Creating Voices for Those in Need
by Alison Crisp Stockley
“I was looking for an apartment and I found a life,” says Stan Tarnaki, one of the hundreds of thousands of people that have received support services through HELP USA, the non-profit organization chaired by Maria Cuomo Cole. She believes that telling their stories, in their own voices, creates the most effective form of advocacy. She began working for the organization more than 20 years ago as its communications director, developing all facets of external relations.
Today HELP USA is the largest provider of services for the homeless, victims of domestic violence and war veterans, operating 30 supportive residences across the nation, serving 250,000 people since its inception – along with providing job training, employment services and mentoring to at-risk youth. Long before YouTube, Maria was capturing on video the countless stories of the men, women and their families that were in dire need of assistance. “Technology has been a gift for bringing about change,” she explains. “With social media, there’s a global community with tremendous power and opportunity.”
That passion for telling stories that needed to be heard developed into a love of producing and directing public service announcements and short films on issues such as homelessness, domestic violence and gun violence. “Living for 32,” about a survivor from the Virginia Tech shooting, was shortlisted for an Academy Award and premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Her latest documentary, “The Invisible War,” delves into the often-hushed topic of sexual violence in the military. It premiered at Sundance this year and won the Sundance Audience Award.
On winning this year’s Matrix Award, Maria admits that it’s a “delightful affirmation from New York’s most dynamic group of professionals and serves as an endorsement of a shared course to create a better world for our children.” A matrix is the point at which something else develops, Maria adds, “so if you can follow your passions and instincts, doors will open and opportunities will arise that bring you closer to your true purpose.”
Maria says her parents and their eclectic group of friends and colleagues opened the doors for her to pursue a life of creating change. Her father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, introduced her at a very young age to his magical world of philosophy, literature and poetry. His passion for challenging the status quo and fighting for social justice defined their family values. “He taught us all to aspire to something bigger than ourselves,” Maria says. “He’s still living his life this way and continues to inspire me everyday.”
And the women, she points out, were especially courageous, breaking cultural boundaries as feminists, mothers and Americans who wanted to be part of creating solutions. Geraldine Ferraro and Nita Lowey were both “moms” from Queens, NY, where Maria grew up. Together with her mother Matilda, they stepped out of the comfort zone imposed by their generation and dedicated themselves to the political process in order to improve the local and greater communities.
Maria says that at this point in her life, she feels fortunate to be surrounded by the people she loves the most and from whom she gains her strength. Her greatest achievement, blessing and satisfaction are her “three, smart, strong and sweet daughters.” Professionally, she is most proud of the growth of HELP USA’s impressive residences and those whose lives have been improved because of its homes and services.
She also offers some straight-talking advice for young women: “Follow your passions. Be brave. Find mentors. Ask questions. Read. Wonder.” And what advice does her clothing retailer husband of 25 years, Kenneth Cole, offer? “Wear what feels good” and “if you have confidence, you can look good in anything.”
Alison Crisp Stockley is a freelance medical editor for Forest Laboratories, Inc.