A graduate of the PMHS Class of 1973, Abigail Pastor Cotler has devoted almost her entire life to helping the less fortunate around her, driven by her boundless empathy, activism and compassion for social justice. She has been a teacher, counselor, advocate, community organizer, board of education member and tireless campaigner for equality, fairness and kindness. Standing out on an enormous list of Abigail’s many contributions to her community are her indefatigable efforts to bring relief to her neighbors in Rincon, Puerto Rico, after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Abigail is the seventh of eight children of parents who emigrated from Puerto Rico to New York and eventually to Patchogue when she was four years old. Very few Hispanic families lived in the area at the time. She started kindergarten that year at Medford Elementary, and went on to earn many awards and honors over the ensuing years. At South Ocean Middle School she was the first recipient of the Ruth Goodale award for “sincere dedication to learning with a deep concern for [her] fellow man.” At Pat-Med High she was elected school president, and was selected to be an exchange student to live in Medellin, Colombia. At Brandeis University, in addition to her studies she worked in the financial aid office and as a Latino recruiter for the admissions office. She spent summers as a counselor in Upward Bound programs at Brandeis and then Stony Brook University, where most of the children there were Black, Latino or Native American from the eastern Long Island reservations. In the fall she worked as a Crisis Intervention Substance Abuse counselor in the Patchogue-Medford School System. She also coached the JV and varsity girls’ volleyball teams.
In 1985 Abigail and her husband Don moved with their two young boys to Maplewood, New Jersey, which they chose for its richly diverse community. Sadly their arrival coincided with a soaring rate of racial incidents and hate crime. Abigail took immediate action, moving to restart a dormant Sunday School and Youth Group program, then gathering a group to organize a Community Diversity Day, which is still an annual event. Abigail worked professionally at Seton Hall University as a counselor for the school’s Martin Luther King Scholars and students in its Puerto Rican institute. At home, she and others grew more and more concerned with issues of access and equity in the public schools. Students in the district represented dozens of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, and spoke more than 150 languages. In 1991, Abigail was elected to the first of her three terms on the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education. She fought for and won an expansion in ESL programs and other support services such as efforts to identify and develop at-risk children, and establish full-day kindergarten. Middle and high school students were given increased opportunities and support to pursue higher-level and AP classes.
In 2009 Abigail became a trustee for the South Orange Maplewood Community Coalition on Race and currently serves as a vice president. In 2017 Abigail was awarded the South Orange Civic Association Martin Luther King Jr. Beloved Community Award. She has also been twice recognized by the New Jersey state legislature for her community service, her social justice activism and her work on the Board of Education.
Abigail was in Rincon when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017. After several weeks of helping her neighbors cope with dire shortages of power, water, food and shelter, she returned to the mainland to immediately establish a relief effort. She quickly raised funds and flew back to Puerto Rico with more than a thousand pounds of supplies including food, water, solar chargers, tarps, lanterns, batteries, personal hygiene items, diapers and clothing for people in the mountain towns of Adjuntas and Jayuya. These days, Abigail and Don live most of the year in Rincon where they continue their tireless and generous community service.