COVER STORY JUNE/JULY 2012

MATILDA RAFFA CUOMO

First Mother, First Lady

STORY BY CHRISTINE GIORDANO • COVER PHOTO BY DON POLLARD; OTHER PHOTOS COURTESY MATILDA CUOMO

 

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be both wife and mother of a governor?

“It just seems like a completion, like when you come to a final conclusion about something you’ve wanted to get done,“ says Matilda Raffa Cuomo, wife of Mario and mother of Andrew, her eldest son.

But, like any mother, she worries.

“I feel so good for Andrew — good in one way, (but) it’s bittersweet. I told him, ‘If you become a governor like your father, you’re going to work yourself to the bone, and nobody will appreciate it.’”

She paused a moment, reconsidering, then added. “But I think people do (appreciate him) today. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Cuomo, he’s working so hard and he’s accomplishing so much. We’re so grateful’ …the people get it now. They have to work together in the legislature and make things happen for families.”

Whether she’s First Lady of New York or First Mother, Matilda is so active, she is often compared to Eleanor Roosevelt. She is the kind of woman who takes the world under her wing as an activist, chairperson, teacher, author, mother of 5 and grandmother of 14. During her interviews with Networking®, her cell phone would ring and she’d field calls from Italy, easily switching languages to that of her parents’ native tongue. Her current national and international involvements are countless to name: as a health advocate, while promoting the 3rd edition of her book at many book parties, and as chair of the IFCW (International Forum for Child Welfare) in November in Italy. At press time, she was planning to share hers and Mario’s 58th wedding anniversary with former President Clinton at HELP USA’s tribute dinner, chaired by her daughter, Maria, which provides homes, jobs and services for America‘s homeless. Now under HELP’s umbrella, she still actively promotes Mentoring USA, which she founded as a way to keep the nation’s first bipartisan, one-to-one school-based, statewide mentoring program alive.

One could say being active is her true nature.

It began when Mario was lieutenant governor and Governor Hugh Carey tapped Mrs. Cuomo to chair the New York State Committee on the International Year of the Child (later, extended to Decade of the Child) for UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). It changed her life.

“It opened my eyes to the fact that we should be doing better: parenting, nutrition, safety for kids, a lot of issues that we just don’t realize,” she said. In 1990, UNICEF invited her to participate in the World Summit for Children and the Ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Then in 1993, she traveled to Africa with Harry Belafonte to launch an international symposium to Promote Child Survival and Development on Zimbabwe and Mozambique. In 1994, she delivered a keynote address for the UN International Steering Committee at the conference on the Republic of Malta, launching the International Year of the Family.

During her moving Malta speech, she took the opportunity to explain how Governor Cuomo used programs “to make the family more solvent, more capable of dealing with their problems, and to really give them hope for the future.” She was overwhelmed by the response of the international audience. “It was so fantastic for them to know what a government can do for their family. I got such an ovation and I couldn’t even leave the platform because they kept applauding, and, oh my goodness, people were crying!”

As First Lady of New York State, she represented the Governor at the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. She has been a member of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Committee since 2000 at the invitation of the then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan.

When she saw how much her husband and the State of New York “needed” her, from 1983 to 1994, she volunteered full-time, and worked diligently with community leaders and state elected officials to establish programs to prevent child abuse, strengthen families, lower school drop out rates, and promote adoptions of foster care children. She chaired and served as chief spokesperson for the “New York State Decade of the Child,” which Governor Cuomo created to improve the quality and access of more than 140 state programs for children and families. Many of these programs are also national.

Decade of the Child became one of the most innovative, far reaching results-driven programs. For ten years, it dug into the root reasons as to why families and children were struggling, and gave them effective assistance. The results were palpable and drop out rates began to shrink.

Matilda also chaired the New York State (NYS) Citizens Task Force on the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, initiated the computerized database Parent Information Line, and worked with the NYS Department of Health and Cornell University to establish a K-12 nutrition education curriculum called “Nutrition for Life,” which was distributed free to all public and private schools. The “Welcome to Parenthood: A Family Guide,” for all new mothers in all hospitals, is being continued today throughout New York State by the State Department of Health, thanks to The Greater NYS Hospital Association.

