by KELSEY CIPOLLA
Spend some time with Pat Cocherl, affectionately known to many as “Mr. C,” and a few things quickly become apparent: his love for his family, his admiration of the founding fathers (particularly Thomas Jefferson), and his desire to give back.
All these passions come together at the Cocherl Family Foundation’s Jefferson Building. The Leawood space was designed from a drawing by Jefferson that had never been built. The stately structure is filled with references to its namesake as well as other early American visionaries, mixed in with photos of the Cocherl clan: Pat, his wife of almost 50 years, Kathy, and their five children: Jennifer, Shawn, Ryan, Kristen, and Patrick.
The building opened in 2017 and serves as the headquarters for the Cocherl Family Foundation, which is run by all seven family members united to pursue a single purpose: helping kids.
RIGHTING A WRONG
The Cocherl Family Foundation’s mission is in some ways penance for a wrong choice Mr. C made decades ago, he explains.
Cocherl was serving as president of the Blue Valley School District’s board of education in the mid 1980s when a vote passed in favor of integrating students with special needs into the district’s schools. He didn’t agree, thinking it would adversely affect the quality of education, but the
board voted and he was overruled. The program launched at the school where the Cocherl family’s youngest son, Patrick, was about to start kindergarten.
After a few weeks at school, Patrick asked to invite his friend Jake over for a playdate. When the friend arrived, the Cocherls were surprised to see that he was in a wheelchair. Jake’s mother explained some of the basics they would need to know to help Jake during his time at their home, and
the kids had a blast. Meanwhile, Mr. C realized he’d made a huge mistake by rejecting the idea of making the district more inclusive.
“I went to every school in the school district and apologized for my vote and vowed that day to right that wrong,” he said. After working behind the scenes for some time, the Cocherl Family Foundation was born in 2003, a formal entity dedicated to making a difference in the lives of
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Mr. C says about the foundation’s work.
THE GIFT OF GIVING
The Cocherl Family Foundation is truly a family affair, starting with its funding. Mr. C’s company, Heartland Customer Solutions, offers support services for Panasonic products and put the Cocherls in a financial position to give back. The family’s own money is the lifeblood of the foundation, which also accepts donations from people who believe in its charitable mission.
Since its establishment, the nonprofit has given to numerous organizations that work to improve life for kids, including the Rose Brooks Center, Beat the Monster, and Children’s Mercy Hospital. It’s also helping to provide funding to a new Wonderscope location in South Kansas City. And in recent years, one of the biggest focuses has been Keep the Spark Alive, an organization determined to prevent suicide by funding innovative programs and initiatives in schools, starting with Blue Valley.
Additionally, the Cocherl Family Foundation offers annual scholarships to Blue Valley students who receive special education services through individual education programs, commonly known as IEPs. The awards fund
their post-high school education, whether that includes attending a college, university, or vocational school.
Mr. C estimates hundreds of area students have received the renewable scholarship since it was established. The scholarships not only set these students up for success after graduation, they also help them develop a sense of self-worth and confidence they might otherwise lack, parents have told the family.
Of course, the Cocherls haven’t been without challenges of their own. Several years ago, the family’s patriarch suffered a massive heart attack that brought him to the brink of death. Mr. C survived, but the experience put his philanthropic mission into even sharper focus.
After recovering, he wanted to ensure the work of the foundation will outlive him and Kathy through their kids, who play an active role, bringing their own projects and ideas to the family’s quarterly meetings where future commitments are decided.
With the children fully invested, the foundation is poised to make an impact for years to come. “I realized that I had more pieces to put in place to finish, and I’ve now done that,” he says, adding, “For the first time, I realized my mortality and it made me hyper-focused on what’s important.”