A home in hard times: Teens killed by van were among many sheltered by Belton woman

Tina Coley could count the holes angry teens have punched into her walls.

She could weary herself accounting for the “drama” that comes with all of their tears, their fractured homes and the temptations of dangerous drugs and alcohol that she blocks at the door.

But she does what she does — sheltering many of Belton’s wandering youth in her and her husband’s cramped duplex — because of moments like this, on a Thursday after school, when so many teens and adults gathered with her own kids in a show of gritty lives raised on love.

For years, Coley has provided shelter to teens in need, sometimes helping their parents mend broken lives and families.

Her work came to light this past week as a result of a tragedy that shook Coley’s household and the Belton community: the deaths of Cody Langer and Jacob Zimmer, who were hit by a van on Sept. 28 while walking on a dark road. The two teenagers were among those Coley had tried to look out for.

This is the place, 17-year-old Kayla Newcomb said, when she felt deserted a year ago, that Coley and the rest of her household said, “Hey, c’mon over, we’ll love you.”

Coley doesn’t wait for someone in need to ask, longtime family friend Tara Harrison said. She doesn’t pry.

“You don’t have to justify why you need help,” Harrison said. “She says, ‘Here’s a pillow. Go lay down.’”

It happens here, in Coley’s crowded house on the south side of town, for the same reason it used to happen in a trailer home in Belton’s Crown Mobile Home Park: It’s all she and husband, Shane, have to offer.

Coley works as a lead assembler at the Dwyer Instruments factory in Grandview. Shane works at R.O.M.’s factory in Belton. Their blue-collar jobs are all that support what many say has been a life-saving haven for some and simply a safe place for others.

So many parts of the community “are methed up,” family friend Christopher Lopez said, talking of so many people broken by methamphetamine.

Some are scared to step out and ask for help with addiction, he said, because they fear how the community will react, and they fear losing their children to the state.

Lopez had twin boys who often played with Coley’s children, and he remembers the day she saw past his veneer to the distress inside. His family was couch-surfing, sometimes sleeping in their car.

He didn’t have to tell her he was scared, that he needed help, he said.

“She saw,” Lopez said. “She could tell I was strung out.”

“Your boys can stay here,” she told Lopez during what he called his “darkest hour” in late 2012. “They’ve got a place to stay.”

Lopez and his boys, now 18, live in San Antonio where Lopez is a drug counselor, six years sober.

He recounted Coley’s generosity in a phone interview with his sons beside him, tossing in their own memories.

There was the time Coley threw a 13th birthday for the boys in January 2013. They loved her slow-cooked pot roast. And there were all the times she provided the kids pizza.

Lopez is “forever thankful,” he said, because he knows Coley’s generosity takes courage as well.

“People have taken advantage of her,” he said. “She’s been robbed.”

Harrison and her daughter were close neighbors and friends of Coley. They saw the risks she took.

There were times for Harrison — after hardships, after she lost everything in a fire — that she leaned on Coley for help.

“She takes down-in-the-gutter people that society turns their back on,” Harrison said. “She picks them up, gives them hugs, gives them clothes and makes them pretty again.”

There are dangers. Sometimes Coley has to protect teens who are imperiled by adults, sometimes over drugs and alcohol.

“She does not back down,” Harrison said. “She is not afraid. She does what she thinks is right.”

Some of the teens who piled in together on the couches in Coley’s living room Thursday had harder stories than others. Some were simply drawn to “the family” for fun and love. It didn’t matter.

“This is a place of zero judgment,” said Kayden Mazor, 16.

“I didn’t like people before,” teenager Chance Shoemaker said. “But hanging out here, all kinds of people helped me a lot. I stepped out of my comfort zone. I learned how to love.”

Tina Coley listened as teens and adults in the room, one after the other, gave their testimony to the strength in the house.

“It warms my heart,” Coley said. “I’m glad you guys feel safe. It’s a lot of joy.”

That’s the reward, she said.

Like that day two years ago when Lopez came visiting from Texas to hug the woman he feels saved his life. She got to see him strong, with a new car, and tell him, “You made it out!”

Harrison, now living in Florida, tells her how well she’s doing in a professional career, while her daughter excels in school.

Coley dreams of seeing such futures for the youth surrounding her Thursday.

“I’d love to see all you kids grown,” she said, “and coming back with your own careers and families, knowing I was there to help when you needed it.”

But hold on. The big gathering needed to break up. This was homecoming parade night at the high school.

Coley is also serious about urging all these teens to do well in school, and that means attending school activities.

So they were off, scattering to their cars, the way busy families do.

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