She supports many causes that she believes in. In fact, each year, she and Mario travel to Long Island to attend the Don Monti Memorial Research
Foundation Ball of the Year (planned this year for Nov. 10), founded by her late longtime friends, Joseph and Tita Monti, founders of the Crest ­Hollow Country Club, Woodbury, who lost their 16-year-old son to leukemia. (“Tita had such a sensitivity about things, and was so bright and dedicated to helping everyone.”)The Foundation uses every dollar it earns to fight cancer and fund cancer research, fellowships, and it ­established the Don Monti Division of Oncology and Hematology at North Shore, centers in Huntington, Glen Cove and Plainview hospitals and the Joseph and Tita Monti Cancer Research Center at Cold Spring Harbor. Matilda developed a close friendship with Tita when Mario was campaigning for the mayoral race prior to the gubernatorial race.

 

The Birth of Mentoring USA

The New York State Mentoring Program was first launched during the recession in 1987, when the drug crack was rampant on the streets, school dropouts were soaring, and the foster care system was overloaded with babies from teenaged mothers. The child Lisa Steinberg, who had regularly been appearing in school looking emaciated with matted hair and body bruises, had been found dead — abused to death, when no one had reported their suspicions. (Now law mandates that witnesses must report such things to state agencies.) Then Governor Mario asked his wife to develop a nonpartisan program to help the kids stay in school — nonpartisan, he said, so that it could thrive beyond his elected years.

It was a tall order for Mrs. Cuomo, who had most of her alliances with Democrats. But with the help of a few special people, she spoke with child psychologists, planned the program and established the bipartisan board. When she met with other governors’ wives, First Lady Barbara Bush helped her broadcast her mission at the National First Spouses Association in Washington, D.C.

“Barbara Bush, I cannot tell you, she made me feel like more than a million dollars,” recalled Mrs. Cuomo. “When we would meet, there were children’s issues that were very common for us as the first spouse. And First Lady Barbara Bush strongly encouraged me and said, ‘Would you talk to them and tell them to do the same thing you’re doing in New York State with the NYS Mentoring Program?’ … I admire First Lady Barbara Bush immensely, immensely.”

The mission flourished for years: mentors flooded in because they were recruited through agencies, county social service offices and corporations.

“My husband kept telling us: prevention is the key,” Mrs. Cuomo said.

 

Mentoring USA Goes National

In 1995, a few weeks after former Gov. Mario and Mrs. Cuomo moved into their apartment in New York, she received a call from Andrew. With a grave voice full of concern, he told her he had some bad news and good news.

“I thought something happened to him,” reflected Mrs. Cuomo.

“No, no, no, it’s that program,” he said. “That New York State Mentoring Program is gone.”

Even though it had already helped 10,000 of New York’s children, from Buffalo to Long Island, to stay in school, reconnect to their world, and subsequently, to lead more confident lives, it had been eliminated by the new administration.

“Is this a joke, Andrew?” she asked. “Why?”

And he said, “You’ve got to just take it the way it is…But it is too good of a program to drop…The good news is you can go national now, under HELP USA. That’s what you’ve always wanted to do. And you can help the homeless children too.”

The task seemed impossible. “I have no help… How could I continue the program?” she said.

But Andrew knew his mother well. “Mom, it’s like your baby,” he said. “You never give up, and you nurture your baby. That’s the way you are.”

And that’s how the NYS Mentoring Program became national. For years, Mentoring USA was stuffed into a suffocating, windowless basement office, grappling for help. But Mrs. Cuomo has done all she can to help it flourish, starting with her first, very small pro bono team (Junnko Tozaki and Steve Menchini) — and most recently, by releasing the second edition of her book, The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent People Recall Their Mentors with sincere essays about the person who changed their lives from close to 100 immediately recognizable, famous people such as Dr. Oz, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Sawyer, Colin Powell, Julia Child, former President Bill Clinton and Andrea Bocelli. The short essays are warm and wonderful, with wisps of poignant memories: like Martin Sheen, who wrote how his life was forever changed after he witnessed a brave act of passive resistance from someone who had been struck in the face. Or the late Tim Russert, who remembered the nun who introduced him to journalism. The foreword is penned by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who describes her own mentors, Reverend Donald James and Marian Wright Edelman, as giving her a “cloak of protection.” Writing the book was the suggestion of Matilda’s daughter Madeline Cuomo O‘Donohue, an attorney, who knew her mother had made lasting friendships as NY’s First Lady. One hundred percent of proceeds from the book go to Mentoring USA.

Mentoring USA’s mentors are school or community site-based, and are trained and screened to help a child one-to-one for an hour or two per week for a year, giving the child confidence and consistency. (The schools select the children who are most likely to drop out.) Often, they reach children who are too shy to speak in groups.

“The Mentoring USA statistics are terrific, at the end of the year, all of the children’s grades go up, they graduate, finish high school and go on to college,” said Mrs. Cuomo. “Hopefully these young women and men will become mentors to a needy child someday.”

