Huge medical bills had forced Larry and Cecilia Cooper into bankruptcy
10th October, 2003
Larry and Cecilia Cooper's last home was a run-down, cramped trailer in Wilmer. Water seeped in through the top of the door frame, and the floor started to rot.
The trailer was a step toward financial recovery after medical bills pushed them into bankruptcy. Cecilia Cooper had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and neither of them had health insurance. One hospital stay cost $14,000, according to Larry Cooper.
Before the mobile home, the Coopers lived apart for a while, with their mothers, in order to get back on their feet.
They had always wanted to buy a house, but like many couples, they had trouble coming up with a down payment. After the bankruptcy, "We figured it would be seven years," Larry Cooper said.
With funds from the new Urban County Down Payment Assistance Program for First Time Homebuyers, which is run by Mobile County with federal funds, it ended up being just two years until they would be unpacking boxes at their new place. The program paid about $6,000 of the $66,000 price, and the Coopers don't have to pay any of that money back if they stay in the house for five years.
Besides being bigger and dry inside, their new house in Ir vington -- new to them, but more than 100 years old -- represents a stability that eluded them for a few years.
The Coopers, both in their 40s, were one of the first two buyers to close on homes through the program. Now, another 15 families are waiting to close on their mortgages, according to the county.
The couple has dealt with a lot in their five years of marriage. Cecilia Cooper's diagnosis of breast cancer in 1999 came around the same time she suffered a relapse of multiple sclerosis, which at the time had been in remission.
They got through that. Then this spring, they were driving to a Bob Dylan concert in New Orleans when Cecilia started having seizures. Larry pulled off the highway to get help. "She said, 'Please don't let me die in a Taco Bell parking lot,'" he said.
They learned later that the seizures had been caused by a new tumor in her brain. Tumors were found elsewhere in her body as well. Larry Cooper said one doctor gave Cecilia between two and 24 months to live.
The house remained a goal for her.
"We had already come so far to get through," she said, and "Larry needed a place to stay. I figured at the least I could fix it up for him."
Cecilia Cooper found the 1890s-era farmhouse on the Internet. They tried to get a loan through a private lender, but they said the deal didn't go through because Larry hadn't been on the job long enough, coupled with a credit mix-up that stemmed from the bankruptcy.
After that, Larry Cooper said, "I was ready to say, the heck with it, we'll try again in a few years. But Celie kept on it."
In the spring, the couple attended a class sponsored by Mobile County, where they were instructed on the responsibilities of home ownership and their rights in the purchasing process.
About $635,000 is available through the down payment assistance program to help people buy their first homes.
The county gets other grants as well, which it splits with the smaller cities in the county. Other programs started or planned include one to buy prescription drugs for senior citizens, and another that will loan money to small businesses anywhere in the county except the city of Mobile.
The Coopers' home is less than a minute from U.S. 90, but it's far enough from the road that they can't hear the traffic. It's a lot closer to Larry's job in Theodore at Waste Management. Now, the Coopers said, he doesn't have to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. for work. The money he saves in gas, Cecilia Cooper said, makes up the difference between rent at their last place and the monthly mortgage payments.
"We ended up getting a place that I would have picked out if I could have anything," Cecilia Cooper said.
The house isn't large -- there's one bedroom downstairs, another upstairs in a converted attic -- but several details make it unique. Two stained glass windows overlook the dining room table.
On the back deck, a porch swing is bolted into a tree limb. The garage has been turned into a pottery studio, where Cecilia fires pieces for art classes she leads at two senior citizen centers in Mobile. She started volunteering a few years ago when she was told that her medical problems wouldn't allow her to go back to work.
"This is it for us," said Larry Cooper. "We'll be here forever.
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