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Jocelyn Cook: “My heroes are the individuals living their lives in the service of others”

I was so inspired by the immediate swell of togetherness in the early days of COVID. The first few weeks, when our nation was being rocked by the virus and information was so confusing and ever-changing, I took great encouragement in feeling like for the first time, in a long time, people rediscovered the strength […]


I was so inspired by the immediate swell of togetherness in the early days of COVID. The first few weeks, when our nation was being rocked by the virus and information was so confusing and ever-changing, I took great encouragement in feeling like for the first time, in a long time, people rediscovered the strength and value of community, the importance of strangers acting like neighbors, demonstrating what it truly means to be a village. I had blissfully hoped this ignited passion and love would stay. As quarantine carried on and fatigue set in, however, the weight of the stress, homeschooling, unemployment, and other pressures seemed to wash away the inspiring moments as notes of encouragement turned to judgment and critique over masks, social distance, open (or closed) cities, towns, and states. This is an unprecedented time and unlike a marathon, none of us had time to prepare to build up the endurance needed to make it through in high spirits. It is my sincere hope that with grace, patience, and flexibility, our communities can rise to a thoughtful decorum that gets us through the next several weeks and months.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jocelyn Cook.

Jocelyn is the Founder and acting Executive Director of SPUR, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit aimed at cultivating a Community of Doers through an array of multi-generational volunteer activities and youth enrichment programs. In addition, she is the newly appointed Director for the Center of Entrepreneurial Leadership at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

Prior to founding SPUR, Jocelyn worked in the international health arena both stateside and abroad. She earned her Master’s in Global Studies and International Affairs from Northeastern University and holds a graduate certificate in Design, Implementation, Monitoring, and Evaluation of International Health Programs from Boston University. Jocelyn possesses a high level of management and administrative experience along with a proven history of strengthening programs and processes by creatively exploring fresh and new ideas.

Jocelyn resides north of Boston with her husband and children.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in Washington State, a town called Yakima, known for its fruit and hops agriculture (77% of the hops production in the US). At 17, I became the youngest business owner in Yakima, opening a Disney retail store in a converted train that served as a niche mall of unique trinkets and treasures.

Twenty years ago, I knew I’d leave the valley, but to where was unknown. Living in a relatively rural area, it wasn’t unusual to see horses hitched up to the post at the corner store. I have many fond memories of my younger years and am grateful for having the grounding that affords me the opportunity to appreciate the little things in life. In my nearly four decades, I’ve experienced my share of loss rivaled with peaks of joy. The ever-present theme for as far back as I can remember however was the deep-rooted compulsion to make a difference, to recognize the humanity of all and live a life of service, striving to genuinely leave the world a better place.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

A number of books top my list of favorites over the last year. The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting and Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, Thirst by Scott Harrison and Untamed by Glennon Doyle. Living in such a tumultuous time, it’s hard to pick just one or identify how it’s impacted me. It is hard to be brave when the next step is so uncertain; hard to be a gracious parent when worldly expectations are so high; hard to trust the funds will somehow come in when it feels like begging for support in a landscape where we can’t afford to lose our community organizations working tirelessly to make a difference. These books remind me leadership is about putting yourself out there, even when it’s not comfortable, for what is right even when others don’t. They comfort me when it feels all too lonely being a confident, capable, and driven woman in a world where that role is more easily championed and embraced by men. They give me peace when I question if the dreams are too big if the pursuit is too lofty if the unending race will be worth it in the end. This entrepreneurial and leadership life is a rollercoaster, not all are suited for the twists and turns but I hunker down and hold on, determined to do all that I can to get to the end and hope that the path carved makes a difference.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

During my undergraduate studies, I participated in an alternative spring break trip to Compton California. During the two weeks of immersing ourselves in vital work in impoverished areas, I had the opportunity to take part in a homeless simulation where for three days we slept outside, panhandled, didn’t shower, worked on a myriad of community service projects and simply shared life with humans we may not otherwise cross paths with. It gave me an opportunity to be stretched well beyond my 22-year-old comfort zone. It gave me perspectives and worldviews and shaped the lens through which I see the world. This profound experience propelled me toward two aid trips in Africa, and ultimately the founding of SPUR.

During that trip to Compton, I was in line outside a shelter waiting to eat one afternoon as I conversed with the woman in front of me. We shared stories. I told her about the trip and the simulation. She said “Out of all the things I miss about my life before I was homeless, what I miss the most is being human. When you’re homeless people don’t look at you. They walk right over you like you don’t exist.” That lack of connection and refusal to acknowledge humanity regardless of life circumstance, orientation or race plagues our society and it’s a memory I hold close, and lean into when decision making, when parenting when checking myself.

OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

SPUR has a mission to cultivate doers. To remove barriers people face to engaging in a meaningful way and making a difference through volunteering. We want to move beyond seeing such engagement as a checkbox on a resume and make it a way of living, inspire those around us to become a doer — one who demonstrates a shared sense of ownership in the community, setting aside the notion that “It’s not my problem,” “Someone else will take care of that.” We all have an exciting role to play in this life and through SPUR our goal is to meet people where they are, offer an array of volunteer activities suitable for every age and passion, with loads of flexibility, and watch people grow more and more involved as they engage. In early March, we pivoted our calendar of volunteer activities — jumping into the virtual realm of connecting the isolated to volunteers for phone pals, pairing volunteers to vulnerable community members in order to deliver groceries and prescriptions. We partnered with a number of area organizations that had needs beyond their capacity and leveraged our network of 3000 volunteers to meet those needs. We rallied sewers in the community who, to date, have seen nearly 700 facemasks that have been distributed to nursing homes, home health aides, and some non-frontline medical workers. In addition, our 3000 square-foot organic garden which grows produce for local food pantries has been planted and produce is already being harvested and delivered.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

I’d say a hero is someone who truly acknowledges the humanity of others, driven by a deep moral compass to make the right choices even when there is no fanfare but because of an unwavering character that drives what you do when no one is looking. A hero presses on through the fear, through the exhaustion and persists because the cause is greater than any setback or personal discomfort.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Moral integrity, humble, selfless, committed, trustworthy. There are so many great stories in which every day hero’s exhibit these characteristics. Most recently, we can look toward the front like healthcare workers who daily, perform their jobs with a steadfast selfless commitment to helping ensure the health of our communities regardless of the pandemic, lack of PPE, fatigue, and other factors.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

For those of us who don’t allow ourselves to be broken by the world, compelled by a cause, unendingly passionate about others, do so because it’s a way of life. I would argue we weren’t meant to be alone. We were created for community and relationships and relationships that aren’t transactional. When we condition ourselves in this manner, then there is nothing to do or be other than selfless and fully committed to others, our communities, and the greater good.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

To me, the everyday actions of SPUR are not heroic but rather our normal day-to-day. Our ability to so swiftly pivot and leverage a network of 3000 volunteers across our communities

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

My heroes are the individuals living their lives in the service of others. This world has so many pulls on our heart, so many opportunities to turn inward, so many invitations to spend more, do more for ourselves — yet if I died tomorrow — what would any of the stuff matter? I admire the people who can strike the balance between comfort and gluttony, can recognize service over selfishness, and can think beyond the immediate impact on their life to that of others — those are the heroes of today in my view.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

There is much that frightened me about the pandemic and continues to. I never anticipated a circumstance that would leave me feeling unsafe leaving home, unsafe touching things, unsafe about jobs, housing, food, and the future. The fear of the unknown, evolving information and maternal fear for my children and their future at times was paralyzing. Through it, however, it opened my eyes to some daily realities millions face in the life that we knew as normal. The pandemic exposed weaknesses in our lives, communities, and the world and those will need serious attention in order to truly repair. The pandemic, in many cases, wasn’t the cause but rather the magnifying glass that revealed brokenness that many refused to see or otherwise were unaware of, myself included. The opportunity is to look at the devastation the same way you would a house fire and rebuild with care, thought, and a strong foundation.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

My children. I have often heard that answer to this question and never understood. Truthfully, before March of this year, I would have had a different answer but the past several months have led me to draw strength from the purity, hope, and steadfast grounding in their goodness. It may sound trite but increasingly we have so many conversations about the world, politics, empathy, hate, racism, love, inclusion. They are nearly seven and 10 and their thoughts are so pure and passions so strong. It gives me hope that their generation will be better than mine and the ones that came before. I don’t want my children to be like me but better than I am. We have to progress. We have to listen and learn. We have to sit in the discomfort of what is going on around us in this very moment and demand more for humanity and our future.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I was so inspired by the immediate swell of togetherness in the early days of COVID. The first few weeks, when our nation was being rocked by the virus and information was so confusing and ever-changing, I took great encouragement in feeling like for the first time, in a long time, people rediscovered the strength and value of community, the importance of strangers acting like neighbors, demonstrating what it truly means to be a village. I had blissfully hoped this ignited passion and love would stay. As quarantine carried on and fatigue set in, however, the weight of the stress, homeschooling, unemployment, and other pressures seemed to wash away the inspiring moments as notes of encouragement turned to judgment and critique over masks, social distance, open (or closed) cities, towns, and states. This is an unprecedented time and unlike a marathon, none of us had time to prepare to build up the endurance needed to make it through in high spirits. It is my sincere hope that with grace, patience, and flexibility, our communities can rise to a thoughtful decorum that gets us through the next several weeks and months.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

