Sara Cooper: The Brand Ambassador Making an Enduring Impact & A Woman’s Experience of Lou Gehrig’s Disease
by Ilona Kimberly Nagy
On what gets Sara to her desk each morning: “I am really motivated by getting people together and making a difference. It gives me so much satisfaction to make people feel cared for and watch people and businesses bloom when they receive the right advocacy. At the end of the day, all we really have is our quest and our reputation.”
On why she keeps her mom on speed dial: “I don’t think as daughters we sit around enough and talk about how hugely inspirational our mothers are to us. My mother worked as a lawyer in the District Attorney’s office in Trenton and as the Inspector General for the State of New Jersey. But before and after that, I have always been encouraged by her–and by my grandmothers who were big in my life.”
“Did you hear? I broke my hip,” shrugged the smokey-brown eyed Sara Cooper, longtime Titusville-NJ, resident and founder of the marketing firm, Cooper Creative Group. Sara’s neighbor three doors down, Jodi O’Donnell-Ames, described Sara, the friend she first met over mint juleps and towering hats at Sara’s legendary annual Kentucky Derby neighborhood party as both “dynamic and compassionate.”
It’s a warm and disarming blend that put me immediately at ease as Sara greeted me at the end of her newly-constructed wooden ramp to her front door on a sandal-wearing late Spring morning. Sara talked about her recent injuries and follow up hip-replacement surgery as well as her ongoing five-hour doctor’s appointments in a calm ticking off a checklist kind of voice. The good news was that her physical therapists had told her it looked like she was healing, not always a predictable outcome in ALS patients.
Sara pointed me in the direction of her adjoining sitting room in her wheelchair, her forearms swift and strong on the wheels–to talk about her life, family, business as well as her cherished tribe of women friends.
Sara has been on a community-building quest since she started and ran her first anti-pollution club called The Pollution Stoppers at the age of eight.
“I got us in the paper! The Pollution Stoppers had regular meetings, and everyone paid dues. I might have been a bit bossy, but I am still friends with the members!” Sara laughed. One such Pollution Stopper member, Mary Jo Harris, remains one of Sara’s closest friends–and is leading Sara’s GoFundMe campaign. Mary Jo’s mother, Grace, is now Sara’s nurse.
“My relationships are strong and deep. So many people have rallied around me. I know I’m lucky.”
Leaning back, Sara smoothed her floral-patterned dress to her knee with an old-fashioned genteel gesture, an easy smile in her gaze. Billy Holiday crooned softly from a speaker streaming Pandora on the other corner of the room. Right behind Sara, a portrait of her grandfather Albert Cooper Junior, a soccer goalie in the 1928 Olympics, hung on the wall.
Growing up in central New Jersey, Sara attended local private schools including Stuart Country Day School, a place to which she grew so attached she didn’t want to leave when she transferred to Princeton Day School in sixth grade. After a transitional year, during the time of her parent’s divorce, Sara found her niche and started playing goalie on the soccer team. “To play goalie, what you really need is attitude” Sara laughed.
After high school graduation, Sara packed up to study economics at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and earned her B.S in Business Administration and Finance from Boston University. From the mid-eighties to mid-nineties, Sara entered the fast-paced field of finance. But while she developed new businesses, she found herself itching to explore other options. “It wasn’t the perfect job, but I had a mortgage to pay. I was really happy in other ways. I loved my friends and I was passionate about throwing dinner parties.” In those parties Sara found another calling when two high school friends named Liza Stewardson and Lolly Dennison mentioned Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Deliberating for almost a year, Sara made a mid-career swerve.
“I had to tell my parents I wanted to move from banking to culinary school where I would work the line in a kitchen! I remember I kept calling my mom because I had a lot of tough decisions to make. I still call her.” Sara’s mother, Mary Jane Cooper, who attended law school (Rutgers School of Law) in her thirties, was someone she could talk to about career challenges, as she herself had reinvented herself professionally.
On top of her mother’s example, Sara’s love for business likely began in a Trenton household where she sat underneath the stairs at a tiny desk next to her grandmother. “I would watch her take care of all of the invoices. I knew she was very smart.”
To the shock–and against the advice of her doctor–Sara insisted on driving herself home after the appointment. Whatever obstacles have come since, you might say, Sara has placed herself in the driver’s seat as much as possible ever since.
“I can say that there are so many people who love Sara and I know personally that it’s not always easy to invite people into your home and your life when you are battling something that is challenging. However, once you find that rhythm of coordinating help, it is life changing to feel supported,” reflected Jodi O’Donnell Ames, who knows the needs ALS families face directly. Her husband Kevin passed away from ALS in 2001 when her daughter Alina was three. O’Donnell-Ames founded Hope Loves Company with her husband who lost his wife, Tina to ALS in 2000. Hope Loves Company is the only nonprofit for family and caregivers of ALS in the country.
