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Meet the Jewish Teen Who Started a Charity for Therapeutic Horseback Riding

This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.

When GABRIELLA COOPERMAN started her first lemonade and cookie stand, passerby’s thought it was “cute.” They didn’t know that Gabriella was dedicated and determined. This wasn’t just something to do with her afternoon to earn a few bucks. This was to raise money for hippotherapy, or therapeutic horseback riding.

Cookies for Charity grew out of Gabriella seeing her sister with special needs benefit greatly from hippotherapy. She grew and flourished at Equestrian Connection–a local non-profit therapeutic horseback riding center in Lake Forest, Illinois. 100% of Cookies for Charity’s profits go to the Equestrian Connection–which at this point, tallies at $147,000, with sponsorship from 21 organizations.

That’s more than just “cute.” That’s visionary. It’s also one of the reasons Gabriella was given one of the 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. We loved talking to her about heath bar crunch cookies and the beauty of patience.

Talking with Gabriella Cooperman:

Where did you grow up and what is your happiest memory of growing up there?

I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. My favorite memory from growing up here is from 3rd grade in Braeside Elementary School when my friends and I pretended to run a hotel during recess and I was the manager. That was the first time I was exposed to the word concierge.

What is your favorite song?

“My Shot” from Hamilton.

Your favorite book?

Not a book, but the script “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.”

What is your favorite time of day?

Either when I’m doing theatre, charity work, spending time with family and friends or sleeping.

Where are you in school now and what’s your favorite subject there?

I’m in my senior year at Highland Park High School and my favorite subject is my independent study in Directing.

Who’s your biggest hero and why?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is my hero because he stood up for peace and equality for all people, no matter race or religion. I learned about him in my 3rd grade Hebrew school class from one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Hoffman, and I’ve never forgotten the impact Rabbi Heschel made and not only with words, but also actions as he marched with Dr. King in Selma.

Can you tell me about that first moment when you knew your sister had special needs and how that impacted you?

I was told by my parents and it didn’t change my love for her but it did expose me to the benefits of hippotherapy. My has sister taught me over the years about the day-to-day challenges of people who learn differently and not taking basic life skills for granted, along with having endless patience, infinite hope, and never giving up.

Did you ever see her or other people with special needs stigmatized and how did that feel?

My mother often shares a story of when I was two years old, attending my synagogue’s pre-school, there was another 2-year-old boy who had just learned to walk. I didn’t know that at the time but I did notice when all the kids ran to the playground, he was moving at a much slower pace. So, I stopped, held out my hand for him and said, “I’ll run with you,” as I didn’t want him left behind. And off to the playground we went together, at his speed. I don’t recall that story but my mother often says that was the first time she saw my sensitivity to others.

I do know I’ve always had patience for those who learn differently and will stick up for those who are being mocked. It’s not in my nature to make fun of others and that was even before my sister came into my life, as I won’t sit idle if I see someone being stigmatized. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and patience.

How did you first see your sister affected by horseback riding?

From the very first time I saw my sister, Danielle, ride at Equestrian Connection I saw the difference in her eyes, as she wasn’t verbal at the time. Danielle was excited to ride and she started producing sounds that did not happen prior. The more she rode the stronger her core became and hippotherapy enabled her other therapists to build on that strength.

The benefits from hippotherapy include emotional, physical, mental and social well-being.

When did you decide to fundraise with cookies and lemonade?

From the first time I saw my sister ride, I saw the difference in her. My mom explained to me how not every child who needs this amazing therapy can afford it. My parents always taught me to do whatever I can to help others so I decided to have a lemonade stand, but to make it unique I asked my mom to make her famous heath bar crunch chocolate chip cookies. That first stand I raised $500 and now, in my 12th year, I’ve raised $147,000 with more than 20 corporate sponsors. My goal for this year is to break $150,000.

What were some of the reactions you got from your first donations?

Many people stopped by and thought I was cute in my effort and didn’t think I would raise more than $50. I’m known for my determination and never permitting my age to be a factor in my success. I ended up raising $500 and knew I was onto something that could only get bigger.

How do you reach out to potential sponsoring organizations?

When I was 7 years old, I asked my parents how the United Center was named after an airline and Cellular Field was after a cell phone. My parents then proceeded to explain corporate sponsorships to me. I decided that Cookies for Charity should have them and started writing letters to heads of companies and that first year I had 5 sponsors, including the Chicago Bears. I branched out from there and now I have more than 20 sponsors ranging from local businesses to Fortune 500 companies.

Do you have any special activities you like doing with your sister?

I love dancing and singing with Danielle. We sing and do a choreographed dance to “Stick to the Status Quo” from High School Musical all of the time. Thankfully, my sister loves musical theatre almost as much as I do.

If you could sit down and chat with anyone alive or dead about Cookies for Charity, who would it be and why?

My great-grandfather, Frank Seidman. He was one of the most amazing people, his love was unconditional and he kvelled constantly over his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I think what he would be most proud of is that I am able to help so many children have access to such an important therapy. He was one of the kindest people around and always found the goodness in everyone.

He taught me a lot about patience and I know if he were alive today he would sit with me both days of the lemonade stand and cheer me on and tell everyone who stopped by how proud he was of me. He would also be so happy to hear how my mom and I bake over 6,000 cookies and he would laugh from pride knowing that my great-grandmother’s baking skills were passed down. I would want to chat with him about Cookies for Charity because I miss him and would love him to still be a part of my life.

What’s the hardest part about running Cookies for Charity?

Cookies for Charity is a social enterprise and in 12 years has become quite a business. I’ve learned so much about how a business runs. My greatest challenge is balancing everything with a demanding school schedule, heavy involvement in USY, my personal life, theatre production and now, college applications. I’m lucky that my parents are my advisors and my mom has endless energy to help with the over 6,000 cookies.

The most rewarding part?

Since I started Cookies for Charity, my goal has been to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s my tagline for my charity and also the motto of how I live my life. Knowing I’m able to provide horseback riding therapy for children who need it and otherwise couldn’t afford it is the most rewarding part. Since 100% of all proceeds go towards sponsoring children for hippotherapy I’m able to make a huge impact in so many lives. The other part which is just as rewarding is inspiring other children to make a difference in this world.

What’s next for the Cookies for Charity campaign?

We are always looking to grow Cookies for Charity and expand upon the success of the stand before. The last one we held was on September 9th-10th in Highland Park. And we also do mail order for the heath bar crunch chocolate chip cookies for donations over $50–check out our website. I’m also always looking for additional donors.

How about you? After high school, any plans?

I plan on attending a university to study theatre and business.

Anything you’d like to say about receiving this honor from the Diller Foundation?

I am so humbled to be recognized for my work and I was honored to meet the other teens at the awards ceremony in San Francisco. The Diller Foundation Tikkun Olam Award is a wonderful award program and I encourage any teen who is leading a volunteer service project in their community to check out awards like the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards and go to their website to learn more about the Helen Diller Family Foundation and the awards program.  

Award money can be used for college or to further implement the recipient’s vision of making the world a better place—there are “no strings attached.”

This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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