Twenty-three years ago, Marshall Cohen was living what some might consider the ultimate slacker life. He was working for his family’s business, Globe Drugs; living with his parents, June and Julius Cohen; and stockpiling his earnings.
But nightly local TV newscasts jarred his complacency. Too many gangs and shootings. Too many drugs. So Cohen, a former 13-year-old weakling taunted by bullying classmates until he beefed himself up with a $20 set of weight-lifting equipment, thought: “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a gym and get kids off the street?”
His game plan was straightforward: Buy some second-hand body-building equipment and turn a dilapidated building on Washington Avenue into a downtown gym for inner-city boys.
Initially, he wanted to call it Bulldog’s Gym, a name quickly shot down by one of his homeless friends. Since Cohen would be lifting up boys by broadening their horizons, advised the friend, who helped with the massive clean-up effort, the gym should be named Lift for Life.
While the name stuck, Cohen’s perceptions widened and deepened. At first, he assumed neighborhood kids could pay $2.50 a week to participate. Yet many didn’t have the money. Also, enrollment wavered when the boys had to stay home to baby-sit sisters and other siblings.
After enlisting a couple of health-conscious and community-minded friends, Cohen amended his target audience. Girls and younger kids would be welcomed.
With advice and help, even during their dating days from his future wife, the former Carla Scissors, a broadcast-journalism major with experience working for charitable organizations, Cohen set up Lift for Life as a non-profit. “I’m thinking, who’s going to donate money to this ‘shlepperel’ organization?” he recalls. “But we got our first board of directors, and it was really good.”
So good, in fact, that he watched the kids grow stronger and often, more self-confident. Still, Cohen couldn’t overlook their hunger pangs.
Soon, he was roasting hotdogs for the kids and, rather than have them walk home down dark and often dangerous streets, he would drive them. “His old yellow car was a lifeboat for so many,” says Susan Kelter, who has worked with Cohen for the past seven years as community relations and volunteer manager.
As the gym kids excelled, opportunities came knocking. When the youngsters competed, often successfully, against youthful body builders in other states, including Florida, Marshall and Carla, whom he married 20 years ago, would drive them.
Imagine kids growing up along the Mississippi River and seeing the ocean for the first time, says Kelter, adding: “It wasn’t just about the competitions. It’s about giving them life experiences.”
Yet again, reality sank in. Muscles might ripple, but brains need stimulation too. With many of the gym kids struggling academically, Cohen got another idea.
After reading about someone opening an educational facility, he recalls thinking, “Man, wouldn’t this be fun? Let’s open a school, and then we’ll really be able to help kids.”
Carla Cohen quit her job for a time and wrote the school charter. In 2000, the non-profit Lift for Life Academy, an independent charter school, opened its doors as a small middle school, located within the Lift for Life Gym and with an enrollment of 65 students.
Eight years later and with solid encouragement from board president John Mann (who passed away in 2011), other board members including real-estate developer Eric Friedman and lawyer Daniel Swofsey, and from additional supporters, Cohen expanded the academy to include the Lift for Life high school. One high-school grade was added each year.
Earlier this month, the Academy graduated its first senior class. Of some 70 seniors, 90 percent were expected to graduate.
Danyell Dixon, 17, was one of them. She’s been enrolled at Lift for Life since her sophomore year. “My last school, a prep school in the city, was really bad,” she said. “It got shut down. My aunt sent me here.” Danyell plans to attend a community college, then hopes to enroll at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. She looks forward to studying abroad and majoring in physical therapy.
With a combined enrollment of nearly 570 students, some 95 percent of them African-American, the Lift for Life Academy Middle and High School is presently housed in the renovated former Manufacturer’s Bank and Trust building, 1731 S. Broadway, in Soulard. Class size averages 15 to 18 students. Administrators, along with full-time, part-time and volunteer teachers and staff, number 100.
Lift for Life Gym, which draws some 300 youngsters, is presently located at 1415 Cass Avenue.
Along with some of the area’s last free drivers’ education classes, the Academy offers academic basics, plus Chinese, fashion design, philosophy and photography.
According to board president Jack Burke, a retired sociology professor, “Marshall has an unrelenting commitment to these kids. I see even more enthusiasm in him as the days go by.” Always, there’s “the joy it brings him to know he’s making a difference in peoples’ lives. He’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever run into.”
A member of Central Reform Congregation, Cohen characteristically deflects acclaim. “My nickname at Ladue High School was ‘D-minus boy,” he says.
“I would play chess all the time and teach myself different languages. But back then, nobody knew what Attention Deficit Disorder was. Eventually, a couple of teachers started taking notice and working with me.” After high school, Cohen earned an associate’s degree in retailing.
He counts among present goals retiring the school’s $2 million debt and introducing a program requiring community service.
His overall aim, however, may be best summed up by a sign on one of the Academy’s doors, harkening back to the building’s previous life as a bank. The sign says, Safe Deposit and Trust Department.
For Cohen, it’s a reminder to keep kids safe and fulfill parents’ trust by providing a quality education.
FAMILY: Married to Carla; two daughters, age 7 and 10
HOME: Central West End
OCCUPATION: Founder of Lift for Life Academy and Gym
FAVORITE PASTIMES: To make my kids laugh, gardening, roller skiing, studying world languages, chess and watching Alfred Hitchcock movies