Now, Ken and Tracy joke, they can't shut him up.
Cut to the present, with a 6-9, 250-pound high school senior who fills a room, sitting at a kitchen table, leafing through the literature he receives from Penn State a few times a week. Shawn Oakman stops for a second, because it doesn't take him long to realize "I wouldn't be where I am today without my Uncle Ken and Aunt Tracy."
"I was a really, really bad kid and they took me in," he said. "If I could go back in time and see me the way I was then, I'd beat myself to death. Yeah, I wouldn't be here, [but] maybe in Glen Mills or in prison."
Instead, the massive Penn Wood defensive end is going to Penn State on a football scholarship, with dreams of playing in the NFL someday. The course seems set, with the terrain smoother than it was as recently as 4 years ago. The builders of that road are Ken and Tracy, who transformed a young man with caring hands and caring hearts.
To meet Ken Roberts, you wouldn't know it. He can come across with a steely veneer to those who don't know him. Peel away that façade and you find a giving, endearing man. Ken became the man of his house at 7, after his parents divorced. The St. Joseph's Prep graduate put himself through Bloomsburg by enlisting in the military. He did three tours of duty as a chief warrant officer, one stateside, and one tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He's seen and experienced things. Such as the vacant feeling of not hearing the reply from a friend during roll call in the desert, and the humility of being in a combat zone.
"It's the saddest thing I've ever experienced, a soldier's funeral in theater," said Ken, 45, a human resources consultant for Wachovia, who has a 7-year-old son, Ken III (nicknamed Trey), with Tracy, and 15-year-old son Kenneth from a previous marriage.
"One of my core values is service, a belief that a force greater than yourself is at work," Ken said. "I think everyone has to give up something in order for a community to work. It's why I became a foster parent. It's the way my family raised me, and it's what I've tried to instill in my kids and the foster children I've taken in. But you manage your own destiny. You follow the rules."
Behind every strong man, as they say, is a strong woman. They don't come any stronger than Tracy. While Ken was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tracy ran the house - and often had to deal with Shawn's youthful tantrums. She was the one who maintained Ken's zero-tolerance policies when he was gone.
Ken and Tracy were getting ready to transition from being foster parents when they learned Shawn, the son of Ken's cousin, Vernetta Oakman, was going through some tough times.
"We had to do something," said Tracy, who works for Vanguard, has been married to Ken for 10 years and has an 18-year-old daughter, Taylor, through a previous relationship. "Here's this 10-year-old kid who didn't know who I was, and we didn't know much about him. It was hard in the beginning, because Shawn was pretty much on his own when he came to us. No one ever told him when to get up and go to school, or put the trash out. He was pretty defiant early on. If they don't follow the rules, they're out. I didn't think Shawn was going to make it."
But Ken and Tracy stuck with Shawn. He began to get up on time for school, wash dishes and walk the dog without any feedback. Eventually, upon entering Penn Wood, Oakman began seeing things differently, both emotionally and athletically, which made him into "this big sweet, overgrown teddy bear," Tracy said, laughing.
"He's a terror on the football field," she said, "and to Ken and me, we aren't his parents - and we realize that - but we look at him as if he's ours now, too. He's grown up to be a good kid." *
Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.