Cori Salchert felt lost.
Chronic health issues — most of them related to autoimmune diseases — had sapped her strength and ended her career. She’d been a hospice nurse and, most recently, a bereavement counselor. Now she was neither.
“I felt as if my identity had been lost as well as my job,” she says.
That’s when Cori found a new purpose — in the tiny form of a 2-week-old little girl.
Born with only a brain stem, Baby Emmalynn didn’t have long to live. Her birth parents couldn’t care for her. But she didn’t need to be in a NICU unit; she needed a home and a family.
Cori gave her that. With her husband, Mark, and their eight biological children — ages 10 to 23, five of them still living at home at the time — she took Emmalynn into their Sheboygan, Wisconsin, residence. Cori couldn’t save her, but she could hold her, touch her, care for her, love her.
Emmalynn lived 50 days, most of which were spent in the Salchert home. Then she moved on to her heavenly home.
‘The baby whisperer’
Cori had found her calling — one that made use of her professional experience, and one she could pursue at home despite her physical limitations.
The Salcherts are licensed foster parents with a specialty: They take in children with a terminal or life-limiting prognosis. Children whose lives, more often than not, will be measured in weeks, months or a few years at best.
For Cori, this work is all about Jesus’ reminder that if we do anything to help “the least of these,” we’ve done it for Him.
“As I see these kids lying in bed, I think, This is my chance to touch the face of God,” she says. “Right here, right now.”
The Salcherts have opened their hearts and home to nine foster children over the years. That includes Charlie, whom they later adopted. Once projected to not live past age 3, Charlie’s now almost 6 and may well live into his early teens.
So many of the children came to the Salcherts as infants that Cori began to think of herself as “the baby whisperer.”
That all changed in March 2015. That’s when Cori and some churchmates drove to Brookfield, Wisconsin, for a Wait No More event — Focus on the Family’s initiative to promote foster care and adoption. As she listened to the speakers and watched the videos, she found her mindset shifting.
“I got the spark to consider a teenager, to be open should an older child come along who needed our particular skill set,” she says. “As a result of the Wait No More event, I was moved to ask our social worker to keep her eyes open for a teen who’s medically fragile — who might not be small and cuddly, but nevertheless needed my nursing skills and hospice background.”
Her teddy bear
The boy was born with leukodystrophy, a degenerative, terminal brain disease. For his first 13 years, Cori says, “he was a wild child who didn’t sit.” But then the terrible seizures hit. In a matter of days, he was completely bedridden and nonverbal.
The Salcherts would later name him Samuel, meaning “God heard” my prayers. But when they brought him home in March 2017, Cori had some trepidation.
“It wasn’t love at first sight — or second or third,” she says. “Because of his size, there wasn’t that ‘cuddle factor.’ But I chose to act in a loving way, fully expecting that God would bring those feelings along.”
And He did. Soon she was calling the teen her teddy bear, a nickname that morphed into T Bear at Mark’s urging. (“He’s 13. He needs a guy name.”) Aided by generous donors, the family refitted the house with a wheelchair ramp and a wheelchair-accessible shower for both Samuel and the growing Charlie.
Samuel’s responsiveness was limited — an occasional smile, a catlike purr when stroked. But he survived several serious health episodes, surprising doctors. He made it to age 15, and the Salcherts moved to adopt him.
In September 2017, however, it was clear that Samuel’s body was failing. He might not live to his adoption date, let alone be fit to make the hour-plus drive to the courthouse.
So Milwaukee-based Judge Christopher Foley pitched something extraordinary: He’d not only move up the date, but he’d also move the proceedings to the Salchert home. Suffice it to say that a lot of court officials had to scramble to make it happen.
On Sept. 28, the Salchert house hosted a dual event. The first was Samuel’s adoption. The second was a ceremony naming him an honorary firefighter — a gift from members of the Sheboygan Fire Department, who’d gotten to know the Salcherts while responding to medical emergencies at their home.
His impact lives on
Samuel responded to the event in a way no one expected. “He was as alert and engaged as we’d ever seen him that day,” Cori says. “And when everyone was clapping, he lit up with this huge smile, and everyone was saying, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that?’ “
Captain Tim Kohlbeck of the fire department remembers the moment well.
“To me, it was a miracle,” he says. “In that broken body was a spirit created by God, and that smile was a validation. It was a gift from God.” It made an impact on Judge Foley, too.
“This was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life,” he says. “If I ever write a book, I’ll do a chapter on Samuel and the Salcherts.”
Less than three weeks later — Oct. 16, at 4 p.m. — Samuel passed away. But his impact lives on.
In lieu of flowers, the Salcherts asked that memorials be given in the form of teddy bears, which emergency personnel use to calm small children in traumatic situations. Hundreds of bears poured in.
“The legacy of T Bear will keep paying it forward,” Kohlbeck says. “The kids won’t know, but we do. Every time I hand out a teddy bear, I think of him.”
Beyond the big events of the day, Foley remembers the little things as well. “It’s not just Cori’s medical background that makes her good at this,” he says. “It’s how she relates to those children. You watch her hold their hands and sing to them and whisper in their ears — that’s what strikes me most.”
A spark fanned into flame
And Cori? She’s just thankful.
“The spark created by the Wait No More event was fanned into flame in God’s timing,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing to love deeply. We were privileged to invest for 22 months and hold Samuel’s hand as he slipped away from us and flew away to heaven.”
The Salcherts intend to keep doing what they do — and to encourage others to do the same.
“Sometimes I tell people, ‘I may be crying, but I’m not in despair — far from it,’ ” Cori says. “This isn’t fun, but it’s deeply satisfying. I’m given the privilege of carrying these children until they go home to Jesus. And I’m being carried by Him while I do.”