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Take Five: Marshall Cohen helps lift kids out of tough lives

Marshall Cohen, right, with a recent graduate
Provided by Mr. Cohen

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - For Marshall Cohen, the word dumbbell has two distinct meanings.

The exercise equipment played a big part in the success of Lift for Life gym, the weight-lifting mecca for inner-city kids that Cohen started 25 years ago to help provide hope for lives that often had little but despair. The gym spawned a charter school, Lift for Life Academy, one of the first in St. Louis.

But dumbbell also is a label for the kind of student Cohen himself was, an underachiever whose nickname in school was “D-minus boy.” He recalls one of his grade school teachers telling his mother, “Mrs. Cohen, there is something wrong with Marshall.”

In his new book, “Rough Cuts,” Cohen tells the humiliating story of laboring for four days in eighth grade on a story about a group of students marooned on a desert island. His teacher called it the best thing he had read in 20 years – then marked it with a big red F because it was so good, it must have been plagiarized because Cohen wasn’t smart enough to write it himself.

The stories Cohen tells in “Rough Cuts” are about boys and girls stranded not on a desert island but in conditions of poverty and joblessness and drugs and violence. They are the kids he has reached out to over the years, first while working for his family’s business, Globe Drugs downtown, then with the gym and charter school.

He began Lift for Life gym with $10,000 worth of weightlifting equipment in a vacant building on Washington Avenue downtown, long before the area became the hot spot it is now. He makes the comparison between what he spent for the gym and the $25,000 yearly cost it takes to keep someone behind bars.

Using word-of-mouth, seat-of-the-pants marketing and a $2.50 weekly fee, Cohen gathered a bunch of novice weightlifters – ones who promised they would be able to pay but weren’t able to come up with the money when it was time. Soon, Lift for Life became a not-for-profit enterprise that saw a lot of its expenses paid by Cohen himself, for trips to competitions out-of-state as well as excursions to places like Six Flags or the bountiful offerings of Old Country Buffet.

When he described his plan to one young boy, the child’s face lit up: “Man, I always wanted muscles.”

“I chose power lifting and weightlifting,” he writes, “because although lifting isn’t a glamorous sport, a person can excel simply by training hard. You didn’t have to rely on another team member, as in basketball, to carry the weight. Kids could take charge of their own destiny. And all you need is a minimal number of weights to train. What better formula could there be: Poor kids with nothing to do plus a gym full of weights equals positive self-esteem. So, no, I didn’t do any R&D or marketing in advance. All I knew was that I had to do this. It also seemed like it would be a lot of fun.”

The book is filled with stories about the lifters with whom he has remained close over the years; in one case, Cohen’s wife, Carla, played matchmaker, introducing a young man to his future wife, and Cohen ended up in their wedding party.

Cohen stepped back from managing the gym a couple of years ago to concentrate on the charter school. He talked to the Beacon in advance of his appearance at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival at 1 p.m., Mon., Nov. 11 to talk about “Rough Cuts.” The transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Think back to how things were when you decided to start Lift for Life. What made you go ahead with the plan?

Cohen: I would come home at night and watch Peter Jennings and hear about all these guys on the news, all about violence and gangs and the crack epidemic. Gangs were starting to emerge as a real problem for our society then. That’s when I got to the point that I thought I can’t take this any more. We’ve got to get these kids occupied and give them something to do with their minds.

I would see these kids come in, and they were good kids, but they just needed something to do. I figured that having a safe place for them to come and getting them strong so they could feel good about themselves. Building up their self-esteem would more than likely keep them from going down a bad route.

When I was planning it, I bought equipment. I didn’t do any marketing plan. I found kids and asked whether they were interested. I thought I’d charge $2.50 a week and told the kids they could do the first week free. I had about 20 the first week, but the next week, when it came time to pony up the money, I was down to two kids, then one. When I asked him for the money, he said, “I’ll be your cleanup guy. How’s that?”

