Leslie DeWesplore sees the importance of a strong family unit.
The Jefferson City native and her husband of seven years, Mike, have built that for his two children and Leslie’s four. The couple then became licensed foster parents and cared for more than 50 foster children the past five years.
They were then introduced to a special boy named Cooper, who they took care of at 3 months old. Like all of the DeWesplore children and foster children, Cooper has always had a special place in their hearts and home, and in December 2017 they made it official by legally adopting him.
During their journey as parents and foster parents, Leslie and Mike discovered the best way for families to grow is to keep families together.
“Strong family units help the moral compass for children; they feel good about themselves,” she said. “A strong family unit not only benefits the people in the family, but it also benefits the community.”
From these ideas came a mission: to rally a community together to provide extra resources to families with the intent to minimize the need for state intervention that leads to childhood trauma. As a result, The Cooper Foundation of Missouri was born.
With Leslie at the helm as executive director, the DeWesplore family-ran 501c3 organization started making Mid-Missouri aware of its goal in early February. They have held fundraisers, organized and expanded a mobile food pantry called Cooper’s Care-A-Van and hosted a back to school supply distribution event, with additional activities and events scheduled before the end of this year.
“We want to let the community know we are here and what we can do, not just for foster children but all families,” Leslie said. “We want to build those strong family units. If we can keep them strong, that might keep them out of the foster care system. We have thousands of children waiting for homes in the foster care system. … We can’t prevent them all, but if we can prevent one or two that is a benefit for our community. … We just want to wrap our arms around these families and let them know we got you.”
The idea to become foster parents didn’t cross Leslie and Mike’s minds until Leslie’s daughter Kayleigh said a family member’s children may possibly be removed from her home.
“She asked if we would take them. I said, ‘If we need to, sure.’ Nothing happened, time passed and I thought the kids were OK,” Leslie said. “Then we got the call that they were being taken into custody. We went right to the children’s division, talked to the caseworker and immediately did the background checks and went to court. They were put into our custody. That is how it all started.”
Leslie said 50 to 65 children have stayed with the DeWesplore family the last five years. Some have come in sibling groups, and some have stayed for two or three days, a few weeks and a few months, with about six or seven staying a year or longer. No matter the length of time, each child was welcomed into the home with open arms and treated like any other member of the family.
“The minute they walked in the door, they were part of us,” she said. “We did not treat them any different than we would treat our children and they just adapted.”
If the DeWesplores went to a sporting event, the grocery store or anywhere, the children went with them.
“In the foster care system, they have what is called respite where you can reach out to other foster care parents if you need a babysitter or a break; we rarely use that. The children themselves are coming into an environment they don’t know and we don’t want to take them from something they are now getting to know and then say stay with these people for a few days. They are not only adapting to us, but we are adapting to them,” she said. “I think just letting them see how we do everyday life, they fall into that place. We were very lucky with the kids that we got; they were very well behaved and adapted quite quickly.”
Leslie said often people place stereotypes on the biological parents, not knowing the real reasons why the children are in the foster care system.
“People would say, ‘Their parents are horrible people; they can’t take care of those kids.’ We are all judgmental to some point and I won’t lie, I was like that, too,” she said. “Then, we started to see things differently. It is not that they are all drug users or going to jail. Typically, these are not the kind of people who are coming into foster care system. It is parents just struggling on a day-to-day basis.”
Leslie said many of the parents had lost a job that resulted in losing their home, the skills to afford to put food on the table or proper budgeting to provide for their family.
“People have struggles throughout their lives. Some are more severe than others. But I believe as a foster parent, you can set an example for the parents themselves. You can always be that person that they can rely on, provide a shoulder to lean on and cry, and just to know that their children are in a safe place. … Trying to build a relationship with those parents I think is one of the best things a foster parent can do,” she said. “We make it known that if those families need anything we are a phone call away. If we can help them, we will help.”
A few years ago, Leslie and Mike found out about a young child named Cooper that may come into the foster care system due to a traumatic event he suffered from. He has cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder and a cognitive developmental delay.
