Local teen’s message on poverty: Believe in yourself but don’t leave others behind
At 15, Miguel Coppedge, a sophomore at the Templeton Academy college preparatory school in Ward 6, has done more than most who are twice his age. Like LeBron James, the iconic basketball player and his idol, Coppedge has published several children’s books and even starred in his own film: a short seven-minute amateur movie on YouTube based on a book the Northeast D.C. resident published when he was 9 titled “The Adventures of FireMan.”
Last year, Coppedge did something else uncommon for someone his age. He started an online fundraiser he calls the “I Care Comfort Foundation,” which collects money to buy toiletries and assemble care bags that benefit children in foster care as well as young people experiencing homelessness. So far, he’s collected $450 toward the $2,500 goal on his GoFundMe page.
Coppedge uses the proceeds to buy items he sends to the St. Ann’s Center for Youth, Children and Families, where he was adopted at age 2. His efforts recently won him recognition — plus a year of free ice cream — from the Baskin-Robbins Joy in Childhood Foundation, which tagged him as one of its “Pint-Size Heroes” and pledged to donate $5,000 to St. Ann’s in his honor.
Now based in Hyattsville, Maryland, directly across from D.C., the center was founded just before the Civil War in 1860 as an orphanage and refuge for pregnant women with no place to go. St. Ann’s phased out its care facility for young children in 2013 as part of a larger national trend of favoring foster care over institutionalized settings like orphanages.
Today, the nonprofit supports single teen mothers, provides vulnerable women with supportive transitional housing, and connects clients with the mental health and emotional services they need.
For Sister Mary Bader, president and CEO of St. Ann’s, the service changes have been driven largely by a growing demand to support people experiencing homelessness.
“I think some people associate homelessness as literally living on the streets, which it certainly is. That’s one form of homelessness. But there’s also the housing and security,” Bader said.
She went on to explain that homelessness encompasses people experiencing housing insecurity, to include those who spend much of their time “couch surfing.”
When Coppedge’s parents first took him on a visit to St. Ann’s about five years ago, he did not know what to expect. Now he visits every year.
“He must have been no more than 10 years of age and he came to St. Ann’s with his mother to deliver some books that he had written,” Bader said. “And so we sat down, and he wanted to read to the kids.”
Bader — whose personal office now features several photos of the young man well known for his volunteer work there — recalled leading Coppedge on a tour of the facility and pointing out the area of the building where he spent the first years of his life. He also met some of the staff who knew him when he was an infant.
Though Coppedge doesn’t remember his time as a baby at St. Ann’s, what happened on that first visit has motivated him to return every year since to help distribute donations and read to children.
“It just makes my heart blow up,” Coppedge said after taking a reflective moment to think about what it was exactly that inspired him to start a fundraiser and keep returning to St. Ann’s in order to help the children of families in its supportive transitional housing.
“I want them to feel like they’re at home, you know? And I want them to, umm, have the same stuff I have,” he said.
Even at 15, Coppedge is acutely aware of the harsh social inequities that divide his life’s experience from those around him. “A lot of people out on the streets … in general don’t have toiletries, blankets, none of that,” he said.
Bader — who first began spending time at St. Ann’s in the early 1980s while teaching at the now defunct Our Lady Queen of Peace school in Southeast D.C. — has battled these social inequities as she watched the city and the region evolve over the years.
“A lot of great things [have happened],” Bader said, “but I think the poverty and the lack of affordable housing has not gone away.”
In her view, poverty has long been an issue not only in the District but across the region. Today, Bader said, she sees more people struggling with finding homes, a problem exacerbated by the soaring cost of housing.
The value of single-family houses in the District has climbed over 520% since 1990, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which tracks changes in housing costs nationally.
The typical cost of a single-family home or condo in D.C. in August 2011 was $420,000, according to Zillow. By June 2021, the typical value had climbed to $692,000.
But simply putting families into housing is not always enough, Bader said.
“Accompanying that need [for housing] are services to support families, particularly younger families who are quite vulnerable and who have sometimes grown up in the foster care system or just not had resources available to them,” Bader said.
Historically, a significant number of adults experiencing homelessness went through foster care as children. In January, 11.7% of single adults and 9.3% of adults in families who responded to a census of the D.C. homeless community said they had been in foster care. Notably, nearby Loudoun County highlighted that it was the first time in three years that no individuals included in the count had any history in foster care.
The families served by St. Ann’s may require additional help to find employment and learn life skills to become fully independent, Bader said. In one of its programs, single teen mothers who are either pregnant or have young children live together in a large group home where they get around-the-clock care, and benefit from structured programming that teaches life skills and helps participants pursue their academic goals.
As for Coppedge, his long-term goals include finding ways to assist St. Ann’s in the full range of services it offers.
Coppedge dreams of one day becoming a pro basketball player — like his idol — and of opening his own fashion store in Manhattan. He hopes to donate a portion of his earnings to St. Ann’s.
“I love seeing people in need shine,” he said.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.