Civic Story: The Cooper Family
Love emanates from Joe and Amy Cooper’s house in the Hilltop as loudly as their screaming children. On any given day, a steady stream of kids, visitors, and neighbors come through their house like familiar friends. Ever since they moved in, the Coopers have adopted the neighborhood’s hospitality and care.
“I love the diversity of our neighborhood. I love that our neighbors care about where they live and keeping it a safe place. We want to co-habitate, co-mingle with people from all walks of life,” says Amy, a teacher-turned-stay-at-home mom to their four adopted children. “I love that we have the reputation of the red-headed stepchild of Seattle.”
“I like the fact that it’s got a bad reputation, I kind of enjoy that about it,” says Joe, laughing. “I think one of our first days, Pat, who lives across the street, first of all came out and told us not to park in front of his house, of course.” Joe’s friendly banter with his neighbor apparently started upon first meeting. “He was talking about how we have a pretty involved community. I was like, ‘Yeah I’m sure you do.’ And then, the second or third night we were here, we woke up in the morning, and Cheri had left a bag from Trader Joe’s with all kinds of stuff — a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread — I don’t even remember what all was in there. So immediately I was like, ‘Oh these people in our neighborhood are really involved.’”
Originally from rural Eastern Washington, Amy and Joe’s primary community after a decade of Hilltop living is this group of close-knit neighbors who look out for each other.
“We’ll hear our friends, people talk about how they don’t — or society — nobody knows anyone in their community, no one knows their neighbors,” says Joe. “We pretty much know all of our neighbors. And I know that’s unique. I mean I’m glad the Hilltop Crips aren’t here anymore, but because this area was so rough, this whole community rallied together. Everyone is really involved, and it all revolves around this park that’s right next to our house.”
Joe and Amy adopted all four of their young children but often are looking after one or two more littles in addition to their own. “I’m just trying to love on the kids in our neighborhood and have our home be a safe place that they can come,” says Amy. “I would love for one day for our home…to be an extension of the park and a hub of activity. We’re not there yet, and we have to build relationships with these kids, which is difficult because I feel like right around the time where we get to know kids, they move because of the transient nature of a lot of the families in this neighborhood.” The park is a center of play especially in the summertime. The park’s playground structure teems with kids, the half court basketball court sees pickup basketball games, and the community garden is faithfully tended from seed to harvest.
“We bought this house,” says Joe, “and then we were like, ‘Oh there’s a park right here.’” They’ve gotten to know the kids who come through the park, living right next door. “We started buying Otter Pops just to try and give them popsicles and make friends, get to know the kids. That seemed like the natural way to impact our community.” The family continues to build relationships with whoever comes through the park and helps to make the neighborhood a caring and cared for space.
“I put up Christmas lights, cause that’s what I wanted to do, and then I kept digging up our yard and planting more flowers cause I wanted to do that.” Joe, the avid gardener, is sometimes in his yard after dark with his headlamp on, working away and meeting the late-night passersby. With their house closest to the park, separated only by an alleyway, the Coopers’ care for beauty is a neighborhood contribution. “We started putting up Christmas lights in the park, cause our neighbors bought some. To me, these things were things that I was [just] doing, I didn’t realize til a number of years down the road these are just simple things and how much I was impacting people.”
Impacting the community, for the Coopers, seems to happen as an afterthought. They’re just living life, building relationships along the way. “To contribute to our community means to have some sort of positive influence on it,” says Amy. “Whether that is like helping a neighbor out, mow their lawn, provide lunches for kids…”
“Sometimes it’s just giving people a meal,” adds Joe. “It varies from season to season. Letting kids help me plant flowers, or we had kids who used to come over and play video games — I mean, it varies. Or we let our neighborhood paint our fence.” The family home’s white picket fence — Amy’s childhood dream now realized — borders the park. Every summer, the neighborhood throws a giant block party. All the families and kids come out and spray paint it together, creating a collaborative mural that colorfully portrays the personality of the neighborhood. It stays up, slowly fading, until the next block party.
For the entire Cooper family, those relationships, albeit messy or seasonal, are forever. “Our family was built through adoption — we adopted all four of kids — and that’s sort of a mentality that we take on for anyone who comes into our life.” Which is true. If you walk into the family home, within minutes, a small child will ask you to read them a story.
“If you are even a small part of our life for any amount of time, you become adopted into our family,” says Amy.
And family shapes you.
“I feel like I moved into this neighborhood ‘open-mindedly.’ But I realized how close-minded my open-mindedness was. The more time that I spend here and learn about the different issues that affect the different people in my community,” says Amy, “I’ve become a whole lot more aware of issues that I want to be a part of helping to fix, or being an advocate for. My worldview has totally changed.”
The implications for learning are increased four-fold — for now. Joe says, “There’s a lot of the same issues, but it’s funny, because everyone sees everything the kids are doing. Suddenly, it’s like these [Hilltop] kids are terrible kids. Well, I did a lot of the same crap; we were out in the middle of nowhere breaking windows, but nobody saw us. And it also makes a difference, you know, you start to learn actual issues of the world and how differently people view [these] things depending on the color of the kid doing it — it makes a difference.”
Recently, on two separate occasions, two kids who used to lived in the neighborhood came back to see the Coopers.“I consider them not like my kids, but they’re a part of our family,” she says. Each of the kids were young when they lived in the neighborhood, before their families moved away. Now that they’re grown up, they visited Joe and Amy to catch up on the past several years and share their future plans.
The Coopers have had various family members, friends, college students, and neighbors stay with them over the years. This past summer, they had six additional people living with their family of six, every bedroom bursting at the seams. But that’s just the norm for the Coopers. “I want our home to be a home for other people,” says Amy. “And I think we have lived that out.”
As the family likes to say, build a bigger table, not a higher fence. The kids expect visitors; every night, as they set the table, they ask who’s coming over for dinner. Most evenings, there are a few extra chairs shoved around their long dining table, the family literally elbow to elbow with guests, happily munching on a spread of made-from-scratch eats.
“I would love to finish our attic and add on to our house. A lot of people want to do those things cause they want a bigger house. And it’s not like I don’t want those things, but I really feel like our motives for wanting to add on space is to put more people here. I want to have a commercial kitchen one day so we can feed more people,” says Joe. “But it’s not like I need some amazing nice thing. I grew up in a double wide trailer and — I had a very good life growing up, you know? But I want to be able to do as much as we can with what God has given us.”
The kids are running in circles and giggling before bed, the dishwasher is churning with evidence of the usual home-cooked dinner, and the sun is just beginning to set on a hot summer night; the Cooper house ends another night full of love.