The heart of CORA

Helping hands: CORA president and CEO AnnMarie Schultz explains the various services CORA offers, in particular Lifeline, a free pregnancy and parenting program for teenagers and young adults. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

When Sister M. Charity Kohl founded CORA Services Inc. back in 1971, the resource center welcomed children and families with all kinds of needs.

At the time, it was known as Counseling Or Referral Assistance and was headquartered just off Susquehanna Road in Fox Chase.

Sister Charity, a Bridesburg native who belonged to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd order, was a trailblazer and a revolutionary in her day. Her small neighborhood social-service center had a mission of addressing the needs of underserved Northeast Philly. Soon, the center became the standard in the field of human services.

Today, as it celebrates its 45th anniversary, CORA has more than 300 employees, most of whom work with youths and their families in the community and schools. The administrative offices, along with childcare and some other services, are located in a spacious building constructed in 2005 on the same large plot of land.

“She was very dedicated to the Northeast and she’d be thrilled that everything is still happening,” CORA president and CEO AnnMarie Schultz said of Sister Charity, who died in 2001. “The heart of who CORA is remains the same.”

To help celebrate 45 years, CORA will hold a family festival on Saturday, April 23, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at its campus at 8540 Verree Road. There will be inflatables, games and music.

Sister Charity’s order, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, sold its 66-acre property in 1998 to Holy Redeemer Health System, but donated five acres to CORA. The agency, boosted by a $3.7 million state grant, built its current headquarters just off Verree Road.

Schultz came to CORA in 2002, helping to oversee after-school programs and community centers. Later, she worked in program advancement and marketing. She became CEO and president last July, replacing the retired Jim Harron.

Schultz arrived just in time for the state budget impasse.

The nonprofit receives 97 percent of its funding from the government, mostly the state.

“We didn’t get a dime from July 1 to December,” Schultz said.

Schultz is an Illinois native who graduated from Messiah College in Mechanicsburg. She’s a mother of four who lives in East Kensington and is pursuing a master’s in nonprofit leadership from La Salle.

So, what would be her “elevator speech” about CORA?

“CORA is here because we fully believe that every human being who walks through our door has value and potential,” she said.

Schultz said she and others consider CORA to be the “best-kept secret in Northeast Philadelphia.”

“We just silently go about helping a lot of people,” she said.

Many of the employees and board members are originals or have been on staff for many years, like Mary Doherty, a 40-year veteran who is managing director of the community services division.

Doherty helps direct Intensive Prevention Services, an on-site diversionary program to keep at-risk kids ages 10–17 out of the juvenile justice system. It’s a voluntary program often recommended by a judge for young people who’ve broken curfew, skipped school, run away from home or committed another relatively minor infraction. Treatment and incarceration are much costlier than intervention, and Doherty said the re-arrest rate is low.

Also on site is a preschool program for kids 2½ to 5. In operation since the 1980s, it has almost 100 children.

Other on-site activities include individual and family therapy, substance abuse intervention and career development.

Otherwise, there are programs for kids of all ages in 140 schools. Some 16,000 kids a year are served.

“The bulk of our work is in the community and schools,” Schultz said.

The folks at CORA are especially proud of Lifeline, a program that has been around for some 35 years, with only a short hiatus. Lifeline is a pregnancy and parenting program for teenagers and young adults. The program is free, and anyone interested can call 215–342–7660, Ext. 2450.

In the early days, CORA became known as the agency that provided schoolwork help in trailers at nonpublic schools and as the place that welcomed young people to its career program.

CORA is also well known for offering autism support, crisis prevention and intervention, remediation, treatment, resources, counseling and therapy for people dealing with substance abuse, mental health and other issues.

More recently, CORA has gone into charter schools, other parts of the city and even into Delaware County and Camden.

“CORA’s branch was just the Northeast, but it’s beginning to stretch,” Schultz said.

Camp CORA has also been a popular offering.

One former camp counselor is Rob McElhenney, star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. His dad, Bob, worked at CORA for more than 40 years.

The younger McElhenney is chairman of CORA’s upcoming golf outing, and he will be bringing the cast of the popular TV show to Philmont Country Club for the June 27 event.

“That’s really exciting. It’s going to be a huge hit for us,” said Schultz, who will join McElhenney on WMMR’s Preston and Steve show Friday at 8 a.m.

Schultz also wants the golf event to serve as a catalyst for people to share their stories of how CORA helped them. Stories can be emailed to caring@coraservices.org

And helping those youngsters all these years have been employees whom Schultz describes as “very caring and compassionate people.”

“We only hire people who go the extra mile,” she said. ••

Play time: A child enjoys herself at the playground at CORA Services Inc. last week. The organization, which serves approximately 16,000 kids annually, is celebrating its 45th anniversary. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES