“I felt my legs were praying,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel about marching in Selma. It’s no coincidence that this is one of Laurie Coskey’s favorite quotes. From the time she was a rabbinic student who started a food donation program, to her current position as CEO and President of United Way of San Diego, Coskey’s 25-year career has focused on supporting the needs of those who are disenfranchised, exploited or whose poverty has kept from fulfilling dreams and opportunities. “It´s a very ‘Rabbi’ thing to do,” she says, referring to her job.
We had the opportunity to talk with this formidable woman, whose disarming poise and laser-like intelligence leaves no doubt about her capability of changing the odds for San Diego’s children.
L’CHAIM MAGAZINE: United Way’s first annual Changing the Odds Community Breakfast will be taking place on May 10. Tell us about it:
Laurie Coskey: United Way is 96 years old and in recent memory we have not held a large community gathering. This event will be the first time we have all our stakeholders together from our collaborators, the businesses who support us, and our friends. We are expecting 700 people. Our keynote speaker will be Liz Murray, whose life is a testimony of resilience and the importance of education.
L’CHAIM: You wrote your doctoral dissertation on the United Way; did you always know that you wanted to work there?
LC: No, I didn´t. But always knew that I wanted to work with families and children, which has always been the focus of my career –Tikkun Olam. I was also impressed that this organization made a turn in April 2014, saying that our focus is now going to be toward children and stability, and toward changing the odds for children in San Diego County, which is why [I decided to work here].
L’CHAIM: What do you mean by “changing the odds”?
LC: Every child is loved. And every parent wants the best for their children. But not all children have the best, and not all children have access to the best. All children should have dreams and should be able to create their dreams out of things they have seen. That’s not just children who live in homes where parents have the time, but also in homes where parents have two or three jobs, or where parents are stressed or there is a lot too going on in the family that children can’t understand. We believe we can provide children the support they need outside the classroom so that they can succeed in the classroom. So, that is the basic premise. It is our goal to move the dial on that.
L’CHAIM: Who are the beneficiaries of your work?
LC: Much of our work focuses on children … who need a village to support them to follow their dreams. It ends up being mostly low-income children, whose [homes] may be full of love, but not so full of the opportunities that their counterparts in higher income families have.
United Way often functions as the backbone to large collaboratives. One of them is the California Career Pathways Trust Grant, a trust of $13 million that was given to San Diego regionally for work with school districts and community colleges. The goal is to expose high-school students to the possibilities of careers in advanced manufacturing, clean energy, and information and communication technologies. This is done through a portal that businesses and schools can participate in. For example, if you [the professional] wanted to tell students about working in the clean-tech industry, you could sign up and go to a school to tell students about your work, or you could have students job-shadow you. Or if you were really committed, you would hire an intern in the summer.
L’CHAIM: What about younger children?
LC: The other thing that we do, especially for younger children in elementary school, is that we work to help them in the family stability area. For example, when they’ve been absent a lot, why are they missing school? What is going on in the family? Is it possible that the family doesn’t have transportation or they are couch-surfing and do not have a permanent place to stay?
I recently heard of a woman whose child missed the third day of school, because the mother had to choose between doing the laundry or buying food. So, this woman needed help with having her clothes washed; and now there are schools that have laundry centers in their facilities. So, we are trying to find out what those barriers [to attendance] are and how to solve them.
L’CHAIM: The numbers on homelessness in San Diego just came out. Some sources talk about a 30% increase from last year; others say it’s 60%. Are you concerned that many of these children are slipping into homelessness?
LC: Yes, and all the school districts have different definitions of what homelessness is. There is a big concern in all San Diego school districts about children who may be sleeping in cars or don´t have a regular place to stay, so, they don’t have the freshness of mind to learn.
L’CHAIM: What could we as individuals, and as members of the Jewish community be doing to help?
LC: It is very important for all of us to recognize how fortunate we are in our lives that we can provide to our children. We come from a tradition that is very child-focused. We teach our children; it’s what we are obligated to do and we will give our children extraordinary opportunities. But not every parent can do that.
The [people that we help today come to us because] they want to give their children a better life; the same reason my grandparents came here in 1910. I really see that we are obligated to give outside the Jewish community and help those and give them the hand we once needed. People can volunteer in many ways: they can volunteer to read to children; they can lead and mentor children; there’s so much Jewish communities can do. United Way does not necessarily do all these things, but we can put them in touch with organizations who do.