Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, the Bangor Daily News will highlight a local Pay it Forward movement with stories of ordinary people benefiting from acts of kindness and how they chose to pay that kindness forward.
BANGOR, Maine — Amy Cooper had no reservations about taking in and eventually gaining guardianship of two children who didn’t share her blood.
When she came to the realization that she needed help caring and providing for those children, though, Cooper hesitated.
It’s a difficult thing to realize you can’t do it alone, she explained.
During the lowest moment of Cooper’s panic and frustration, a friend told her about Families and Children Together, a nonprofit support group for foster parents and foster grandparents in Greater Bangor.
Sometimes the support has been financial. Other times it has come in the form of a thoughtful listener. Cooper said it saved her.
“I’ve been going there ever since,” the 65-year-old said of her introduction to the agency a few years ago. “They can’t get rid of me.”
The relationship is far from one-way.
Families and Children Together, or F.A.C.T., and Maine Kids-Kin, an offshoot program specifically geared toward foster grandparents raising children, get as much from Cooper as she gets from the organization, director Beverly Daniels said.
Among the dozens of foster parents affiliated with F.A.C.T. and its team of social workers, there is no one like Cooper.
“If someone came to her door today with a baby, she’d open her arms,” said Daniels.
Cooper has been caring for Jazmine, now 16, and her brother Christian, 13, since they were infants, but she didn’t get guardianship until years later. That’s another story.
This story is about what Cooper has done and still continues to do for them.
Her own children, two girls and two boys, grew up and moved out long ago. She now has grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Her family doesn’t understand why Cooper reopened her home to children at a time when she should be thinking about retirement.
“They need me,” she said matter of factly, glancing tenderly at Jazmine seated nearby. “It doesn’t take much. Just a little bit of love.”
Jazmine and Christian have needs that exceed those of most growing children, the inevitable byproduct of a tumultuous upbringing, Daniels said. Cooper does an admirable job meeting those needs, even on a limited income of Social Security and disability benefits.
She makes sure they’re ready for school every day, bright and early. When they come home from school, she sees that their homework is done and gets dinner ready. Above all, she always reminds them that they are loved.
What has separated Cooper and made her invaluable to F.A.C.T., Daniels said, is what she does in between caring for Jazmine and Christian.
On a recent day in early April, Cooper was organizing a spaghetti supper to raise money for F.A.C.T’s Pay it Forward program.
The organization is one of several nonprofits in Greater Bangor in recent years that have embraced a local movement started by Rick Bernstein that challenges recipients of good deeds to pay that generosity forward and do a good deed for someone else.
Bernstein said he’s made a handful of small donations to bring the Pay it Forward concept to F.A.C.T., but the organization has taken his initial generosity and woven it into its day-to-day routine.
“They are really the ideal model of what we’re trying to do with Pay it Forward,” Bernstein said.
No one embodies the selfless spirit more than Cooper.
“She only thinks of others,” Daniels said. “I don’t think she sleeps.”
On the surface, most of those clients don’t have much to give. Cooper, for instance, lives modestly and struggles occasionally. But she is always looking to find ways to help others.
Daniels said other F.A.C.T. clients have bought into Pay it Forward as well. They have brought it into their homes. They have passed it on to their foster children.
“It really is an eye-opener when they come to this realization of ‘What can I do?’” Daniels said.
So how does someone like Cooper who raised four kids of her own come to need help raising two children who are not hers?
“I didn’t really know how to discipline,” she said. “In my day, it was spanking. You don’t do that any more. I had to learn from scratch.”
Cooper learned things like “time out.” She learned, or relearned, patience.
For a while, she felt defeated. She felt like she wouldn’t be able to care for the two children, whose biological parents were out of the picture.
“I learned that you need more than a big heart,” Cooper said. “Now, I always have someone to talk to, someone who knows what I’m going through.”
With a little help along the way, Cooper has been liberated. She regularly plans fundraisers for F.A.C.T. and spends hours organizing boxes and boxes of donated clothes that end up in the closets of children like Jazmine and Christian.
Cooper has always had a volunteer itch. A few years ago, she partnered with the Rev. Gerald Oleson to create the Sunny Corner Fuel Assistance Program for families in need.
She had trouble paying her own fuel bill, but Cooper spent her time worrying about the needs of others.
The Bangor woman was paying it forward before she even knew what that meant. Now, she’s instilled the same idea in the minds of the two teenagers who share her home. Jazmine recently spent a weekend evening not at the movies with friends but volunteering at a Bangor Rotary music event.
“I told her there might be some cute guys,” Cooper said with a wry smile, knowing all along that the real benefit to Jazmine would be the realization that she was giving back.
Asked how she manages the chaotic lives of two teenagers, Cooper replied, “One day at a time, I suppose.”
Would she trade it?
Just don’t ask her to take in any more children.
She might not be able to say no.