Guy Bryant never intended to be a father figure. But over the past 12 years, he's housed more than 50 foster kids in his Brooklyn apartment.
For decades, Bryant, 61, worked with teens aging out of New York's child welfare system. His job was to find services that would make the transition to living on their own easier. But he felt that what he could accomplish at the New York City Administration for Children's Services office wasn't enough. So in 2007, he decided to become a foster parent.
In a StoryCorps interview last month, Bryant told Romario Vassell, 21, one of his foster children, that agreeing to care for him "was definitely one of the best decisions I made in foster care."
Bryant told Vassell that he was nervous when he took in his first foster child.
"I lived alone at that point, and he was a kid that nobody wanted to take because of his behaviors. He got in a fight and he appeared at my house," Bryant said.
Bryant says his family thought he was out of his mind for making such a big lifestyle change. His ex-wife also wondered how Bryant would adjust.
"I don't know about this," Bryant recalled her telling him. "You just so set in your ways."
"I said, 'I can do this.' She said, "I know you can if you put your mind to it.' "
Bryant had been Vassell's assigned case worker when they met. Bryant suggested that Vassell, then a disheveled 18-year-old, consider foster care as an option to get out of the homeless shelter where he was staying.
At first, Vassell was hesitant. "I didn't know how foster care was. I've heard crazy stories," he said.
They agreed he would stay with Bryant.
Bryant hasn't looked back on his decision to become a foster parent. "You know, every time I turned around there was a kid who needed a place to stay," he said. "I felt like, it's so simple. If you have the space in your home and heart, you just do it. You don't really think about it."
At one point, Bryant said he had nine kids living with him so he moved to a bigger place.
The kids who've moved out of Bryant's place still have their keys to his place, he said. The kids he has fostered often return on Sundays for a meal together that Bryant cooks.
Since living with Bryant, Vassell now feels like he has a support network. "If I feel down and like I'm cornered, I have someone I can reach out to and talk to," he said. "And that's what I really love."
Bryant told Vassell, "Whatever you've learned from me I want you to teach it to someone else. Because that's what's important to me."
Bryant wants to simply be remembered that he was "Pop" to his kids, he said. "That says it all to me. That I can be somebody's Pop without being biologically connected to them."
"Well, you know you're mine," Vassell told Bryant.
"Yeah, I know I am," Bryant said. "And I love you to death."
Produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NOEL KING, HOST:
Today on StoryCorps, Guy Bryant worked with teenagers who'd been in foster care and were transitioning to living on their own. But after 30 years as an administrator in the child welfare system, he still felt like he wasn't doing enough. So one day, he brought his work home with him. Twelve years later, he has fostered over 50 young people in his New York City apartment. He came to StoryCorps with one of the kids, Romario Vassell, to talk about the early days.
ROMARIO VASSELL: What were you feeling when you brought your first kid home?
GUY BRYANT: Nervous. I was nervous because I lived alone at that point, and he was a kid that nobody wanted to take because of his behaviors. He got in a fight, and he appeared at my house. And it was late, so I called and let them know he was with me, and I agreed to take him.
VASSELL: How did your family react when you became a foster parent?
BRYANT: They thought I was out of my mind (laughter). They were, like, you live alone so long. And my ex-wife was, like, I don't know about this. You's (ph) just so set in your ways. And I said, I can do this. And she said, I know you can if you put your mind to it.
VASSELL: The first time I met you, Pop, I think it was at the office.
BRYANT: Yeah. I remember that you came in, and you were disheveled. You were still in the shelter, and I presented to you coming into foster care. And at first, you were hesitant.
VASSELL: Because I didn't know how foster care was. I've heard crazy stories.
BRYANT: But then you were, like, I - it was definitely one of the best decisions I made in foster care.
BRYANT: You know, every time I turned around, there was a kid who needed a place to stay. And I felt like it's so simple. If you have the space in your home and heart, you just do it. You don't really think about it. At one point, I had nine kids in my house and had to move to a bigger apartment. The old kids still have their keys, and, you know, usually, everybody's in the house on Sundays.
VASSELL: Old kids, new kids.
BRYANT: I usually cook a lot. Last Sunday's dinner was barbecued chicken, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese...
VASSELL: The macaroni was good.
BRYANT: ...Collard greens, cornbread. I try to cook enough to last a day or two, but that never works out that way (laughter). What has changed since you started living with me?
VASSELL: If I feel down and like I'm cornered, I have someone I can reach out to and talk to, and that's what I really love.
BRYANT: Whatever you've learned from me, I want you to teach it to someone else because that's what's important to me.
VASSELL: How do you want to be remembered?
BRYANT: As Pop.
BRYANT: That says it all to me - that I can be somebody's Pop without being biologically connected to them.
VASSELL: But you know you're mine.
BRYANT: Yeah, I know I am. And I love you to death.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "SURLY BONDS")
KING: That's Guy Bryant and Romario Vassell at StoryCorps, and that interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others in the Library of Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "SURLY BONDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.