HIGHLAND PARK, IL – Zac Cohen of Highland Park was just 7 years old when he collected 10,000 new stuffed animals to send as comfort to the children devastated by loss in 2005’s infamous Hurricane Katrina. Tragically, Cohen died last year in a motorcycle accident at age 20. His family started Zac’s Zoo, in conjunction with local first responders, in his honor to collect new stuffed animals to give to children in trauma situations. Now Ravinia Festival has partnered with Zac’s Zoo to be a collection point for the stuffed animals and to sell exclusive stuffed animals branded “Zac’s Zoo at Ravinia.”
“We really wanted to memorialize the sweet and generous nature of Zac, who even as a child himself instinctively understood that kids going through a bad time needed to gravitate to something familiar and comforting. We started this charity to replicate the kindness he showed as a boy so that his generous spirit could continue to do good,” said his mother, Ellen Cohen, who founded Zac’s Zoo. “We couldn’t believe the immediate acceptance and empathy we received from Ravinia, and we are beyond grateful for this partnership.”
The exclusive stuffed animals come in two styles, a panda bear and a floppy-eared puppy, both dressed in a T-shirt bearing the “Zac’s Zoo at Ravinia” logo. The animals are sold in pairs, so that the customer keeps one of the animals and the other is donated to Zac’s Zoo, to be distributed through local first responders who are meeting children in scary situations, such as riding in an ambulance or testifying in court.
“Unfortunately, children must brave through all kinds of alarming events that even most adults aren’t prepared to handle, and we’ve learned that presenting them with a stuffed animal restores some sense of calm and diminishes the fear they may have of the first responders who are there to help,” said Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering. “I was happy to introduce Zac’s Zoo and Ravinia and gratified that they quickly established this altruistic partnership.”
The mix-and-match pair of stuffed animals is available at Ravinia’s Festival Shop, while supplies last, through September 15. The cost is $25 for two animals—$18 of which covers the cost of production of the animals, with the remaining $7 going to the Ravinia Women’s Board in support of the not-for-profit festival’s Reach Teach Play education programs. Reach Teach Play serves 85,000 people each year through such programs as Sistema Ravinia, which starts student orchestras by providing curriculum, teachers, and instruments for elementary schools with no music programs of their own.
“Our hearts go out to the Cohen family, but we’re all impressed and encouraged by the way they’ve channeled their grief into this positive remembrance of Zac to continue this young man’s mission of helping children through tragedy,” said Marilyn Vender, Chairman of the Ravinia Women’s Board. “We have a similar mission of brightening the lives of young people through music, so we are very proud to be able to help Zac’s Zoo.”
In addition to the animals for sale at the Festival Shop, volunteers will collect new-with-tags stuffed animals for redistribution at the Ravinia Festival information booth in the Martin Theatre Plaza, just inside the main entrance, at the following concerts: Pentatonix, Aug. 15; Laurie Berkner, Aug. 17; and the daylong Fiesta Ravinia, featuring a live orchestra playing the score to Coco as the family classic is shown on screens in the Pavilion and on the Lawn, Sept. 15.
People can also donate their new-with-tags stuffed animals to Zac’s Zoo at City Hall, 1707 St. Johns Ave.; Highland Park Fire Department, 1130 Central Ave.; Highland Park Police Department, 1677 Old Deerfield Rd.; Sunset Foods, 1812 Green Bay Rd.; Beanstalk, 654 Central Ave.; and Ross Cosmetics, 625 Central Ave.