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September 24, 2001

Voluntarily speaking

By Eric Rangus


So simple to use, even easier to manipulate. Particularly in the hands or out of the mouth of an insincere person.

Hildie Cohen is not that sort of person.

Working in the nonprofit field requires a certain attitude. Not a finger-snapping, head-bobbing Attitude—but a positive, upbeat and motivational one. The director of Volunteer Emory possesses just that sort of an outlook. And nowhere is it more apparent than in her words.

“You are working with a lot of people who have a passion for what they do because they probably don’t get paid a lot to be there,” Cohen said. “If you’re working with students—with volunteers—you have to be able to relate to where they are, and inspire and motivate them.”

Volunteer Emory is a student-run organization administered by the Division of Campus Life. Cohen is the sole Emory employee guiding two co-directors and 15 program coordinators, all of whom are students working on their own time. Volunteer Emory links the University to the greater Atlanta community and helps recruit volunteers on campus for metro-area nonprofit organizations.

A positive outlook is essential, Cohen said. “Especially if you are in a leadership role and people are looking to you for that drive or direction, you can’t be negative.”

A glance around Volunteer Emory’s offices on the second floor of the Dobbs Center drives the point home. A mural taped to the wall broadcasts catchphrases born during an organizational retreat earlier this month.

The colors are bright, the smiles wide and the punctuation mark of choice is the exclamation point.

“Support each other,” in pink marker. “Increase participation,” also in pink. “Educate,” in big black letters accompanied by a golden light bulb.

Surrounding the mural are staff ID sheets made of construction paper. In the top right corner, almost imperceptible to a casual glance, is Cohen’s. It is a minimalist masterpiece. “Service is Swingin’,” it reads. The self-portrait combines a slightly out-of-date photograph of Cohen—her pictured shoulder-length hair is a few inches longer then the bob she sports now—cropped at the waist with a hand-drawn lower body adorned in a poodle skirt and a pair of saddle Oxfords.

The approach works, as last year more than 1,200 people volunteered through the organization, logging upwards of 4,000 service hours.

“We try to welcome everyone who comes in the door,” Cohen said. “Sometimes they get more than they bargain for.”


“Sports camp is so fun. We love sports camp,” she said. This Saturday, Sept. 29, Volunteer Emory will reserve McDonough Field for its kickoff service event. Dozens of Emory groups and organizations (cultural clubs, fraternities/sororities, FAME groups, etc.) sponsor booths and host 75-to-100 of area children (many from Boys and Girls Clubs) who bounce from booth to booth and participate in basketball and football tosses, relay races and arts and crafts projects.

“We just have a really fun day,” Cohen said. “The Volunteer Emory staff members coordinate the event, and we invite other volunteers to become buddies with the kids and take them around to the different booths.”

“We’re so excited about Volunteer Fair,” Cohen said just prior to her organization’s 16th annual recruiting event, originally scheduled for the second week of September.

Over three days, more than 50 volunteer organizations and several campus groups descend on the Coca-Cola Commons with stand-up posters and stacks of brochures designed to drum up volunteers.

The fair took on some added meaning this year. As Cohen was setting up for what was going to be the event’s opening day, Sept. 11, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The day’s activities were quickly postponed, and Cohen responded to a division-wide call throughout Campus Life to make herself available for student counseling.

“The Emory community was looking for something it could do,” Cohen said. “You have the feeling that if you can’t be in New York, what can you do in your community? You feel really helpless, but there are things you can do. People need help all the time.”

That feeling was reflected in the response when the fair opened Sept. 12. Since classes had been cancelled, that day was relatively slow. But day two, Sept. 13, the DUC was jumping.

Each of the 25 agencies and three student organizations on hand left with almost a full list of volunteers. Dozens of students signed up, and Cohen said dozens more inquired about giving blood. The response was so strong that she and VE staff member Stephanie Sears created a banner on the fly advertising how those interested could donate.


“Volunteer Emory is here to be a resource for the community,” Cohen said. She is referring to the greater Atlanta community to which, through her position as Volunteer Emory director, she serves as the University’s liaison with metro area nonprofits.

But there is another aspect to Cohen’s involvement: Her relationship to the Emory community as a whole, which she joined the day she stepped on the Oxford campus as a freshman in 1994.

She served with Volunteer Oxford for two years and upon graduation joined Volunteer Emory’s staff. Her senior year, she advanced to co-director. Cohen’s first Emory project was as a “buddy” at the Jerusalem House, a group home on Briarcliff Road for people suffering from HIV and AIDS.

She also chaired Emory’s AIDS Awareness Committee and was instrumental in bringing the memorial AIDS quilt to campus in 1997.

In 1998, Cohen graduated magna cum laude with a double major in psychology and sociology, then moved on to graduate school at Northwestern with the eventual plan to earn a doctorate. Once Cohen got her master’s in sociology in 2000, though, her priorities had shifted.

“I had intended to do work on nonprofits for my doctorate and become a consultant or a program analyst,” Cohen said. “But the more I researched these programs, the more I realized I wanted to be the one doing them or administrating them. I wanted the hands-on work, not the research.”

Late that summer, when Cohen heard about the opening at Volunteer Emory, she jumped at it.

“When I left Emory, I knew I would always be involved in nonprofits,” she said. “I knew that this [position] would fit, and it was a great opportunity.”


The word that weaves its way throughout all the others.

“I have just always loved volunteering, especially as I got more involved in organizing projects,” Cohen said. “I remember thinking when I was co-director that this would be something that I’d love to do as a career.”

She first volunteered as a middle school student, feeding the homeless in suburban Phoenix, where she grew up. She was in a service club in high school, then when she got to college, Cohen found her calling.

Cohen’s hopes for the future include a co-curricular transcript, for which students can record service time like a GPA, and a pre-orientation project where about 50 freshmen would come to campus the summer before matriculation and serve the community side by side with faculty and staff. Another idea, one that began last year with excellent results, was the awarding of block grants to students who start their own service organizations. The program is called Social Entrepreneurs at Emory and new grants will be awarded this semester.

“When I was a student, I would come up with these ideas, but I didn’t have any money to do them,” Cohen said. “So this is an opportunity for students to give something to the community, and it gives them some seed money to do it.”

“The hope is that students will eventually start their own nonprofit or that their idea might be taken up and turned into a nonprofit,” Cohen said. She added that Volunteer Emory is actively seeking faculty and staff members to serve as mentors.

Passion. Fun. Excitement. Community. Love.

These are only words, but a collection of words with which no person would mind being associated—by deed or description.

“We all work together,” Cohen said, summing up the role of volunteerism on campus. “Volunteer Emory’s contribution is getting the volunteers to serve the homeless, the elderly, the animals, the environment—whatever is needed. This is where my passion is.”


Back to Emory Report September 24, 2001