Ma Linda Golden was a proud tomboy growing up in Abbeville, Ala., population 2,400 and deep in the southeast corner of the state. If she wasn't in school, she was outside playing or working under what was usually a hot sun. Her jobs included working in a garden center and a lumberyard.
|Dothan, Ala., Local 796 member Ma Linda Golden in training just after being hired by Alabama Power in 1986. Photo provided by Alabama Power.
|Golden reads a meter while on the job for Alabama Power. Photo provided by Alabama Power.
A young man with special needs named Walter lived down the road from her family's farm. Golden saw him regularly at the church their families attended. He had learned how to pick peanuts and drive a tractor, so he was able to help on his family's farm. He made wooden plaques and gave them as gifts.
The two formed a friendship that continues to this day. Thus was born a lifelong passion for helping others, especially special needs children and those living with mental illness.
"I always said if I could make a difference in someone else's life in that situation, I would," said Golden, a 36-year member of Dothan, Ala., Local 796 and employee of Alabama Power. "He had a huge impact on me."
Ironically, after long volunteering for work with special needs individuals, Golden had a son with Down Syndrome and autism. Michael recently turned 20, and, if possible, having a child with a developmental disability only reinforced her commitment to the community.
"Ma Linda makes it happen for every child out there in the school system," said fellow Local 796 member Chris Jackson, a transmission lineman for Alabama Power who also works as a Special Olympics volunteer. "It's not just for her child. She takes on every child like they're her own."
In the process, she's become a leader in her community and her union — whether that was her intention or not.
"Ma Linda has a heart of gold when it comes to the lives of those in the special needs community," said Fifth District International Representative Anna Jerry, a longtime friend and also a Local 796 member. "She is a true advocate for the ones who deserve and need it the most. She has been a trailblazer and has persevered both in her work as an IBEW member and in life as challenges were thrown her way. She has always found a way to rise above the difficulties and excel no matter what life brought her."
Golden has been a Special Olympics volunteer for 30 years and led the 2013 effort to reintroduce them in Eufaula, Ala., about 25 miles north of where she grew up in Abbeville and where she now lives.
She has worked with school officials there to introduce ways to enhance special education and vocational learning, including a cooking program where students use assorted appliances to learn how to cook a nutritional meal and potentially work in a restaurant. It also teaches them time management and math skills and provides physical therapy.
Lynne Hughes, a former special education teacher in the Eufaula school system before recently accepting a teaching position in Georgia, worked closely with Golden to implement many of the programs. She watched in wonderment as her friend approached so many people in the community — from corporate leaders to people she met in a local restaurant.
"She can talk to and laugh and relate with anyone," Hughes said. "They fall in love with her. You don't have to really know her to realize, 'Wow, she's pretty awesome.' She's very determined. 'No' is not an option for her."
Determined has been a central part of Golden's life, including her professional career.
She attended a local community college for a time after graduating from high school but knew she wanted to work outside. She jumped at the chance when Alabama Power offered her a job and she was hired in 1986. The IBEW has had a longtime relationship with the company and she joined Local 796.
It wasn't your typical hiring, however. Golden was one of the first 15 women hired to work in power delivery by Alabama Power and it drew some media coverage in the state. She stood just 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed about 90 pounds. The training was sometimes grueling but she was intent on showing she belonged.
She's worked in several roles for the company since — including a stint as one of the local's first female tree trimmers — and now serves as a field service representative.
"I feel like if you go into a man's world, you need to take care of yourself," Golden said. "You need to be able to do the job but also ask for help when you need it. Be open minded.
"I told the people I work with, 'I'm one of the guys. Just treat me like one. You come to work every day just like me. If there is something you don't like, we'll discuss it and let it go.' Their world was changing, too. It wasn't just my world."
But even while adjusting to the demands of a new career, Golden still found ways to help those who reminded her of that young man who lived down the road.
"Working for the power company and being in the IBEW, I've met a lot of people," she said. "Being out in the community with Michael and being involved with different things has helped educate the community on our children with special needs."
Golden even used her son to convince Local 796 brother Jackson to volunteer with the Special Olympics. He saw the two often outside of work in Eufaula, which sits along the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama-Georgia line and has a population of about 13,000 people.
Jackson and Michael formed a relationship. Ma Linda saw she trusted him more than most adults.
"She asked me to handle him because 'He listens to you,'" Jackson said with a laugh.
"She takes off her best friend's hat [during a Special Olympics event]," he added. "Everyone is on point. There's an attitude of, 'Hey, let's make this happen. It has to be special for the kids.'"
|Golden with her son, Michael.
Several years ago, when Michael was still a young child, Eufaula schools installed a covering on the path from the main elementary building to the playground so special needs students would be covered in case of rain.
Hughes said Golden noted the pavement still could get wet and slick, especially for students using walkers or wheelchairs. So, she suggested finding a way for those students to exercise inside when the weather was bad. School officials applied for a grant and not long after, Xbox and Wii game systems were installed in the classroom. They may be just video games for some, but they help those students learn motor skills, she said.
Community groups chipped in with donations when Golden and others asked for help so special needs students could be provided with electronic tablets like what other students receive. She's worked with school officials to install home appliances like a washer and dryer so special needs students can learn everyday skills that most take for granted.
"She continues regardless of the resistance and she pushes back in the most wonderful, Christian way," Hughes said. "It's always figuring out how this can happen even if we have these parameters. She's brilliant."
As you might expect, Golden doesn't exactly view herself as brilliant. Instead, she views herself as someone determined to fight for a cause she believes in. She's quick to add she's had plenty of help.
Fellow IBEW members have donated time and money. She said the company has been supportive through the Alabama Power Service Organization, which donated money for equipment for the school programs. The Alabama Power Foundation paid for the return of the Special Olympics to Eufaula. The first edition drew about 40 students in 2013 from three schools. It drew 120 students from 10 schools in Alabama and Georgia in 2019, the last year it was held prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Golden's service doesn't end with her work for special needs children. She also has served as Local 796's recording secretary.
"She's very well known in the community," Jackson said. "Everyone knows Ma Linda. Everyone knows Michael."
All the while, she never forgets the friend who lived down the street, who she still keeps in touch with occasionally.
"If we can educate people about these children, and if they can see what these kids can do and want to do, that is the biggest blessing of all," Golden said. "It's teaching them what our children are all about."