Touching the Future

Donor profile: The New England Aquarium magazine always features supporters whose generosity has made a lasting impact. These pieces say thank you, inspire others, and help spark more giving.

Laura Trust and students from the Trust Early Learners school visit the touch tank. © Vanessa Kahn

Touching the Future
Laura Trust and her family know a thing or two about the life-changing power of reaching out—to the community, the natural world, and the future 

Along the edge of the touch tank at the New England Aquarium, dozens of children huddle in hushed anticipation, waiting, small hands outstretched.

In the cool ocean waters, Atlantic rays fly past like friendly starships, swooping and gliding, then vanishing into the shadows. Suddenly it happens—the brush of a mysterious creature, a fleeting connection with another world, a child’s astonished delight. In that instant, a memory is made. 

Ask Laura Trust, a longtime supporter of the Aquarium, and she’ll tell you that there’s nothing more important than moments like these—moments of discovery and wonder, of connecting with something new. 

Trust’s own connection to the Aquarium—and to the Shark and Ray Touch Tank that bears her family’s name—began before she was born in the late 1960s. Painting a rocking chair for her soon-to-arrive new baby girl, Trust’s mother, Dena Trust, glanced down at the newspaper spread out to protect the floor and spotted an advertisement for a new project on the Boston waterfront—the New England Aquarium. “My mother loved the idea,” says Trust, “and she promptly sent off a $25 check, which was a lot of money for my parents at the time.” 

When the Aquarium opened in 1969, Dena Trust was amazed and delighted to see her name on the founder’s wall—right along with all the other donors. “She felt it was important to give what she could,” says Laura Trust, “and when she saw her name on that wall, she realized that her gift mattered. It had made a difference.” 

Now a favorite bit of family lore, that serendipitous discovery on a scrap of newspaper was just the beginning of the family’s decades-long support for an institution Dena Trust was convinced would be wonderful for her children, for the city of Boston, and for the residents of New England. She knew that giving visitors a glimpse of the ocean’s natural wonders was more than entertainment. It was a critical opportunity to help people better understand the marine environment, the vital waters of Boston Harbor and the Gulf of Maine—and the fact that our future depends on these very waters. She believed so deeply in the Aquarium’s mission that she scraped together enough to make a small donation.

Laura Trust’s father, too, led a life shaped by generosity. It began with a gift from someone he never met—a scholarship that launched Martin Trust’s first year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and laid the foundation for his success in the apparel industry. It was a gift he never forgot. Years later, he established the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship to help countless other students, as well as the Trust Family Foundation that supported the New England Aquarium. “Both my parents had at their core a very philanthropic view of the world,” says Trust. “Their stories have stayed with me.” 

The circle of giving continues today with Laura Trust and her husband, Alan Litchman, who met at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and, in 1998, bought Finagle a Bagel. With a popular retail location in Boston and baked goods in thousands of grocery stores across the nation, the company is proud of its expert bakers, who helped the business put down deep local roots, shaping its success. “Community is important to us, and we wanted to be local,” says Trust. “There’s just something very special about good food and the connectivity it creates.” 

The couple’s latest venture in connectivity and community is the Martin Trust Partnership in Education for Early Learners, a school for children ages three to five from all over Greater Boston. The mission of the school—which is located in Brookline, Massachusetts, and opened its doors in 2021—is to create a model of equitable, accessible, high-quality early education with classrooms devoted to the city’s youngest learners. Children from subsidized housing, homeless shelters, and those who have recently immigrated attend Trust Early Learners for free. It is no coincidence that the donor wall at Trust Early Learners recognizes gifts of all sizes. 

Trust’s vision for excellent, equitable early education was inspired in part by the struggles her son Sam faced when he was starting out in school. Some specialists suggested he might never speak. But the extraordinary teachers in the Brookline Public Early Education program worked with him, and nine months after he began school at the age of four, Trust got a call from his teacher—Sam had just said his name aloud for the first time. And, notes his mom, he hasn’t stopped talking since.

In 2011, when the new Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank opened at the Aquarium, Sam was one of the first kids to plunge his hands into the water. Standing next to him was his grandfather, Laura’s father, the two of them bound by the circle of giving that has shaped their family. 

Sam and his two younger siblings grew up visiting the touch tank, checking up on the Atlantic and leopard whiptail rays and learning the names of the small sharks, including the epaulette shark and the white-spotted bamboo shark. “Our trips to the Aquarium were always a treat,” Trust recalls. “There’s something wonderful about the learning that goes on there—the hands-on discovery, the independent exploration. That experience is what children need.” 

Today, an Aquarium trip is part of the lesson plan for every child at Trust Early Learners, many of whom have never had a chance or the means to visit. For Laura Trust, there’s nothing better than watching children approach the touch tank for the first time, gather their courage, and slowly, cautiously reach out, dropping their hands into the cool ocean waters filled with unknown wonders.