Why this local family collects stuffed animals for a good cause

The Cohen family of Highland Park always knew that their son, Zac, was special. When he was just 7, the rest of the world saw how special Zac was when he started Zac’s Zoo, a stuffed animal donation drive for children impacted by Hurricane Katrina. 

The pint-sized philanthropist, as he was known, received donations and accolades from around the world, and he helped 10,000 children. 

Zac was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 20, but his spirit of giving lives on. His parents and sister, Elana, restarted Zac’s Zoo and it is once again distributing stuffed animals to those in need.

“He was passionate about giving back, and we couldn’t let that passion end when he died. Our carrying on his efforts to help children is cathartic in a way. It keeps his love of kids and helping going, and it lets us tell his story,” says Zac’s mom, Ellen Cohen. 

Zac’s Zoo distributes stuffed animals both locally and nationally.

“Zac believed a stuffed animal provided comfort, especially if it was cuddly. He was a texture kid and loved holding on to a soft, ‘smushable’ Teddy bear, especially if he was scared, tired or sad. It was an instant protector, providing unconditional love and friendship. As an adult, a stuffed animal gives us a window to our past, a tool to help relate or bond with a child, and a source to help bridge a generation,” she says.

Cohen says that watching the news reports of the fire and devastation in and around Paradise, Calif., last fall “brought back a flood of emotions and memories of Hurricane Katrina.” She adds, “Watching the families losing everything, seeing the children frightened, we knew we had to step in and help.”

They got to work and sent 165 stuff animals. Zac’s Zoo is supported by WE Volunteer Now, an initiative of WE made possible by The Allstate Foundation. The Allstate Foundation stepped in and surprised the family with an entire trailer full of stuffed animals.

You can see that amazing surprise, and the impact the stuffed animals have, as well as many other inspiring stories of youth making a difference during the national WE Day Special broadcast on ABC Friday, Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. Central.

“The Cohens are motivating others to join them in changing our world for the better,” says Laura Freveletti, senior program officer at The Allstate Foundation. “We’re proud to help tell their story during the WE Day Special and to inspire young people to step up and make a difference.”

While Zac’s Zoo is helping those in need, it’s also helping his grieving mom.

“Keeping Zac’s legacy going is empowering, heartwarming and soothing my soul,” she says. “I hope people tune in to learn about Zac and Zac’s Zoo, yet more importantly to see that kids can, should, and do make a big difference in our community!”

She’s certain that Zac would be “overjoyed” with his family’s participation in WE Day “because of the awareness it generates, the opportunity to get more kids involved in WE Volunteer Now, and because he was so passionate about giving back, volunteering and making a difference. To Zac, volunteering was important, and he would want us to carry on where he left off.”

Cohen urges families to make giving back a priority and to involve kids of all ages. Tuning in on Friday will provide inspiration. “Through WE Volunteer Now, by watching WE Day, kids and adults will see the opportunities to help, to give back and to be involved are endless,” she says. 

Looking for ways your family can make a difference? Download our guide to family volunteering opportunities

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