I’m thinking who’s the dumbbell here? I soon figured out I’d turn it into a not-for-profit, and after I told them they could come for free, they started coming back again.

You make the point that it isn’t always easy for a white Jewish man who grew up in Olivette to connect with the kids who go to Lift for Life. How have you bridged that gap?

Cohen: This was really interesting because at first, they were very, very skeptical. Who is this guy? Then they started to work out, and they began to learn more about me and trust me.

I had one parent who was very angry when her son snuck out of the house to come and work out. She came into the gym and yelled at me and said, “My son ain’t working out in no homosexual gym,” and she pulled her kid out. It turned out she had an addiction problem. She came back a few months later and apologized and let her kid come back. That was a shocker. You couldn’t peel that kid away from the weights, he was so excited to be there. When they left, he walked out with his head down, with all of his friends watching.

We tried hard to get a reputation that it is a safe place. Over time, when you spend time with these kids, they almost become your kids. Someone who has been coming there for five or 10 years, I took an interest in them. I would see how their report cards were and made sure they were staying in school. They would invite me to their birthday parties and their family gatherings. All of a sudden, they become part of your life.

I learned more than what I taught them. They taught me the stamina to want to succeed in life, even if they were dealt a lousy hand. When I was their age, I would worry if my mom would take me to get ice cream. For some of these kids, their afternoon activity was to walk down to St. Vincent’s Church to get an evening meal because they didn’t have any food in their homes. That’s pretty moving, that they should be out worrying about that when they should be going out to play. I thought everyone got three meals a day, slept in their own bed without having to share a bed, and could go out of their house without being shot or assaulted. It was quite an experience.

The transition from gym to charter school must have taught you a few lessons as well.

Cohen: The parents are such a key to making it successful. We have a decent amount of parents who are involved, but it’s really difficult once they get into middle school and high school. Parents aren’t as involved as they were when their kids were in elementary school. It’s really important for them to get their foundation when they’re in pre-school, reading to them, and so forth, because it’s hard to play catch up.

Kids come to us in sixth grade, and some are at grade level and others are far behind. We have to figure out how to get one group to grade level and push the others who are already at grade level to make them competitive with other kids their age.

We look at the whole child, each individual child. We try to do things as much as possible, with a lot of interventions at middle school, so when they move on to high school, we can build up their character and help them with certain initiatives to help them perform better.

The visit to the gym by Colin Powell is one of the more moving stories in the book.

Colin Powell's visit was inspirational.
Credit Provided by Mr. Cohen
Colin Powell's visit was inspirational.

Cohen: It was a surprise that we got him to come down. He happened to be in town for a speakers series he was involved with. It was interesting that he took his time when he came. Some celebrities will come in for a very, very, very brief time, say a few things and leave. He went around to each kid and shook their hand and had them give him a tour. That was an interesting experience.

At the end, he took me aside and said you don’t realize this, but there are going to be a couple of kids in here that you’re going to make a big impact in their lives. You’re not going to see it right away, but it will happen. I didn’t realize it at the time. We’ve got kids who are 8, 9, 10 years old, but then they turn into adults, and they come back and talk about having jobs and families of their own.

I know you talk about investing $10,000 of your own money to help prevent the costs of keeping someone in prison. Have you ever sat down to figure out how much Lift for Life has cost you personally?

Cohen: You should see the car I drive. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I was thinking. It's interesting. Anyone who believes in something so badly that they want it to happen, they don’t care about the money. You set aside personal finances because you just want to do this thing. That’s what is really rewarding.

I look at the money I’ve invested, I think about the time. But looking back, I know that if the gym was not there, a kid whose mother was addicted to crack would probably be selling drugs himself. He never went down that bad path. He got a college scholarship got a job and is living in Arizona. That’s what’s priceless about it. If he had a prison sentence for 20 years, that’s half a million dollars that the taxpayers have saved. If you do the math on that, what can be saved with prevention, it’s unbelievable.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.