It’s one thing to hear about the many needs of our community, it’s another when you can get a personal glimpse into the positive impact that an organization can have on a person’s life. Three St. Louisans shared those success stories with Ladue News.


Donovan Mooney was living from couch to couch when he was introduced to Epworth’s Independent Living Program. Just 18 years old, he had been kicked out of his house because of issues with his mom and had no permanent place to stay, despite working three jobs. Epworth provided Mooney with a place to stay and the stability that he was searching for. “If I didn’t have the program, I don’t know where I’d be,” he says. “I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do with my life.”

The organization aided Mooney in finding an apartment and sustaining himself with a system that gradually placed more financial and personal responsibility on him. Regular visits with his caseworker, Heavin Horn, keep the now 19-yearold on track to meet his goals. “She checks my progress and answers any silly questions I have, like paying bills and things like that,” Mooney explains. “I can get overwhelmed at times with prioritizing, and she helps me with that.”

Because of the assistance that Epworth provided Mooney, he can now look to his future. While he had to take a semester off to pay bills, he plans to return to college to become a high school teacher. His workload is down to one job, and Mooney spends his summers as a camp counselor for the Wyman Teen Leadership Program, which he attended for five years, because of “the profound impact it had on me and the way I look at myself.”

While Mooney will soon move on from the program, he is confident in his ability to succeed on his own. “It’s been a really positive experience. The program has helped me to learn about taking care of myself and being consistent in my life.”


When Sandy Merkel began teaching art at Cool Valley Elementary 11 years ago, supplies were in a sorry state. “I didn’t have any glue bottles, and everything else was in pretty bad shape,” she says. And at a school where 95 percent of the students are on the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program, families’ budgets do not include art materials. “If you’re deciding between crayons for your child or dinner, there’s not really a choice.”

But through the help of KidSmart’s Free Store, Merkel’s students have had the opportunity to flourish in her classroom. Once a month for nine years, the art teacher has shopped at the Free Store, picking up supplies that enrich and encourage her students’ imaginations. “I couldn’t do some of the projects we do without KidSmart’s help.”

The resource has allowed Merkel to expand her lessons for the K through sixth graders far beyond finger painting and sketching, into the realm of ceramics and paper printing. “This gives them a place to imagine,” she explains. “Studies show that the arts tend to help grades improve in other subjects. The self-expression teaches kids to be independent and trust themselves more.”

Merkel’s classroom also has become an outlet for kids who are challenged, as “those who have difficulty staying focused will stay on task when their mind is engaged in the artwork.” In addition, an incentive basket filled with KidSmart supplies promotes a positive interaction and good behavior among students.

While her students still face many challenges outside the classroom, Merkel knows that by just providing them with basic art supplies, she is giving them a head start. “It’s allowed my students to go above and beyond a regular art curriculum. They can stretch their boundaries and discover a lot of things they wouldn’t normally.”


Jada Cooper didn’t where to turn. Seven months pregnant and homeless in 2002 after a relationship with her boyfriend ended, Cooper had no family support and few friends to stay with. “My options were the streets, staying in my car, or bouncing from house to house,” she says.

After days spent calling one full shelter after another, Cooper finally connected with Our Lady’s Inn, and was accepted into the maternity home program. “There was definitely a sense of relief. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep, what I was going to eat, or who I was going to beg for a place to stay.”

Cooper stayed at Our Lady’s Inn longer than the standard period because of preeclampsia and a subsequent illness. Through services aimed to help the mother and child, like financial classes, health and wellness education, spiritual counseling and case management, she gained clarity in her life. “Our Lady’s Inn helped me to see life in a different light,” Cooper notes. “I stopped making the wrong choices and learned what stability was. I’m now a more peaceful person, and I know that family comes first.”

With the assistance of the shelter and other agencies, Cooper and her son, Devon, moved into an apartment and returned to school, graduating from St. Louis Community College with an associate degree in human services. Cooper is now at University of Missouri-St. Louis, working on her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. She hopes to one day become a director of a social services agency that helps women and children, just as Our Lady’s Inn helped her. “Our Lady’s Inn became my family. They provided me with humble acts of love, and I want to do the same.”