In a way. My view has always been that our world is broken and hurting but has the capacity for so much more, and that area of more, is where I try to direct my focus and energy. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other innocent people of color however has opened my eyes to my own implicit bias — which truthfully and embarrassingly I hadn’t wrestled with before. I believe the crisis has laid bare widespread inequities in our country which passivity can no longer silence. I have always positioned myself as a doer and on that notion founded SPUR. If however, we truly are doers, then we need to acknowledge our privilege, advocate for oppressed communities, and work toward creating vibrant, safe, and healthy communities that reflect and respect Black lives, LGBTQ lives, all lives. As Albert Einstein said — “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

I kind of answered this above. I believe this crisis has the capacity to drive many of us, if not all, to our breaking point. Societally, I would love to see long-term remembrance of this moment. The remembrance that together we can support each other both physically and emotionally, even if from afar. I would hope that coming out of this it is emblazoned on our hearts why voting is important, and how critical it is to elect leaders who serve and not rule, who listen and not talk, who our children can look up to and aspire to be. We need societal change and the gauntlet we find ourselves in what is hopefully the catalyst for a true and lasting movement toward a kinder more connected world.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Because they can’t afford not to. I have to believe my life means more than being born only to die someday. I have no desire to simply exist and take up space. Millennials get such a bad rap. Granted I’m the oldies of the bunch ☺ but still…. In my generation, I see a plethora of change-makers. Members of society who won’t subscribe to the way things have always been and my encouragement to everyone, regardless of age is to press into fears, run hard when tired, and don’t stop pursuing something better. It’s never too late to be the person we want to be…and the same for our world. We can be so much better than this. Our nation and communities can be so much more vibrant than this.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Our world is broken and so many “movements” need to be started. In all honesty, that was my intention with SPUR in a way. The premise behind our work is so much more than just volunteering. Societal problems plague our global history and abound. Cultivate a communal heart by meeting people where they are and providing a path to engage in meaningful ways, then court them into a deeper engagement to strengthen interconnectedness with one another, change the culture, and combine love and compassion in the name of justice.

As demands rise for more — more clubs, activities, and stuff, greater jobs, better schools, more pressure — discontent grows and the blinders go up, turning our focus inward, removing from our sights those around us with needs. Or for that matter, everyone. We’re blinded by our lack of connection and lose sight of our similarities. Suddenly we become so disconnected, the silo in which we exist narrows creating larger chasms. The ultimate goal of SPUR is that through our activities, streams of connection weave together lives, working toward changing the culture, breaking down divides, and contributing toward the creation of a more vibrant, tolerant, loving, and supporting the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Yes, Mimi Silbert, the founder of the Delancey Street Foundation. In 1971 Delancey Street began with four residents, a thousand-dollar loan, and a dream to develop a new model to turn around the lives of people in poverty, substance abusers, former felons, and others who have hit bottom, by empowering the people with the problems to become the solution. More than 40 years later they remain true to their mission. Under her leadership, they have been taking in as resident representatives of our society’s most serious social problems and, by a process of each one helping another, with no professionals, no government funding, and at no charge to their clients, they have been solving these problems: generations of poverty, illiteracy, lack of job skills, hard-core substance abuse, homelessness, crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and emotional and physical abuse. After an average of four years (a minimum stay of two years), their residents gain an academic education, three marketable skills, accountability and responsibility, dignity, decency, and integrity. This past March, I had an opportunity to tour their incredible self-constructed facility in San Francisco. On the wall amid all the press and accolades sits a pink cup with a silver heart bearing the engraved letters spelling out “Here’s to the Bozos”. A ”gift” she received it from a bank early on after asking for a loan to build her dream. The cup is a poignant reminder to me that just because someone is too afraid to run after their dreams, too paralyzed to start or too small-minded to embrace your full potential — you should never give up.

How can our readers follow you online?

Linkedin.com/in/jocelyn-cook

www.spur.community

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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