Charity dream continues to grow for UCA professor

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead

Dr. Mark Cooper, professor of early childhood and special education at the University of Central Arkansas, loves the above quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead.

“I do believe a small, dedicated group of people can change the world for a group of individuals,” said Cooper, the co-founder with his wife, Linda, of the Chicks for Children Foundation that has raised thousands of dollars for the Kipsongo slum in Kitale, Kenya. “I’m well aware there are pockets of poverty all over the world, yet the Chicks for Children Foundation, I believe, has been called to respond to this pocket of poverty.”

And the response continues to grow.

The Chicken Dance Marathon, born in the Conway School District at Woodrow Cummins Elementary School in 2009, has spread to all nine Conway elementary, the England and Guy-Perkins school districts. The fifth Conway marathon this year raised approximately $5,000, 75 percent of which will go to support an orphanage build in Kitale and 25 percent of which will remain for local needs.

Chicken Dance Marathons at Greenbrier, Wooster and England have resulted in money to help build a commercial greenhouse in Kitale and the purchase of chicks. Other results have included the Seeds Children’s Home Orphanage, the Bread of Life Feeding Center and the Seeds Academy.

“The capacity is growing, and with the growing capacity there needs to be some balance with what we call sustainability projects that allow them to support themselves without total dependency on the people from the States,” Cooper said. “We want to try to find income-producing or income-saving projects such as greenhouses, chicken businesses, those kinds of things. The greenhouse is wonderful for growing tomatoes to eat and to sell.

“Things have absolutely grown in great and mighty ways, and we continue to try to find project partners willing to invest in the lives of the kids from the Kipsongo slum.”

The latest is a big one.

Denise DeMarchis, founder of Matilda Jane Clothing, and her husband, David, contributed $150,000 to build another orphanage for girls.

“My goodness, we were absolutely overwhelmed by this gesture of kindness, and since then, there have been many, many additional gifts from them,” Cooper said. “For instance, two weeks prior to our relationship, she had found a shirt that had chicks on it, and (afterward) she thought, ‘My, what a coincidence — let’s sell this shirt and use the proceeds, 100 percent, for our orphanage build. They sold out and added another $51,000.”

The roots of the latest incarnation of Cooper’s dream came about a year ago, he said, when he saw photographs of children “living in the slum in their trash houses wearing school uniforms.”

“These were children who would attend Seeds Academy along with several other children from the Kipsongo slum,” he said. “They were also being fed twice a day, six days a week, and medically treated. All that sounds great, but these were not the 86 who are living in the Seeds Children’s home, and it just overwhelmed me that these children were being fed, schooled and medically treated, yet they still lived day-in and day-out, weekends, summer breaks, in a slum that was a threat to their own existence, some more than others.

“In particular, for girls, it was a very, very threatening place, leaving them very vulnerable to not only nature but also to humans. At that time, I believed that we were to build a second orphanage for another 100 girls from Kipsongo slum. That seed of a thought was planted.”

Inquiries into the cost of such an idea led to the $150,000 number.

The idea was overwhelming, Cooper said.

“I’m an educator and a counselor, not a fundraiser,” he said. “How in the world do you garner $150,000?”

He and his wife developed “our own amateurish” DVD, brochure, solicitation card and cover letter and began to visit with people. Those efforts yielded the good sum of $8,000 from their community, “which was wonderful, but there was still a difference of $142,000,” Cooper said.

He then branched out to more national figures, including Oprah Winfrey and DeMarchis. Cooper’s daughter, Charlotte, had previously introduced him to Matilda Jane Clothing.

“Her children loved the clothing, and even a year before I saw those pictures of the children in the slums, Charlotte posted on Facebook, wouldn’t it be nice for the orphans to enjoy Matilda Jane clothes like our children, and people all over the country were willing to purchase a Matilda Jane outfit for all the girls,” Cooper said. “Denise had participated in that, being the owner and philanthropic kind of person she is, a very heartfelt kind of person who not only sells clothes but really represents being what I call very mission- or service-minded. So there were these little connections.”

Charlotte suggested sending a letter of inquiry to DeMarchis, who contacted her to tell her she would love to help but wanted to think about how she could do so. A week later the couple called Cooper.

“To my absolute surprise and shock, she said, ‘Mark, we want to build that orphanage and we will wire $150,000 to you tomorrow.’”

And that hasn’t been their only involvement. Denise, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., has taken a group, including Linda and Charlotte, to Africa to meet the children. David has taken others.

“Since then it’s been like a relationship made in Heaven,” Cooper said. “They have fallen in love with the children, and the children have fallen in love with them. We’ve had additional sponsorship of 15-plus children from that relationship, and they have helped unite siblings — some girls who were in the slum had brothers in the orphanage and vice-versa. These children (in the orphanage) know what happens in the slums because they have experienced the very same things, and when they are given the opportunity to live within the orphanage, they absolutely want the others transported out.”

The new orphanage will be dedicated Aug. 17. The Coopers and the DeMarchises will be there.

Through this phase of his dream, Cooper continues to learn.

“When I was trying to raise $150,000, I was scratching, clawing and responding as if there was no God,” he said. “I didn’t quite know what He was doing, and therefore I had to work harder and harder and harder, and in this experience, I learned to care a lot, work hard and abdicate responsibility.

“I really believe that with every solicitation, God whispers encouraging words. With some it falls on deaf ears. Others have an open mind and heart.

“He whispered, and Denise said, ‘Yes.’”