Keith Cooper, 1947-2021

Augustana Lutheran Church is raising $25,000 for the community grant-issuing Keith Cooper Fund, which the church aims to establish as a longstanding memorial to the beloved namesake parishioner who was murdered a year ago in Hyde Park.

People aged 16 to 26 who are living between 47th and 63rd streets, from Cottage Grove Avenue to the Lake, will be able to apply for monetary awards, the first of at least $500, if they are seeking training in a vocational trade, certification or a license through a community college, growing a startup business or launching a career in jazz or other performing or fine arts.

"We are hoping to find people who have potential but who are going to face barriers," said the Rev. Nancy Goede, Augustana and Cooper's pastor. "Students who may not be at the very top of their class, you know? But they have potential to do something valuable in their life. And by valuable, I mean they're able to support a family and do things that they want to do outside of work and have a good life."

Cooper, she said, was someone who wished he would have done something like that "much earlier." He was a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran, and, among other jobs, worked for the Illinois State Lottery and sold books independently.

"He was pretty aimless as a young adult, so he was very concerned with other young adults getting help from other mentoring adults," Goede said. "So he was a mentor to a lot of young adults whom he knew and very interested in transformation."

Augustana's denomination, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, maintains an endowment-management service for funds like Cooper's. Goede said $25,000 "would be a very secure investment," though one the church will likely not raise all of this year.

It is beginning the effort on Saturday, though, with an event, "Celebrating the Human Spirit" at the church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave., at 7 p.m., with local jazz alongside food and drinks to Cooper's memory. Tickets are $40 in advance (email for information), $45 at the door and $25 for students, with four sponsorships levels available as well.

Augustana is soliciting philanthropic support for the fund; the Hyde Park & Kenwood Interfaith Council is sponsoring with $1,000, and Goede hopes that the fund turns into a community-wide project. She noted the Hyde Park Refugee Project began at her church before becoming a cross-neighborhood effort and hopes the Keith Cooper Fund could turn into something similar.

"At Augustana, this is intensely personal, remembering Keith's death after almost a year," she said. "But for other people, the value is 'here is somebody who we as a community mourn, because this happened and shook Hyde Park, and this is a way to respond to that and bring something good out of something bad that happened.'"

The hope next year is that two or three awards may be given out from what Goede thinks will be a relatively unique program.

"I suspect other churches may have scholarship programs that they have for their own students who might come from their congregation, and I think most of those scholarships are going to be aimed at students who just graduated from high school and are sure that they want to go to a four-year college," she said.

"This is really aimed at kids who aren't going to go to a four-year college. They don't want to go, they can't afford to go, or they're not seeing themselves doing something that would require a four-year degree. … There aren't many grants that are wide, that are just trying to launch young people in this kind of way."

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