Nine years ago, Kimberlee Bickley Cooper ’01 needed a change. After a decadelong career as a social worker in the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS), “I was reaching the end of my stamina there,” she says. Cooper hoped to find another way to support families in the foster care system, so she started researching. She knew restoring children to their birth families leads to better long-term outcomes, so she wondered, “What gets kids home?” 

The answer: visitation. “Research has been really clear that more than any other intervention in the child welfare system, it’s the quantity and quality of the visitation that is the number one predictor of whether or not families reunite,” says Cooper.

But when she looked for existing programs that prioritized family visitation, she couldn’t find any. And that’s when The Family Room was born. “I was not trying to start a non-profit, I was planning to go work for someone else. I started the program basically with my family and friends and their financial support.”

Today, Cooper serves as the executive director of The Family Room, a non-profit that partners with ODHS to provide families in the foster care system meaningful visitation in a natural setting, up to ten hours a week.

Walk into a Family Room location in Portland on a typical afternoon and you’ll see children and parents spending quality time together: cuddling, reading, playing, doing homework, and sharing a meal. “It’s a happy place,” says Cooper, “and yes, there are hard things. Of course, there are broken bonds and broken attachments, but the environment is very intentionally one of hope and of partnership.” 

Cooper says studying social work at Calvin planted the seeds for her program model. Professor Peter De Jong taught strengths-based practice, an approach to social work based on “the idea that every individual possesses personal strengths and meaningful resources.” 

“It’s the primary lens we put on when we engage with families. What is already working? What inside of you can you draw from, and how can we emphasize that for you, and then look at other resources within your community? We try to be a community and a space that can hold hope for people when they cannot hold it for themselves.” 

Cooper applies strengths-based practice to running her organization, too, leveraging existing resources in the Portland area— partnering with churches for physical space, mobilizing volunteers, and generally making much with little. These days, filling the role limits the time she spends one-on-one with her clients, but that hasn’t altered her commitment to them. “Anytime I can have an opportunity to get into one of our sites with families, I just come alive.” 

“There is such a vehemently compassionate and supportive community behind The Family Room, from our staff to our volunteers, our church partners, our donors, and our grant-makers and foundations that have come on board. And our families? Really, they are at the root of it. None of this would mean anything if not for their vulnerability and their determination and their hope.” 

The mother of five in a blended family, Cooper and her husband frequently find themselves conversing with their own teens and emerging adult children about future life choices and about channeling personal passion to do good. Cooper, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, says she understood the importance of community at a young age. “I could look around, even as a teen, and wonder why some of us have so much. Or at the very least, enough of everything. And why do others just struggle and struggle? Early on, I gravitated toward social work.”

Cooper understands the challenge young adults face as they weigh options. Her belief in the power of doing good, along with her “make it happen” mentality, grounds her advice to anyone looking for a way to meaningfully contribute to society. “What fuels you? What is one thing that sparks your spirit a little bit? Jump in. Just jump in. It’s not glamorous and it’s not fancy. But, boy, is it rewarding.”