Stacey Freed, a former senior editor of Remodeling magazine, writes about the housing and construction industries from her home in Pittsford, N.Y.
The Beach Reimagined
REALTOR® Sabrina Cohen promotes accessibility—and fun—far beyond the shoreline of Miami Beach.
August 28, 2019
Rosa Llaguno, 55, a Miami native, spends as much of her free time as she can at the beach. But a spinal cord injury 13 years ago made it difficult for her to enjoy her favorite pastime. “I could get into the water—but not out,” says Llaguno, an attorney with a Florida agency for people with disabilities. Even with the help of her godson, Llaguno says, “I would sink into the sand, and we would have to ask strangers to help get me out.”
That has changed for Llaguno and thousands of others because of Sabrina Cohen, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate and founder of the Sabrina Cohen Foundation, which funds adaptive fitness and recreational activities for people living with disabilities. During SCF’s Adaptive Beach Days, “not only can I get on the sand but there are volunteers to help me into a special chair and into the ocean,” Llaguno says. “It’s a profound experience.”
Need for Access
Cohen, 40, understands Llaguno’s frustrations. She was a passenger in a car accident during her sophomore year in high school that caused a severe spinal cord injury and left Cohen unable to walk or use her hands. “The accident really redirected my life to a path of advocacy,” says Cohen. Soon after the accident, her high school principal asked her to speak to classmates about the dangers of reckless driving and not wearing a seat belt. “I one-hundred percent did not want to do it,” Cohen says. “But I did it anyway.”
Despite what she calls a “massive state of denial,” in which she thought she’d walk again by the time she was 20, Cohen kept on with her advocacy and speaking engagements. Cohen went on to graduate from high school and from the University of Miami and then earned a postgraduate degree in copywriting from the Miami Ad School. She founded her own advertising agency in 2003 and, a year later, became the director of public relations for the Genetics Policy Institute, an organization trying to establish a legal framework for stem cell research.
But she says her “aha moment” came in 2012, when she was at the beach with a colleague talking about how they could address more quality of life initiatives. “I basically got stuck in the sand, and I felt helpless because I couldn’t get out on my own. It took about six tourists to help me,” Cohen says. That incident spurred her to approach the city of Miami Beach with a “big idea that would be a first of its kind in the country to create full beach access.”
The ‘Big Idea’
Her big idea included creating an adaptive, inclusive playground for children and beach access for anyone with a disability. Cohen persuaded the city to support a playground in Allison Park on Collins Avenue, a major thoroughfare that runs parallel to the beach. Sabrina’s Playground, as it’s called, has 13 play structures, a dune crossing for beach access, automatic restroom doors, and an accessible beach shower.
“The accident really redirected my life to a path of advocacy.” —Sabrina Cohen
Her second focus is Adaptive Beach Days, held at the beach adjacent to the playground every other Sunday from April through November. Susan Solman, a regular visitor at the adaptive beach, finds the experience liberating. “Every time I go, it’s like the best day of my life. Sabrina has thought of everything that someone would need to enjoy the beach. It’s almost effortless,” says Solman, who has used a wheelchair for the last 19 years due to a spinal cord tumor.
A removable boardwalk allows for easy access to the water. Dozens of volunteers set up activities and food and help beachgoers into and out of special wheelchairs that can roll right into the ocean. Volunteers help them swim, float, and even recline on a chaise lounge. “I get to just relax on a lounge chair and look at the ocean. Volunteers ask if I need a snack, sorbet, a drink. It’s like being in a first-class resort,” Solman says.
Part three of Cohen’s big idea is a fitness facility, the draft concept of which the city has approved. The proposed three-story building would offer yoga, meditation, and aquatic therapy as well as the “latest in robotics and technology-based gym equipment specifically designed for use by those with disabilities,” Cohen says. The city contributed the land to develop this project, which Cohen says will be the “first adaptive recreation center of its kind on the East Coast.” SCF is busy fundraising for the $10 million capital campaign.
The Beach and Beyond
Cohen’s foundation work has affected more than the immediate community, says Miami Beach City Commissioner Joy Malakoff. “Sabrina is a visionary. [Because of her], so many people in the city who never thought about the [Americans With Disabilities Act] are now thinking about how important it is to set up sidewalks and stairs and entrances to buildings now under construction. Before Sabrina, people considered it a nuisance to meet ADA regulations. Today, they think of Sabrina as they build.”
As Cohen’s efforts gained traction, she earned name recognition, and people began contacting her to ask if she could help them find an accessible place to live. Getting a real estate license in 2016, she says, “happened organically. It’s the popularity of the beach access that brought me into the real estate world.”
Now she has a niche in accessible housing and universal design. “My brand,” Cohen says, “whether in real estate or the foundation, is about providing comfort and security, confidence, and independence to people who have daily challenges. How do we make it a little bit easier to wake up in the morning? That’s as real as it gets.”