When we think of a child left on the doorstep of an orphanage, we may think that a bleak outcome would be in store for their future and that their future would be determined by that one defining moment.
In one case, the moment did determine their future – but not in a negative way.
That one moment was the start of a journey from an orphanage in India to the woman who is bringing businesses, nonprofit agencies and the community together to bridge the gap between poverty and prosperity. The inspiring story of Dr. Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter fuels her passion.
Cooper-Lewter is a longtime leader in the nonprofit and philanthropic communities and is devoted to the cause of equal opportunity for all. She is the executive director of Leading on Opportunity, charged with addressing the finding that Charlotte ranks last among the 50 largest U.S. cities in upward mobility.
“Our mission is that every child in Charlotte has an equal opportunity to access their dreams,” Cooper-Lewter said. “Where you are born shouldn’t be a determinate of the opportunities you get. Your zip code, race, ethnicity should not control the future outcome of someone’s life.”
In 2014, the Chetty Study ranked Charlotte last among the 50 largest U.S. cities and Mecklenburg 99th out of 100 counties in upward mobility. Access to economic opportunity in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is far too often aligned with the zip code where one lives.
The Chetty Study shows that children born in poverty are more likely to stay poor.
“We can serve better when we bring together different stakeholder voices to work toward a shared goal of equality for all, especially in helping children and young parents move out of poverty,” she said.
The Leading on Opportunity Council was formed in March 2017 to implement the recommendations of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force led by Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown and Dee O'Dell, which convened in 2015 to study economic mobility challenges in our region.
As charged in the Opportunity Task Force Report, Leading on Opportunity takes a systemic approach to addressing the key determinants of early care and education, college and career readiness and child and family stability, while simultaneously focusing on the cross-cutting factors of segregation and social capital.
Daily, many families have difficult choices on whether to pay for food or for child care; take a sick child to the doctor or risk losing their job; or attend a parent/teacher meeting or find a new place to sleep that night.
“Our child and family stability strategies need to ensure that parents who are coming into a housing challenge of figuring out where they’re going to live have immediate access to resources,” Cooper-Lewter said.
The initial discussion brings these organizations to the same table to be a stabilizing group for families who struggle on different levels from housing to employment to health.
“We have incredibly compassionate leadership in our city and the benefit of having a group collaborate together is that we are able to talk through potential solutions,” Cooper said. “We can step outside our individual organizations to learn about best practices, as well as identify where the gaps are and where families are still falling through the cracks.”
Chronic, cumulative and potentially toxic stress can be overwhelming for the entire family and have lasting impacts on the lives and outcomes of children.
As a social worker, Cooper-Lewter has seen firsthand the impact of homelessness on children including restlessness, inability to sleep, depression and anxiety, as well as increased anxiousness about what’s happening from day-to-day.
“Every child needs a stable place to be and a place to call home,” she said.
Long-term, her goal is thinking creatively about spaces that can be transformed into places that are whole and beautiful for families, as well as getting investment in supporting the collaborators.
Additionally, breaking down some of the silos across the human service community can achieve the goal of ensuring that the thousands of homeless students within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have a place to call home.
“This is a commitment by the community to say, ‘We are all in and we’re stepping forward to ensure that no one sleeps without a home,’” Cooper-Lewter said.
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