Sara Cooper has been a commercial real estate lender, an event planner and a marketing guru in her professional career. The founder of Cooper Creative Group has even mastered the culinary arts.
In recent times, however, she has found herself grieving over the loss of who she used to be. “I loved to entertain and set an exquisite table. I am a trained chef, and now I can’t lift a plate,” she says.
Cooper’s muscles are wasting away. In November, she was diagnosed with ALS, the progressive neurodegenerative disease.
ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, patients lose the ability to move, breath or swallow. There is no cure.
“Your body gets tired at the end of the day. You’re tired because your trying to do the things you used to, but you can’t,” she says.
Cooper views her diagnosis as an opportunity to spread awareness for ALS. She wants to develop a guide for people who are newly diagnosed with the disease, a map to help them navigate ALS’ many and confusing roads.
“There is a lot of information out there, and my hope is that I stay well enough to create a resource for newly diagnosed people to use,” the Titusville resident says.
In recognition of her many years of service in the community as a marketing consultant, as well as her bravery in the face of a difficult diagnosis, she received the 2019 Impact Award at the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Women of Achievement Awards Breakfast on Thursday, June 20, at 8:30 a.m. at TPC Jasna Polana. The other honorees are Jodi O’Donnell-Ames of Hope Loves Company, Susan Michel of Glen Eagle Advisors LLC, Jigna Rao of Mercer County Community College, and Cynthia Ricker of Bryn Mawr Trust. Visit www.princetonmercerchamber.org.
Cooper fell in 2016 while putting up Halloween decorations, breaking her left arm and right leg. She recovered almost 100 percent from those injuries thanks to months of physical therapy. She was in a wheelchair for four months.
One therapist asked if there had been any falls before that. “I realized that during the course of the year 2016 I had probably fallen four or five times,” Cooper says. “If she hadn’t asked me that, I wouldn’t have thought about it. But when she did I was like, ‘Oh.’ Because a 54-year-old woman doesn’t usually fall four or five times a year.”
Cooper recalls being overwhelmed by everything she had to do after receiving her diagnosis. She had many questions and few ideas of what to do or where to go to get treatment.
“I was initially shocked and very scared,” she says. “I was fortunate to have personal resources to help guide me through some of that.”
She depended on people she has gotten to know throughout her personal and professional life whom she refers to as her “tribe.” Now her friends and family are also helping her create a user-friendly plan for others who might not have such support, using her experiences and the information she has compiled as a guide.
Cooper grew up in Ewing and Hopewell. She graduated from Princeton Day School and Boston University, where she earned a degree in finance. Her parents were both lawyers.
She had a good career going as a real estate lender but started to question whether she was doing was her life’s work. She decided to go to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts to get trained as a professional chef.
“I changed my whole life to do that. I’d been a banker in Boston on a career track that was pretty good, but it wasn’t rocking my world,” she says.
Cooper and her husband, Mike Delehanty, left Boston to settle back in her hometown, where he is a certified financial planner and principal with 21st Century Advisors in Titusville. There she and some business partners, including Beverly Mills of Hopewell, created Four Girls, an event-planning and catering company.
Later she founded Cooper Creative Group, which she describes as a consortium that provides sophisticated marketing and branding solutions to small businesses and nonprofit organizations “who might not be able to afford an expensive agency.”
She describes her role with CCG as a sort of general contractor, putting clients in touch with experienced specialists who can help them with what they need, be that writing help, website development, graphic design, or anything else.
After her diagnosis, she waited to share the news with family and friends as well as clients. She officially went public about having ALS on March 1, and says it was not too difficult to deliver the news — not as difficult it was for those receiving it.
“Once I went public, the support from our local communities, both personal and professional, has been tremendous. People I have never met before have asked if they can help,” she says.
Her oldest friend, her brother, and her sister-in-law have created a nonprofit corporation called Help For ALS in her honor. They established a GoFundMe page for that to date has raised $28,000 from 160 contributors toward a goal of $100,000.
“The money is about making a difference and raising awareness,” Cooper says. “I am trying to utilize my experiences personally and all the other things that are out there so that its not this overwhelming thing.”
She says it is important for anyone with ALS to have a team along with a team quarterback. ALS is a “family community disease,” Cooper says. The caregiver’s piece is “huge.”
Cooper says her husband has helped her get to a place where “it’s okay if the picture on the wall is crooked or the pumpkin wasn’t carved for Halloween.”
Cooper says they try to live each day together and to the fullest. “We look for things to feel good about as a couple,” she says.
Cooper has also joined the board of directors of Hope Loves Company. Her friend, Jodi O’Donnell-Ames, founded her Hopewell-based nonprofit to help the children and families of ALS victims after her first husband died of the disease in 2001.
“I’m trying to be a resource for her so that anything I’ve learned from my journey with ALS I can help her navigate what she’s going through,” O’Donnell-Ames says.
Cooper says she frequently receives letters and cards. She recalls one letter from a woman she knows that moved her to tears.
“I wasn’t crying because I have ALS, I was crying because of her kindness. The love and support that I receive is more humbling than the diagnosis,” she says. “That’s the way people love me. It’s bigger than my family. Sometimes bad stuff happens and you work around it.”
Although she is battling the disease, Cooper says she continues to be as involved as before with Cooper Creative Group. “I do have a new client that is taking a lot of my time, and that is Sara Cooper’s ALS,” she says.
She is using the relationships she has built over her career to spread awareness about ALS, especially to the non-ALS population. Given how much Cooper has done for her community, there is a large group of people who want to give back, O’Donnell-Ames says.
Cooper hopes that by sharing her story, she can help open up the conversation surrounding the difficult topic.
“I’m determined to make a difference, not for Sara Cooper, but for the ALS population. If I make a difference for one person who feels they can talk openly about ALS and taboo subjects, then I am happy,” she says.