Dallas native takes Russellville mission under his wing

By Emily Van Zandt Published September 16, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Dale Cohen became the director of Main Street Mission in Russellville in April after consulting with the mission for neary 20 years. The organization maintains a warehouse full of clothes and other household items to give to families in need. Cohen splits his time between Dallas and Russellville, with three or four days each week spent helping the mission change its business practices to relieve its debt.

— Coffee isn’t nearly enough to keep Dale Cohen alert behind the wheel. For a man who seems to spend more time in his Scion than anywhere else, only one jolt will do: habanero chili peppers.

“I’m impervious to coffee,” said Cohen, who eats the scorching peppers on long drives to stay alert. “Just don’t touch your eyes after eating [habaneros]. It’s not good.”

For the past decade, some of Cohen’s most frequent trips have been along the five-hour-plus stretch between his current home in Dallas and Russellville, where he has worked with the Main Street Mission since close to its opening in 1994. What started as a networking partnership for Cohen’s Dallas-based medical-resources nonprofit has grown into heavier involvement. After starting as operations manager of the mission in August 2011, Cohen was named director in April. He succeeds Marilyn Williamson, co-founder of the mission who served as director after her husband died two years ago.

“You have no idea what a relief this has [been to] me,” Williamson said. “I love [Dale] like a son.”

For three or four days a week, Cohen leaves behind the traffic and 24-hour lifestyle of Dallas to spend time helping the mission — which is currently more than $300,000 in debt — adopt new business practices to help the nonprofit reach its full potential.

“When you’re dealing with a lot of volunteers, it can be very difficult,” Cohen said. “We’re diversifying as far as our funding, writing grants to fund a lot of different things we’re doing. We’re creating a policy manual, initiating some weekly staff meetings with weekly reports from departments. Things will be operated like a business.”

With a paid staff of seven and around 30 volunteers, the mission currently offers help for residents of Russellville, Pope County and surrounding areas by offering hot lunches on weekdays, clothing, furniture, boxes of food and more. As Cohen puts it, the mission is looking for donations of “anything and everything, and as much as you have.”

On Monday, Cohen spent the morning driving to pick up a cookie-dough donation. The next day, he would be on the road to Colorado. Since 1987, Cohen has spoken across the country at colleges, churches and synagogues on topics that include ancient history, Jewish customs and traditions, and archaeology, a passion that serves as a second career of sorts for Cohen. Several times a year, Cohen leads study tours through Israel. He has supervised multiple digs in Israel and is now working toward a doctorate in archaeology. He counts the northern part of Israel as his favorite place in the world to visit.

“It’s a paradise,” Cohen said. “Most people think of Israel as being a desert, but in the northern part, there are these beautiful waterfalls. They are one of the headwaters for the Jordan River, where water comes from snow-capped mountains.”

His favorite meal also has a Middle Eastern touch. When he describes shawarma (a pita filled with spit-roasted meats), Williamson chuckles at Cohen’s decidedly non-Southern pronunciation of the word.

“Did you say shrimp?” Williamson said, laughing.

If Cohen feels slightly out of place in Russellville, he never shows it. His banter with Williamson and the mission’s chief financial officer, Don Hall, is easy after nearly two decades of them working together in different capacities. Though his commuting schedule seems to be working for everyone, Cohen has plans to move to Russellville in a few years, after his youngest son finishes high school in Texas. For now, he’ll keep adding to his mileage and pushing the mission to expand the services it offers.

“We want to incorporate a lot of new programs,” Cohen said. “Some people we have don’t know how to budget or balance a checkbook. We want to create programs so that people can go in for an interview. We want them to become a vital part of the community.”

Cohen hopes the mission can eventually begin serving two hot meals on weekdays and continue to supply families with boxes of canned goods, dry goods and frozen food, as much as the mission can as demand continues to grow.

In July, the mission’s kitchen served more than 1,500 hot lunches and helped get food into the hands of people as far away as Fort Smith and Clinton. But the supplies in the mission’s sprawling storage facility can still run low, with necessities such as diapers and soap in constant demand. To Cohen, dealing with low resources can lead to the worst part of his job.

“Telling people no, that we can’t help them, that we don’t have the funds — it’s the hardest part when we know we can’t save the world,” Cohen said.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Associate Features Editor Emily Van Zandt can be reached at .

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