A hero among us: Sam Coy

People magazine recognizes Worcester native’s deeds
By Pamela  H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2006

When the folks from People magazine came calling, Helen “Sam” Coy took it in stride.

Why not?

After all, Coy, at 27, is already the director of Sargent House, a group home in Boston for teenage boys deemed delinquent or headed in that direction by the Department of Social Services.

It turned out that People viewed Coy not only as a story but as a hero. Coy, who grew up in Worcester and graduated from South High Community School, is one of five young professionals from across the country to be honored as People’s “Heroes Among Us 2006.” They are featured in the Nov. 6 issue of the weekly magazine.

In an interview earlier this week, Coy said she first learned what was afoot when a representative from People wanted to fly her to Los Angeles for a photo shoot. She was put up at a ritzy hotel on the beach in Santa Monica and treated like a celebrity. Coy was floored by the sun-baked, glamorous surroundings.

“You have to understand I had never been to Los Angeles,” she said with a laugh. “It was totally beyond anything I could imagine.”

Coy has since been profiled on “The Early Show” on CBS and has gotten a call from Oprah Winfrey’s people.

Coy’s early success comes as no surprise to those who knew her during her South High days. Coy grew up in the projects. She was up at 4 in the morning and took two buses to get to school on time. She never missed a day, even when she was sick or struggling with family issues. She was a top student and played on the basketball team.

Carol Bishop was Coy’s physical education teacher in 9th and 10th grades. Bishop remembers her student’s limitless energy.

“She had so much enthusiasm, and she was such a positive influence with her peers,” Bishop said. “She was the person in class you had to have there because she added so much for everyone else.”

Coy credits her mother, Johanna Hampton, with instilling in her the importance of succeeding in school.

“I only did what I thought I was supposed to do,” Coy said. “To my mother, school was No. 1. She didn’t play around with that, and I didn’t play around with that. I thought I was supposed to do well in school and go to college. How I was going to get there I didn’t know. I knew from what my mother was trying to tell us, school was going to be my way out. So that’s what I did.”

Coy’s father, who separated from her mother when she was little, has played a critical role in her life. Jeff Coy was an undercover agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. He posed as a dealer and infiltrated a multimillion-dollar drug empire. His work brought down the notorious kingpin Darryl Whiting. The story – and Jeff Coy’s own troubles with drug abuse – became the subject of a 1999 movie “In Too Deep.”

Coy was 13 and her brother 12 when their father told them the nature of his work. A year later, suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he committed suicide.

“When you do work like that, you no longer have the security of a badge and a gun,” Coy said. “His cover was blown after the trial. You talk about post-traumatic stress – but also paranoia. He was dealing with some really bad guys. I know he did a great job; it was very dangerous. I can’t begin to judge or understand it, it’s so big.”

Coy, who was 14, fell apart after the loss of her father. Her grades plummeted and she began to exhibit anger while in school. “It was looking really ugly,” she said. Her English teacher, June Eressy, knew something was wrong.

“We talked and she told me what had happened” recalled Eressy, who is now principal of the ALL and University Park secondary schools.

Eressy had learned about an essay contest and urged Coy to enter. Coy wrote about her father and the impact of his work and his death. With Eressy’s encouragement, Coy entered the essay in a contest for a college scholarship. When she was chosen as a semifinalist, Eressy took her to Boston for an interview with the contest judges.

“I’ll never forget when she came out of that room,” Eressy recalled. “She gave me two thumbs up. She aced it and got the scholarship.”

Coy went on to Northeastern University, where, inspired by her father’s work, she majored in criminal justice. She was considering joining the State Police, but instead entered Massachusetts School of Law. After graduating, she went to work for Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, who was elected Massachusetts attorney general on Tuesday.

Her decision to pursue her current line of work came in a flash as she sat in court observing a 19-year-old repeat offender charged with a violent knife attack. His demeanor and disheveled appearance prompted Coy to wonder whether his life might have gone differently if someone had intervened when he was 13 and put him on the right track.

When a job as assistant program director of Sargent House came up in June 2005, she applied. Six months later, she was promoted to director. John Larivee, chief executive officer of Community Resources for Justice, which runs Sargent House, said she was a natural for the job.

“What we saw is lots of strong personal achievements, especially in the area of education, and a dynamic, energy-filled person,” Larivee said. “She holds up education as part of personal development and has a commitment to this kind of youth population and intervening earlier. All of that spoke to us as a wonderful role model for the kids.”

In the program, 12 teenagers live for six to 18 months in a group home setting in a brownstone. Coy and her staff of 12 prepare the youths for independent living. Many of them have had little direction or support in life. The staff provides counseling, a variety of programs and vocational and educational services. The teenagers learn everything from simple social skills, such as eating and dressing properly, to how to open a bank account and get a job. Coy said that the program often is a last resort for these young people.

“I tell the kids, `We’ve seen this movie a thousand times. We know how it’s going to end. It’s up to you to change the ending,’” Coy said.

Eressy said she “cried like a baby” when she saw the article in People about her former student.

“I am so proud of her,” Eressy said. “That kid, she really struggled. She always worked full time. She looked after her little brother, and he was a handful. She just amazes me. I knew that she would be famous or make her mark.”

And what is Coy hoping will come from all the recognition? Donations to Sargent House.

“We are a nonprofit organization,” she said. “We don’t have tons of resources for the kids. The holidays are always a tough time. We try to do our best for them around the holidays.”