There’s a little engine pulling a train up a mountain through difficult terrain, and it breaks down. The train is full of toys meant for the children of the town on the other side of the mountain. Finding itself stranded without help, the small blue engine motivates itself with thoughts such as “I think I can, I think I can,” and hoists itself and the toys up over the mountain and to the town below.
CORA Services is like this little blue engine, said CEO AnnMarie Schultz.
“Each day we see people stopped in their tracks not knowing where to go, where to turn or how to get there,” she said.
“We don’t stop working, or advocating, or pushing, or giving beyond our perceived resources to get over that hill to the other side,” she continued.
On Giving Tuesday, CORA honored individuals dedicated to enriching the lives of children and families at its annual Champions for Children benefit. Each year the benefit recognizes these individuals and raises funds, this year for a new playground for one of CORA’s longest-standing programs.
2019 Classroom Champion – Mary Maddalo
When she was in high school, Mary Maddalo walked the halls of Archbishop Ryan High School, filled with feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem. She gained self-confidence through visits to her guidance counselor, and eventually went from the shy girl to the student her classmates looked up to.
She recalled attending challenge day, an event for students to safely share their stories. She was scared but wanted to inspire younger students.
“That day we were all fearless,” she said. “We all broke our silence and started a conversation surrounding mental health.”
Maddalo began receiving educational support from CORA 13 years ago, when she was 6 years old attending grade school at St. Katherine. She recalled sitting in the corner of the classroom with her headphones on while her classmates read a book with the teacher.
She worked through low self-esteem and self-doubt to become a leader at Archbishop Ryan, where she graduated from this year. She was president of the No Room For Hate club that spread messages of love and kindness, which also serving as a student ambassador and earning high grades.
The James J. Harron classroom award recognizes students who have made significant academic progress and contributed to their school or community in a significant way. Maddalo was nominated for the award two years in a row.
She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Holy Family University, right near St. Katherine.
Corporate Champion Award – Kevin Finn, chairman of the board at Iron Hill
Attendees of the event may have sipped on a glass of Sister Charity IPA served at the bar. The ale, named after the organization’s foundress, was a special beverage crafted by Iron Hill Brewery to help raise money for the event.
“[Sister Charity] would have loved this. Any way to make money for CORA is a good way,” Schultz said to laughter.
It’s rare that a company would name a beer after the founder of an agency 48 years ago, but that’s the relationship CORA and Iron Hill have. The community connection was fostered in no small part thanks to Kevin Finn, whom Schultz met a few years back and has maintained a positive partnership with since.
Finn and Iron Hill were honored not just for their connection with CORA, but for their work supporting cure search for children’s cancer.
Finn was unable to attend, and Scott Hill, local manager of the bar and restaurant chain’s location in Huntingdon Valley, accepted the award in his place.
“We’re going to have a long, long relationship,” Hill said when accepting the award.
Civic Champion Award – Michael DiBerardinis, former managing director of Philadelphia, and James F. Mullan, former chairman of CORA’s Board of Directors
The award-givers at CORA don’t seek out recipients who just do good things – they look for those who embody the values CORA holds as an organization, like care, compassion and dedication. Michael DiBerardinis has been a friend of CORA and other youth-serving organizations for a few decades in his expansive career serving the city.
Now a professor at the Fels Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, DiBerardinis’s lengthy resume includes serving as the managing director of the city, special adviser for the Free Library of Philadelphia and managing the city’s 63 parks as commissioner of the city Department of Parks & Recreation.
“This work can’t just be mechanical, it can’t be sterile – it needs to have care and compassion,” DiBerardinis said. “And when you have care and compassion you can connect with people in a meaningful way.”
Also accepting the award was James Mullan, who served on the CORA board since the 1980s. He recalled entering the door “heavy in mind and spirit” a number of times over his years of service because, like every other organization, they had to adapt and go through change.
“To come to this beautiful outcome we had to go over mountains, and we did, and that’s a credit to everyone in CORA,” Mullan said.
He spoke of the importance of CORA to people who use its services, saying they have found the company of people who care.
“It’s not a group. It’s not an organization. It’s not this, it’s not that. It’s just people. People who care,” Mullan said.
The little engine
CORA touches the lives of 20,000 kids ages 3 to 18, said Schultz. Doing the math from the 2018 census of the city, Schultz figures CORA touches 7 percent of the city’s population of children.
“That is amazing,” Schultz said.
Schultz and others at CORA are looking to put the little engine into higher gear than ever before as they close their 48th year of service and look toward the second half of the decade.
Next year, CORA plans to introduce three initiatives to further expand its services. It is looking to become more inclusive by providing more resources to children with diagnoses in early childhood services. It wants to increase their capacity to provide scholarships to families in need, and launch a navigator system for families with multiple complications who don’t know where to turn.
“There are still missing trains that are still being missed by large and capable systems, and we see that we are the little blue engine that must fill in the gap,” Schultz said. ••