekly visits and other involvement in the community, she began fostering friendships with a lot of people, including Wayne Womack, a three-time Vietnam veteran that works for food distribution.

“Womack messaged in one of our Facebook groups that he had 15 dozen eggs,” she said. “Not knowing him, I explained my story with baking the cookies and learned that he was a veteran as well.

We have been thick as thieves ever since. Now, every three weeks I go out there and do the food distribution and help with meals for first responders and veterans.”

Cartlidge has made the most of her five years in Opelika. She has become very involved in the Opelika community, working with local churches, schools and groups for children with disabilities.

She explains how her biggest passion though, is serving veterans.

“Being surrounded by the military all my life has made me appreciate the simpler things in life because you know, their routine, the sacrifices they make, it’s much more than I do,” Cartlidge said. “I am passionate about serving veterans because I’ve been around them so long. I just feel like they do so much for us and a lot of them don’t get recognized or appreciated for everything they do.”

Cartlidge said the hardest part about being a part of the military family is the loss. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she could no longer deliver her cookies in person to the nursing home. And, unfortunately, by the time in-person visits were acceptable again, many of her friends had passed on.

The same was often true for soldiers and cadets at the academy, she said.

“I got to know so many of them at the military academy that I am still in close contact with. I’ve also lost a lot of them which is so sad,” she said. “You train and you’re with them for four years. You do everything with them, they know who you are, they’ve been through your whole life. Then they graduate and go into the war, or they die. That’s probably the hardest part for me, is knowing I could get close to them and then never see them again.”

Cartlidge immersed herself in people’s lives and finds that to be more rewarding than anything else.

“I admire everything our military does,” she said. “I don’t care what branch someone is. I hold so much respect for all our veterans. I always wish there was more I could do to help them and show my appreciation.”

As a next step in the Opelika community, Cartlidge wants to look into building shelters and homes for the veterans that are homeless, sick or need help financially.

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