The Story of Brian “Coop” Cooper
He calls once a week, eager to hear about what I’m doing + what’s new. He always has new friends, cracks jokes you can’t believe he just said, and is laughing that vibrant, one of a kind squeal. Ever since Coop came into my life, it hasn’t been the same. I thought those were good enough reasons to fly out to Greenville, South Carolina + capture a day in his life.
This is Coop’s story.
“everyone has a disability, you can just see mine.”
“I was fortunate enough to be born into a Christian family 39 years ago. When I was growing up, my parents never treated me any different than my older brother Sean. Although physically, we were very different. While my brother was a healthy, athletic guy, I was born with cerebral palsy + scoliosis, and in a wheelchair.
I was taught that God put me on this earth, into this family, for a reason. I wasn’t any different from anyone else in God’s eyes.”
“My dad always made things adaptable for me to participate in life as best as I could. I backpacked in the mountains on his back, I swam in the lake like a fish every summer, and I spent hours upon hours on the family ski boat in a specially strapped seat. My brother made a special adaptive table for me to control video games. I was normal–but I wasn’t.
I had a disability + I knew it. But what I didn’t know was how important that would be to others as I grew older.”
“Every morning, Coop’s mom wakes him up, flips him from his stomach to his back, and gives him a sponge bath. In this case, we were staying at the home of Coop’s best friend, Keith, so he took over the care-taking. Coop isn’t paralyzed–his body is just incredibly stiff. It’s difficult to move anything, but he has feeling everywhere.”
Coop has help getting from his bed to his chair, where he will remain until the end of the day. Keith gets the chair back in position + makes sure Coop is comfortable.
“I have to get help with almost everything I do: eating, transportation, bathing, personal care. I can’t open doors for girls. I think about getting married someday, and the facts are that I might not meet someone. But if I got married, I couldn’t help the people I do as much, although sometimes I would like the companionship.”
“there are some sacrifices I have to make. sometimes I gotta realize I do have a disability & I can’t do everything.”
“I can still show able-bodied people I can do stuff. They don’t even know I can think for myself some days–I wish people wouldn’t just assume things. I get frustrated when I have to keep repeating myself, or when people don’t think I can do something. I usually have to prove myself. But if I was in their shoes, maybe they haven’t been around a person with a disability. When I overthink, I create things bigger than they are. I could get such a headache from holding onto things, so I just let them go.
Sometimes I do a test where I wait to see if people will come up + talk to me in situations. Usually they don’t, because they don’t know what to say + they don’t want to be uncomfortable. But I would tell them to just come up + talk to me like they would any other person.”
“I love being in a wheelchair so I can help people. I can tell people, especially the ones in wheelchairs, that Jesus looks at your heart. not anything else.”
After getting ready for the day, Coop’s mom, Peggy, loads him into his van + we head into downtown Greenville to do some of Coop’s favorite things.
“Sometimes I don’t want to ask for help + I think I can fix it. I struggle with that. I love getting help from people, it allows them to get to know me better + then I can start joking with them + we can be friends.
People wonder if I ever get in a bad mood–do I get down on myself and have hard days? Yeah. I’m not gonna sit here + tell you I don’t. I get down watching people playing the sports that I love, or driving cars–the things I wish I could do. But I try not to dwell on those things.”
“I know God gave me abilities + an outgoing personality. and I know I live a pretty great life. four wheels are faster than two legs.”
It’s easy to take for granted having accessibility anywhere; at every turn, Coop looks for an escalator or a ramp so he can get around town.
The list of things Coop cannot do seems to be endless. However, by some miracle, the list of things he can do is longer.
We arrived in downtown Greenville, for a day of exploring the city + living Coop’s average day.
“I was friendly + outgoing with a lot friends at school, both with + without disabilities. I mainstreamed from fifth grade on into typical classrooms. In high school, I realized most kids with disabilities just hung around other disabled kids, never really interacting with other able-bodied kids. I thought this was odd, because I always went to the ball games + to movies with friends; I hung out at the mall, and did everything able-bodied kids did.”
“I know for sure I got made fun of behind my back. but I usually don’t give people a chance to make fun of me before they meet me because I’ll just go up & start talking to them.”
“All my friends with disabilities only seemed to live in a shell, going to school + hanging around each other only, doing the same thing every day. These guys were my friends, and I wanted to help them. But what could I do?
Then one day, a man named Skeeter started talking to me at school + I ended up going to a football game with him. We quickly became friends, and he took myself + a bunch of other kids to a Young Life camp called Windy Gap–I was hooked!”
“Young Life was for me, and certainly Jesus was for me.”
“I knew I had to get my other friends with disabilities to join us. I had to let them know that Jesus loved us, even though we have disabilities. In fact, Jesus works through me because I do have cerebral palsy + because I am in a wheelchair. I could not truly identify with these kids if I didn’t feel their pain. Skeeter helped provide transportation for my friends with disabilities, and we began bringing them to football games. Some of my other able-bodied friends joined us, going to camp at Windy Gap + helping out.
I graduated high school in 1999 with my class. I attended trainings to become a Young Life leader, and returned to my high school as a volunteer, working with the special education classes. I’m still there today doing both Young Life + helping the kids. They trust me + confide in me. Skeeter + our team hold Young Life club twice a month at the school. Our group, called Capernaum, has really grown.”
“when people see that you’re loved & have an inner happiness, they want to know why. and we are always ready to tell them.”
