CooperRiis founders named 2009 Outstanding Philanthropists

Published 9:05 pm Monday, November 23, 2009

Don and Lisbeth Riis Cooper, the founders of CooperRiis in Mill Spring, were honored last week with the 2009 Outstanding Philanthropists Award from the WNC Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

At a November 19 awards luncheon the association celebrated National Philanthropy Day with the announcement by J. Clarkson of Big Brothers, Big Sisters, that Don and Lisbeth Riis Cooper had received the top honor.

In front of a crowd of about 400 at the Asheville Renaissance Hotel, Clarkson stated, The journey to help someone with mental illness often begins with the persons parents, and as Lisbeth Riis Cooper and Don Cooper witnessed a family members struggle through many of the devastating aspects of mental illness they joined the numerous frustrated families who were always left with the pieces and no peace.

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Drawing on the therapeutic community concepts of Spring Lake Ranch and Gould Farm as well as her own life growing up on a farm in Denmark, Lisbeth envisioned a place of recovery where isolation is replaced by relationship, where the mind, body and spirit are nurtured within nature and where the professionals include even the families on the recovery team.

“Seeing the determination in her eyes, Don put aside retirement plans to join Lisbeth in making this vision a reality. Their vision and personal example of philanthropy have drawn in many wonderful people and together they have contributed over $25 million to design, build, and endow CooperRiis Healing Farm. &bsp;

“The independent non-profit now consists of a multi-site collection of therapeutic communities ranging from rural to urban settings with its main campus situated on an eighty-acre farm beautifully nestled into the mountains near Mill Spring.

Since opening in June 2003, CooperRiis has already assisted in the mental health recovery of over 350 residents from around the nation. Beyond the main campus, CooperRiis is opening a new Center in Asheville in January and operates programs in nearby communities which ease the transition of residents into fulfilling independent living, work and educational goals.

“Eighty percent of the community program residents are, in fact, able to achieve their goals. For sharing not only of their resources but of their familys story and a vision for healing mental illness, the Western North Carolina Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals is proud to recognize Don and Lisbeth Cooper as Outstanding Philanthropists for 2009.

Don and Lisbeth received the award and offered remarks that honored and celebrated their daughter Daniele, whose personal journey made them aware of the need to create CooperRiis.

In particular, Lisbeth spoke of how her actions arose from anger and frustration and a resolve to create a program that would help other families not have to face the fragmentation and hopelessness that is too often present in existing mental health systems.

Lisbeth stated, The moral of the story: Never make the mother bear mad! Not only was I mad but also smart enough to know that my anger and frustration would not solve problems and decided instead to turn it into action The concept was to create a place where hope was the first order of business, where acceptance and community would be commonplace, where the individual would be treated with kindness and respect, and not as a diagnosis. Treatment would be person oriented and encompass the body, the mind and the soul! All of this combined would be CooperRiis!

Don concluded their remarks stating, Philanthropy is alive and well. We could not have built CooperRiis without 150 significant donors believing in our mission. We felt with an energy never felt before, that we must change though actions the idea that diseased minds needed to be fixed, rather than, first of all, whole persons to be loved.

For 35 years I had the honor of knowing a man named John Sharpe. He was at different times, my boss, my mentor, my partner and my friend. He had this thought that all people on this earth needed to look beyond themselves and to assist others in need. While he was committed to his religious faith, this was not his religion talking his thinking was that this was something fundamental that it was important for people to connect in this way with who they are as human beings and he was wondering if I was ever going to get on board.

These conversations were transformational for me. Gradually, I found myself developing a balance between accumulation and distribution of assets. Then Lisbeth decided that she had this new definition for what it means to be retired.

So, I found myself engaged in building a non-profit something neither of us had attempted before. A few weeks before John Sharpe died, he told me that CooperRiis met my obligation even more so because I gave my energy, time and talents to the equation. And now that I reflect on things, I know that I have indeed connected with who I am as a human being.

Lisbeth and I owe it all to Daniele and we want to dedicate this moment and award to her.

CooperRiis is a mental health recovery program centered on a healing farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Mill Spring.

In January 2010, CooperRiis is adding an urban-based campus near the University of N.C. in Asheville. Step-down programs available from each campus to assist with community re-integration.

Program elements: psychiatry, psychotherapy, substance abuse counseling, nutritional counseling, complementary modalities and life skills and employment training.

Typical diagnoses: Schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder and all mood disorders. Some borderline personality disorder and/or history of substance abuse and addiction. Recovery outcomes are documented through rigorous measurement.

Generous scholarships are available. For additional information please visit

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