By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Matthew, 12, recently traveled to downtown Dallas with members of Park Cities Baptist Church to deliver sandwiches to the homeless.
While there, he spotted his mother, who didn't see him. Eager to avoid her, he jumped back into the delivery van. A homeless man, seeing him run, walked over to the vehicle's window to console him.
"Don't worry," the man told him. "It's not so scary down here."
Matthew laughed. "I didn't need someone else to tell me what it was like down there," he says.
Matthew and his 3-year-old half brother, Roderick, know all too well what it is like to live on the street.
They were homeless themselves for years.
That ended on New Year's Day, 1995, when Linda Koop, a single 32-year-old, plucked the two cold boys off the harsh, wet streets of Dallas and took them home with her.
Koop, a North Dallas real-estate agent, has served as surrogate mother for the biracial boys ever since. She is now seeking to adopt them, to cement an extraordinary relationship that has changed her life almost as much as it has changed theirs.
Politicians, ministers, and experts often pontificate about the problem of providing homes for children who live on the street.
Linda Koop is providing a personal solution to a small--but important--part of the problem.
Koop, the accidental angel, had no intention of becoming a parent anytime soon.
Raised in Rusk, a small East Texas town, she arrived in Dallas at 21, earned her real-estate license at Richland College, and set her sights on selling Park Cities homes. "My ambitions have always been really high," she says. "I didn't want to just make a living selling houses somewhere like DeSoto. I wanted to be No. 1, selling million-dollar homes."
Employed by Ebby Halliday, she exudes the confident, well-dressed image of an upscale sales agent, but in the highly competitive Park Cities market, she has yet to hit it big. Money remains tight.
That hasn't kept Koop from caring about those who are less fortunate than she.
In November 1994, she started joining Rip Parker, a member of her church, in daily downtown forays to deliver food to the homeless. It was during one of those trips that she spotted Matthew and Roderick for the first time.
The boys were with their mother. Koop was startled; she had never seen children on the street.
As she watched, a police officer approached the boys and their mother and threatened to call Child Welfare and Protective Services. The mother objected, insisting that their uncle would take them in. Koop helped persuade the cop to back off.
A week later, Koop, on her sandwich-delivery mission, again spotted the boys on the street. Matthew appeared very sick. He was having trouble breathing; he told her that he had been vomiting all day. "Let me take them with me," Koop told the mother, in a decision that would change her life. "I'll meet you back here in the morning."
Parker took Matthew to Children's Medical Center, where he was treated for chronic bronchitis and released. Both boys spent the night at her one-bedroom North Dallas apartment.
In the morning, Linda took them to meet their mom who, instead of retrieving the boys, told Koop to keep them--so Matthew could go to school. Koop was shocked--"I thought it was just going to be a night or two," she says--but readily agreed to take them in for what she still presumed would be a short time.
As the weeks passed, Koop discovered that neither the boys' mother, who was still on the street and seeking unsuccessfully to find housing, nor CPS was in any rush to retrieve the children. Instead, child-welfare officials met with the mother, who had spent time in substance-abuse rehabilitation programs. She agreed to assign Koop temporary custody. After that happened, Koop says, she had trouble getting the agency to even return her phone calls.
Meanwhile, Koop and the boys began to settle into their newfound family lifestyle. Linda assumed a spot on the couch, and the boys got her bed--a sleeping arrangement that remains in place today. Linda began sending Matthew--a sixth-grader who had attended more than a dozen different schools--to William B. Travis Elementary.
In April 1995, after three months, Koop believed her stint as a single mom was at an end. The boys' uncle, who had lost contact with her sister's family, learned of their plight from a Dallas Observer story and a subsequent TV report.
The uncle and his wife petitioned for custodial rights and started adoption procedures. Concerned that she could not afford to raise two children by herself and convinced that the family was trying to do what was best, Koop reluctantly packed Roderick's stuffed animals and the Lion King poster she had bought for his new room in the uncle's DeSoto home. She was excited that the uncle had signed Matthew up to play baseball.
Their departure was abrupt and uncomfortable. The aunt and uncle refused to wait until Matthew had finished the school year in Dallas. Instead, Koop says, they picked up the boys for what she assumed would be a weekend visit and announced on their way out that this marked the beginning of a permanent change.