MacDella Cooper ’01 is brightening the future for Liberian children
Though MacDella Cooper ’01 has evolved into a woman of intelligence, ambition, compassion, and confidence, none of this is the result of a secure childhood, a stable nuclear family, music and sports camps, SAT tutors, or any of the other talismans parents embrace to ensure the success and happiness of their offspring.
Cooper was born and raised in interesting times. She is the descendant of freed slaves who left the United States in the mid-19th century to return to Africa, specifically Liberia, where these Americo-Africans created a republic that flamed antagonism between themselves and the indigenous Liberians. The long-simmering tensions between the two factions came to a head in 1980, when General Samuel Doe led a military coup to overthrow the Americo-African government, ushering in a decade of authoritarian rule.
In December 1989, Charles Taylor led a rebellion against the Doe regime, launching a prolonged civil war during which Doe himself would be executed. Cooper’s family, like many Liberians, initially thought the regime change would signal a return to peace and normalcy and never reach their hometown of Monrovia. Cooper’s mother and younger brothers, Byron Cooper and Josephus and Randy Debblay, left Africa to visit New York City. But her family and many others severely underestimated the heartbeat of the war. Within a month, the war was, literally, in their backyard. Grenades exploded right outside their house, and, for hours during certain times of the day and night, Cooper and two of her siblings were compelled to lie flat on the floor to avoid being hit by stray bullets.
Cooper’s stepfather, Benny Debblay, a lawyer who was the United Nations’ director for Liberia, decided that the best hope for the survival of his remaining family lay in diplomacy. That day, he went to the rebel leaders to introduce himself, to explain the non-political nature of the U.N. and his role in it. “He never came back,” Cooper said simply. The three children were on their own.
“I kept seeing the faces of its children, who had gone through so much worse than what I had gone through.” Cooper felt increasingly called to do more.
Eventually, the trio joined the endless flow of people streaming by their house. Once away from home and on the road, the children no longer had access to food. Bodies littered the sides of the road. “I had never seen a dead person before,” Cooper recalled. “I just went cold, just physically cold, and couldn’t warm up.”
The siblings followed a group headed for Ivory Coast, where refugee camps awaited displaced Liberians. It would take seven months and several lifetimes of atrocities and narrow escapes to reach a camp.
When finally the children arrived in Ivory Coast, they were met with conditions that made them think, in Cooper’s words, “Oh, my God, this is worse than Liberia.” Thousands of refugees were sharing one bathroom and an exposed shower.
But there were telephones. Cooper was able to contact her mother, who went right to the business of arranging her children’s departure from Africa. Their biological father, Jawolo Cooper, had American citizenship, which helped expedite the emigration process. Three years later, MacDella Cooper was reunited with her mother and brothers in Newark, NJ.
While it was impossible to describe the psychological impact of escaping Liberia, Cooper was confronted with a new form of shock in November 1993—culture shock. She began attending the 10th grade at Barringer High School in Newark and is still today unsparing in her assessment of the school.
“It was quite a revelation to a young girl whose last formal education ended in the sixth grade in a Christian school, uniforms and all,” she said. Now she was confronted by a large, intimidating inner-city school. Most of her classmates were indifferent students. Many of them mocked her accent and, “When I explained that I was from Africa,” Cooper recalled, “they said things like, ‘wow, it must be nice to be able to wear clothes now.”
Within a few weeks of her arrival at Barringer, a student was shot at school, and Cooper thought, “What is wrong with these children here? [My brothers and I] have been struggling so hard to be good, to behave ourselves through a civil war, almost got killed, almost got raped, and these people are shooting each other for fun?”
Her response was “to work toward getting out of the situation.” Cooper felt she had no time to stop and think about what she had gone through. “I could deal with that tomorrow,” she believed.
…these are not humble goals, but MacDella Cooper is clearly not one to wilt in the face of adversity.
Cooper pushed forward, graduating third in her class and developing into a talented athlete. (She attributes, only half-facetiously, her volleyball abilities to the need to stay light on her feet while dodging bullets.) She applied only to New Jersey colleges and was accepted at all of them, but TCNJ had her from the start. She knew of its excellent reputation, had liked the students and faculty she had met there, and the school met all her financial needs.
It was a good match, but Cooper discovered large gaps in her knowledge of certain academic areas. That she could overcome, but the past, despite her best efforts to outrun it, was beginning to catch up with her in other ways.
