The woman hired to lead a community initiative to work for equal opportunities for all Charlotte children knows a little something about the down-trodden: She started life at the door of Mother Teresa’s orphanage in India.
Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, now 45, will begin work Feb. 20 as the executive director of Leading on Opportunity. The group formed to put into action the recommendations set out last March in the Opportunity Task Force Report, in the areas of early childhood education, college and career readiness, family stability, social capital and segregation.
The task force had formed in May 2015 in response to a 2014 study from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley that showed poor children in Charlotte less likely to escape poverty compared with their peers in America’s 50 largest cities.
Cooper-Lewter, whose hiring was announced Tuesday, was most recently a vice president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. The foundation has $110 million in assets and works to reduce poverty. She previously served as president and chief executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbia.
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Chosen from more than 100 candidates, Cooper-Lewter impressed a search committee with her “energy, experience and biography” including her previous collaborations and ability to build relationships in the African-American and immigrant communities, Leading on Opportunity said in announcing her hire.
“Stephanie has a passion for children, people on the margins, and a gift for uniting the community that we believe will help us accomplish our charge as a council to inspire and connect the community to change outcomes,” James Ford and Andrea Smith, cochairs of the Leading on Opportunity Council, said in a statement.
After being left as a baby in a cradle at the doorsteps of Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Kanpur, India, Cooper-Lewter was placed with an Indian foster family. She came to the U.S. as an adopted toddler on an immigrant orphan visa.
“My journey has guided my life purpose to ensure every child – regardless of income, race and zip code – has the same opportunities as yours and mine,” she said in a statement. “I have given my heart to this cause, and to racial equity. I can’t wait to move to Charlotte to begin the work of connecting people in a way that fosters change. I believe Charlotte-Mecklenburg is ready to do the work.”
Cooper-Lewter was a single mother when she graduated from Bethel College in St. Paul, Minn. She later earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina. Her husband, Nicholas, is a social work clinician in private practice who retired from the University of South Carolina. They are parents of a son, 10, and a daughter, 24.