The community that has gathered around Sara since her diagnosis had long been in place–her mother and family, her loving husband Mike, and those women who Sara calls her girl tribe (which spans well beyond the 50 friends who will be at her door in a snap and is led by childhood friend Mary Jo Harris and former catering business partner Beverly Mills as well as the friend who was at her side at the time she was diagnosed, Patrice Coleman-Boatwright whose daughter Kyle is Sara’s VP and Editor-in-Chief of Cooper Creative Group ). It also includes her clients, regional business chambers, such as the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, and the medical team at Temple University.
“I want to use the skills and experience I have to raise awareness. I show a face of ALS that you don’t always see in the news–a woman with ALS. I mention it all the time, but this statistic haunts me. Every 90 minutes someone is diagnosed with ALS and every 90 minutes someone dies. The faces of ALS are diverse–and the expenses and caregiving needs are overwhelming for all of them,” said Sara, who made time to talk with me in between meetings, doctors’ visits and an intensive physical therapy regimen.
“I treat my diagnosis like a business client. I want to focus on solutions and connect with others who are doing so much amazing work. That’s how we will get to better outcomes. There is Jodi at Hope Loves Company. There is I Am ALS, a patient-led advocacy group. There are so many friends including my clients who all want to help. I want to help others. I have a lot to be thankful for.”
Tell me more about the women who inspired you early on. How influential were your mother and grandmothers in your life?
Oh, they were very influential. My parents were young when I was born. 20 years old. So, I was very fortunate to have two grandmothers who lived close by when my mom went back to college. I was the first grandchild and the only granddaughter. They gave me such a sense of confidence and they were so incredibly important to who I became. They were from the forties. They babysat for me frequently. Their love and support for me enabled me to get through some of the hardest times of my life.
You trace the stirrings of your entrepreneurial spirit back to your grandmother on your mother’s side: Filomena. Tell me a bit more about her.
My Grandmother Filomena (or I called her Nanny) lived in a house on a corner on Cuyler avenue with a front porch. It was such a place of love. My grandmother kept all of the books for the family business. Remember this was pre-computer time. She wrote detailed reports. My mother still has those ledgers. I would sit there and work right alongside her. She would do anything for me. She had a hard life and passed away at 67. I learned from her about how to deal with adversity. She cared so much about other people. She had five brothers who absolutely adored her. She was very much a matriarch.
What about Kate?
My Father’s mother was Kate Cooper. She was my other babysitter. She was first generation Irish. Her mother was a cook for a family in Trenton. My grandmother was a good cook. I spent more time with her than other sitters. I used to love sitting on her sun porch with her. We used to play a game called “Locked in the Car.” I’d pretend to be in a meeting and answer the phone. I’d say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t talk right now. I’m in an important meeting.” I’d beg her to play over and over again–and she would do anything for me. Kate was loving, poised and so funny! I definitely have my sense of humor from Kate.
Tell me more about the Pollution Stoppers, your first nonprofit enterprise. How did you come up with that? What motivated you?
It was before environmentalism was in the news, but I was motivated by making a difference. We had a secretary and a treasurer. We created a scrapbook about it. My brother Albert was in the club as were a bunch of neighborhood kids who lived in the Mountainview area of Ewing.
We held an Easter egg hunt, summer fairs, a Halloween event, and Christmas caroling. We would send out literature. We used construction paper and crayons. Our office was in our family’s basement. We raised money for The Trenton Times Kiwanis Club camp fund. So, we’d send the money in, and then our name would be listed in the paper. I liked PR even then! Really, my mother encouraged all of that and made it possible.
At 15, when I moved to Hopewell I started a catering business. I don’t know if would surprise people, but I absolutely love entertaining combined with business. I love setting a table. I love feeding people. I am a born caregiver, whether it’s in my business or in my home. I had business cards made up. It was called “Parties by Sara.” I did have a few clients
My boyfriend’s mother at the time, Carol Atkin, had a very successful catering business in Princeton. Parties etc. She was one of the “IT” caterers. She would hire me to help do prep work in the kitchen and be a server at parties. She went on to be quite successful in New York in the field of party planning. She was a huge influence and taught me about style and placement of things. Elegance. She had an old school attention to detail. I love attention to detail, which I think is a big part of how I do business.
What was one of the scariest times of your life–and how did you deal with it?
When I was working in banking, the entire company got investigated by the FBI. It was the worst time of my life. Ninety percent of my friends were involved in the case, so I wasn’t permitted to talk to any of them about it. I was terrified. The FBI agent who questioned me actually put a gun down on the table between us while we talked! I was also followed sometimes. I dealt with it by hiring a great lawyer and calling my mom everyday. I figure if I could get through that awful time I could get through anything.
What’s a tough decision you are now glad you made?
