A new playground is dedicated to the memory of a child lost to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Before posing for pictures at the colorful sign for Noah’s Playground, Natalie Cohen carefully and lovingly rearranges the stones spelling out her son’s first initial that may have been jostled out of place in the week since it was officially opened.
In the background, children are going down the slide or the swing while neighborhood moms brave the chill and the wind to simply enjoy watching their children at play.
Sadly, that’s not an option for Natalie and Jason Cohen, who lost 8-week-old Noah May 16, 2010, from the still mysterious disease known as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which continues to claim some 3,500 babies a year. While his 8-year-old older sister Lily and little sisters Mollie (4½) and Julia (2½) will be able to enjoy the facilities for years to come, Noah will always remain part of their family.
“We’ve been able to have other children,” said Jason, taking a break from his position as marketing director for TIAA-CREF, which handles financial services for not-for-profit companies, as well as higher education, hospitals, government and religious institutions. “We know we’re going to be happy with whatever we had. And we know that Noah is part of our family. He’s our son we were meant to have.”
None of which makes his loss any easier to accept — even 5 ½ years later — or any less painful. While there’s nothing in the parents’ manual for dealing with this, the Cohens have found their Jewish roots — and especially Reform Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown — playing a significant role. “I feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the support Shir Ami has given to us,” said Jason, who grew up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn before his family moved to Manalapan, N.J., following his Bar Mitzvah. “When we were doing fundraising, they raised money through the school. I felt more connected to them. Rabbi [Elliot] Strom helped through us the grieving.”
“I can’t say it’s made me believe in Judaism more,” admitted Natalie, who grew up in Cheltenham and attended Or Hadash in nearby Oreland. “But having Shir Ami as a place of comfort and all the support we get from the rabbis and the school has helped us. Your faith is definitely shaken a little bit. You ask yourself, ‘Why would God let something like this happen to us and not someone else? Why did it have to be us?’ But I think God has also shown us a lot of good has come of this.”
That’s because from about two months on from the terrible night Noah went to sleep and never woke up, the Cohens have immersed themselves in raising the money for the playground. On their own, through various fundraising activities, they painstakingly raised over $55,000. The rest came through a matching grant from Bucks County, which actually wound up tripling their contribution because the land on which they’ve built the playground is considered an improvement of open space.
“It was the township that applied for the ground,” explained Natalie. “Then we met with the Newtown Board of Parks and Recreation a lot to design the playground. It makes me feel satisfied we were able to give this to the community and everyone knows who it honors. Everyone’s been smiling, laughing. We’ve had a steady stream of visitors since it opened last week.”
Over the past five years, they’ve also heard from a number of other local families having to deal with the same unimaginable horror. “When you hear such a tragic thing happen, people come forward,” said Jason. “The fact we were able to connect with other local families has helped us through the grieving process. And we’ve helped them.”
“Three weeks after Noah passed away, I was put in touch with a family who had just lost their baby,” continued Natalie, an occupational therapist, whose background triggered the idea of making Noah’s Playground an all-inclusive one, making it
accessible to children in wheelchairs and with other special needs. “That was very helpful for both of us. We would talk over the phone, I met the mom in Delaware County a few times and they were here for the opening last week.
“There are three others in Bucks County —between Washington Crossing and Yardley. We’ve kind of created our own support group.”
And they’re about to remain connected as part of the next phase of Natalie and Jason Cohen’s plan to make people more aware of SIDS. “The township wants to do a lot more with us,” said Natalie, who met Jason through JDate while he was still living in Jersey. They were married in 2004, finding an apartment in Yardley for a few years, before settling in Newtown.
“Even though this” — the playground — “is complete, they want to do more projects within the park,” she added. “We’re thinking of doing an annual walk next fall with the three other families and there’s going to be a yard sale for children — children’s clothes, children’s toys. We’re also hoping there will be three benches here—dedicated to the three babies we lost.”
Such dedication and feeling for the community has already had an impact. “We always love another playground, but we know what they went through,” said Sara McGuigan, watching while her kids are having a ball playing. “I met Natalie through my friend whose son passed from SIDS. My kids just love this playground.”
So does her friend, Amy Fitzpatrick. “I think the best thing is being able to turn their tragedy into something beautiful for the community,” Fitzpatrick added. “They turned a negative into a positive.”
But the Cohens’ work is hardly done. They want more SIDS research so that others don’t have to suffer as they have. “They can’t figure out any medical reason why the body shuts down,” said Natalie, choking back the tears that flow periodically. “But there aren’t a lot of studies being done. There’s not a lot of funding for it. People don’t believe it’s something that needs to be researched. A lot of them think it’s related to a poor sleep environment, leading to suffocation. But it’s not.”
For now, that mystery remains unsolved, while Natalie and Jason Cohen go about their lives, raising their family. At the same time, the gift they’ve helped provide for the community is the ultimate form of tzedekah.
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