After being shot in the chest at point blank range, Damien Cooper found himself struggling to move past the trauma. Hurt and angry, Cooper said he contemplated suicide – plans that were thwarted by an unexpected visit from close friends on December 31, 1996. His friends took him to a New Year’s Eve church service, which changed his life. According to Cooper, during the service, he forgave the man who shot him.
“From that moment, I went back to college and I got a degree in Theology,” recalled Cooper, noting that seminary school provided an opportunity for him to participate in a program working with incarcerated men. “We would meet with these men every week. For years, I worked with a couple of young men who were always there.”
Cooper continued, “During one of these meetings, one of the young men started talking about how he was going to be a boxer when he got out of prison. I asked him, ‘Have you done anything that you’re not proud of? Is there anything you would like to tell someone you are sorry for?’ I asked those starter questions, and I listened to this young man literally tell me how he and his boys followed someone and shot him. Some of the things he was saying coincided with my life a little bit too much.”
According to Cooper, as details about the shooting continued to emerge, the similarities mounted.
“I realized this was the man who shot me,” said Cooper. “I tore open my shirt and showed him the wound on my chest.”
Cooper described the man – who didn’t recognize him, as being “shocked” about the revelation. However Cooper said that because he forgave his shooter years prior at the New Year’s Eve church service, he didn’t harbor any ill will towards his assailant. It’s that type of forgiveness Cooper is trying to instill in other Black males through his holistic mentoring program Project
A 501(c)(3) organization, Project Pneuma reaches fourth through eighth-graders, teaching them about the power of forgiveness, discipline, and self-control. Through the organization, Cooper uses his riveting story to reach fourth through eighth grade students, and help put them on the right track.
“Pneuma means to breathe new life and I believe that God breathed new life into me,” said Cooper. “We want to give young men the tools they need to become productive, loving, and caring men.”
The West Baltimore Renaissance Foundation recently awarded Project Pneuma with a $150,000 grant. The grant will allow for Project Pneuma to sponsor 42 boys from three Baltimore City Public Schools. Other Project Pneuma partners include Under Armour and Sylvan Learning.
“I never ever thought in a million years that the small project that I started or $10,000 would grow to where we’re now working with over 1,000 boys,” said Cooper, noting the program started in 2014 from a $10,000 BMe Public Voices Fellowship.
Since its inception, Project Pneuma has partnered with 23 schools and the Baltimore City Police Department to build bonds of trust, respect, and cultural competencies. Each year, the young men of Project Pneuma work on a community-centered project.
“We want our boys to forgive themselves and each other,” he said. “Baltimore is a great city. But it’s a city where 300 folks are being murdered a year. Boys are losing their brothers, uncles, and fathers. It’s injuries upon a generation, and hardening our young people. We have to tell our young people that it’s okay to fail, and that it’s okay to have emotions, and that it’s okay to cry, and that it’s okay to accept love. The goal is to build out a new narrative of new life to replace every fatality.”
Cooper currently serves as the Vice Chair on the Core Team of the Community Policing Committee that is directly responsible for rewriting the Baltimore Police Department’s Training Curriculum, Community Policing Plan, and the federally-mandated Consent Decree focusing on police and youth engagement.
He holds degrees from Coppin State University (BS, Business Management & Marketing) and the United Baptist College & Seminary (Th.M., Theology) and is a 2018 graduate of The Leadership, which is a program of the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Reflecting on the course of his life, Cooper said he and the man who shot him still stay in contact. He said the man came from a troubled background that included his father being killed in prison and a mother involved in prostitution, ultimately steering him to the streets for a sense of belonging. Cooper said today, the man is gainfully employed, involved in ministry, and married with children.
“The man who could have taken me away from here was the key to me working with young men in schools,” said Cooper. “Only God can have done that.”
For more information about Project Pneuma visit www.projectpneuma.org.