I’d have to say that it was when I chose to switch from banking to culinary school. Once I got the idea, it took me over a year to make the decision to go to culinary school, I worked up the nerve to tell my boss. He was a Marine who had a grenade on his desk with the caption “take a number.” That’s the kind of character he was. His initial impression was that I was going back to school for an MBA, but when I told him it was culinary school, he said, “good for you.” And the bank found me a job so that I could work part time.
I really got my mojo back at culinary school. I devoured cookbooks and magazines. I practiced all the time. I absolutely found my passion. I never would have done it without my mother’s support. We talked about it, and she encouraged me. It was the early nineties. It was a Professional Chef’s Program –an 18-month program with two different tracks–savory or sweet.
Ha! Were you savory or sweet?
I chose Savory. It’s more free flowing in creativity – and in spicing up recipes. I love cookbooks but I also love freedom in jazzing up my dishes. I won an award for cleanliness.
Was this around the time you moved back to New Jersey?
Yes, I was still working at the bank, but I decided to move home. In 1994 I started my own business in catering. It just made more sense to come home since I knew a lot of people. I dove right in. The thing is I’m a cowgirl. If I don’t know something, I figure it out later. I haven’t figured out this ALS, but I can figure out a lot.
Was this when you launched your award-winning Four Girls Catering Company local catering company with Beverly Mills, and how you came to know Patricia Tee?
Not quite yet. I first started on my own, but I began to look for another job and heard from my friend Joe, who worked at ShopRite Liquors, that Flavors, which my now close friend Beverly Mills owned, was looking for help. But I didn’t know Bev when I first moved back.
I met Patricia Tee through Stuart Country Day School. She was a parent volunteer. She really became my rock and taught me to see things with big eyes. She introduced us to new clients. Four Girls linked us to so many people. Bev Mills knew Patrice Coleman-Boatwright, who at that time was on the YWCA of Trenton Board of Directors. The YWCA’s focus is empowering women and girls, and Patrice nominated us for an award that we received – Business of the year.
I had contacts at different newspapers. I worked in some local restaurants and the sexism you read about is real. A man burned me on purpose.
You have worked with local businesses for a long time. Tell me about the founding and growth of Cooper Creative Group.
Our tagline is: We will be your brand’s best advocate. We had the idea to bring sophisticated strategies and processes to small businesses who might not otherwise be able to afford them. I saw a huge need when I was working in the advertising industry. Many small businesses didn’t have a cohesive strategy.
Cooper Creative will stay right with you in the weeds and help you develop your brand. Your brand is so important because it’s what you are delivering to your customer. You have to stay true to your brand. You can have a snappy dappy website and a fancy receptionist, but if your product doesn’t deliver your brand, then your reputation will suffer.
Congratulations on winning the Enduring Impact Award from the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. It is well deserved and has given you another way to share your message. What would you like to see in the future?
There is not yet an available “roadmap” resource to aid a newly diagnosed ALS patient in navigating all of this. I have found it personally very helpful to create such a roadmap for myself. Ultimately, I hope to create a publicly available resource for other newly diagnosed ALS patients to create their own roadmap and also to further raise awareness in our community about this disease. My work as a marketing consultant, which I continue to do, and giving back to my community, are both incredibly important to me. My goal is to remain as strong as possible for as long as possible so that the work I’m doing can also help others in the future.
I always ask women what the theme song for their quest would be. What’s yours? Ha! Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.
Some Other Articles About Sara Sara Cooper has mobilized a community of every age group. She’s used her talent for networking and messaging to raise awareness about medical practices and support systems for caregivers of ALS patients and their entire families.
Danielle Gletow wrote about her interview with Sara Cooper following the Chamber of Commerce Event in her August 8, 2019 article.
In “Traveling through Life with a Purpose,” photographer Kapu Patel showcased Sara as part of his YouShine Movement – Bodies That Tell Stories:
Amita Mehta’s interviewed Sara Cooper on RVNTV.
Kyle Boatwright has written periodic posts on Cooper Creative Group blog: The one on February 4, 2016, “Clever Minds for Clever People – An Inside Look at the Cooper Creative Group,” is a touching tribute to Sara Cooper.
Check out this viral Real Woman profile of Sara if you haven’t seen it. It includes information on the right to try advocacy and the latest ALS medical research. Journalist Jess Downey concluded, Sara Cooper Won’t Back Down from ALS.
Sara’s Go Fund Me page has as its goal far more than funding her personal needs. The purpose is clearly
to support education and awareness of ALS.
Additional Resources About ALS
Hope Loves Company: https://www.hopelovescompany.org
I AM ALS: https://iamals.org/
Every year thousands of people find themselves unexpectedly facing an ALS diagnosis, with on average two to five years to live. ALS, like cancer, affects every age, race, and gender. When you calculate families and friends touched by this disease, it totals over one million Americans every year. Year after year this number grows, not because ALS is an incurable disease, but because it is simply an underfunded one. — Kathleen Rooney, Marketing and Content Lead at I AM ALS.