Photo by Angel Franco/The New York Times/Redux
At 54, Mary Kocy set out to do something new. She learned to water-ski — not just for fun but for a good cause.
A year later, Kocy recently whizzed around Manhattan under the watchful eyes of fans who had pledged to donate dollars toward helping veterans with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
See also: Veteran caregivers wait for benefits.
"I have a little over 250 thank-you notes to write, and the number keeps growing," Kocy says. "We're still discovering donors who are new to us, and this is extremely gratifying."
The more than $27,000 raised so far will go toward a veterans' pilot study at NYU Langone Medical Center's Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.
"In Iraq and Afghanistan, our servicemen and women are being exposed to improvised explosive devices," sustaining neurological and psychological impairments, says Steven Flanagan, M.D., chairman of the institute, which is overseeing the research.
Veterans in the study will undergo MRI scans in an attempt to distinguish between traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder — both of which cause similar symptoms. This may lead to additional research and eventually new treatments that would harness the brain's natural ability to heal, Flanagan says, rather than just managing the symptoms.
If enough funding is secured, a second study will address veterans' vocational needs, helping them transition more smoothly into civilian jobs, Kocy says.
Now 55, Kocy is CEO of Rusk Renovations, which remodels Manhattan residences and employs about 40 workers. Her husband, John Rusk (no relation to the rehab institute), 49, founded the company 25 years ago and serves as president.
When Kocy envisioned the water-skiing endeavor as a fundraiser, her husband teamed up with her to help her practice, piloting a 60-horsepower boat. Channeling her nervous energy into good use, Kocy water-skied two or three times a week on the Hudson River in the summer.
Next: Building momentum. >>
Meanwhile, she continued engaging in water polo, kickball, swimming, spinning and classes to strengthen her core and boost aerobic prowess. "Your body is your anchor," she says.
In April and July, Kocy journeyed to California for short, intense water-skiing stints. "Water-skiing is a blast," she says. "It's the closest thing I can imagine to flying and driving a race car."
Raising money for veterans boosted her adrenaline. Kocy talked with friends, colleagues, clients and anyone who would listen everywhere she went, from the doctor's office and kickball court to the beauty parlor and the subway. With social networking sites and email, she extended the outreach even further.
People encouraged her and offered advice, recalls her older daughter, Lillian Rusk, 20, a senior majoring in international relations at George Washington University.
"She really had to kind of build the momentum for this on her own," says Lillian.
Her momentum propelled her to the start of the 30-mile trip, which began at 7 a.m. and lasted an hour and 40 minutes. Kocy hung on to a handle attached to a 70-foot rope. The wind wasn't as strong as expected, and luckily, the tide moved in the same direction.
For most of the ride, the waves crested at 2 or 3 feet. But where the Harlem and Hudson rivers meet, whirlpool currents overturned Kocy's steady balance. She fell in the water, near a bridge abutment. Nonetheless, "she had a big smile on her face," says her husband of 23 years. She got back up and persevered.
That didn't surprise Jennifer Loftus, president of HR/NY, the local chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, which supports Kocy's cause by providing career-building resources to veterans.
"Mary's enthusiasm, dedication and concern are contagious," Loftus says. "She has taken an idea and turned it into a viable activity for positive change."
Also of interest: Giving back to vets. >>
Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.