Her name says it all: Hope.
Hope Cooper is a former Air Force medic staff sergeant, but around the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado, the paraplegic is part camp counselor, part celebrity and all teddy bear.
“Did you see her? She was a champ!” she yells out with a toothy grin to a nearby volunteer group about a fellow kayaker.
Cooper, of San Antonio, Texas, credits the week-long clinic as helping her redefine her life mission, which is triumph through adversity. The Winter Sports Clinic has been a major catalyst in her spiritual and emotional growth since she first attended in 1989 as a shy, withdrawn and depressed Veteran.
“When I first went skiing, I didn’t think I could survive, but I knew I needed to let it go,” she recalls. “I thought ‘This mountain and God is bigger than me. I can’t hold it in anymore.’ But even though I was scared, I thought ‘If I live through this, I will do everything I can do be happy and healthy.’ I came down that mountain and I couldn’t wait to do it again. I thought, ‘If I can do that, I can do anything.’”
Cooper returned this year to provide encouragement to newbies and to connect with old friends. Today she got to do both while kayaking at the Aspen Recreation Center. “Today, I’m a ballerina on water,” she said. “It feels amazing.”
Cooper recalls how being once active in the water brought her life full circle after paralysis.
“The water helped save me from wanting to kill myself,” she said. “I used to swim as a kid and now I can still swim and kayak and enjoy the same things. I might have lost the use of my legs, but I didn’t lose the water. It is this event that changed my life, and taught me to be the best person I can be.”
She initially attended the Winter Sports Clinic for the comradery and to learn new ideas and try new things. The clinic was instrumental in her journey in accepting her new normal after trying everything possible to get herself walking again was unsuccessful.
“I never saw myself as a wheelchair person. But I gave it everything I had and wasn’t able to walk again,” she said. “I came here and saw how others in wheelchairs have families; they are still living life with their chairs. The adaptive equipment can allow people to do everything.”
In her busy, active life before, Cooper says she didn’t take time to smell the roses. But now her congenial nature and positive attitude spreads like sunshine to those around as she slaps high-fives to fellow Veterans and gives a ‘thanks’ or thumbs up to all she sees.
“It’s not ‘Why me?” it is ‘Why not me?’ I try to help in whatever place I am, to give thanks for all I have, and I ask how I can help someone. That joy of giving to others, to listen, to joke, to share a smile, that is what keeps me going,” she said. “My mama told me, ‘Sure, take that time to cry, but find the laughter too,’ so I do that.”
Watching the light she sparks in those around her, it’s easy to see how she fulfills her name. “My heart is full of love; God has truly blessed me.”
Kara Fort joined VA as a contractor in 2016. She is the granddaughter, daughter and sister of Navy Veterans. She works for HMS TECHNOLOGIES, INC a service-disabled, Veteran-owned small business based in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and gold sponsor of the event.