Six Degrees of Giving

By Alex Cohen

Recently something unbelievable happened to me; I witnessed the direct result of our giving through one single family.  The story is an incredible one and one that confirms that what we do through the Foundation changes lives and in turn warms our hearts.

In late September, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico leaving the island without water and power for many weeks.  The exact death toll is still unknown but it is thought to be in the thousands; needless to say the island was devastated.  Many residents fled temporarily and some never returned, leaving the economic state of Puerto Rico to suffer even more damage.

Schools, including universities, had to shut their doors until clean-up was completed and power restored.  During this time I received a call from Brown University telling me that they planned on inviting students of the University of Puerto Rico to come finish their semester with them free of charge.  They had arranged host families to take in the students that could not find housing but there was one problem – they needed to get the kids from Puerto Rico to Rhode Island.  They asked me and Steven and other parents of Alumnae to borrow their planes to bring the students over, my answer was an instant YES!

As months passed, I had not given it much thought until I was invited to a luncheon to meet the students from Puerto Rico who just finished their semester.  At the luncheon I met and chatted with a few of the students before we sat down to eat. I was so impressed with their intelligence and maturity and how grateful they were to Brown for taking them in.  I wondered if any of the students planned on staying at Brown and was told that Brown’s agreement with the University of Puerto Rico stipulated that they could not retain any of the students for undergraduate studies, only graduate programs.  Some students were seniors and decided to either apply to Brown for graduate school or shop around the US at other universities.  Many impressed me with their acceptance letters into equally exceptional schools for their graduate programs; many were going back to finish in Puerto Rico and some applied to transfer to other universities.

This is where my story begins:

While at the luncheon one of the students at my table caught my attention – I will refer to as Kay (not using real name for privacy). She was quiet at first but answered all the questions I asked her with full knowledge and confidence.  I really enjoyed listening to her and her experience at Brown and what her future plans were so I asked her to keep in touch.  A few weeks later she emailed me to tell me that she was so excited that she received a scholarship to a prestigious US university to complete her undergraduate studies.  I congratulated her and told her how happy I was that she was going to continue her education here – the way she wanted.

Another email soon followed explaining that she would not be able to attend as the scholarship would only cover the tuition and not the room, board and books.  She was not upset about it but realistic noting that her parents were not in a good financial place to pay the balance so she would consider getting her Masters there after she finished school in Puerto Rico.

I could not get this girl out of my mind; she was one of the smartest and charismatic young ladies I had come across in a long time and I could not let her miss this opportunity.  I offered to pay for most of the balance leaving some for her parents to pay so they could be a part of making her dreams come true too.  Kay was elated and could not thank me enough; I have no words to express the infinite gratitude that my family and I feel at this moment. As you said, I will repay you by paying it forward one day, and for now, work as hard as I can with passion and determination. I feel truly blessed that God put you in my path as well”.

When the drop-off date to her new university approached, she asked if I could meet with her and her parents. I was thrilled. I wanted to know the people who raised this exceptional young lady.  September 1st was move-in day and her parents were coming to my house for brunch. I invited my parents as well, as they were all from the same town in Puerto Rico and I imagined they would have something, or someone, in common.  I also invited my sister thinking that it would be nice for Kay’s family to meet our extended family and feel secure that we were all here for Kay if she ever needed us.

After the initial introductions, which included a lot of hugs and kisses, we sat for brunch. Kay’s father started off by thanking me and telling me that he wanted me to know how much I had helped his entire family. I was not sure where this was going as I had just met them. It seemed that when Kay told her parents who we were and how we had offered to help with her college expenses he thought our name sounded familiar.  He went back to his records and realized we had helped them once before. Eight years prior, Kay’s older sister applied to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Summer High School program through their Talent Identification Fund which is funded by our Foundation, and was accepted as a COHEN SCHOLAR!

The story does not end there. While studying at Tisch, Kay’s sister met and became best friends with another young woman. They finished the program and continued their friendship.  That best friend of Kay’s sister is now attending school at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts as – you guessed it – a COHEN SCHOLAR through the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Fund for Student Support. I was shocked and to top things off one of my best friends from their home town in Puerto Rico, who is like a brother to me, is one of Kay’s father’s good friends….  What are the chances?

I am a firm believer in fate. Kay was destined to sit at my luncheon table at Brown that afternoon. Since the brunch at my home, I received an email from Kay’s sister’s best friend, the current Cohen Scholar at USC.  She is in the writing program and just completed a feature-length screenplay which is close to being added to the Sundance Film Festival’s Screenwriting Lab where she has a chance to have it produced if chosen.  She just wanted to thank me for your family’s support–your generosity in nurturing my craft and allowing me to carve out a space for myself as an artist in such a way has impacted me far more than words can suffice. To have individuals who bestow their trust in me has laid the foundation for such stories to live, and hopefully I can return that gift to others one day as you have to me”.

The bottom line is, what we do works, we actively change the lives of so many and in turn affect others around them.  When I hear these young women, the future of this country, genuinely feel gratitude for what is bestowed upon them and hear their promise to pay it forward one day – I HAVE DONE MY JOB!