Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Susan Cohen | Children’s Home Network (Tampa)
Susan Cohen has a theory. “I think there are a lot of guardian angels around us disguised as people,” she says.
Raised in violence within the family home in New Jersey, Susan has good reason for her belief.
“There was a time when I couldn’t imagine living beyond my teenage years,” recalls the now happily married mother of three grown children and owner of two college degrees in social work. “Things can turn out wonderfully because of the other people we encounter and it’s not necessarily the people who are supposed to be there for us, sometimes it’s just these random people. Some know and some never know how important their impact was on my course of life.”
As a volunteer at Tampa’s Children Home Network for the past 18 years, Susan now has a disguise to hide her own halo.
“Well, I’ve been called one, but I have never actually thought about whether or not I consider myself as such. I don’t know…maybe…but in the sense that we all have the potential to be guardian angels when we least expect it,” she reasons.
Fifteen to twenty hours a week, Susan can be found flitting about the Children’s Home Network’s 88-acre campus with one thing in mind: the educational welfare of the students living at CHN’s Kids Village. She is, from the educational perspective, mom to 50 kids.
Says Irene Rickus, President & CEO of the CHN: “For years she has advocated for our children when the adults in their lives have not been in the position to do so. She’s built strong relationships with the area schools and their support staff, in an effort to assure our youth have all the resources they need to succeed. We truly appreciate all she does to help improve their lives and change their life stories.”
Explains Susan. “I can step in and fill that advocate role in certain situations such as when a parent’s rights have been terminated. It’s many steps, but as a volunteer I don’t have to deal with a lot of paperwork. I am able to be just purely focused on what I think the children need. I can zero in and sometimes do the legwork that needs to be done.
“The schools have to address a lot of needs and sometimes our children in the system get lost in the cracks. Sometimes it’s because they are in such a state of transition when they move from school to school. The school may recognize that they have an issue, but by the time they are able to address it, the child is gone and then the records don’t always catch up. We get children here sometimes with no records.”
When she isn’t advocating for the children, she is getting to know them. On Sundays she enjoys fun arts and crafts sessions with the kids in CHN’s on-campus cottage allowing her to get to know them on a different level. “I’m here enough where I know the kids and I know the school systems.” She says. “When you have 50 children you are responsible for you can’t really focus in on each one like I can. I do try and keep an eye on all of our children and I’m fortunate in that the people at CHN are wonderful and there are times they’ll pull me in and say ‘Hey this child is struggling in school, what do you think we need to do?’”
It is the child’s education that is at the center of it all. “Kids in the foster system live a life of lost, of things taken away, or left behind. But education is ours to keep. Once obtained it can’t be taken from you. It is both a tool for, and armor against, what lies ahead. Children in difficult situations can’t always see beyond their reality of hardships. I often tell our kids “Education can be your ticket out of prolonged negative circumstance. It is a resource you give yourself every day, and will keep forever.”
More than most, Susan knows firsthand what education can do. After high school, she went on the get her undergraduate degree from Rutgers and her Masters from SUNY- Albany.
“I had the opportunity for a good education. In fact, school tended to be a sanctuary from the chaos and fear of home,” she recalls. “It put me on a path away from the dire statistic so often ascribed to kids in crisis.”
And for Susan, there was crisis. One of her brothers was taken from the home when he was nine and raised in a foster family. Another was placed in relative care, returned, and ended up in a maximum prison by the time he was 20. “The rest of us,” she says, “came in and out of the house as deemed necessary.
“I don’t share my story with the children because they have their own story and that’s not where I am coming from. I understand the importance for them to get through the day because it is the next day that might have the opportunity to change their life.
“I believe in what Joe (Maddon) says that what you put out there, you get back. I also think that what you’re given you need to put back. If it makes one person’s hour a little better than that’s enough. There were days when maybe those people didn’t make an earthshattering impact on me, but if you gave me a reason to smile that hour it was enough to get through to the next step. I think we get through life in steps. You never know when you are helping a person to the next step. If I can help a child develop a more positive sense of school, via getting appropriate services, highlighting their capabilities, helping them manage a situation or even things like the ‘Back to School’ events, where our kids pick out their own school supplies, then it’s a good step.
“I think we are very quick to say ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I have a stronger appreciation for a lot of our children. They can’t fathom what’s going to happen in their lives, they can’t fathom what’s going to happen next week. You really have to stay in the here and now. If you make their hour, their minute better, then that’s a contribution. Eventually they will get past that point, but right now, it’s all about survival.”
And about Susan’s guardian angels. They’ve had a little help from her husband, Lance, and their three adult children Brandon, Courtney and Derek. “They taught me more about love and happiness than I had ever hoped to realize, “she offers. “They gave me my understanding and experience of a heartfelt family.”
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
Since 1892, Children’s Home Network has been dedicated to improving lives and changing life stories. To meet today’s needs, they offer innovative programs and services that have a positive impact on children and their families. CHN’s goal is to help children build the skills and confidence they need to succeed in life. Last year, their services and programs impacted the lives of nearly 14,000 children and their families.
For more information on the Children’s Home Network please go to www.childrenshomenetwork.org.