By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
Before he was introduced to the contentious streets of Watts, before he struggled with his parents’ divorce, before he began shuffling to different schools, Jeffrey Coprich was exposed to heartache, despair and injustice.
On his third birthday, Coprich was in his family’s car as they made the drive to Las Vegas for a family reunion. Coprich’s father, Jeffrey Coprich Sr., lost control of the car after a tire blew out and it overturned multiple times. Coprich’s older sister, Essence, who was 7 at the time, was killed. His cousin, 2-year old Dejuanhe Greathouse, also lost her life.
Somehow, the others in the car survived. But a piece of Coprich’s heart did not.
“I still think of my sister every day,” said Coprich, a redshirt freshman running back on Cal’s football team. “Every time I step on the field, I’m living my sister’s dream. I’m not supposed to be here. I could have lost my life, too. I wake up every morning and do this for my sister and my family. I wish I got a chance to know my sister. When I see others with their families, or people with their older siblings, I get emotional inside.”
Coprich Sr. said his son ended up on the floor of the front seat underneath the glove compartment, and to this day can’t believe he survived the accident.
“Jeff was a miracle child,” Coprich Sr. said. “That’s when life changed.”
It turns out the unfathomable accident was just the beginning of a childhood of challenges for Coprich, who with a little help from his parents and community, overcame them all and then some. His father and mother, Shantal Baker-House, split up when Coprich was still very young, and he missed his father. When Coprich reached middle school, he began to get caught up in the rough culture of the inner city. He had moved to Inglewood by then and his parents put him in the USC 32nd Street Performing Arts School in an attempt to get him away from the lure of the streets, but the streets kept calling.
“Growing up in those kind of environments, I was involved,” Coprich said. “I had a lot of friends that were gang-banging. My middle school years, I was always around it. I was smart enough that I knew not to do anything stupid because I would get in trouble with my dad and my mom. They urged me not to get into it.”
But he was getting into it, so much that Baker-House made the difficult decision to ask Coprich Sr. to take him into his new home. Coprich Sr. had re-married and was living in Valencia, and his son came to live with them before he started high school.
“He wanted to stay with his mom but he was having some issues,” Coprich Sr. said.
It was when he moved back in with his father and stepmom, Danielle Coprich-Gray, that Coprich’s mindset underwent a metamorphosis. He attended Golden Valley High School and was exposed to a diverse demographic of peers. Despite the challenging environment he had growing up, he had always exhibited intelligence and had done well in school. Counselors at Golden Valley made sure he got on the right path for college.
Coprich started feeling empathy for those who weren’t doing as well in school, who weren’t being given the right tools to optimize their education. All the while, Essence was always on his mind.
It was while he was in high school that Essence’s old school back in Watts, 116th Street Elementary, completed a remodel of its library that was named in Essence’s honor. Shortly after Essence lost her life in the accident, the library became the “Essence K. Coprich Library.” But it was in dire need of a makeover. Years later, after a government grant allowed the school to add books, computers and other upgrades, the library had a grand re-opening, an event that drew dignitaries that included congresswoman Maxine Waters.
“It was a great event,” said Caroline McKie, who was the 116th Street principal at the time. “It was really Jeff’s parents who got the message out and let the community know.”
During the remodel, Coprich and his father were heavily involved in developing plans for the library. That strengthened Coprich’s desire to help his peers and younger children. So he established the Essence K. Coprich Book Club in which a child reads one book per month and then writes an ensuing book report. Many of the kids in the club come from the L.A. Inner City Mass Choir, an award-winning community gospel group that has released several commercially successful albums group and was founded by Coprich Sr. to rescue kids from unhealthy environments.
“It makes me really happy that I can help a kid out,” Coprich said. “It’s good for them because they get a chance to work on their writing and reading skills.”
Coprich said the library named after his fallen sister is still in need of help. The school is still looking for books and donations to make it complete. It’s a cause Coprich still is heavily involved in, even while he is living the demanding life of a college football player.
“Once we got the grant do redo the library, we got a chance to make it ours,” Coprich said. “If they are going to put my sister’s name on it, I want it to be really good. These are young kids that need to learn. Having a library where they can read any books they want is good for them. They still need more books, more computers. Teachers care there but there isn’t a lot of money. It’s great to be able to help young kids that want to read.”