If anyone knows how crucial it is to get a good start in life when born into challenging circumstances, it’s Albert H. Cohen. The retired CEO, who had a highly successful career leading large corporations in the aviation, automotive and electronics industries, lived his entire childhood on public assistance with his sick mother in the slums of Brooklyn. His story is a testament to what it takes to help children of poverty rise above their circumstances to excel.
Because of his life experience, Cohen and his wife Norma were inspired to get involved with Children First and help launch its Forever Society for legacy donors with a major gift to the organization’s endowment fund. They also are the society’s first ambassadors, encouraging others to invest in the future through planned giving to support Children First initiatives that aid the area’s most vulnerable children. “When we came to understand what Children First does, we saw that it fit with our objective to try to help children in their first years of life,” he said. “Norma and I believe we have to give as much guidance, assistance and parental help to young children as we can.”
The important difference that assistance can mean was brought home to Cohen very poignantly many years after he left the slums and created a successful career. “I was raised in the black slums of Brooklyn with a mother who was too sick to work. It was just the two of us, and we were recipients of the program Aid for Dependent Children, also called welfare. That is what carried me through my entire life into college,” he said. “Forty years after I left the neighborhood, I was in New York and a man from my childhood recognized me because we used to play ball together. I asked him about the kids from our neighborhood that we knew, and all of them either were in jail or dead. That had an enormous effect on me. Those were kids I played with and who protected me, and that’s why it hit home so much.”
One thing that proved advantageous for Cohen was having a mother who valued literacy. “My immigrant mother was the daughter of an orthodox rabbi in Poland who believed fervently in the need to be literate,” he said. “My mother schooled me at home, and I learned to read and write before I started kindergarten.” That fortunate circumstance was a step up for Cohen and strikes at the heart of Children First’s mission to provide a comprehensive approach to helping young children and families living below the poverty level.
Children First serves more than 600 children annually from pregnancy through age five. Comprehensive childhood services are provided for infants and toddlers, along with Head Start pre-kindergarten education for three- to five-year-olds. The organization has been designated a Program of Excellence by the National Head Start Association, which places it among the top one percent of all Head Start and Early Head Start programs nationally. Knowing that the families of these children face many challenges, including food insecurity, Children First also provides healthy meals and snacks.
Children receive developmental, vision and health screening, access to regular medical and dental care, and occupational, physical and speech therapy are provided for those with a diagnosed disability. Families receive support with a goals-oriented approach to gaining self-sufficiency with the support of family advocates. Children First’s Families First Institute provides classes in career readiness and parenting, including its award-winning Nurturing Dads program.
The Cohens’ philanthropic involvement takes many forms, including her volunteer efforts on behalf of the Friendship Centers and his 10 years of teaching Junior Achievement’s senior economics curriculum. Cohen also has been a professional classical music critic for 40 years with a regular column in a major New Jersey newspaper, and they support musical arts for youth. The couple chose to direct their legacy donation to Children First’s endowment fund to help ensure it can continue making a difference in the lives of children and their families for future generations, with a cushion to protect against the vagaries of government spending and individual donations.
“Children First needs an endowment fund that generates funds every year, which allows them to do planning over multiple years,” Cohen said. “We chose to make a substantial legacy grant to kick this off. The inordinate effort an organization like this must devote just to keep going year after year is enormous. An endowment can allow resources to be devoted to helping more children and families.”
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