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A lasting legacy

By Ginny Harris
NBC News

Antoinette Kolesnikov, a first generation American of Russian parents, wanted to give back to her country and serve it well. A chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, she is based at Ft. McGuire Air Force base in New Jersey. Her rank is coveted, as there are very few women who have held that position. Only 2 percent ever attain this rank. When she joined the Air Force 37 years ago, only 7 percent of service members were women, and now there are 18 percent.

Kolesnikov is a single parent who made sacrifices. Because of her dedication to her job, she had to juggle motherhood with her responsibilities to the Air Force. Kolesnikov's daughter is now a lieutenant in the Engineering Corp of the U.S. Air Force. Once again, Kolesnikov led by example.

Each year around Christmas time, AK (as she is known) cooks omelets for a special holiday breakfast for her troops and her community. It started 23 years ago, in her office, when it was just about 20 people who had nowhere to go. It has now grown to more than 300. This year she'll cook her last breakfast before she retires. AK pays for the breakfast herself. In the last few years, she placed donation jars on the table, and the money goes to someone in need. This year, some of it will go to an enlisted member., Michelle Duffanti, who is single and recently adopted 6 children, some of them with special needs.

In the past, AK has donated money to service members who have suffered personal tragedies. Two airmen had  houses that burned down and she donated the money to them. In addition, a battered women's shelter has been a recipients of AK's kindness and generosity.

Eunique Scales-Brown, a resource advisor for the 135th Squadron has been mentored by AK. She saw her potential, then encouraged and helped Scales-Brown to advance into the position. When Scales-Brown's mother died suddenly and she couldn't afford a funeral, AK was there to help with the funds for a burial. 

"She helped me when I didn't know what to do," Scales-Brown said. "I was on active duty and didn't even know my mother was sick. It's stuff like this that has made me a better person.

"I know I can strive to be like her she is such a blessing, with her busy life, she never forgets you."

Tarun Patel is an only child, born in India to a working class family with a business in medical distribution. When Patel was very young, his father was pushed off a building and the injuries led to memory loss. The family business failed and they lost everything. The Patels moved to Delhi. They were so poor that Patel's mother saved money for eight years just to buy her son a bicycle for his ninth birthday. When he was 11, his family sent him to live with his uncle in New Jersey. She gave him a $20 bill and told him, "Here's enough money for one night's meal and make sure you always do the right thing."

Patel had a passion for aviation and that's how AK came into his life. He got a full-time scholarship at Rutgers University but struggled with English. He secretly joined the Air Force reserves in 1998 when he was 18.

With AK's help, Patel traveled to Qatar and worked there for 90 days. But before he set out for Qatar, Patel dropped out of Rutgers. When he returned, AK nominated him for awards, and he won Airman Of The Year. AK believed in Patel and knew he wouldn't make it without an undergraduate degree. She also gave him a part time job, so that he could work in the morning and go to school at night. He graduated in 2003 and AK hired him full time.

AK and Patel's mother both attended the graduation.

"If AK weren't there in 2000 for me, my life would have been so different," Patel said. "We believe in nine lives and I hope she is in every one of mine. She nurtured me and transformed me into the person I have become."

Patel is now the head ff engineering for the U.S. Navy.

"I am blessed to have AK in my life. Because of her dedication, there is hope," Patel said. "She has been my mentor and my mother rolled into one." Patel gives back to his co-workers by donating 100 hours of work each year.

Watch more of our Making A Difference reports here.