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Reprogramming At-Risk Youth: PCYF Fundraiser at the Los Angeles Athletic Club
By Mia Moraes
A tight knit family of friends and colleagues all met in the presidential room of the Los Angeles Athletic Club this past Saturday, the 13th of February 2016 for a collaborative effort to push forward the expansion of the Pacific Coast Youth Foundation. PCYF was started as a tribute to Ernie “Bubba” Cooper Jr., brother to Executive Director Daniel Cooper and son of Advising Director and former FBI Special Agent Ernie Cooper Sr. Star athlete Ernie Bubba Jr. passed away in 2010 at the age of 25 from heart complications. It’s been five years since Bubba’s passing, yet his memory lives forever in this organization and his spirit and his heart continues to pulsate within it. It’s a foundation geared providing pro-social activities for at-risk youth that motivated them to strive and help them cultivate a sense of passion and self-esteem. Partners now with the Orange County Department of Education and the Joplin Youth Center, a CrossFit Inspired Program for this youth has been created.
Ernie Cooper Sr. kicked the night off in his usual charismatic way and quoted what Bubba would tell him in this scenario, “Dad, suck it up. Don’t be a pussy.” Ernie Sr., in near tears, spoke in jest, but with a lot of love in mind in this movement towards a better tomorrow. The presidential room included an array of “dynamite talent,” as Ernie Sr. put it. From the seasoned to the “young guns”, this included current and former FBI Special Agents and Supervisors, private investigators, attorneys, educational leaders, representatives of successful businesses, entrepreneurs, as well as writers. The intelligence in the room was palpable. With so much talent in one room, he insisted on a person-to-person round table introduction. “’Name, Rank, Serial Number,’ as my daughter, Shannon Lynn would say if she were here.” This is the usual personal attention Ernie and his wife Teresa pays to every person involved in their life, as well as with every person with whom they’ve just met.
In attendance was the majority of the “Cooper Clan”, as the Cooper family is referred to by friends and colleagues. There was Teresa Cooper, an active FBI agent herself. Daniel is pre-law and was accompanied by longtime girlfriend, Stephanie Rosen. Ernie’s daughter, Britne Cooper Bernatowicz, works for the FBI. She was there with husband Nick Bernatowicz, who is hands deep in the program. This is very much a family organization. Also in attendance was former Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask, who met Ernie after retirement when they worked together for three years in cases involving corruption within public institutions. Grover stood and said a few words. Trask stated that PCYF is “about faith, family and friends, and what you believe in. It’s about helping others. I think that’s what this foundation is about.” Referring to him and his wife, he went on to say, “We’re friends with you not only because we like you, but we believe in you, and we want to be a part of that Cooper Clan.” Throughout the evening, this seemed to be the sentiment of the entire room.
The torch was then passed to Executive Director Daniel Cooper, who took the stage to discuss the foundation. “My brother was a hard-working athlete. He was an All-CIF football player and track star at La Serna High School. He went on to get a full ride scholarship to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and he was a leader on the field. But more than this, he was a people person. He had a magnetism about him.” Equally as magnetic as any of the Cooper men, Daniel went on to say that after the death of his brother, his father suggested a non-profit, “to perpetuate his memory and what he stood for.”
After graduating UCLA, Daniel started working at the Orange County Department of Education in the Access Program. The Access Program focuses on at-risk youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was scared. I thought, ‘these are the tough kids.’ These are the kids who are written off as either dumb or lazy, or just inherently bad kids. What I found out was that they were just kids. I saw too many moments of intelligence, compassion and creativity to write them off. What I realized was that these were ordinary kids from unordinary circumstances.” He went on to explain the “dyer need these kids from socially and economically disadvantaged homes” have for “that spark” of “motivation for personal progress that a lot of us take advantage of coming from stable backgrounds.” The programs at PCYF are determined to motivate that “passion and self esteem.”
From scholarships programs, music and art supplies, to bus passes, PCYF began small, but they believed in a program that would supply what they believed was “essential” to the lives and progress of these youth. Next, they partnered up with Jim Perez. With a Masters in Criminal Justice, having studied with the Secret Service and trained by the FBI in threat assessments, Joe Perez is in charge of the Safe School Program at the Orange County Department of Education. Daniel and Jim went on to collaborate with Daniel’s brother-in-law and CrossFit entrepreneur, Nick Bernatowicz. A CrossFit Program, that provided young males between the ages of 13-17 a positive physical activity, was born. “They come from trauma or a violent home, where their social norms and behaviors are taught to be deviant,” Perez noted. “We are their justice,” he added. From personal experience with the CrossFit Program, Perez shared his own reaction to the program. “It became my outlet and I realized that I am somebody. I am a person.”