Other parts of the program provide a financial literacy; a corporate employee and career development initiative (which allows children to be exposed to different career opportunities and community service activities) and a Healthy Lifestyles and Self Esteem program, formed in partnership with health expert Dr. Mehmet Oz, which encourages kids toward healthy lifestyle choices and increased self-confidence. (See www.mentoringusa.org)

Case studies show that it often takes only one caring adult for a child to break through enormous personal, economic or social obstacles. According to a Pew Public/Private Ventures Study of 959 boys and girls (60% from a minority group, 60% boys, and 80% from low income households, 487 were matched with mentors and the remaining 472 were the control group with no mentors) after 18 months, the group with mentors were found to be: 46% less likely to use illegal drugs; 27% less likely to use alcohol; 37% less likely to skip class; 53% less likely to skip school; and 33% less likely to hit someone.

“The home, the school, and the community are the three pillars of support. And when one of them is inadequate or just broken and not working for the child, then the child really suffers,” said Mrs. Cuomo.

Her Own Mentee

While she had all of the responsibilities of a First Lady, Mrs. Cuomo still took on her own mentee, Ely, a young Puerto Rican girl in the fourth grade who spoke bits of English and was determined not to return to school. Her involvement changed the course of Ely’s life.

“She wanted out. And I said to her, ‘What would you do instead of going to school?’ and she would say, ‘I’m going to stay home and just help my mother. I don’t like school, I don’t like the kids. I don’t like the teacher.’”

Ely’s mother had also dropped out of elementary school. But Mrs. Cuomo kept meeting with Ely, asking about her studies and her school experience, coaching her to believe in her own achievement. She had a small breakthrough when she introduced Ely, her mother, and her siblings (who were on welfare), to the main public library in Albany. Mrs. Cuomo will never forget the image of little Ely and her three sisters, surrounded by books, their young eyes wide with wonder.

“I wish I had a camera with me,” said Mrs. Cuomo, her voice warm with the memory. “The little kid Ely and her three other sisters were amazed, all looking up and saying, ‘All these books are free?’”

Ely made it to Albany High School, but was about to drop out again. Mrs. Cuomo met with her and discovered that she had landed in the ‘spitball’ classes, where kids were loud and pegged as underachievers. She met with the school’s administration, who admitted they had misjudged Ely. They moved her to classes that accommodated her excellent academic achievements, especially in math.

Going to bat for Ely was an action that made all the difference, and proved the First Lady’s own point about mentoring. “If I hadn’t spoken up for that child; she would’ve remained completely misplaced. Afterwards, she changed her homeroom, and it was like a fairy story,” said Mrs. Cuomo.

Ely sailed through high school and went to a college she could afford, Hudson Community College, for an Associate Degree in Practical Science. Mrs. Cuomo helped her mother get a job. About 10 years ago, Mrs. Cuomo lost touch with her because Ely and her mother had successfully dropped off welfare. Now, they both had houses of their own, and Ely is in charge of the billing for the Breast Cancer Health Center in Troy, NY. But Ely, now 31, was watching television one night and saw an advertisement that Mrs. Cuomo would be receiving an award from the Maternity and Early Childhood Foundation, Inc.

Ely decided to go to the event to surprise her mentor, and to cheer her on. As the annual event was being televised, she cried out “Mrs. Cuomo!“ and the two were reunited, in tears. Everyone watched the meaningful reunion.

Ely also appeared with Mrs. Cuomo on The View television show, which was framed around Mrs. Cuomo’s book, and included special mentors who have inspired greatness. Mrs. Cuomo said she and Mario plan to attend Ely’s wedding in August.

“I didn’t find Ely… She found me…A mentor will be in your life forever; you always remember your mentor,” Mrs. Cuomo said.

The Early Years

Matilda describes her own mother as the “epitome of a mother… all giving, all sacrifice for her children.” Her father was a significant builder of supermarkets in the northeast, who started with nothing. Fiercely patriotic, during wartime, he converted his factory to make life rafts, and was awarded a medal of honor from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City. Her parents put all of their five children through private colleges without loans or Pell grants.

Matilda graduated cum laude from the coeducational St. John‘s Teachers College. She met her future groom, Mario, who attended the all-male classes at St. John’s College. They would talk on the phone for hours about religion and their principles, and of course, George Bernard Shaw’s philosophical play, Man and Superman, about the philosophical roles of women and men.

She still wears the engagement ring that Mario bought her with money from a signing bonus with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After she told him she wouldn’t marry a baseball player, he accepted a full scholarship to law school.

