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Foster mother steadies the lives of troubled kids

Cindy Kocer prays at home. Photo: Stephen Brashear Cindy Kocer prays at home. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Cindy Kocer didn't see herself as a foster parent. But she's now housed 50 children in five years through CCSWW. 

Well before the sun rises this time of year, Cindy Kocer is already up and praying.

She turns on EWTN and recites the 4:30 a.m. rosary, then watches morning Mass. And each morning, she seeks God’s help to be a good foster parent.

“I pray, ‘Lord, guide me on this day,’ because we do have difficult kids,” said Kocer, who has been “Gramma” to nearly 50 children in five years.

The kids can have behavioral and anger issues. They may have been born drug-affected or suffered abuse. Some stay just a few days for “respite” care, but half of them have lived in Kocer’s Bremerton home from a few months to more than a year.

“When a child comes in her home … they’re not the foster kids, they’re part of her family,” said Gina Pizano, who licenses foster homes for Catholic Community Services in Kitsap County.

Supported by her extended family, her faith community and the CCS therapeutic foster care team, Kocer has helped stabilize these children so they can return to live with family members.

“I think she was amazing for him,” said Mike Vaughn, whose son Chris returned home last year after living with Kocer for nearly three years. “She taught me some good things,” said Chris, now 16, who still calls Kocer every week.

“She hangs in with a lot of these kids that a lot of people would give up on,” Pizano said. The key to Kocer’s success is structure infused with love: “They know she really cares.”

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Resistance is futile

Becoming a foster parent was never foremost in Kocer’s mind.

For years, she felt her calling was caring for the elderly in adult family homes, a notion her husband, Dan, had dissuaded her from many times. But after retiring from the Navy in 1995, he finally agreed. The couple operated adult family homes in the Bremerton area for 10 years, until Dan had a massive stroke. Two years later, after Dan had largely recovered, Kocer was looking for something to do. Her daughter, Jennie, suggested her parents open their home to foster kids.

“Why would I want to do that?” Kocer recalls asking Jennie. You’re good with kids, was the reply. “My husband loves kids,” Kocer said. “I was resisting. He said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

Jennie took care of the paperwork and got them signed up for the next foster parent class. Kocer said a prayer: “Lord, if this is what your will is, I will do it, we will do it. But show me the right way to do it.”

Not long after, Cindy and Dan became licensed as foster parents.

They fostered many kids before Dan died in 2013, and Kocer didn’t hesitate to welcome more foster children after Dan’s passing.

“He always told me that no matter what happens in our lives, that people, especially children, deserve a second chance and a better life,” Kocer said. “So in continuing what he and I started together, I believe in my heart that he will always be with me in this journey.”

The sanctity of Sundays

Kocer grew up in the Philippines, in a well-off extended family with a strong Catholic faith, where she learned to give back and share with those in need. After moving to the U.S. as an adult, though, Kocer eventually became a “C&E Catholic,” going to Mass only on Christmas and Easter. It wasn’t until she moved to Bremerton and began attending Mass at the Jackson Park Community Chapel that she felt at home and at peace, and came back to the church full time.

Now on Sundays, Kocer is on spiritual overdrive.

She cranks up Christian music on YouTube and watches three Masses — including two Filipino Masses — before going to 9 a.m. Mass at Prince of Peace Chapel at the naval base in Bangor. Kocer is a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and has sung in the choir and taught catechism and confirmation classes.

“She’s very, very active, very supportive and very involved,” said Father Henry Hernando, pastor at the chapel. “Her faith shines through.”

Every Sunday afternoon, Kocer heads off to her Couples for Christ gathering for a few hours of praise, fellowship and food.

When Kocer became a foster parent, “right off the bat, I told [CCS] Sundays are for me,” she said. “There would be something missing if I don’t go to church on a Sunday. It’s like I’m not complete.”

Cindy Kocer and Chris VaughnCindy Kocer enjoys a light moment with Chris Vaughn, who was her foster son for nearly three years. Now living with his dad, Chris stays in touch by calling Kocer every week. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Not pushing her religion

The mother of a son and daughter, Kocer chooses to foster boys, usually teenagers, although she welcomes girls for respite stays. (“I think it’s harder to take care of girls usually,” she explained.)

Kocer often fosters two long-term kids at a time (she’s had as many as four at once). Treating them like her own children makes a big difference, Pizano said. “Some of these kids have been kicked out of so many homes.”

While helping her kids stabilize their behaviors, Kocer also encourages them to live by Christian principles. She suggests they try coming to church with her, but most “think it’s too boring,” she said. “I said OK, I won’t push my religion on you; I wouldn’t want anyone to force their religion on me.”

So while Kocer goes to Sunday Mass, CCS community support specialists take her foster kids on outings. “We want to make sure that all of our foster parents have the opportunity to worship, so we make that a priority,” Pizano said.

Kocer’s current foster son, who turns 10 in December, has been with her since January. He enjoys going to the Couples for Christ gatherings, calling them Kocer’s “fun church.” He has started watching Mass and reciting the rosary with “Gramma” on Saturday mornings. He has learned the Lord’s Prayer and is working on the Hail Mary.

As with all her foster kids, Kocer strives to teach him to be Christ-like. “You treat people the way you want to be treated. If you’re good, they see God in you,” she tells him. “If you help somebody, if you tell the truth, that’s being God-like.”

Stronger in faith

While fostering her kids, Kocer has faced many tough times in her personal life, especially in 2012: breast cancer, the accidental shooting of her granddaughter in an elementary-school classroom, the diagnosis of her husband’s dementia. Just after Christmas 2012, Kocer’s father died; within six months, her husband and a nephew also died.

“If not for our faith, I really don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I know we question, but [God] has plans for everything.” Through it all, Kocer’s faith has only gotten stronger. “I’ve learned to center my life with God. I should have done that a long, long time ago,” she said. “Every day I’m at peace.”

The CCS team also has stood with Kocer through the personal crises. While Dan was dying in a hospital, CCS staffed the couple’s home for a week to care for their two foster kids. “We’re always there for them, regardless of what happens,” Pizano said of CCS foster parents. “It’s a family between all of us.”

Just like other parents in other families, Kocer has dreams for her foster kids. “I hope that they grow up productive citizens, and hopefully God-fearing,” she said.

And “Gramma” always remembers them to God: “I keep praying, ‘Lord, give them the tools that they need to succeed in life.’”

“I’ve learned to center my life with God. I should have done that a long, long time ago.”

Are you passionate about caring for children?

The need for foster parents is great. Learn more in this short article, call Catholic Community Services of Western Washington at 253-363-6937 or visit www.ccsww.org.

Northwest Catholic - Dec. 2014

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