MacDella Cooper: on finding your calling
Model-philanthropist MacDella Cooper, 38, has been dubbed “Liberia’s Angel.” As founder and president of the MacDella Cooper Foundation (MCF), this Manhattanite is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty in her native Liberia, providing orphaned and abandoned children with an education and the basic necessities of healthy food, safe shelter, clothing and access to health care.
This month in Woman ChangeMAKER, MacDella shares her journey from teenage refugee to scholarship student in New Jersey, and from a career in fashion to her current efforts with the MCF Academy – Liberia’s first tuition-free boarding school for hundreds of children in Charlesville, Margibi County. [get the pdf of this article]
WCM: Fourteen years comprising two brutal civil wars in Liberia ended in 2003. During that time, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and more than one million were displaced. How did the conflicts affect you, and shape you?
MDC: I had a normal, contented childhood in Monrovia, although I didn’t really have anything to compare it against. My mother was a single mom until she got remarried to a wonderful man [MacDella’s biological father, a radiologist, left her mother, a nurse, before MacDella was born]. We had a pretty decent life, including a chauffeur to drive my brothers and me to school every day.
But in 1990, changes in the political arena altered the course of our lives forever. It was the start of civil war, and what was normal became abnormal. As a 13-year-old girl, it impacted my way of thinking, my view on life. I learned that what you have today can be taken away in a minute.
I went from being a happy kid to being in a world where my stepfather – an attorney, and a wonderful father to me – got killed. My world was turned completely upside-down, and I couldn’t make sense of it. Young girls were being raped, and young boys were made into child soldiers. Bombs were coming from all directions, and I remember our next-door neighbors’ house was hit.
Call it divine inspiration, I had the idea to make myself look like a boy – it would have been easier to become a fighter than a sex slave. So I cut my hair, which kept me alive. Thankfully, I didn’t have to fight…or worse.
WCM: Some refugees lived in camps for more than a decade. You ended up in the Ivory Coast for a couple years before you and your two older brothers – Harry and Valentine – came to America in 1993 to be reunited with your mother. What were your first impressions here?
MDC: Another new reality for me were the ghettos of America. I thought, what is this place? This wasn’t the America we saw on TV.
That really drew me to myself, and I started to ask myself a lot of questions about my existence – why am I here? What does it all mean? I knew what I’d experienced wasn’t how life was meant to be lived, but also that there was a reason for my experiences.
I looked internally to figure it all out.
WCM: Meanwhile, you attended the Barringer High School in Newark, where you ranked third in a class of 1,200 students. From there, you landed a full ride to The College of New Jersey, earned a degree in communications, and started a career in modeling, fashion and event planning.
MDC: For a long time, I wanted nothing more than to surround myself with beauty. I realize now that I was running away – I was still too young to fully understand the reason for my experiences.
I was drawn into this amazing world, a total contrast to the previous 10 years. I had a jet-setting life and jet-setting friends. I was invited to all the hot parties in some of the world’s greatest cities.
I’m not a dark person – I like to see the light and beauty in everything, and I didn’t want to see any darkness anymore. I was doing extremely well with the Ralph Lauren division of Jones New York, but something didn’t feel right.
Then, watching the media coverage of the one-year anniversary of 9/11, I suddenly fell apart. Everything that had happened to me – my own near-death experiences – came pouring out. I was plagued with the reality of everything that’s wrong with the world, and how unfair it is for children to be denied the opportunity to become whatever they are capable of becoming.
I realized I couldn’t just sit back. I had to do something.
WCM: You started talking to your friends, many of them celebrities, and soliciting their support. You collected nonperishables – like canned goods and toiletries – as well as clothing for women and children. You also started a scholarship fund.
MDC: Yes, I had to start somewhere. And a good feeling began to build inside of me.
In 2004, the MacDella Cooper Foundation was established and, 18 years after I left Liberia, I returned. I saw how kids were living in orphanages, and the deplorable conditions of those orphanages. So we set about renovating orphanages, and providing decent beds to sleep in.
