Today we honor the amazing life of one of our founding mothers, Betty Cohen. As we share memories of our incredible friend, mentor, and colleague, we recognize what a gift it was to know Betty. Here, Co-Founder Jo-Ellen Spencer, Board President Don Jen, and former staff member Judy Calder think back on the tremendous legacy Betty leaves behind.

From Jo-Ellen Spencer, BANANAS Co-Founder

BANANAS Founding Mothers
Founders Blanca Nuñez, Betty Cohen, Arlyce Currie, and Jo-Ellen Spencer

Many people will remember Betty for her maternal ways, her ability to cook something delicious out of nothing and her encyclopedia-like knowledge about parenting and child development that she shared on the BANANAS’ Warm Line, but I want to mention another important skill she had. Betty could think BIG. When BANANAS turned 20, a discussion started among the members of the Executive Committee on how to best celebrate this milestone. Most nonprofits would send out an invitation for an event like a dinner soliciting people to say nice things about the agency and send along sizable amounts of money to celebrate the day. This was never the BANANAS way of doing things and the rest of us were a little stumped. But not Betty! She almost immediately announced that we would sponsor a FREE all-day event at Lake Merritt for parents and children. Other child/family-serving agencies would be invited to earn money at the event by selling food and related items. No charge for that either. Want a fire engine for the kids? Call the Oakland Fire Dept. They were happy to participate. Want entertainment? Go through the BANANAS party files and call in the clowns and magicians. Horses? The Oakland Police Dept. was happy to oblige. Her BIG idea was rewarded with a wonderful day of festivities, fun and family.

What to do with the mountain of information for parents that BANANAS staff had gathered over the years? Betty got a bee in her bonnet to pull it altogether in a BANANAS Guide and she did it. (The original guide was 14 mimeographed pages.) In our voluminous files we had everything from unusual places to take children on field trips, recipes for making homemade play dough and simple toys, lists of support organizations to help parents do a variety of things from breast feeding, choosing child care, all the way to electric shock first aid. BANANAS is a hoarder organization and Betty was its Queen. Betty pulled together things from our files, our old Newsletters, outside agencies and on and on. Once Betty got it going the Guide grew and grew and grew and the publishing date staggered off into the distance much to the grief of the publisher. In the end, it became a wonderful, still-useful how-to Guide for parents. I think this might have been the project that started Betty’s hair going grey.

For some reason Betty always reminded me of the two Queens in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Perhaps the White Queen for her very interesting clothes, which always seemed to be trying to leave her, and the Red Queen for the ability to run at least twice as fast to keep in place. Betty might have seemed to be moving in a leisurely fashion but don’t be fooled—her mind and her deeds went a million miles a minute and no one could keep up with her. We will all miss her.

Betty Cohen
Betty at BANANAS in 2007.

From Don Jen, President of BANANAS Board of Directors

For many years, Betty assumed responsibility for opening meetings of the Board at BANANAS. She was certain to provide food so that board members would be nourished as they considered the business matters under discussion for the evening. Beyond the meal, meetings often started with Betty providing an agency update. Smiles warmed our faces as she started with, “The staff is working really hard.” We had the opportunity to hear the agency update through Betty’s skills as a storyteller. The lives of parents came to life. We would learn of their struggles and triumphs. And with grace and humility, she exposed us to the many ways that BANANAS supported all parents in our community. Betty welcomed members of the board into this Bunch on Telegraph (and later Claremont) Avenue. Betty’s title was Executive Director. On occasions, this might literally mean executive chef, and even chief bottle-washer. In practical ways, Betty appeared to do whatever was needed to keep the Bunch together and successful. Like others, I believe that Betty had insights and patience that allowed us to discover the best in ourselves and in each other. Thank you, Betty. We commit to continuing to work diligently on behalf of our children and families.

Always smiling and keeping the Bunch motivated.

From Judy Calder, RN, former BANANAS Staff Member

In the late ’60s Betty joined a volunteer group of women determined to meet the growing needs of families with young children. Against the backdrop of increased geographic mobility and the Women’s Movement, the call of “who will watch the children?” rang loud. The women of the early BANANAS collective heard that call and organized volunteer phone lines, newsletters, family guides to community and services and reached out to these young families who, like themselves, needed child care and community connections. Betty Cohen, a devoted mother of Susanna and Jonathan, a social worker and one of the early members of the BANANAS collective was especially concerned with the difficulty young parents had in finding child care and then the difficulty of leaving their children in the care of another. This began her idea for the Health and Development Warm Line, a safe and informal place for new parents and child care providers to call and share their concerns about child development and health, the child care relationship and cultural differences. Thanks to Drs. Spock and Brazelton, Ellen Galinsky and June Sale, the Warm Line calls were well researched and provided her with content for newsletter and handout articles that were distributed across the state and nation.

She taught and led hundreds of workshops and college classes on infant and child development, parenting, and improving the quality of child care that reached thousands of parents and child care providers over the past 30 years. Training curriculum developed by her is still used today in multilingual formats. She was a valued staff member and mentor to new staff and countless community members new to the burgeoning child care field. She brought out the best in people and trusted their strengths. She was known to be a great listener whether topics were work-related or personal. She served on numerous community and state advisory panels, commissions, and boards.

In addition to her awards, advocacy, editing and “nudging for the good” skills, she will be remembered by the BANANAS community for her great cooking, genial hosting, and for making great connections wherever she could. She loved the fun of sponsoring the Pickle Family Circus, various office celebrations whether they were personal, ethnic, small or large. She was photographed with Mayor Gus Newport, Mayor and Assemblyman Tom Bates, Mayor and Governor Jerry Brown and President Obama. She would have traded it all for a good photo with Mr. Rogers. What is best remembered and valued by the staff and others were her interpersonal skill and how she treated people…a lesson for us all.

Her children, four grandchildren and loving husband, Murray Cohen, survive her. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to a memorial in Betty’s name at Susanna Cohen’s maternal care non-profit.

We encourage you to share your memories with us as a comment here or on our Facebook page.

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