PCYF introduces the first CrossFit program inside an incarcerated facility. He described the first time he took the kids to the center. “Every one in there is a felon. You see these kids, and they’re down. They’re getting locked up; they have substance abuse issues; for them, there’s not a lot of hope. To actually see them do a push up for the first time and turn around and go, ‘Oh my God, there’s hope!’ All of a sudden, they start believing in themselves. And not only that, their rival gang member is looking at them going, ‘Come on Danny!’ Their whole framework of mentality changes. It doesn’t matter what street you’re from, -we’re human.”
County Gang Coordinator for many years, he was asked how to solve the problem. His reply was that “Kids really don’t care how much you know, until they realize how much you care. I loved my mom and dad, but they weren’t always right in how they raised me. I tell these kids, ‘I’m going to challenge how you were raised. I don’t want you to think that I’m being disrespectful to your parents. Just because you were taught something, doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t matter what I say, it matters what you listen to. I’m going to give you the education and the tools to be successful in life.’”
What were the initial results of the program? There was a dramatic decrease in incident reports. Perez points out, “If you throw your weight around, you get all of your aggression out, then you’re not mad anymore. You’re tired.” In addition, literacy rates are increasing. Progress is being seen in PCYF, and in a big way. Perez describes his joy “to see them master something and learning to be a productive person in society. Some of them were never involved in sports. For the first time, they feel they are doing something for themselves. We start re-programming, re-training, re-educating… and they start little by little to open their eyes.”
Bernatowicz described CrossFit as a “strength and conditioning program.” It includes “functional movements performed in high intensity. It’s doing the most amount of work in the shortest period of time.” He noted that they track the progress to see if the kids are improving. Bernatowicz pointed out that they supplied the youth center with basic equipment. “There are no machines. There’s nothing in there that’s going to make your life easy. It builds comradery,” he said. “You’re building friendships through hardship. If you truly want results, you have to work hard.” This is the mantra of the program and the message that is successfully getting across to these kids.
Trainer Corey Smith was asked to help and was brought on to coach at the Joplin Youth Center. He said, “It was a group I didn’t intend on coaching, but it’s the group I prefer to coach. I was in over my head at first. I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to figure out how to talk to these kids’. Then they do something they didn’t think they could do. They do a push up. Honestly, it’s not me coaching them. It’s the other kids that are in the program that are pushing them to get involved.”
Perez chimed in passionately. “When have you, in any class environment, actually encouraged someone to do their work? Never! So, for the first time, these kids are encouraging each other. ‘Come on buddy, we can do it!’ And the next person goes, ‘Come on,’ and it’s contagious. All of a sudden, they start understanding this world. ‘So it’s all of us!’ ‘We encourage and we support,’ and that’s so key and critical. It’s weird. They all like each other. We’ve never seen anything like that.” As Corey stated, “They are ultimately making a lifelong change.”
Unlike a lot of nonprofits, all donations go straight into this program. It goes to the trainer, equipment and a small marketing budget to promote awareness and attain funding. Currently, all administrative tasks are done by board members on a pro-bono bases. The goal was to raise $10,000 to sustain this program and expand into a second gym. Ernie Sr. asked for help to get the program to the next level and welcomed ideas.
“In tradition of ‘the barrio’,” Ernie introduced Megan Mann to deliver the toast of tequila. Megan, Goddaughter and considered “daughter” by Ernie and family, got teary in her toast to Bubba at the end of the evening. “I wanted to thank the Cooper Clan,” as is termed by so many. “Through this foundation, we are going to be able to continue his legacy. So with that, let’s hold our glasses up and honor the wonderful man that Bubba was. He was our warrior who always had a smile on his face, and we miss him dearly. Cheers.”
The loss of a family member has turned into a movement for this family and close friends. PCYF isn’t one man’s mission, but a collective, and you could feel that in the room. You are not a guest at a charity event. You are a part of this amazing organization and it’s goal in correcting the wrong lessons previously taught to these kids. As cousin to Daniel and Bubba, Travis Ivanoff put it, “Bubba would be proud of what we’re doing here.”
To donate to the Pacific Coast Youth Foundation, go to www.PacificCoastYouth.org.
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