Cooper’s grades began to slip a bit after her sophomore year, but hers was not the typical sophomore slump. In her case, the setback was attributable to perhaps an even more predictable condition: post-traumatic stress syndrome. A series of events, mostly social and mostly insignificant in and of themselves, together reached a critical mass that left her wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed, pull the sheets over her head, and stay there. Feelings of isolation, oversensitivity, mourning for a hijacked childhood, and inferiority all conspired to lead her to a very dark place. Mostly, Cooper said, she desperately wanted to be normal. She didn’t want to be known as that girl with the crazy war experience.
A concerned friend lured her to church one Sunday, and Cooper had an epiphany. “I needed to stop comparing myself to those I had deemed normal, to quit blaming myself or them when I felt different,” she recalled. After all, she was different in some ways. “I later made a pledge to myself that everything that happened to me [in the future] would be my responsibility.” Not blaming others and taking control of her own destiny was, she said, “the most liberating thing I’ve ever done for myself, because it took the burden off. I could move forward confidently.”
During this tumultuous time in her life, Cooper took a summer internship with the New York Film Festival. The job had her playing host to dozens of parties, some with as many as 7,000 revelers. It was a role that utilized both her organizational and social skills, but also one that, more importantly, landed her in the women’s room of a Manhattan restaurant just as an editor from Glamour magazine was entering. Taken with the beauty of Cooper and a friend who was with her, the editor whipped out a camera, snapped a few pictures, and asked them if they would like to be in a spread the magazine was doing about collegiate style. A fashionista was born. From the moment she walked into the Glamour studio, Cooper knew that fashion was her professional future.
Or so she thought.
Before she even graduated in 2001 (with a degree in electronic communications), Cooper had already begun working for Ralph Lauren, where she would stay until 2004. By then, she had become weary of the competitiveness and backbiting that pervaded the industry. In many ways, she acknowledges, the job was great. “It was glamorous; the parties we got to go to were amazing; but, when I saw the way people treated each other, their bad behavior, well, I realized that this was just not someplace I wanted to be,” Cooper explained.
Seeing such behavior over insignificant issues got Cooper thinking more and more about her homeland. “I kept seeing the faces of its children, who had gone through so much worse than what I had gone through,” Cooper said. And though she and her mother had been sending clothing and canned goods to Liberia and its neighboring countries for some time, Cooper increasingly felt the call to do more.
Thus, the MacDella Cooper Foundation (MCF) was established in 2003, shortly after the civil war had finally, after 14 years, come to an end. In its wake, the conflict left more than 80 percent of Liberians below the poverty line, half of whom were children. Cooper has made it the focus of her foundation to ensure that every child is sheltered, fed, clothed, and educated. She, along with siblings Harry and Valentine, were fortunate to be reunited with their mother, but hundreds of thousands of Liberian children were not so lucky.
One of Cooper’s first steps was to make contact with the man who heads the United Nations mission in Liberia. He made sure that the increasing number of supplies sent from the United States to Liberia actually reached their intended destinations. “My worst fear,” Cooper said, “was that all the clothes, school supplies, etc., that we had worked so hard to collect would end up being sold on the open market.”
Cooper still accompanies every large shipment of goods to Liberia herself, and, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of the Firestone Natural Rubber Company, which initiated a charitable shipping program, all large donation containers are sent for free.
One of the foundation’s first projects was the restoration of the Susie Guenter Orphanage in Monrovia. The beds the children shared were in total disrepair. They were fixed up until funds for new ones could be found. Mattresses and curtains were replaced; holes in the walls and floors were patched; and the walls were painted. Then the place was thoroughly cleaned. In addition, the MCF was able to provide assistance to foster homes and four other orphanages in Monrovia. It has reunited families and aided a young Liberian orphan who needed treatment for cancer; he is now cancer free. Obtaining classroom material, furniture, and supplies was a priority, as Cooper feels strongly that an educated population is the only hope for the economic redevelopment of Liberia.
Goals for this year are set high. Cooper hopes to continue the repair of five orphanages, fund the renovation of existing schools at the Susie Guenter and the Phoebe Grey Orphanages, and build one completely new school within the campus of The Children Rescue Mission Orphanage.
These are not humble goals, but MacDella Cooper is clearly not one to wilt in the face of adversity.