She arrived at her first teaching job at Dutch Broadway School in Elmont, not as Miss Raffa, but as Mrs. Cuomo, a newlywed, and pregnant. Fortunately, Matilda was approved by the principal. For two years, she lived with her in-laws in Holliswood so she could continue teaching and Mario could finish law school. When her last child, Christopher, reached the third grade, she started substitute teaching in neighboring counties.

As Mario worked his way up to become partner, Matilda learned ways to manage her work as a teacher and properly feed her five children. Each Saturday, she would prepare the entire week’s meals in silver foil dinner trays, ready for the oven. (“They never complained about not eating delicious meals.”) Each child had personal chores to do, and Andrew showed a great sense of responsibility at a young age as the “incredibly helpful” little man of the family. “A close family friend, Sidney Termini, made each child their own personal bench, where they could keep their toys in the basement of our house. It gave them a sense of responsibility and ownership.”

As parents, Matilda and Mario believed in limiting television time until the weekend, giving them a curfew and a sense of obligation toward their schoolwork. It was their method of ensuring that each child did well in school. Matilda believes when a child has responsibilities, they become grounded and proud of their hard-earned accomplishments. “You have to develop a structure for the child to really learn management skills. They have to do for themselves, utilizing their time and effort to accomplish a worthwhile goal and to succeed. They develop good work habits that can last a lifetime. The better they do in school, the happier they will be. Success develops self confidence and makes you happy. Therefore I think all parents have to realize that structure and supervision for the children mean a lot,” she said.

She and Mario raised the children to live lives that were larger than themselves by contributing to the greater world.

Said her daughter, Maria Cuomo Cole, during her acceptance speech of the esteemed Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications for her work as chair of HELP USA, which has already aided 250,000 homeless men, women and children, “We learned that every day was an opportunity and an obligation to do something bigger than yourself…with perseverance and the example (of our parents’) selfless lifetimes inspiring our future aspirations and goals. So, thank you, my beloved mother and father.”

(Each child became a professional: Margaret, a radiologist; Andrew, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), NYS Attorney General and now Governor; Maria, volunteer chair of HELP USA; Madeline, an attorney, and Christopher, an attorney and co-anchor of ABC’s news show 20/20.)

Mario’s Race for Governor

When Mario ran for governor against Ed Koch (who had many more resources,) Andrew gave up his college summer to work diligently on the campaign, and booked his mother on a speaking tour across northern New York. For 10 days, Matilda stayed overnight with strangers, — in the homes of 10 Republican women — while driving from Buffalo to Albany and appearing and speaking on every local television and radio station available. (When they won, she hosted a victory slumber-party for the women at the governor’s mansion.) As Republicans, their final vote really counted and Mario, her husband, became governor.

As the governor’s wife, despite her packed calendar, she still raced home to be back for dinner, as Chris was only 11 when they moved to the Governor’s Mansion and Madeline, now an attorney, was attending SUNY in Albany.

Today

Now, true to Andrew’s prediction, Mrs. Cuomo has nurtured the Mentoring USA program like one of her babies. Mentoring USA Italia has been flourishing for 14 years throughout Italy and is now in Spain and Morocco. It has launched the International Forum for Child Welfare, which has consultative status and is sanctioned by the UN. Advocates for children and families attend the conferences from all over the world. In 2010, Mrs. Cuomo’s Mentoring USA co-hosted the IFCW Conference in Poughkeepsie, NY with The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families. In 2011, the IFCW took place in Australia. Mrs. Cuomo will co-sponsor the 2012 conference in Italy with Sergio Cuomo, president of Mentoring USA Italia, on Nov 26-29. Along with Geoffrey Boisi and Ray Chambers, she is a founding member (and founding director) of the National Mentoring Partnership (now referred to as MENTOR) in Washington D.C.

For her massive involvement, Mrs. Cuomo has received numerous prestigious awards as First Lady of New York State from universities and foundations. She has recently been honored with the following esteemed awards: The 2010 Eleanor’s Legacy, Eleanor Roosevelt Lifetime Achievement Award, the Maternity and Early Childhood Foundation Inc’s 2011 Champion for New York’s Children and Families Award; The National Lupus Foundation 2012 Humanitarian Award; The Center for the Women of New York 2012 Woman of Distinction Award; The 2012 President’s Medal for Kingsborough College; and on November 10, 2012, Prospect Park Alliance will dedicate the Matilda Raffa Cuomo Water Playground at Lakeside in Prospect Park.

“I can’t think of anything more essential and worthwhile than to help to provide a better world for our own children and family. That’s where it all begins; our future begins with the children,” said Mrs. Cuomo.

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