"The one thing we all need more than anything in this world is a purpose."
by Jennifer Maurer . photo by Brent Fleury
Lisbeth Riis Cooper is fascinated with ice, but her life moves at anything but a glacial pace. The cofounder and vice chairwoman of the nonprofit CooperRiis Healing Community is a former fashion designer turned philanthropist and mental health care reformer. In January, after tending to every detail of the renovation of her new mental health facility in Montford, she flew to Antarctica to see ice floes. “It’s the only continent I haven’t visited,” she joked, while directing construction teams to work on finishing touches for the new project, a $4.7 million overhaul of a Highland Hospital building, part of the same mental health complex where Zelda Fitzgerald stayed in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The Asheville facility is the second in the CooperRiis Healing Community, which Lisbeth cofounded in 2000 with her husband, Don Cooper, a former insurance executive. The first is an 80-acre organic farm near Columbus that accommodates up to 36 full-time residents suffering from such conditions as schizophrenia, depression and personality disorders. The Montford facility, which will treat similar disorders, can house 24 full-time residents and five live-in staff. The building, outfitted with a meditation room and chic, retro décor, had a soft opening in early February and will have a grand opening in May. Prominent New York psychiatrist Oliver Sacks will attend the ceremony, and according to Cooper, plans to feature CooperRiis in an upcoming book.
The couple’s foray into the field followed ten years of navigating a fragmented mental healthcare system trying to help their daughter, who struggled with mental illness. Frustrated and angry, Lisbeth finally realized she would have to create, from the ground up, the healing community her daughter (and others like her) needed. The Coopers take a holistic, positive approach. Residents focus on goals rather than the limitations of their diagnoses. “The one thing we all need more than anything in this world is a purpose,” Cooper says, “a reason to get up in the morning. In our community, we help residents find their reason.”