Wisconsin Mom of 8 Opens Her Home – and Heart – to Terminally Ill Babies: 'No Baby Should Have to Die Alone'

"I cannot change the fact that they're going to die, but I can make sure they don't have to die alone," Cori Salchert tells PEOPLE

Photo: Annabel Clark

In August 2012, Cori Salchert received a call from her local department of family services that would change her life forever.

“They said, ‘We have a baby that’s been born and does not have the right or left hemisphere of her brain, we have no idea how long she’s going to live, she doesn’t have a name and she’s going to die. Are you willing to take her in?’ ” Cori, 50, tells PEOPLE.

The mom of eight from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, had let the agency know that she would take in any baby or child that was facing a terminal diagnosis and in need of a home. So, when the mother of this baby gave her up within a day of giving birth, the agency immediately knew whom to call.

“I don’t pray for babies to be in this situation, but if they are, then I want to be able to be there,” Cori, a devout Christian, explains.

After talking it over with her husband, Mark Salchert, Cori brought the baby she named Emmalynn home.

Joshua, Cori’s second oldest son, admits that when he learned about Emmalynn’s terminal prognosis, he was afraid to meet her. “I figured out there was nothing we could do to sustain or heal her and I thought, ‘This is going to hurt, this is going to hurt a lot,’ ” the 23-year-old says.

But Joshua soon realized that the tiny baby girl gave the entire family “a very real sense of purpose.” Emmalynn lived with the Salcherts for five weeks that were filled with love and attention from her eight new brothers and sisters.

“We took her to the beach, the bank and the bookmobile,” Cori recalls.

Just one month later, Emmalynn died in Cori’s arms, surrounded by her loving family. The Salcherts’ hearts broke over the loss, but not in the way Joshua had feared.

“It still hurt, but not in the gaping pain sort of way,” he recalls. “If anything, there was a lot of hope that came out of it. Emmalynn probably did more for us than we ended up doing for her.”

For more on Cori Salchert’s extraordinary family, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Despite the immense lost they felt after Emmalynn died, the family continued to open their hearts to babies in need of a loving home. The Salcherts have since adopted another terminally ill baby, 20-month-old Charlie, and fostered five additional babies with medical needs.

“I cannot change the fact that they’re going to die, but I can make sure they don’t have to die alone,” Cori says. “None of this is easy, but it’s so worthwhile.”

Caring for these sick and abandoned children has given Cori a chance to heal her own personal pain, which stems from her younger sister Amie’s tragic death in 1979. Cori was just 4 years old when her 4-month-old baby sister contracted spinal meningitis.

The fevers left her blind, brain damaged and suffering from constant seizures. The family did their best to care for her, but when an autoimmune disease rendered Cori’s father unable to work, they were forced to send Amie, then 5, to a home for disabled children.

When Amie was 11, she wandered out of an unlocked door at the children’s home and drowned in a nearby pond.

“It was a traumatic thing to have her die like that,” Cori reflects. “The hardest part was that she was alone. She was struggling and by herself.”

Decades later, Cori has found that this early heartbreak gave her the strength to love children like Emmalynn and Charlie. “I knew I could take them in because I’ve been there before,” she says. “I’ve come out on the other side, and that gives me courage.”

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