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Shelly Cofield

A mom to motherless girls

By Charles Salzberg

Advice straight from Writing 101—“Write what you know.” This is an especially good recommendation for journalists, because if we write what we don’t know then we risk winding up writing fiction, which is universally frowned upon by most reputable periodicals. Just ask Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass.

But writing about who you know is a whole other story. As journalists, we’re not supposed to do that. Too close to the subject. No objectivity.

So I ask myself, what the hell am I doing writing about Shelly Cofield, who’s been a friend, a good friend, in fact, for over five years?

The answer’s simple: because I was asked to do it. But in good conscience, I feel I have to offer full disclosure. Because to me, that’s what writing is all about: holding nothing back.

As long as I agreed to do this, I decided to do it professionally. Like any other profile I’ve done, I set up an interview. Over lunch. At an uptown Manhattan diner. Shelly is a little late. Understandably, though. These days she’s a very busy woman. A friend had nominated her for the Volvo For Life Awards for her work starting up and then almost single-handedly running her own non-profit organization called, The Mommy Place, for young girls who’ve lost their mothers. And, surprisingly to her, she’d just been chosen from several thousand candidates as one of the 10 finalists, which assured her of winning $10,000. But the demands on her had been great. All kinds of publicity to do, in the midst of which she’s planning a Mother’s Day outing for “her” girls. And a few days later she is to attend the awards ceremony, hosted by Jim Belushi, at the Good Morning, America studios in Times Square. There, the likes of Bill Bradley, Jane Goodall and Hank Aaron would be presenting the prizes to the two runners-up--$50,000 for their favorite charity, as well as the 10 grand, and the winner, who would also get a new Volvo SUV every three years for the rest of his or her life.

“I’m sorry,” she says, as she slips into a seat against the wall near the back of the Comfort diner which certainly didn’t get its name from the tight seating arrangement. “It was the subway.”

“No problem,” I say, as I pull out my notebook, which seems kind of strange, since I usually don’t take down notes of what friends say. Besides, I know most of Shelly’s stories—how she came to New York from Derby, a small town in Connecticut. “There were 89 students in my graduating class and you know, I went to school with the guy who’s now the mayor of Derby.” How she grew up the youngest alongside two brothers whom she idolized. How she lost her own mother from colon cancer when she was only 20. And even how she came to start The Mommy Place.

But nevertheless, in treating this as a real magazine assignment, I am prepared to ask all the right questions and vigilantly take down the answers.

For instance, meeting Bill Bradley and Hank Aaron will not be Shelly’s first brush with greatness. When she was 7, she attended a minor league baseball game in West Haven and her name was picked out of a hat. Buck Showalter, a minor league player at the time, later to become manager of the Yankees (and now manager of the Texas Rangers), would be batting for her. If he hit a dinger, he would take her out to dinner. He only got a single—no dinner for Shelly that night—but her father brought her down to see him in the dugout and thus began a three-year connection with him, until he was transferred to another team. Even today, she still occasionally corresponds with him.

And then, as a pre-teen, she actually met Menudo. Her cousin worked at Radio City Music Hall where they were appearing. She’s still go the photo as proof. There she is, standing right next to Ricky Martin. Who knows, they might have started something a little more lasting than the flash of a camera, except that neither one of them could understand a word of what the other was saying.

And then there was her relationship with Cheryl Miller, the great basketball player who’d recently graduated from USC. The enterprising youngster somehow managed to track down the phone number of Cheryl’s parents in Los Angeles, dialed long distance and guess who answered the phone? “She was my favorite player,” says Shelly, smiling at the memory. “And I had a whole list of questions for her, which she answered.”

I also know about how Shelly moved to New York. With very little money in her pocket, she needed an expensive yet safe place to stay. A nun she befriended while at college at Fairfield University, suggested the Marymount residence on the upper east side. Shelly visited, saw the words, “Mary, Mother of all Mothers,” on the front of the building and decided that was a sign. She moved into an apartment for $500 a month—a bedroom, a kitchen, a desk, a phone that took only incoming calls, and a roommate. And oh yes, one other thing: no men allowed above the main floor.

By this time, Shelly knew what her future would be: helping young girls who’d lost their mothers. And therein lies the tale of yet another brush with celebrity.

