SHIRLEY – Longtime town resident Mary Cooper was recently named a 2022 Myra Kraft Community MVP Award winner and presented with a $10,000 donation for the Greater Boston Chapter (GBC) of the United Spinal Association, an organization near and dear to her heart.
“I am deeply humbled and honored by this award,” she said. “Never expected that I would be recognized. I like to live in the background and do what I can to help people.”
According to a press release Cooper broke her back 21 years ago in a car accident, effectively changing her life forever. As she navigated life in a wheelchair, she turned her experience into an opportunity to support other individuals affected by paralysis and spinal cord injuries and for the past 17 years Coooper has been volunteering as a peer mentor for the United Spinal Association. She spends up to 30 hours per week leading support groups, advocating for new legislation on the state and national level, sharing her story, and supporting those with life-altering injuries.
“I belong to a club that no one wants to join until they have to. This club is the Greater Boston Chapter (GBC) of United Spinal Association, where to become a member, you have to sustain a spinal cord injury or have a spinal cord disease,” Cooper stated in the press release. “There are thousands of people in Massachusetts in this club. When I joined 21 years ago, I was scared of what would happen to me in the future. How would I live, where would I live? How would I raise my daughter? Life happened, I met my mentors, and learned to live again.”
The press release stated that for the past 25 years the Kraft family and the foundation have been recognizing volunteers for going above and beyond to give back to their communities through the MVP awards program. Formerly known as the Community Quarterback Awards, this volunteer recognition was renamed in 2011 in memory of philanthropist Myra Kraft, Patriots Chair and CEO Robert Kraft’s late wife.
“Of all the community initiatives we support through the Patriots Foundation, this was always Myra’s favorite, and I am proud that we continue to honor her legacy of volunteerism by recognizing the amazing work of dozens of volunteers each year,” Kraft stated in the press release. “She loved meeting all of the honorees and hearing their heartwarming stories of volunteerism. There are so many people doing great things in our communities. It restores all faith in humanity. We enjoyed reviewing this year’s applications and selecting the 26 dedicated individuals that are helping to make the world a better place.”
Cooper, who has lived in town for nearly three decades, was recognized along with the other recipients during an awards luncheon at Gillette Stadium on June 8, an event where the Kraft family, New England Patriots Foundation, and Gillette distributed $275,000 in donations total to the nonprofits represented by each volunteer. Twenty-five organizations each received $10,000 and the Grimes King Foundation for the Elderly received this year’s grand prize of $25,000.
“The event was beautiful,” Cooper said. “I felt like a celebrity. It was so much fun to go out on the field and meet Mr. Kraft, (who) whispered in my ear ‘You're an inspiration’ when he gave me the award. That is so cool.”
She said she “will never forget this honor” and that she is “also lucky to have shared this event” with her 24-year-old daughter Hannah, who was three at time of her injury.
“I also loved sharing this event with Jessica Coromel and Heidi Estrada, who work for the Greater Boston chapter of United Spinal Association,” Cooper said.
The 2022 Myra Kraft Community MVP winners range from 15 to 85 years old and represent every New England state. The selected nonprofits provide support for many causes, including education, domestic violence prevention, healthcare, homelessness, mentoring and military support.
“Through volunteering I have met so many people at different stages of life and recovery. I have watched newly injured men and women come into meetings very vulnerable, fearing the unknown, scared at what their life has become, they learn to cry, mourn, listen and finally laugh,” Cooper said in the press release. “We share our experiences, strength and hope with each other. No topic is too big or too small. Volunteering with the GBC is one of the most fulfilling things that I have ever done, besides raising my daughter. I have met people from all over the country and I have made lasting friendships. I hope that, along the way, I have helped other club members become what they are meant to be.”
She recalled that when she was rear ended by a tractor trailer on Route 2 in 2000, she “was very lucky to be alive.” After going to Shepherd Rehab in Georgia, Cooper said “coming home was scary and hard.”
“I had to relearn how to do everyday things from a different angle and ability,” she said. “I met some women in the GBC, and they took me under their wings and showed me how to live and raise my daughter. So, giving back to the newly injured and women who are recovering is the least thing I could do.”
Cooper said that during the pandemic they had to adapt and “developed several meetings to keep people connected with each other.”
“We are a community that is already isolated by barriers, such as stairs, and Covid made it even harder to see each other,” she said. “I asked and was supported in creating a women's meeting and we have been meeting for the past two years. We have women from all over the U.S. come to talk about life, good times, and bad times.”
Cooper said she is also involved in the newly injured meeting.
“Coming out of rehab is hard,” she said. “Coming out of rehab during Covid is harder. We have peers and newly injured people come to this meeting, giving hope, listening to what has gone wrong, and supporting the newly injured. I just want to help.”
Besides volunteering at GBC, Cooper also donates her time to volunteer with the Shirley Friendship Fund, is active in her church and sings in the choir there, and is involved in Shirley Arts, a theater group that enables her to “sing and dance on stage.”
“Having a spinal cord injury does not define me as a person.”