AUSTIN – There are three cookie cakes on the table, one for each of the siblings being adopted in a downtown Austin courtroom on a recent Friday.
It's a celebratory day, to be sure, adorned with red rose corsages and formal-looking certificates. But for adoptive mom Jennifer Hidrogo, it's about more than becoming a forever family with Dalton, 13, Emma, 11, and LilyRose, 9. It's about fulfilling a promise she made to her neighbor — the children's father, Glendon Wilson Booth Jr. — just before he died of cancer last summer.
"When I saw that he was worrying about where the kids would go if something happened, I told him, 'I know it's a big responsibility, but I will take care of them,'" Hidrogo said. "To be honest — though I meant that — I never even thought that he was going to pass away."
Hidrogo and Booth were neighbors at Live Oak Trails Apartments, where their children frequently played together. After Booth was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just before Christmas in 2017, Hidrogo began driving him to his medical appointments and ultimately assumed his medical power of attorney.
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As Booth's cancer progressed, the community rallied for the single dad. His church, Christian Life, collected donations. Parents from the kids' school, Small Middle School, organized a "Christmas in July" so that Booth could celebrate the holidays one last time with his children. He died July 31, 2018. He was 42.
"Before Glendon passed away, he said that he couldn't believe there were so many good people out there. He was always the one to help anyone and to be there for people, and when he saw people doing that for him and his kids, it was almost unbelievable for him to really grasp that," Hidrogo said. "I love that he got to see people and the community come together to help him — the man who helped everyone else — and just because they really wanted to. I love that he experienced that before he passed away."
The children lived with Hidrogo in the months leading up to their father's death, because he was in and out of the hospital. While under hospice care, Booth was clear that he wanted Hidrogo to adopt his children, and Denise Hyde, a member of the Pro Bono Committee of the Austin Bar Association, volunteered to help him with the case. The Austin Bar's CANLAW Clinic, which provides free estate planning services to cancer patients and their families, also drafted documents for Booth, but he died before they could be signed.
After his death, Hyde reached out to representatives from Dignity Memorial to see if they could assist with a funeral, something for which Booth had not budgeted. Dignity Memorial's Cook-Walden/Forest Oaks Funeral Home and Memorial Park agreed to host a service for free and donate a plot.
"We were contacted by Denise to support and help this family in this difficult time with the loss of their dad," said Brian Goshert, general manager of Cook-Walden/Forest Oaks, during the adoption ceremony Aug. 16. "It was a pleasure to take care of the family."
Because of Hidrogo's significant past contact with the children as their caregiver — and Booth's expressed wishes — she was awarded temporary custody of the children in early August 2018.
"I couldn't imagine what would've happened to them after trying to deal with their father's death and then not knowing where they were going, how they would even have been able to handle that," Hidrogo said. "I'm glad that they didn't have to go through that."
A year later, during the emotional and at times tear-filled adoption ceremony, the children held a photo taken of them with their father shortly before he died.
"Sometimes I like to say that I have a magic gavel, and that with the magic gavel, I can make you a family. If that gavel was truly magic, I would bring your dad back, because I know that you would want that," Judge Karin Crump told the siblings during the ceremony. "But I also know that he is smiling down today, because if there are angels here on earth, then I know that one landed right next to you next door."
Attendees at the ceremony included Hidrogo's five biological children: Desiree Garcia, 23, Azriel Rios, 17, Kristopher Rios, 16, Kayla Rios, 16, and Charlee Rios, 13. Desiree and Azriel live together on their own, and Kristopher lives with his dad. Kayla and Charlee live with Hidrogo and share their home with Dalton, Emma and LilyRose.
"I'm very proud of my mom. This is a big decision in her life, all of ours, and we love them," Desiree Garcia told the judge. "Before their dad passed, they were always around. We all played with them and loved them just like they were already part of the family. To see them actually officially our family, it's amazing. It's a beautiful thing. My mom definitely has a big heart, enough for all of us."
At the adoption ceremony, Hyde read a poem that she said "could have been written about Ms. Hidrogo and the children."
"Not flesh of my flesh, not bone of my bone, but still miraculously all my own. Never forget for a single minute, you weren't born under my heart, but within it."
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In addition to being adopted, LilyRose took on a new name at the ceremony. She exchanged her former first name, Alyson, for LilyRose, and changed her last name from Booth to Hidrogo-Booth, melding her past with her father with her new life with Hidrogo.
"I think Jennifer is a great mom," she said during the ceremony. "She cares for everybody. I hope I get to live with her for the rest of my life."
For Hidrogo, the day was about keeping a promise, loving unconditionally and learning that sometimes, the family you need might be right next door.
"I'm so thankful for everybody in this room and for all the support to me and especially to them," she said, looking at Dalton, Emma and LilyRose. "It's been a challenge like no other, I will not lie, but other than (their dad) being with them, I would never want it any other way. They're mine."