“A friend of mine whose mother died when she was 13 knew I was suffering from the death of my mom and she told me about this book called Motherless Daughters, written by Hope Edelman. I didn’t think about actually buying it until a couple of years later when one day I was shopping in a mall and became hysterical crying, because I used to go shopping with my mom there. I went right into a bookstore and bought the book.”

It was a book that had a profound effect on Shelly. A week before Mother’s Day, she wrote Hope a letter and then called the publisher to see where she could send it. They told her that, coincidentally, Hope was booked to be on the Today show later that week. Shelly swung into action. She took the day off from her temp job, made a sign on 49 cent poster board that said, “Thank you, Hope,” and high-tailed it down to Rockefeller Center, where she stood out in the rain, just hoping that Edelman might glance out the window and see it.

“There weren’t a lot of people outside,” Shelly recalls, “and before the show Katie Couric saw the sign and started to talk to me through the window. I didn’t notice it, but someone next to me said, ‘Katie’s talking to you.’ We lip read each other and I could make her out saying, ‘You made the sign for Hope?’ I said, ‘Yes.’”

Moments later, Couric was out on the sidewalk interviewing Shelly Cofield and after the show Shelly waited around outside like a stage door Johnny, waiting to meet Hope. And when she did, Hope said that when she saw the sign it made her cry.

This encounter led to Shelly working for the Motherless Daughters organization for a couple of years, until she decided to go out on her own. In 1998, she purchased another book called How To Incorporate a Non-Profit Organization and two years later she filed the paperwork. A year later, in 2001, she was incorporated.

As for the name, she’d met two little girls, now 10 and 12, who were 3 and 5 at the time. She knew they’d created a little section in their bedroom they called the Mommy Place, filled with pictures of their late mother, along with things they’d written about her. Shelly was always touched by the name and when she decided to start her own non-profit she called up the girls and asked their permission to use the name. “I cleared it with the girls and made them main consultants,” says Shelly, “and when I told them I was doing that they said, ‘No, we’re your boss.’”

Talking to Shelly, it’s obvious that she has a passion for what she’s doing. It’s certainly not about the money. For the first year, she collected absolutely no salary and made ends meet by temping and transcribing tapes for writers, me being one of them. “I know what the voids were at 20, what some of the younger girls who’ve lost their mothers are going through, and I know it’s important to find ways for adult women to be role models and mentors for these girls, to offer them another female adult in their lives.”

The Mommy Place would probably have limped along like so many other non-profits, if it weren’t for the disaster of 9/11. “Totally unexpectedly, I found our organization on the Attorney General’s Relief page, with my home number, which was the only number the organization had.”

This led to a flurry of phone calls and made it easier to obtain a few grants, for which Shelly had to write the grants herself.

After her first fiscal year, she had $711 in the bank. Today, she has $135,000 in grants and another $7000 collected from individuals.

I ask her about her goals, if she has any. “Yes, it would really be great if one of the girls in the program now comes to an age where she wants to mentor someone going through what she’s going through now.”

It’s close to two o’clock now and Shelly has to be cross town. “I don’t want you to be late,” I say.

“It’s okay,” she says, “I’ll just take a cab.”

Several days later, I am on the second floor at the Volvo awards ceremony at the Good Morning, America studio. Downstairs, Heather Headley is serenading a crowd. Later, the Wallflowers with Jakob Dylan and Los Lobos will take over the stage. In the meantime Shelly, dressed in very uncharacteristic heels—I am used to seeing her in sneakers, either playing softball or basketball, at which she excels—and a very stylish but simple black dress, has just breezed through the door. She looks a little anxious.

“We couldn’t find a parking spot, so my friend Geneva, the grandmother of one of my girls, let me out while she parks the car in a lot. I’ve got to keep an eye out for her.”

“What are you going to do with the $10,000?” I ask her.

She looks a little sheepish. “Well, most of it I’ll put back into the Mommy Place.”

“You’re not going to buy anything for yourself?”

“Well, I’ll pay off my college loans.”

“But Shelly,” I say, “you’ve got to get something special.”

“Well,” she says slowly, “maybe I’ll get myself a bicycle.”

Photo by Lisa Villasenor