For a time, Anthony Cooper fell to the temptation of easy money in the drug trade that plagued Madison’s pockets of poverty in the mid-1990s.
Cooper, raised with one of his sisters by a single mother, grew up in a decent, diverse neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side where he delivered fliers and got other jobs at a young age. “I was kind of trying to pay my mother respect and trying to help my sister and my family,” he said.
Still, things happened in the neighborhood and Cooper knew people who were killed or overdosed on heroin. “My mother, she did her best to spare us from any harm,” he said. “But she was not always present. You can’t be there for 24 hours a day.”
In 1991, when he was 13, Cooper’s mother sought a better life in Madison, bringing him and his sister to join other family here. The family lived in two of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods at the time, the former Simpson Street and Sommerset Circle off Badger Road, on the South Side, which were plagued by open-air drug dealing and increasing violence.
“It was the heart of everything,” Cooper said.
By the time he was 20, he had fathered a boy and had a second son a year later. With no high school diploma and his family needing money, Cooper sought jobs but couldn’t earn enough.
“I never wanted to be a burden to my mother,” he said. “Eventually, I started selling drugs. Cocaine and heroin. I was scared but took the risk. I didn’t intend to be in the lifestyle. Then, it became more of a crutch, the fast money. Frankly, it’s an addiction, just like someone who is using because it becomes something you rely on.”
Then, he said, someone set him up, and at age 22 he faced six felony and two misdemeanor charges. He pleaded guilty to felony manufacture and delivery and possession of heroin and fleeing a police officer and was sentenced to four years in prison and 10 years’ probation.
Cooper, now 40, reflected on what was most precious.
“My kids, my mom, my sisters, I never wanted to hurt them,” he said. “I knew no matter what, I had to change. I decided, I’m done as far as selling drugs. I was determined not to go back to what I was doing.”
Cooper initially attended prison boot camp in St. Croix, Wisconsin, and after nearly two years, was released to a halfway house. He was offered a job that paid $12.50 an hour but was told that he couldn’t take it because the halfway house wanted him to do more programming. So he got a job through a friend at a pizza place making $4.75 an hour and worked as much as possible. He struggled, and at one point, “almost went back to doing some of the things that got me into prison.”
Instead, he sought help, got his GED and took other jobs. “I knew my sons were watching me,” he said. “Everything, to this day, has been about my kids and being a living example for them.”
Over time, Cooper got better jobs with more responsibility and, applying his street skills and work ethic, eventually started his own company, Opportunity Time, which found jobs for people with disabilities and provided job coaching.
He also found God. By chance, he met the Rev. Alex Gee of Fountain of Life church on the South Side and accepted an invitation to attend services. He was moved by Gee’s first sermon. He brought his sons to the church and met his wife there.
Eventually, Cooper came to work for Gee’s Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development and became its director of Prison Reentry Services in 2013. He is Nehemiah’s vice president of re-entry and strategic partnerships and is also executive director of the Focused Interruption Coalition, which provides peer support in the community. His sons, Anthony and Ahkeem, serve in the U.S. Navy and Army.
“I am a living example that it is possible for a person to change their life,” he said. “You want to be about change? You can do it. When difficulties come up, and they will come up often, you have someone you can talk to and help you develop a plan and walk alongside you.”