I remember one particular Christmas Day, which is the biggest holiday of all in Liberia, when we planned a big party for the kids. A little girl, Jessica – she was 8 years old at the time – asked who the festivities were for. For you, I told her. Then she asked what she had to do in return. I told her she didn’t have to do anything. She just looked up at me and smiled.
That smile marks the day I committed to helping more kids.
WCM: To date, your foundation has helped some 600 children from six different orphanages.
MDC: Yes, but we’ve had some disappointments. Some of the relief items we sent to orphanages were misused. A lot of orphanage directors were in it for themselves. We’d visit, and not see the things we sent for the kids.
As well, I wanted to see kids transformed by education – a mission that wasn’t shared by the orphanage directors.
WCM: Is that what inspired the MCF Academy?
MDC: It was more and more apparent that we needed to have our own place – a safe place – where kids would get clean drinking water and three meals a day consisting of healthy, locally-grown foods. A place where they’d have their own beds, get an education and be assured access to health care. A place where they’d be happy, and where they would learn kindness and how to make wise decisions for their lives.
So, with a lot of prayer and the help of friends, we bought eight acres of land and built two 10,000-foot buildings. We have 120 students now, many from orphanages that the government shut down. We treat them like students, though – not orphans.
WCM: In addition to bringing hope and a future to unwanted and orphaned children, especially girls, you’ve also started working with women all over Liberia.
MDC: I took a wide look at the problems in Africa, and realized that empowering women to take care of themselves and their children is paramount.
Unfortunately, foreign aid is crippling our society, and keeping the people of Africa on the sidelines – instead of engaging them as participants in making decisions for their own lives – is part of the problem. Far better to educate people and train them, and provide them the knowledge and skills to develop themselves.
When you break the mold that makes women feel helpless and powerless – when you get then to transcend their limiting point-of-view that there’s nothing they can do to change their lot – then you change the immediate environment. Women start to take care of themselves and their families, and to earn their own money as a babysitter, a housekeeper, or selling things. And the men begin to see them as something other than property…they start to stand up for the human rights of their mothers, sisters and wives.
WCM: As an adult, you endured more personal hardships, including the death of the father of two of your three young children. What brings you strength?
MDC: My faith. And my belief that he’s in a better place, and that I’m doing what I was born to do.
I’m driven by passion, but I’m also a realistic person. Every experience I’ve had in my life has brought me to this point. I can’t change the whole world, but I can help a few hundred kids.
Life is unpredictable. I thought I had everything, but then I lost everything. I learned that I was the same person, and that I could be at peace within myself, either way. Material possessions having nothing to do with happiness.
When we’re in a position to do something, we have to build each other up. My daughter, Ella, often gets awards for being the most caring and the most loving child in her class. I’m so proud of that.
WCM: What’s next for Liberia?
MDC: I’m very hopeful. Since her inauguration in 2006, with the help of the United Nations and the international community, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – our first female president – has restored peace to Liberia.
Roads and infrastructure have been developed, and she’s tried to institute good governance. But that same mentality of hogging what’s mine because it might be gone tomorrow persists – and with it comes corruption.
We’re a democratic government, though, which is a huge step in the right direction. People can say what they please about politics.
By educating as many Liberian children as I can, I know they’ll contribute to the economic redevelopment of the country later on. And by opening more doors for women, they’ll begin to see themselves as leaders…not followers, or helpless bystanders. It’s all about teaching women and adolescent girls to engage in their communities more positively, and more powerfully.
Dividing her time between Africa and New York City, MacDella’s dual citizenship enables her to proudly call both Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Barack Obama “My President.” In January, MacDella was selected as Global Ambassador for IMPACT Leadership 21; and in February, she received the Philanthropist of the Year Award at the Young, Gifted and Black Entrepreneurial Awards. Other accolades for her philanthropic efforts include the Victor E. Ward Humanitarian Award for community service, the Momentum Women’s Award and The College of New Jersey Humanitarian Award, as well as the Applause Africa Award, The Archbishop of Michael K. Francis Achievement Award and The George W. Cutting Humanitarian Award.