Heart of gold

Judy Cohn

Photo By Larry Dalton

Judy Cohn is a hero. Of course, any mention of the word, and she’ll laugh, turn a light shade of red and reply, “No, I’m just an ordinary person.” Some in the community would disagree with her. In fact, they did so last month when the North Area Teen Center held its Heart of a Hero awards. The community gave Cohn a nod for the extraordinary work she’s been doing with area youth. Bring this up, and Cohn simply says, “I do what I love. It’s like anyone: If you find what your passion is, you’ll do that.” As a mentor with Youth Guidance Connection , Cohn devotes her time to helping kids discover a passion for life and learning. To learn more about the program, call (916) 364-1010.

Tell us about the program.

We actually began doing mentor programs with incarcerated kids. And we would match kids that were incarcerated with mentors, so that when they got out, they would have access to a friend and someone that would just spend time with them in a positive way. So, through that, the owner of this apartment complex in South Sacramento knew of us, knew we worked with kids and called us and said, “I have an apartment complex, and there are about 200 kids in this complex, and they need some people to come and spend time with them down here.” So, I started down there as a volunteer on Saturdays. My husband would actually go with me—we were both volunteers at that time—and we just started hanging out with the kids.

What would you do with the kids?

We would do arts and crafts, sports and mini life skills, and that got us to get to know them, and they got to know us. And, over time, what I saw was so many of the kids, just in different projects we would do as far as writing or drawing, didn’t know how to tell time, they couldn’t write their names, they didn’t know when their birthday was—basic things that you and I take for granted. So, we came up with the idea of getting an apartment in the complex and turning that into a tutoring center, and they could come over with their homework.

How many mentors were there?

It would vary. I would say, on average, we would have anywhere from two to 12 volunteers on a Saturday, and we would do field trips. We encouraged field trips because, so often, so many of the kids never got out of the city. Now, the original complex was sold, and the new owner, unfortunately, didn’t share the same vision.

The program still exists, right?

We’ve modified it. So, we actually had to leave there, but the neat thing about it is that I’m still involved with many of the parents and children there. And, over the years, a lot of those kids have come to help me at the new sites. We have two new sites, and we actually will have four total this year: two in the south area, one in the north area and one in Citrus Heights.

Tell me about the field trips.

Some of our field trips we use as a reward [for] the kids that come on a regular basis, the kids that actively work when they’re there, the kids that really try to participate. … We had an opportunity to take them to a football game in San Francisco, and we took a group of kids, and one of the younger girls wasn’t going to go. And her mother said to me, “You know, I encouraged her to go because this is the chance of a lifetime. If she doesn’t go to this, she may never get this chance again.” And I thought, for a mother to think that going to a football game in San Francisco is the chance of a lifetime—well, it really makes you look at your own life.

It must be very rewarding to see them experiencing all these new things.

And very humbling, because many of these things we take for granted. I can just get in my car and go. It’s very rewarding and exciting to see them be able to see snow for the first time or stand in the ocean or make a sand castle. And it opens up their minds to possibilities and to things that can be. And our hope is that through the educational process, they can see that college is a possibility, because so many kids we work with don’t. If they get through high school, that’s a big deal.

What do you get out of working with the kids?

I think one of the greatest gifts I have received is that I have seen two young people [have the opportunity to go to college]. One was offered two scholarships, and her comment to me was, "I never dreamed that I would get to choose." No one in her family ever went to college. It wasn’t even something that was thought of. And I have one young woman I am working with currently who has received a full scholarship to San Francisco State. She’s going to be a dentist, and it’s just amazing. This been the most rewarding thing I, personally, have ever done.