From homeless to helper Award: Years ago, Victoria Cooper was mentally ill and homeless. Now, her efforts on behalf of people with similar problems have won her national recognition.

October 16, 1997|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Though her tasks are heavy, the mood is light for Victoria Cooper, who -- along with others who help those who wander the streets -- holds herself responsible for the needs of Baltimore's mentally ill homeless.

At the same time she helps to find homes for her clients and helps plan a retreat for staff members of the Community Psychiatry Program at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the contents of her Mount Vernon apartment are in boxes as she prepares for a move to Owings Mills. Her greatest worry appears to be how she'll accept an award for the work she does.

Cooper, 43, was recently named National Consumer Case Manager of the Year by the National Association of Case Managers for placing 20 formerly homeless people into apartments and taking many more off the streets -- this, after being homeless and mentally ill herself. But that means she will have to take her first airplane trip to accept the award Oct. 29, because the ceremony is in Orlando, Fla.

'Excited and terrified'

"I'm excited on one hand and terrified on the other hand," Cooper said. "I'll feel better once we land, but then we've got to come back."

Michele Weaver-Johns, a director of the Hopkins program, offered the award as proof that the mentally ill do not fit the stereotype.

"[People think] they act and behave differently, dress differently and think differently," she says of the mentally ill. "This shows what people who have struggled with mental illness are capable of."

Cooper gives full attention to her clients, most of whom come to the center with nothing. She helps them fill out paperwork for housing, treatment, food and clothing, and gives rides to those who need to take tests or pick up medication. She will help shop for groceries, and occasionally takes clients to see their mothers.

For Cooper, this is nothing special.

"What I have done is what I've done in every job I've had," she said. "I don't think that I'm doing anything different than what is normal for me."

She says she sees a lot of herself in her clients. Part of the reason is that she was homeless and suffering from manic depression not long ago.

A 1976 graduate of Towson State University, Cooper spent nearly nine years as a speech pathologist and substitute teacher in the Baltimore school system, then worked for two companies helping the developmentally disabled.

Though she says that signs of her illness manifested themselves during her academic and professional careers, the episodes of what she called voices and racing thoughts emerged near the time of her mother's death in 1986.

When she found that the voices meant she was sick, she quit her job assisting the developmentally disabled at Richcroft Inc. Then she came into conflict with her family, distressed over what she felt was a lack of support to fight the illness. Though she has reconciled with family members, she said they still have a hard time understanding her experience.

"They felt like I wasn't doing anything for myself," Cooper said. "But no one was offering to take me to the hospital. I'd go there and the voices would say, 'Leave,' and I'd walk out. They didn't understand that."

She spent most of 1987 and 1988 sleeping under the steps of a church in eastern Baltimore County, as well as the laundry and storage rooms of an apartment building and buses bound for New York and New Jersey.

"We didn't hear from her for two years," said Jean Cooper of Baltimore, Victoria's older sister. "She wasn't just homeless, but she was amongst the chronically ill homeless. I remember, whenever I heard about an unidentified woman, calling the state police and hoping that it wasn't Vicki."

A priest's greeting of "God bless you" persuaded Victoria Cooper that it was time to leave the streets, though she didn't know where to go or where to place her confidence.

"I didn't know of any shelters," she said. "I know them all now, but I didn't know any back then."

She eventually ended up in a series of shelters before living with a former colleague for about six months. While living with the colleague in the early 1990s, she had an episode that put her in a state psychiatric facility, where she was treated for her illness.

"I hated the thought that I couldn't get out," she said of the hospital. "I learned how to stay out the hard way, by being in it so often."

Turning point

In spring 1995, she took a class in consumer case management at a job training program, which she identified as the turning point in her life. She said she was interested in mental health and needed to work to avoid depression.

"I needed to make something of my life," Cooper said. "I wanted to take the class because I thought it would be interesting working with people who had problems similar to mine."

She came to Hopkins last year, seeing in Weaver-Johns and Christa Taylor, another director of the Hopkins program, "two dynamic women who seemed to have it on the ball."

Weaver-Johns, who said she has reservations about everyone, was attracted to Cooper by her life experience, which makes her valuable as a role model for the people who come to the program for help.

Said Cooper: "I'm not wanting them to go through some of the blocks that I went through. You feel so alone out there."

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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