Cooper donates gifts to elementary students in mother's memory

Many of the first-graders at Ellen Smith Elementary School have lots of books, but now they have a very special one to add to their collection.

On Thursday, each of the first-grade students at Ellen Smith were presented with a personalized book called ?I Like Me.? The book contains the name of the child, the names of two friends, the teacher and the principal. The books were a gift from Dr. Mark Cooper, an associate professor of early childhood and special education at the University of Central Arkansas.

Cooper donated 98 books to the first-grade class in honor of his late mother, Cecilia C. Cooper, who helped him overcome his struggles with dyslexia. Cooper said, ?My mom saw potential in me and she taught me not only about academics, but also about character. I want you all to remember, as you grow up and face struggles, these three words that are in the title of this book: I like me.?

As Cooper asked the children what they would remember when they faced different struggles, they shouted back to him, ?I like me!?

Each student beamed as his or her name was called out to receive a book. After they returned to their rows on the cafeteria floor, many of them immediately opened their books and began scanning the pages. Several nudged their friends and pointed to their names, which were neatly printed in the story.

Cooper?s gift did not end there. He also presented a student with the first Cecilia C. Cooper Youth Achievement Award, which was named after his mother. The student was fifth-grader Darian Hill.

During a visit to the school earlier in the year, Cooper met Hill in the principal?s office. He asked the boy how school was going and the child replied, ?It?s good and bad.?

Cooper asked him about the good and the bad. Hill told him that the bad revolved around his frustration with reading. Cooper immediately identified with the boy and while he encouraged the boy to continue to work on his reading skills, also he told him that the frustrations would continue. This was not the response that Hill was looking for.

?He told me, ?I didn?t like what you just told me?,? Cooper said. ?I asked him what he didn?t like and he said it was what I had said about the frustrations following him. I told him that rather than just learning to be a better reader, he needed to learn to handle his frustrations. If he can learn to not get discouraged and to have confidence in himself, the reading part will come a whole lot easier.?

Cooper was inspired by Hill?s struggles and his drive to overcome those struggles, so he decided to surprise him with the award.

Betty Ford, the principal of Ellen Smith, called Darian a remarkable young man with a strong work ethic. ?He realizes the importance of reading in being successful and because of his desire to succeed and achieve, Darian Hill is being presented with the Cecilia C. Cooper Youth Achievement Award.?

A smile beamed across Hill?s face as he went to the front of the cafeteria to receive the Cecilia C. Cooper medallion. His classmates cheered for him.

After the medallion was placed around Hill’s neck, his parents were called to join him. Cooper presented the boy with a $500 check that will be held in a mutual fund by his parents until he graduates from high school.

Darian?s mother, Caressa, called the award and recognition a blessing. ?It?s truly a blessing from God because Darian is trying to become a better reader and to meet a complete stranger who could relate to his struggles and who would then turn around and do something like this for him, it?s just an honor.?

Caressa and her husband, Jeff, have played an active role in helping their son deal with his reading difficulties. ?As parents we?re going to continue to read with him, teach him, and help him stay motivated about reading and learning.?

-Jennifer Boyett