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Retirement brightens as San Dimas couple take in foster children

Gabriel and Elizabeth Cho start a new chapter in their lives with two Korean foster children

One night in mid-September, Gabriel and Elizabeth Cho couldn't sleep. The retired San Dimas couple were too excited about what the next day would bring. Mrs. Cho prayed, and she thought about preparing a second casserole, just in case one of her guests didn't care for kimchi jjigae.

This new chapter in their lives had begun several months earlier, when they saw the news that Los Angeles County had about 600 to 800 Asian and Pacific Islander children who had been removed from their homes, but no licensed Korean American foster parents.

Some of those kids are under the temporary care of extended family. But others — traumatized by abuse or neglect — are dealt the added challenge of trying to start new lives in homes where the language, customs and food were all foreign to them.

"I thought, 'OK, maybe it's my place to take care of them,'" said Mr. Cho, and his wife endorsed the idea.

The Chos were empty nesters, after all. Born in Korea, they had moved to Switzerland in 1975, where Mr. Cho served as a diplomat. Then, in 1980, they settled in Southern California. He opened an electronics store in El Monte while Mrs. Cho began a 30-year career as a postal service clerk, and the couple raised a son who is a doctor and a daughter who's a teacher.

Post-retirement, their two-story house was quiet but for a dog named Happy. Both the Chos were very involved in their Catholic parish, with Mr. Cho serving as a marriage and family counselor, and they were thinking about traveling to visit the Holy Land. But that was before the Chos decided it was their duty to be of service to kids in need.

In February, they drove to a church in Anaheim to hear more about how they could help. And they weren't alone. About 100 Korean families were there to find out about the campaign by a nonprofit called Korean American Family Services to recruit and train foster parents for struggling kids (

Connie Chung Joe, the agency's executive director, said one reason for the shortage may be a cultural difference — Korea traditionally had orphanages rather than a foster system. She said that in Los Angeles, some young immigrants who had been in abusive homes or had witnessed domestic violence, ended up with white, Latino or African American families even though they spoke little or no English.

"The biological parents are supposed to be able to visit with their kids but couldn't communicate with the foster parents at all," she said, "so we heard about kids who stopped eating, were refusing to bathe and just started shutting down."

Chung Joe said Korean American Family Services has received more than 400 queries since launching its foster care training program. Some were from people living in senior housing, who couldn't become foster parents but wanted to help in some way. They offered to provide meals, take the kids for walks or babysit.

The Chos attended an orientation in March and learned that becoming licensed foster parents would take months. They had to undergo background checks, home inspections and 33 hours of training over the course of several weeks. None of which gave them any second thoughts.

The Chos were among 24 families who entered the initial training program, and they were the first to become licensed. Estee Song, a training program manager for the agency, had recommended that the Chos begin with one child, and Mr. Cho was hoping it would be a boy.

But an attorney contacted Chung Joe's agency to say that a brother and sister had been separated and were struggling in their foster homes, and it might be best if they were reunited.

The girl was 14, the boy 10.

The Chos didn't hesitate.

They readied the house, preparing the rooms their own son and daughter once used. Mrs. Cho made bibimbap (mixed rice) and added doenjang-jjigae (soy bean paste casserole) to the kimchi dish. Mr. Cho made arrangements to enroll the kids in nearby public schools.

They were prepared to offer love and structure, but knew their role could well be a temporary one since the children might be reunited with their family one day.

On the big day, Sept. 16, the children arrived midafternoon, and there seemed to be an immediate sense of relief all around. The kids were respectful, and the girl, who spoke very little English, appreciated being able to use her first language.

"As soon as they came, we took them upstairs to show them they have their own rooms," said Mr. Cho. "They were so excited. They'd never had their own rooms."

Ten weeks have gone by, and there have been a few challenges. The siblings hadn't been together for a long time, and they quarreled until reconnecting with each other.

Chung Joe says the Chos introduced the kids to swimming, took them to their first-ever dental appointments, and also discovered that the boy was unable to see the blackboard at school. The Chos got him a pair of glasses.

Song said the Chos are doing very well as rookie foster parents, and the kids have made great strides, as well.

"The older one told me she never thought someone could give her love unconditionally," Song said. "I can see how she has opened up, and she feels very safe and trusts both of them."

Mr. Cho has been working with the boy on his math, and he proudly handed me a progress report that has shown math comprehension gains five straight weeks, from failing grades to a solid B.

The Chos make weekly visits to the library, and the kids already know the daily drill after school: First comes homework, then an hour of reading, and only then can they can play video games or watch television.

Do they regret putting their travel plans on hold? Not at all. There is joy, Mr. Cho said, in their hearts and in their home.

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