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.
The uncle says he was simply trying to start the boys on their new life as soon as possible. "Our plans were to take them in and adopt them," the uncle says.
For a time, Koop's contact with the boys was sharply limited--Matthew telephoned in the early-morning hours--but as the summer wore on, the aunt and uncle began dropping the brothers off for weekend visits with Koop. She began suspecting that she might soon be getting the boys again--this time for good.
In August 1995, the uncle came over with the boys and told Koop she could keep them. He was dropping his plans to adopt them. A grocery-store manager with two kids of his own, he says he was simply overwhelmed.
"We had to do what was best for the boys," the uncle says. "We talked it over with Matthew. He is old and stable enough to make up his own mind. In getting to know Linda for the past year and a half, we know she loves them and wants to do what is best for them."
The uncle says the financial pressures he faced caring for the children were simply too great. He received no assistance from churches or concerned citizens--as Koop had. His sister occasionally passed along some food stamps, but that made barely a dent in the family's overwhelmed budget.
"I do care for the boys, but we had to do what was best for them. I guess in my heart, I felt Linda could do more," he says.
The uncle has pledged to remain in the boys' lives. He attends Matthew's basketball games and offers financial help when he can. "My mom and dad and whole family is concerned about the kids," he says, "but I guess you can't change the world."
Koop often seems to believe the opposite. In July, she had moved with a female roommate to a two-bedroom apartment in Lake Highlands, near a good school in the Richardson district, in the expectation that the boys would return to live with her.
Their mother once again signed papers giving Linda temporary custody. The mother calls the boys every few weeks.
Koop's attachment to the boys has not won her universal praise. Koop says Roderick's grandmother has been hostile, on one occasion asking, "What is wrong with you, white lady? Can't you have your own children instead of stealing other people's kids?"
The grandmother, Koop says, has steadfastly refused to allow contact--even telephone conversations--between Matthew and Roderick and their two half brothers who live with the grandmother. The grandmother, Koop says, has even arranged to have the phone company block calls from Koop's telephone to her home. The grandmother declined to be interviewed for this story. "I am not going to be involved in that," she told the Observer.
Koop's church, Park Cities Baptist, has provided both emotional support and about $4,000 in child-care services, rent, and food, according to mission director Robert Herrera. Yet Koop and others, he says, have offered "a lot of negative word-of-mouth for not helping her enough."
Koop also complains that some in the church--whose congregation is almost all white--have been uncomfortable having the biracial boys in the pews beside them. After a black friend of Matthew got a cold reception at a church function, she says, Matthew began children's classes at Northwest Bible Church instead.
Herrera calls the incident involving Matthew's friend a misunderstanding and defends the church's efforts, saying, "This is a very gracious church," but he concedes the congregation's commitment has a limit. "We can't keep supporting her like we have been," he says.
Koop acknowledges that her life has changed "drastically" since she took in the boys.
Where once she planned to spend 16-hour days getting ahead at work, she now finds herself working six-hour days and devoting the rest to the boys. She retains the concern about finances and other issues that prompted her, months ago, to conclude the boys might be better off with their uncle, but a powerful faith convinces her that she will be able to surmount the obstacles of sudden parenthood. Says Koop simply: "I believe Christ will solve all our problems."
Last month, Linda Koop filed court papers to formally adopt the boys.
The proposed adoption may prove to be her toughest challenge yet. The court has yet to schedule a hearing, and the boys' birth parents still have time to respond to the proposed termination of their parental rights.
Their mom, now on probation for robbery charges, did not return telephone messages left with her probation officer asking her to talk for this story.
Roderick's father, now serving time in the Hutchins State Jail for violation of a probation sentence related to drug-possession charges, also declined, through a jail administrator, to speak for this story.
Matthew's father could not be reached. Matthew has not talked to him in years, and Koop's lawyer in the adoption proceedings--Daryl Gordon, a biracial attorney handling the matter on a discounted basis--has been unable to locate him.
If anyone objects, Gordon and Koop say, the adoption could become a complex matter.
But for the past six months, Linda Koop and her sudden sons have fallen into a happy family pattern.
On a recent Saturday morning, Koop applied mascara to her lashes with one hand while blow-drying her long brunette mane with the other. She turned off the dryer for a moment to assess whether the screams coming from the living room, where the boys and a friend were wrestling, were shrieks of joy or pain.
"They will always come get me if one is really hurt," Koop, reassured, said as she resumed her grooming.
Matthew soon turned to his household chores, unloading the dishwasher and vacuuming the carpet. A visitor remarked on his independence. Matthew laughed quietly. "I've kind of had a special training," he said.
The 12-year-old's maturity and school performance have dazzled everyone. "It is a miracle," says his sixth-grade teacher. "You hear about Matthew's past, and you can't believe it. He has the best attitude. He has been given a lot of love from somewhere."
The teacher says Matthew has performed at the top of his class on standardized tests. "He's like the all-American kid," she adds. "He gets along with everyone in the class. They all respect him. I pass him in the mornings, riding his bike to school, and he's always smiling."
Matthew, who rarely talks at school about his past life, recently brought in a videotape of a Channel 5 story about him. The teacher asked Matthew if he wanted to talk to the class before showing it. He told her no. "He seemed to want them to know about it, but he didn't want to tell them," says his teacher, "so he let the video tell the story."
Koop, whose own parents are divorced, remains close to her father, a former military officer who now lives in South Texas. While she and her mother rarely speak--and she speculates her mom would disapprove of her newfound family--her father has embraced the children. During a visit over Christmas break, he took Koop and the boys deer hunting.
Koop's apartment has clearly become the children's home.
Roderick already calls Koop "Mom." Tall and broad for his age, he has started learning his numbers and colors. With Koop's prompting, he eagerly recites them for guests. When not tagging after his brother, he happily crawls into her lap.
Sitting there recently, he saw an infant on the television. He asked if they might have another baby.
Koop laughed. Where would he sit, she asked, if she had another baby in her arms?