BRISTOL, Tenn. —
United Way of Bristol Executive Director Lisa Cofer says her job running a non-profit organization that provides money and other invaluable support to nearly 30 local social-services organizations is, well, more than just a job.
“As a Christian, I’ve always lived with the belief that if we give back to others we’ll be blessed in the end,” Cofer, 46, said during an interview at her homey office. “So, this is much more than a job for me. It’s a ministry for me, being able to work with people – and help more people.”
It’s a spiritual call that Cofer has pursued with much passion – and much success – since 1998, when she became the local United Way’s head executive after several years as an official with the Bristol Chamber of Commerce.
Since then, Cofer has transformed an organization that rarely raised $1 million during its annual fundraising campaigns into one that consistently exceeds that seven-figure mark year after year – which, in turn, allows the United Way to heavily support area charities and social-service agencies that many local residents literally depend on to live.
“Since Lisa has been leading the United Way, it’s not only increased its impact and influence in our community, but also the number of people it helps each day,” said Lisa Meadows, Bristol Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer. “And so much of that tremendous growth is due to Lisa’s wonderful leadership and energy. She’s truly playing a huge role in helping make Bristol a better place.”
Bristol, Tenn., Councilwoman Margaret Feierabend, who has worked closely with Cofer on fundraising campaigns, echoes Meadows’ praise for the executive director.
“There are not bigger hearts in our community than those of Lisa Cofer and her [United Way] staff, Lorie Bradley and Debbie Helton,” Feierabend said, referring to Cofer’s two longtime staff members.
Adds Feierabend: “Lisa’s long hours, knowledge of community resources [and] connections with effective people and organizations help provide Bristol folks and families hope for the future.”
Cofer has an upbeat style and is highly visible in the community. Her particular brand of empathy has developed not only from meeting professional challenges, but personal ones as well.
Just days after giving birth to daughter, Logan, in 1997, Cofer developed a serious congestive-heart condition that forced her to be put on a ventilator for several days – and in an extreme life-threatening situation.
“It was definitely a defining moment in my life,” Cofer said of her brush with death. “I had to stop and reflect about what I was doing and what I wanted to accomplish in life.”
For Cofer, the self-reflection led her to leave her longtime job as a Bristol Chamber of Commerce official to pursue and land the United Way position in 1998.
“I believe in this community, and I felt like I could do something that would directly impact the quality of life in our community,” Cofer said of her reasons for leaving the private sector to take a post with a non-profit that relies on constant fundraising.
She added that a major factor driving her relentless zeal to rally support for the United Way’s work is a stark reality — in today’s economy, the community’s need for the organization’s services is only growing.
Cofer points to the rising number of homeless families with young children in both communities of Bristol, which, she says, has produced “a whole new segment of people we’re serving who have never had to seek help before” from social agencies.
“The families we deal with, the growing [demands] we have, you can’t always leave it at the office,” says Cofer. “There are a lot of sleepless nights.”
But it’s a demanding mission that Cofer, who openly admits to wearing her heart on her sleeve, is happy to take on each day of every year.
“When I say my prayers, I thank God for allowing me to serve in this position,” she said. “I feel blessed.”
Reprinted with permission by: Bristol Herald Courier