“I’ve spent a lot of summers working at Young Life camps. I even became the first Young Life assigned team member with a disability in the South East, coordinating summer staff at Windy Gap. After listening to all the college kids’ stories, it helped me to see we are all handicapped in some way. After having me as their boss, they didn’t take anything for granted, they were better servants, and they believed what I said about everyone having disabilities.
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who have become close friends through Young Life, and I keep in touch with people from all over the US. Together, we have used all of our talents to help kids know Jesus Christ.”
And that’s where our paths first crossed, seven years ago. I came to Windy Gap when I was 17 to be part of the camp staff, and seeing Coop shine with his kids was one of the most enlivening things I’d witnessed. We only talked for two days in person before we parted ways. Little did I know we had just started a lifelong friendship. But I’m sure he knew.
Keith is one of the people who spends the most time with Coop. He remembers his memories at camp with Coop as the sweetest times: “I love when we get a few moments to sit + talk while the kids are at free time. I always get up early to spend time with God before the day begins, and one morning we got up together + went to the porch, watching the sun come up over the mountains. I will remember that morning forever. Coop is aware of things we don’t always take the time to notice. Yet he’s taken the time to notice those things.”
“I’m glad God has me in this wheelchair because it’s given me opportunities to share Christ.”
Our day started in Greenville by stopping at the mall to check out the music store. Coop often takes kids here + spends time giving them a fun afternoon, eating lunch + making Build-A-Bears.
“He also has a sense of humor, and a great laugh–even when you don’t want him to laugh,” Keith chuckles, mimicking that squeal. “I pick on Coop + he picks on me. We don’t look down at him like the poor person with a disability. He’s a friend just like any other, and he comes under equal fire. It’s more of a true friendship, I’m not just trying to be nice + earn brownie points. People will come up to Coop sometimes + talk to him like he’s a little kid. But he’s very gracious–he doesn’t hold it against anybody.”
“I still get talked down to. but I love little kids–they hold nothing back. this world would be a whole lot better if we were more like them.”
Coop also loves bringing friends to the movies, so we went to see Wonder, a film about a boy with facial deformities who goes to school for the first time when he’s 10. After fighting a year of bullying + trying to make friends, he changes the atmosphere of his school with revolutionary kindness + courage.
“never give up on anything, even in challenges, believe in Christ. He will get you through anything,” Coop remarked as we walked out of the theater.”
Keith sees that revolutionary kindness in Coop, as he comments, “Coop has one of the most loving hearts, and a genuine concern for people. If there’s something weighing heavy on my heart, I know I can talk to him about it, and when he says he’ll pray about it, I know he will. With some people, they don’t even hear what I was asking them to pray about.
“One story comes to mind–when we went to meet the Carolina Panthers. We had met all the famous football players; Luke Kuechly, DeAngelo Williams, got autographs, pictures + even shoes from Cam Newton. I thought, ‘this can’t get any better, let’s just head out to get pizza,’ but Coop was concerned we might hurt the feelings of the other players, the ones we didn’t even know. He expressed that concern + we stayed to meet them. You get to see his heart + his compassion for people in small ways like that.”
“He takes the time to communicate, sending encouraging texts to people, but he never sends a mass text. He sends individual messages to each person. People always say, ‘hey we should get together,’ or ‘hey I should give them a call,’ but Coop will call.”
Our last stop of the evening was at the annual Capernaum Christmas Party, where Coop welcomed his favorite kids + dressed up as Santa Coop, like he does every year to put a smile on their faces.
“He’s a role model to the kids with disabilities,” Keith explains, “he teaches them that you don’t have to feel sorry for yourself, that you are able to do whatever you’re capable of, to the best of your ability, to not be ashamed or too proud to ask for help, but not to use your disability as an excuse. He is also like a counselor to the kids; they can talk to him about their struggles + he’s able to give teenagers the wisdom of his age.
“A lot of teenagers can’t see how life is going to be 10 or 20 years from now. Coop helps them have hope. Being in a wheelchair helps Coop witness to people about Jesus + gives strength to his testimony.
“One of the neat things about Coop is that he wants help. He walks you through how to help him with personal care + such. I have a problem with wanting to do everything on my own, but Coop helps me to see we all need to depend on God. He’s more attuned to that.”
“I don’t do Capernaum because I get to be in charge of a team. that’s just a title. I would do it even if I wasn’t the team leader, because I couldn’t do anything without people.”
“Young Life Capernaum gives kids with intellectual + developmental disabilities the chance to experience adventure + fun, developing fulfilling friendships + challenging their limits. Capernaum moves through barriers, including isolation + marginalization, believing the lives of teens with disabilities, as well as their able-bodied friends, are transformed by the shared experience of Young Life.” –Young Life Capernaum Website
A high school student holds the microphone for Coop to tell the kids how loved they are.
We headed home at the end of the night, after a day full of life. Coop gets in bed around 6pm every night, so his parents can have alone time.
“God’s got my legs waiting for me in Heaven. when I get there, all the wheelchairs won’t come in the gates. the first thing I’m gonna do when I get to Heaven is thank Jesus for my wheelchair. and then run.”
From Coop’s detailed look into his everyday, we’re given an appreciation for the way he sees every obstacle + setback. The power of outlook is everything; Coop turns his ‘disabilities’ into opportunities to give the love of Jesus. His deep investment into people turns a seemingly ordinary life into one of heroically ordinary love.