From homeless to Hollywood producer, University of La Verne alumna Cori Shepherd Stern now strives to heal hearts around the world.
December 4, 2015
A determined young woman wearing a flight jacket and a mullet hairdo rode her moped to the University of La Verne in 1985 on a mission. She wanted to gain the skills to help children in war-torn countries heal, grow and learn.
The woman — then known as Cori Chambers — had her own wars to fight at the time. She had been intermittently homeless, sleeping on various couches and using a garden hose to shower. “When people think homeless, they think you have a shopping cart on the street, but it’s really about not having a stable place to live,” she said.
Since her time at La Verne, Cori Shepherd Stern — her current name — has not only realized her dream by co-founding the nonprofit, Strongheart Group, but she has produced hundreds of hours of television, received an Academy Award nomination and produced the zombie romance film, “Warm Bodies.”
The La Jolla resident describes La Verne as key to her success. “If there is a characteristic of the University of La Verne that I think of as very strong and very influential, it would have to be moral compassion,” Stern said. “It is kindness combined with work ethic, and a deep sense that we are here on this planet for each other — that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.”
Far Away Places
A TIME Magazine feature called “Children of War,” about children displaying resiliency in the face of extreme circumstances, inspired Stern as a child growing up in Florida. She wanted to help them, let others learn from their adversity, and give them a home where they could live together.
“I held onto this and would talk about it to anyone who would listen,” she said. It was a dream she had to put on hold. Home life was tumultuous. Her mother and siblings survived what Stern described as a difficult situation with her father. They fled Florida for California, where Stern, her mother, and three siblings settled in Montclair. Stern developed severe depression in her new surroundings.
In high school, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she received treatment for 11 months. There, she met teacher Darryl Brandt, a University of La Verne graduate whose kindness helped her heal. After being released, she befriended Doug Stern, a student at Montclair High School who would eventually become her husband. Like Brandt, Stern and his family had deep ties to the Church of the Brethren and the University.
She and her mother had been couch hopping for months by the time Stern graduated high school, but Stern still managed to get accepted to La Verne. She majored in international relations and found inspiration from the late football Coach Roland Ortmayer, Professor of Journalism George Keeler, Emeritus Professor John Gingrich and the late Coach Dwight Hanawalt, among others.
Keeler remembers Stern as a student who was creative, fearless, always willing to try something new and quick to master the fundamentals. And she was always thinking ahead.
“She always had a plan B and C if plan A did not work out,” Keeler said. “When Cori wanted to get something done, she taught herself or found a way to build a team to accomplish the goal.”
Stern and classmate, Cyndi Behnke, started a Sigma Kappa chapter at La Verne, partly because Stern felt she did not fit in with other Greek organizations. It became La Verne’s first national sorority. La Verne alum and former assistant coach Tim Morrison ’77, who rented rooms to students at his home, gave Stern a place to stay. “He could tell I was desperate, didn’t have a lot of money and needed a place to live,” she said.
Bound for Hollywood
A play Stern wrote called “One Invincible Summer” — about her stint in the hospital — launched her career as a playwright. She became the writer-in-residence at the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas. She also married Doug Stern, who worked as a stand-up comic. The couple struggled financially, and eventually, Stern found herself couch hopping once again. She and her husband moved to California in search of work.
A Hollywood temp agency placed her with a company that later merged with the Fox Family Channel. Stern helped develop new television shows including “Breaker High,” starring Ryan Gosling and “Great Pretenders,” featuring Stacy Ferguson, later known as Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. When Fox Family was bought by ABC, she was given a considerable severance package and, with more free time on her hands, Stern’s thoughts returned to the idea of helping children far away.
While searching the Internet in November 2002, Stern found a plea for food, money and other assistance from an orphanage on the Ivory Coast of Africa.
By January, Stern had rounded up enough resources to purchase $105,000 in medicine for the orphanage. Stern alone brought 500 doses of influenza vaccine on the flight there.
Stronger in the Broken Places
In 2005, Stern encountered a 12 year old Liberian girl in a refugee camp in Ghana. The girl, Lovetta Conto, was one of hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee their homeland amid a civil war in West Africa. She and her family made it safely to the camp, but experienced days when her father could not afford the meager fees to send her to school, and even more days without food.
Conto would become the inspiration for the Strongheart Fellowship Program, which helps exceptional young people in war zones, refugee camps and extreme poverty become advocates for social change. The residency program provides fellows with education, mentoring and assistance to create an entrepreneurial project benefitting others. Strongheart derives from the Ernest Hemingway quote, “The world breaks us all, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places.”
Conto, now 23, is a jewelry designer who transforms bullet casings from the Liberian War into necklaces through her company, Akawelle. Proceeds helped build the Strongheart House in Liberia, a place where children from all over the world participated in the fellowship program. The house has since been relocated to Austin.
Another pivotal point in Stern’s life came after learning about a gravely ill Rwandan girl named Angelique Tuyishimere. The 3-year-old needed open-heart surgery due to rheumatic heart disease, but could not afford the trip to a Sudanese clinic that could provide the surgery for free.
Angelique’s plight inspired the documentary “Open Heart,” which followed Angelique and seven other children who were evacuated from Rwanda to receive surgery. The documentary, which Stern produced, was nominated for an Academy Award. For Stern, the nomination came as a shock, as she detailed on her blog “Girl Seeks World.”
“This morning I found out that I got nominated for an Academy Award. A real one,” Stern wrote. “I still can’t really believe it.”
Stern is currently working on another documentary called “Bending the Arc,” which tracks the global health equity movement. She says participants of the movement believe that healthcare is a basic human right. It is a movement that resonates with Stern, given her strong belief in moral compassion.
“At the end of the day, it’s about kindness. And that’s what I still believe,” she said.
To support the Strongheart Group, log on to strongheartgroup.org.