As a consultant for the National Black Child Development Institute, Ken Johnson used to give lots of speeches about what needed to be done to save the children.
Then one night in March 1981, Johnson answered the doorbell at his home in Southeast Washington. A teenager whom he thought he recognized from the neighborhood pulled a gun and shot him in the mouth.
Johnson survived. But he stopped talking about what others ought to be doing, and started following his own advice.
Today, at age 62, Johnson is the father of seven children, five of whom he has adopted and two -- a set of 22-month-old twin girls -- who are in the process of being adopted.
"While going through reconstructive surgery, the dentist kept telling me how lucky I was to be alive," Johnson recalled. "I started thinking that God had been good to me in saving my life, so what am I going to do with it now?"
After his wound had healed sufficiently, Johnson enrolled in a D.C. Department of Human Services training program for foster and adoptive parents. He began adopting children in 1983.
"I had been leading the usual single man lifestyle -- parties, bar hopping, happy hour, drinking too much," Johnson recalled. "But it was nothing compared to the party I'm having now: mopping floors, doing laundry, cooking, homework, piano practice, errands . . . . "
He laughed. "It's hard work, but there is no joy like seeing the children accomplish their goals . . . . "
"Daddy, I love you," interrupted Donna, 3.
"Or hearing words like that," he said.
Since becoming a caseworker for the D.C. Office of Paternity and Child Support a few years ago, Johnson says, his decision to become an adoptive parent is reaffirmed daily. On his desk are the names of hundreds of abandoned and abused children, and there are thousands more citywide.
To this day he bets that the youth who shot him had been among them.
"The epidemic of drug use has left a tremendous number of families incapacitated," Johnson said. "Parents you would not normally expect to get caught up in drugs are letting their children fall through the cracks. The need for foster parents is greater than ever."
Because he had studied early childhood development in college and became a consultant on day-care programs after graduation, Johnson saw his adoptive fatherhood as an opportunity to put his best theories into practice.
So far, many of them are working.
"You don't have all day to talk on the telephone," Johnson sternly told Rodney, 12, just as the boy tried to settle in for a whispered conversation with a friend yesterday morning.
"Rakina!" Johnson yelled upstairs to Rodney's twin sister. "I have already told you twice that your breakfast is ready. Come down here. Right now!"
"Donna!" he continued. "Put your brother's bacon back on his plate."
When the 3-year-old let a fistful of bacon crumbs fall to the floor, Johnson threatened to send her to her room. "You are not being cute, young lady."
Although each of the children frowned at the reprimands, their smiles returned within minutes. Johnson had given the children what they did not know that they needed the most: rules.
"When there are no rules, they are lost," Johnson said. "Even though they may buck in the beginning, they come to appreciate that the alternative is chaos."
Most rules, it seems, are set by the clock.
On Saturdays, for example, Johnson takes Rodney to basketball practice at exactly 8:45 a.m. Rakina and brother Danny, 8, arrive at piano lessons at 9 sharp. Donna and Harshia, 6, hit their dance class floor at 10:30 on the dot.
By noon, the kids are rounded up in a 1986 Ford LTD that Johnson says "looks like it's about to burst at the seams with screaming babies."
"We could sure use one of those family vans," Rodney said, fending off his siblings' elbows.
"We can't afford it," Johnson said as his children sat packed like unhappy sardines. "Maybe one day . . . " he added, bringing a sparkle back into their eyes.
"I remember when I was a child," Johnson said. "There was a lady in my church who would talk to me and take time to find out how I was doing. She'd ask if there was anything she could do to help." Johnson had apparently forgotten about that until a bullet jogged his memory. Then it all came back in a rush.
"It sounds trite, but it's true," Johnson said, feeding cream of wheat to the twin toddlers as they sat on his lap. "Love is an action word."