Nearly seven years ago, Jeff Cohen was working for a Washington, D.C., mentoring program when he saw an advertisement for the C5 Youth Foundation.
“I saw the ad and I loved the idea ... so I shot my resume in,” Cohen said.
Cohen, who is now a Forsyth County resident, was hired and has been working as the Atlanta foundation’s executive director ever since.
The five-year leadership program invites a group of students to spend their summers learning skills that can help them push “themselves to do new and better things,” Cohen said.
The mission is to take children with a high potential for achievement and help them beat the odds.
Students must have a B average, at least one risk factor -- poverty, single parent or drug presence -- and be challenge ready, meaning they’re willing to commit to all five years of the program.
The first two summers, the students go to Camp Adahi for four weeks, the third year they go backpacking in Wyoming, the fourth they do a college tour and the fifth they take on a social issue and volunteer in some capacity.
This past summer, students tackled homelessness before graduating from the program.
“Our first class graduated in 2010. There were 51 grads and all 51 went to college,” Cohen said. “It was emotional to see my first class graduate. They’re like my little babies.”
Among the graduates were eight Forsyth County residents, including Tere Garcia, who graduated from Forsyth Central High School and is attending Kennesaw State University.
Her success was followed in a promotional video for the program, which also includes her younger sister, Kathy, who was also accepted into the program.
“It made me feel really happy about myself, and I think it was the first time that I noticed that I actually did have good qualities,” said the elder Garcia.
The program starts the summer before the students enter eighth grade and tracks them through graduation and beyond. Middle school, Cohen said, is the best point for intervention.
It’s when a good student could make poor decisions. It’s also when Tere Garcia was accepted into the free program.
“Here came in this quiet little Tere, who I don’t think said three words her first summer,” Cohen said. “By her senior year, she was in the band and trying out for student government and really just bloomed, and it was awesome to see that happen.”
Debbie Rondem, director of student support services for Forsyth County Schools, said counselors have “truly led this effort in their schools.”
“It’s a wonderful experience for the students,” she said. “They’re actually learning a tremendous of leadership skills and they’re learning to work with other people and team-building skills that will certainly help them in the future.”
About 15 local students are currently in the program, Cohen said.
Recruiting begins in October for the class of 2016 and just 36 boys and 36 girls are accepted.
Cohen, who works as the camp director in addition to being head of the program, said he loves his job because of the students.
“I’m just amazed and touched and wowed by what they can accomplish and to see them grow,” he said. “The very last day of camp it’s like having kids yourself ... everyone’s crying and they don’t want to leave.
“I know that we’re making a difference in their lives and it makes me happy.”