Tikkun Olam: A Duty to Heal the World

By Rick Lewis

The Cooks

The Cooks created the Cook-Hellman Endowed Scholarship.
Photo Credit: Steven W. Wood

Sharon (Gotlieb) Cook, Ph.D., has been intimately acquainted with UAB since its very beginning, but it’s only been recently that she realized the large role UAB has played in her adult life.

In 1968, the year before UAB would become an autonomous campus, Cook was trying to get her educational path back on track. “I was divorced, living with my parents with an infant, and desperate to finish my education,” she says. She was able to take only a few courses at the time.

But a few years later she had a fortunate meeting with a UAB career counselor. After a bevy of tests, the counselor recommended a path in occupational therapy (OT). “It was a very good choice for me,” Cook says, “I liked crafts and doing things with my hands. And I had always wanted a career helping people with disabilities.”

With an idea of what the future held, Cook, then known as Sharon Gotlieb, started OT school at UAB, studying under early UAB titans like Virginia Volker and Samuel Stover. “The people I came in contact with were the most important part of my time (at UAB),” she says. Professors, other students and, especially, early patients had a profound impact on Cook and cemented her love for working with and for others.

In 1976, Cook finished her OT degree and was hired as the first occupational therapist in the Jefferson County school system. This came right after the passage of Public Law 94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the landmark federal legislation requiring open education to all children with disabilities. Cook worked in the county schools for several years, developing programs to make sure that schools could properly care for and educate students with disabilities.

After a stint working as an occupational therapist in programs for children at UAB, Cook decided to continue her education so she could better understand the challenges her patients faced. She was admitted into UAB’s clinical psychology doctoral program and found it to be a mind-changing experience in empathy building and self awareness. “You can’t study psychology without it impacting you personally and deeply,” she says. “It made me better able to deal with the difficulties, growth and changes in my own life.”

For the next two decades, Cook stayed busy. She worked as a researcher and clinician at UAB and in private practice, served as president of the Birmingham Regional Association of Licensed Psychologists, and helped launch a citywide program to address child abuse in Birmingham. In 2002, she moved to Blount County, where she opened a free clinic for veterans and their families while continuing to see patients in Birmingham.

Her work was cut short by a surprise cancer diagnosis in 2009 that would begin her continuing, decades-long battle with the disease. Cook explains that with her first diagnosis of breast cancer she was treated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. She cut back on her professional work but continued traveling with her husband, Stephen, hobbies and volunteer work.

“I won’t let cancer change who I am. … UAB was my anchor through my medical challenges,” she says. It truly became a rock when she was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer in 2014. “You have this theory when you have one bad thing like breast cancer: ‘OK, this is my cross to bear,’” she says. “Then, when another bad diagnosis comes, you’re pretty shocked.”

After successful treatments seemed to get her life back on track, Cook was told in 2018 that the breast cancer, now stage IV, had metastasized in her lungs. She was told to get her affairs in order with the understanding that she didn’t have much time left. After months of reflection, Cook says she experienced a significant spiritual shift. She lives her life with gratitude for each day and enjoys her time with family and friends and doing everything she can to stay engaged in life. “I see every day as a miracle,” she says.

Cook credits the doctors at UAB with saving her life. She still receives monthly cancer treatments, but she sees them as part of a “routine” that allows her to live a rich life, one full of art and gardening and possibly even traveling again.

Stephen, an Air Force officer and previous civil servant from Indiana, met his Sharon in Birmingham and became acquainted with UAB through her work. As he explains it, UAB has been a huge part of Sharon’s educational journey as well as the couple’s medical home. In 2014, Stephen was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and credits his medical team at UAB with his ability to “hold his own” through the course of the disease. Stephen remains very active with exercise, gardening and maintenance on their 12-acre home site.

Both Stephen and Sharon’s parents were supporters of education and helping others, so the Cooks decided that leaving a gift to UAB’s Honors College would be a way to honor not only their parents’ memories but also their journeys through school and life. The Cook-Hellman Endowed Scholarship, named both for Stephen and Sharon’s parents, will eventually provide substantial scholarships to underrepresented, high-achieving students that experience difficulties around school affordability, furthering the Honors College’s goal of promoting a diverse student body.

UAB’s Honors College represents a community of dedicated scholars and diverse student leaders poised to address the world’s challenges. “We are thrilled and appreciative of the support from Dr. Sharon and Stephen Cook for their generous gift to the UAB Honors College,” says Shannon L. Blanton, Ph.D., dean of the UAB Honors College.

“They are strong supporters of the UAB Honors College, and they share our vision of providing a one-of-a-kind college experience that focuses on world-class education, experiential learning and community engagement coupled with a supportive and diverse honors community,” Blanton adds. “By providing vital financial support to our students, the Cook-Hellman Endowed Scholarship will allow students to immerse themselves in our honors programming while creating memories and connections for a lifetime.”

Stephen describes the thought process behind their gift as one of action. In addition to honoring their parents and helping students, the Cooks wanted to make a difference in the world. After watching the recent push for social justice, following decades of similar movements throughout their lifetimes, the Cooks thought of ways to help level the playing field of opportunity.

“We believe in a duty to heal the world, tikkun olam,” Stephen says, referencing the influential Jewish concept. The Cooks believe that after the recent pushes for social justice and the fight for equality over the decades, their contribution can help traditionally disadvantaged students attend school and emerge as prepared leaders. “People deserve a chance to excel and make the world a better place,” he says. “We wanted to help students that had shown strong capabilities to succeed, supporting students who could make a difference.”

Your gift can make a difference in the lives of future UAB students. Find out how by contacting the Office of Planned Giving at (205) 996-7533 or plannedgiving@uab.edu to get started.

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Kimberley S. Coppock, J.D.
Sr. Director of Development
Office of Planned Giving
kcoppock@uab.edu
(205) 975-5970

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