FAU Graduate Has a Heart for Volunteering

FAU graduate Justin Cooke has volunteered more than 1,000 hours while pursuing his degree in biology.

Justin Cooke (center) runs Splash Pals Adapted Aquatics, a program for children with disabilities.

By na | 12/21/2016

For Justin Cooke, there is no greater gift than that of time and service. Cooke, 28, is a living example of this. Having volunteered more than 1,000 hours while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Florida Atlantic University, Cooke graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology on Friday, Dec. 16 at 9 a.m.

Cooke and his girlfriend, Jenna Goldsmith, moved to South Florida from Iowa about five years ago. Goldsmith was interested in FAU’s neuroscience program, and Cooke had no problem living by the beach.

“We were at a point in our lives where we were ready for an adventure,” said Cooke. “We decided on FAU and never looked back.”

Shortly after beginning classes, Cooke dove head first into volunteering, quite literally. He became involved with Splash Pals Adapted Aquatics, a program that offers aquatic activities to children with disabilities. Every Monday evening at the FAU Aquatic Center, Cooke and a group of FAU students swim and interact with the children, focusing on physical activity and social engagement.

“We usually have about two to four students engaging with each child,” he said. “We swim with them, do stretches and exercises in the pool, and really just try to get them active and involved.”

Lilian Ribeiro’s son, Benjamin, who suffers from spina bifida, began attending Splash Pals three years ago. Ribeiro has noticed major changes since he began.

“The water has been good for strengthening his legs and improving his breathing and sleeping,” she said. “It’s really beautiful to watch the students with him and see the love they have for these children.”

Cooke, who now runs Splash Pals, will expand the program to three new locations next month, including FAU’s John D. MacArthur campus in Jupiter.

When he’s not busy with Splash Pals, Cooke spends his time volunteering with the Kids Cancer Foundation, Children’s Miracle Network, and Lighthouse of Broward for the Blind. He recently started his own program called “A Bear Because We Care,” where FAU students get together to hand-make teddy bears and personally deliver them. To date, they have delivered more than 400 teddy bears to the elderly, foster care children, firemen and to the families of police officers killed in the line of duty.

“It’s all about making personal connections with people and putting a smile on their face,” he said.

Following his graduation from FAU, Cooke said he would like to attend physical therapy school and continue developing adapted aquatics programs around the world.

“I jump at every opportunity to make a difference, and FAU has given me plenty of opportunities,” he said. “This is just a drop in the bucket of what I want to accomplish.”