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Pressing on: CoopStrong carries on leader's legacy by supporting causes he loved

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Nelson Cooper, left, is the inspiration behind the new charitable fund CoopStrong. “Our goals are just to keep the legacy going that Coop started,” his wife, Mary Ann, said. “We really wanted to not just let that stop and wanted to do something to keep his memory and the things that were important to him active or growing.”

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By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Last year at this time, family and friends were preparing for Nelson Cooper’s 50th birthday party. They would gather to honor the beloved ECU professor, community leader, husband and father who had become an unintentional advocate for people living with ALS.

This year, on what would have been Cooper’s 51st birthday, many of his loved ones will come together again, this time to celebrate the legacy that lives on: CoopStrong.

Established in January, CoopStrong is an effort to uphold the community that supported Cooper and his family after his diagnosis in June 2016. Following Cooper’s death in May 2017, his family and friends wanted to extend CoopStrong’s reach to help others in need.

“After he got sick, so many people reached out to us on social media, and students he had contacted him and let us know how much he meant to them,” said Mary Ann Cooper, Cooper’s wife of 25 years. “Before Coop died, he really wanted it to continue, but to give to other people, to give back for all the support that we received.”

Thanks and giving were recurrent themes for Cooper, even as his health declined rapidly. His blog, though straightforward about the physical toll that amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was taking on him, expressed Cooper’s appreciation for help that people offered to his wife and children, Jefferson and Bailey, along with his desire to extend that support to others.

“We are obviously sad and overwhelmed at times, but know we have the love and support of family and friends,” he wrote on June 30, 2016, just after his diagnosis was confirmed. “Our faith is strong, and we know we are not alone. We are incredibly blessed with resources and family. It saddens me to think about people that might face this alone and with very little.”

That same post, read and shared thousands of times on social media, ended with a personal note of encouragement that would become a rallying cry for Cooper’s supporters: “Know that your life matters to many, so do good work, laugh every day, and press on!”

A Charitable Fund of The Community Foundation of NC East, CoopStrong is the Cooper family’s way of pressing on by embracing some of the causes that Cooper loved. It aims to provide scholarships for students, fund ALS research and support local families living with the disease.

“ALS changed our life so much,” Mary Ann said. “The community and our friends and church and F3 and FiA (faith-based fitness groups), they just all supported us and got us through that difficult time. … (People) from all over came together to help us.”

Those same groups are reuniting for the Coop-Strongrace, scheduled for March 24, Cooper’s birthday. The event will celebrate his memory by bringing together many of the people who stood with the Coopers during their 11-month journey with ALS.

Members of F3, a men’s workout group that Cooper helped to start in Greenville, are taking part, as are members of FiA, a women’s group that Mary Ann and Bailey attend. Other runners will come from D.H. Conley High School, where Cooper was an announcer for football games, and from ORuBo (Oakmont Runners for Bo), a running group from Cooper’s church.

The run itself will begin at Oakmont’s youth building, where Cooper often volunteered to work with teenagers. While race events to benefit the Coopers have included cross-country trails — in keeping with Cooper’s love for parks — the upcoming race will be entirely on pavement.

“We thought a lot about where we wanted this run to be,” Mary Ann said. “One reason we’re doing it at the location we are, where we’ll be just on the streets, is the accessibility piece of it. I think we learned how inaccessible a lot of places are (when Cooper began using a wheelchair), and we wanted everybody and anybody to be able to participate in this.”

Ainsley’s Angels, an organization that pairs riders who have special needs with runners who volunteer to push them, has been invited to participate, as have ALS patients and their families.

The race is being organized by students in ECU’s College of Health and Human Performance, where Cooper taught for the better part of two decades. His former student, Jane Jarrett, who now teaches in the recreation and leisure studies department, is involving her students. A team of nearly a dozen students from a recreation and event programming class, a course that Cooper formerly taught, is handling many details of the race, including marketing and logistics.

ECU sophomore Michaela Langley, a member of that student team, never met Cooper, but she has heard about him from students and faculty at ECU, where Cooper was the recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s Advocacy Award and ECU’s Creed Award for Integrity.

“I hear about the work and commitment he has put into getting students to become the best that they can be, and, quite honestly, it makes me jealous that they were able to have such a great mentor in their life,” she said.

Jarrett, who took classes under Cooper during her undergraduate and graduate studies, feels fortunate to have known him.

“He was very involved with the students,” she said. “He was just so loved. He took his time to meet with you. I remember one day that I went to his office, and he stayed past dinner talking to me, and now I do the same thing (for my students).

“I think of Coop in my own teaching,” she said. “I always try to think ‘What would Coop do?’”

Longtime friend Charlie Justice thinks CoopStrong is one answer to that question. Justice, a running coach who helped organize an October 2016 fundraising race for Cooper, said Cooper made it known that he wanted such events to continue for the benefit of others.

For Cooper, Justice said, it was never about the race. Known for not taking himself too seriously, Cooper valued friendships over championships. He cared less about competition and more about community.

“I think that’s what Coop was big on,” Justice said. “He was all about just keeping the community together. I think that’s the thing about this run. It’s kind of an extension of that — what can we do to keep the community together?”

The CoopStrong race is a 4-mile run, 4-mile Ruck, and 4-mile or 1-mile support walk/​fun run to honor the memory of Nelson Cooper and to support CoopStrong. The race is set to begin at 9 a.m. March 24 at 1400 Red Banks Road. Visit runsignup.com/​coopstrong. A CoopStrong team also will participate in the April 14 local Walk to Defeat ALS. For more information about CoopStrong, visit www.facebook.com/​coopstrongnp.

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