Hero of the Heart: Alexandra Cohen

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As a young girl growing up in a lower middle class community, Alexandra Cohen and her family didn't always have access to the greatest medical care or educational opportunities. Now, she's a champion for children and a fierce advocate for issues of violence against women and girls.

Reunion: You’re being honored as a hero of the heart in this issue. Who were your heroes growing up?

Alexandra Cohen: First of all I have been called a lot of things but never a hero! A hero to me is someone who puts themselves in danger to help others—I am not that brave.

Growing up I had a few heroes, but the most impressive was my mother. She was the Mother Teresa of Washington Heights. She raised over twelve children that were not her own. People would bring their kids over in the morning for babysitting and show up right before bedtime (if they ever showed up at all). My mother took all of these kids in, fed them, educated them and healed them. They came from all walks of life. Some of their parents were single parents, alcoholics, drug addicts…

My mother also ran a “rummage sale” shop where I worked. We collected used clothing and goods that we would clean and repair to sell to raise money for the church. From a very young age, I remember collecting items for the store for people who lost everything in fires, cooking food for someone who lost a family member, or going door-to-door asking for donations to buy necessities for a pregnant neighborhood teen. We grew up poor, but I never knew it because my mother always said, “No matter how little you think you have there is always someone who has less.” From a young age giving became a way of life and that stayed with me.

Reunion: You and your husband have supported a number of organizations and institutions that promote child healthcare and welfare. Can you tell us about some of the work you do?

AC: Here are a few stories of how my involvement in these organizations began:

When my oldest daughter was two we lived in New York City. She befriended a little girl named Jenna who was later diagnosed with childhood leukemia. Jenna was treated at Schneider’s Children’s Hospital in Long Island. We went to visit her, and when I saw the condition of the oncology department—especially the playroom they had—I was shocked. The kids were being treated in the hallway, and the playroom was no bigger than a broom closet.

I wanted to change that, and what began as the construction of a playroom ended with the full renovation of the oncology department, including state-of-the-art equipment and family lounges large enough for all.

Our relationship with the hospital remains so strong that we were given the opportunity in 2010 to rename the hospital the “Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center,” and we are building an additional 100,000 square feet for a new facility.

I was born in Washington Heights in Babies Hospital (now Columbia Presbyterian and Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital). I still frequent the neighborhood and the hospital. My husband and I jumped at the chance to build a new pediatric emergency room as part of the larger hospital renovation and upgrade. The new emergency room opened in June 2011 and is almost five times bigger than the old one.

My girls were all born at Mount Sinai Hospital, and it was always such a great experience. When my lifelong doctor and friend Dr. Austin Abramson approached me to help redo the labor and delivery floor I was thrilled. It was my way to say thank you to the hospital for taking such good care of me during the births of my children and to make it the best experience possible for new moms coming in.

In Greenwich, we helped by building a walk-in clinic for residents of Greenwich or greater Connecticut who need medical services but cannot afford them. The clinic has been instrumental in caring for so many, and the medical team and nursing staff are wonderful.

REUNION: Are there any other causes that are near and dear to your heart?

AC: Education is a major focus for us. Steven and I are very passionate about educational reform of this country. We are learning more every day and look forward to helping enhance the education of children nationally. We have helped support schools through the Harlem Children’s Zone and have built science labs and libraries all over the city in different schools and boroughs.

A few years ago we helped Achievement First build the first charter school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with the help of some of our friends, and the school is thriving. We are now in the process of building another charter school in New Haven. We also support and sponsor teachers in Teach for America. We have made significant donations to a few universities to help with tuition and summer programs for gifted students. These kids could never afford to attend college and get the education they deserve without this help. Several of the children we sponsor have thrived in school and are currently at the top of their class, and we are so proud of them.

Reunion: What inspired you to support these organizations and issues?

AC: I was born into a lower middle class family in Washington Heights. My dad worked in the post office and my mother babysat for a living. I had terrible medical care, and my father struggled to put my two sisters and me in Catholic school. While the education we got was better than the public school system, it still was not great. I now have a chance to make things better for others in the same situation.

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