by Len Lear
Not many people can credibly claim that they have literally saved hundreds of lives, but Sandi Cohen, a resident of Mt. Airy for the past 21 years, can. Sandi, who is still working full-time at 83, is not a surgeon, but she has also aided in the rescue and rehabilitation of the hearts of some of the world’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
Cohen, who earned a doctorate degree in social work in 1978 from the University of Pennsylvania, left a secure job six years later as a teacher and director of a training program at Temple to step out on a precipitous ledge. For 10 years Cohen, while also raising four children at the time, traveled back and forth from South Korea more than 20 times, helping Welcome House, an adoption agency in Doylestown, to find loving American families for about 450 mixed-race children who were considered virtual pariahs in South Korea because their biological fathers were American military men, both black and white.
“These children were institutionalized through no fault of their own,” said Cohen. “If you were black and Korean, you were an abomination in Korea. These children were disowned by their families.”
But her work with abandoned Korean children was only one aspect of Sandi’s work over the last four decades. “I have had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Cohen as my spiritual director for the past 11 years,” said Rabbi Doris Dyen, a survivor of the October 27 mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed and six injured.
“As someone who entered rabbinical school at age 62 and was ordained at age 68 and who is now moving into elderhood, I’ve experienced first-hand and continue to benefit greatly from Dr. Cohen’s wise and compassionate guidance. Her special gift is her ability to listen with full presence and respect for those whom she guides, encouraging them to articulate their deepest questions and to find within themselves the spiritual resources they need to meet the challenges they face.”
Cohen, who was born in the Bronx, was married for 58 years to the late attorney, Jerald Cohen. Sandi went to Hunter College but moved to Philly and transferred to Temple after meeting her husband-to-be. Their children are now in their 50s and 60s.
After earning her doctorate degree, Sandi taught social work with groups for six years. She was also director of the child welfare training project at Temple in the School of Social Administration and also supervised supervisors in child welfare student field placements at Temple, all while raising her own four children.
Cohen left Temple and went to work for Welcome House when she learned about the countless number of Korean orphans from U.S. military men. The U.S. military would not allow the soldiers to marry the Korean women, who often turned their children over to orphanages because the mixed-race children were reviled by that country’s culture.
“My first job was to meet with the President (Pak Choong-hoon) of South Korea to persuade him to allow adoptions by U.S. families,” recalled Sandi, “because up to that point those adoptions were not allowed. I was terrified when I went into the room, but he was very nice. After our conversation, he agreed to allow the adoptions by U.S. families. Welcome House and many other agencies in the U.S. helped find the families to adopt.
“Although the children were institutionalized, the Catholic nuns who cared for them were saints. One Sister, Anne Marie, arranged for a Seder for us on Passover. My husband and I ‘adopted’ one Korean girl, Diane, when she was 14. Now she is 54 and lives in North Wales with her own family. We still communicate regularly. My husband died seven years ago, and Diane said, ‘Without dad, I would not be here.’”
After 10 years of working in Korea, Cohen helped a friend, Hannah Wallace, who had opened an adoption agency, Adoptions International, in center city. For 10 more years Cohen traveled back and forth from South and Central America, Poland and Romania to aid in the adoption of orphans. “Romania was the worst I have ever seen,” she said. “Nobody should have to see what I saw. I was out of the U.S. so much and wanted to spend more time with my family,” so Cohen changed course and proceeded to do clinical social work full-time, which she had previously done part-time when she was not traveling.
Recently, however, Cohen decided to focus her practice on the spiritual and psychological needs of her own generation. She calls her practice “Elder to Elder.” She explained, “The aging population has to deal with a multitude of issues: the loss of a spouse, retirement, health problems, moving in with adult children or to assisted living. It’s also a time when we face our own mortality and ponder spiritual issues.” Cohen helps seniors navigate the maze of aging by offering “spiritual companionship” in addition to “psycho-spiritual counseling.”
“I have the empathy and understanding for people going through the life cycle. God is asking me to do this at my age, to be connected to the holy. I’m reaching out to elders because so few do.”
Almost two months ago Cohen started a podcast dealing with this issue, which can be accessed through her website, eldertoelder.com. A “therapist without borders,” Cohen “sees” clients throughout the Mid-Atlantic via Skype, Zoom, Face Time and Google in addition to in-person.
For more information, call 215-817-5838.