“We knew we were on the list, and then we got the call Cooper was in custody and we were going to be the placement,” Leslie said. “At that time he was in the hospital and he remained in the hospital three to four more weeks before we got (to come home). He was in our care from 3 months old until his adoption.”
Leslie said Cooper is almost 4 years old now, but due to his health issues is closer to a 2-year-old level. He has milestones to get to, but he progresses every day, thanks largely to the excellent medical care from his doctors and educational assistance he receives at Special Learning Center. The continued support of Cooper and the DeWesplore family is what encouraged Leslie to create the foundation in her youngest son’s name.
“Everybody gave us such great support … so we thought we need to support the community, too,” she said. “There are things we can do not only for the foster care kids but for the families as a whole.”
Leslie and her daughters began throwing ideas around while meeting at one of her favorite places, The Brew House, but it wasn’t until Leslie was able to take an extended leave from her job at the Missouri Department of Social Services where she was able to get The Cooper Foundation of Missouri fully established.
The first need The Cooper Foundation saw was food, launching a mobile food pantry called Cooper’s Care-A-Van.
“There are certain recipes we use and we send them ingredients to have a family meal, not picking odds and ends and trying to put something together. We try to prepare enough for a meal for a family of four for two to three days if they can stretch that out,” Leslie said. “There are no requirements for that. If you need something you simply reach out to us and we will help. The circumstances don’t matter to us. That is for everything we are doing.”
The foundation’s next big project was Brooklyn’s Backpacks, named after one of Leslie’s two grandchildren.
“For people that live paycheck to paycheck, back to school is stressful. … We decided we are going to open up our Brooklyn’s Backpacks event to the community and to foster care kids,” Leslie said, noting a drive to fill Boston’s Backpacks with supplies was held in late July, and community distribution was held Aug. 4 at the Capital Mall parking lot in Jefferson City. “We had 156 bags ready but we took an order for 55 to 56 more since we ran out. We did about 120 backpacks for foster care children. … Just to see the excitement on those kids’ faces, they were just happy.”
It has been less than a year, but The Cooper Foundation of Missouri is gaining traction for its current services for families and foster children. It helps that the DeWesplores family is strengthening their family unit by working together to help others through the foundation.
Leslie’s daughter Kayleigh Campbell is the advocacy coordinator and her son Benjamin Campbell is the fundraising and research coordinator for the organization, with all of her family, including daughter Jordan, also volunteering their time to assist in building The Cooper Foundation.
The family has already expanded Cooper’s Care-A-Van to help meet basic needs in every aspect of a family’s life.
“We still do the food pantry, which (as of early October) has enough ingredients for 100 meals. We have changed this to a ‘on request’ type of assistance,” she said, noting anyone needing food can contact them via email or through Facebook to make a request. “The Care-A-Van also provides basic necessities like personal hygiene products and paper products (soap, deodorant, toilet paper, diapers, etc.).”
Leslie said they are working to provide duffel bags to case workers for children who come into the foster care system and fundraising to provide winter wear for children in foster care such as coats, hats, gloves, warm socks, etc. She said they hope to distribute those items in early November. They have also reached out to schools, the Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association, doctors and others to let them know the resources they have available and form relationships.
In the future, Leslie would like to create a family center under The Cooper Foundation of Missouri, offering tutoring for children, parenting classes, cooking classes, resume building classes, help for parents wanting to further their education and any resources they need.
Leslie, Mike and their adult children see the joy Cooper has for people, especially other children. They hope one day he’ll understand he is the backbone behind the operation.
“We tell him, ‘This is all for you Cooper.’ Whether he understands that now, we don’t know. But we hope one day, he’ll know,” she said.
The Cooper’s Foundation welcomes volunteers and food, school supply and monetary donations, among other contributions. For more information, call 573-508-8165, email email@example.com or visit www.cooperfoundationmo.com or on Facebook, @cooperfoundationmo.