We Are Family Podcast, Episode 5: How To Be A Good Foster Parent

This week, We Are Family explores foster care—from a parent and a kid's perspective. 

Guy Bryant and Family
Photo: Courtesy of Guy Bryant

This week, Julia and Shaun T talk to two people with a deep understanding of both sides of the foster care system—a parent and a child. Guy Bryant, or "Pop" as his kids call him, is a 61-year-old single father who's dedicated his life to the system—and has taken in 50 (!!) children over the past decade. Bryant cares for young men, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, who have already "aged out" of the system to help them succeed as adults. No matter what happens in life, Bryant wants his kids to know that there's somebody there for them.

Then there's the talented Demetria Mack, who just finished her first year at Howard University and has been in foster care since she was 11. Mack has written about her relationship with her foster mom in a magazine called Represent, which is by and for young people in the child welfare system.

"Being a part of the podcast was absolutely empowering," says Mack. "I love sharing my story, and through this experience, I was able to speak directly to parents." What she'd like to tell them? Consider taking in a teen if you're thinking about fostering. "We're just looking for someone who's going to accept us and love us."

Upcoming episodes and topics this season include:

  • Adoption
  • Parenting with disabilities
  • Divorce, co-parenting and blended families
  • Single-parent households
  • Multicultural parenting
  • The family you didn't know you had

Listen to We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, TuneIn, Stitcher, Google and everywhere podcasts are available.

Listen to episode 5 right now: Parents.com/FamilyPod-Ep5

Plus, follow along here:

Guy: At 2 o'clock this morning, I got a text from someone that lived with me and he said, "I just want to say, I was thinking about you and I would just want to say thank you for all that you do for me and all that you've done for me. Whenever I think things have gone really bad, I know that you'll be there."

So I want to have that impact on everybody, that they know that there's somebody here.

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Julia: Hi, I'm Julia Dennison…

Shaun: And I'm Shaun T…

Julia: And this is We Are Family, a podcast from Parents magazine. This show is all about celebrating the different ways there are to build and be a family—and how beautiful that diversity is.

Shaun: This episode, we're talking about foster care—from the parents' and the kid's perspective.

Julia: There are more than 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States. Children enter the system for many reasons, but generally it's because their parents weren't able to take care of them, or they were abused or neglected.

Shaun: Foster care is meant to provide a safe home for kids who've been in bad situations. But moving in with strangers can be scary. Kids who've experienced trauma may have very good reasons not to trust adults. It takes time to build a strong relationship.

Julia: Today we're talking to two people who understand this — on both sides of the equation. Guy Bryant works as a community coordinator for the Administration for Children's Services in New York City, helping older teens and young adults in foster care transition to life after the system. He's also a single dad. In the last twelve years, he's been a foster parent to over 50 young people, many of whom call him "Pop."

Guy Bryant and Foster Children
Courtesy of Guy Bryant

Shaun: And Demetria Mack just finished her first year at Howard University. She went into foster care when she was 11, and she wrote about her relationship with her foster mom in a magazine called Represent, which is by and for young people in the child welfare system.

Julia: They both have a lot of wisdom to share.

Shaun: We're gonna hear from Guy first. We talked to him back in April, when he was quarantined at home in Brooklyn with four foster sons—all in their teens or early 20s.

Guy: There's a lot of testosterone going on here. It's like we're, we're cooped up in here, you know? And it's very difficult. But we're managing. A lot of food being eaten, a lot of food being cooked. I make cakes every couple of days because that kind of calms everybody.

Shaun: I will say that I wish I could come and have some cake.

Julia: It's so good.

Shaun: I know right. I think a lot of people are baking more now. I'm baking donuts and I don't know what you're baking Julia, but I want to go to Guy's house with some cake.

Julia: Comfort food.

Guy: I've never baked until now.

Julia: I think that's everybody though, right? We need it.

Guy: Yesterday I made a strawberry cake with vanilla, pink frosting, and it was the best one yet. I'm not used to baking, but the snack thing was going through fast, so it's better to make a big sheet cake and it saves a lot of money.

Shaun: Guy has had as many as NINE foster youth living with him at a one time. And hearing how he's created family with these young men really hit home for me.

Shaun: My mother was a single mother, and then she ended up dating someone and I was sexually abused by that person, and then I ended up moving in with my grandparents and my grandfather was an amazing father figure to me, and now I'm a dad myself. But the irony of all of that is I never met my biological father and hearing how you have taken in young men and become a father, a dad or a pop, if you will, just out of selflessness, it just means so much to me and I really want to commend you on just being a stand up human, and I'm sure you are changing lives even to this day. But how did you get started in the foster care system in the first place, and what was your motivation?

Guy: Part of it is I tried to recreate things that happened in my childhood. My mother was basically a single parent.

My father was involved from a distance. Um, he was the weekend dad and. Um, I lived in a house with my mother, my grandmother, and my mother's two sisters and we all shared a floor in the house. So my grandmother lived in the apartment with us. My family was very community involved. So we had big barbecues with a lot of people. We went fishing, we went to Bear Mountain, we went tobogganing. We did all kinds of things. So I enjoyed my childhood so much that I'm wanting to recreate that for others because I felt loved and important, and I felt like my family was important to the community. And I wanted to keep that going. So that's what brought me into this field originally, and I've been in the field 42 years, so it's what I do and it's all I know how to do. It's what I was raised to do.

Julia: Guy works in a unit at the Administration for Children's Services that prepares young people to "age out" of the system. As we all know, a lot of 21-year-olds depend on their parents for financial support, health insurance, and a roof over their head—not to mention love and advice navigating the challenges of being a young adult.

Many foster youth don't have that kind of help—so Guy focuses on building the skills they need to live on their own successfully.

Shaun: Before he was a foster dad, Guy was a "house parent" in a group home for boys, and he really enjoyed it. After the city ended that program, he started looking for another way to get involved.

Guy: I decided to become a foster parent because I had a particular youth who was on my caseload with the city who I really enjoyed his company. He was pretty bright, but he had some behavioral issues that wouldn't allow him to be any place where there were other kids. So he, um, asked me would I take him as a foster child because they were closing his site down and he would have nowhere to go, and no family member would take him at the time. So I said, sure, I would. And I ended up taking him into my home and he was the first one, and he's in his thirties now, and he has seven children of his own.

Shaun: As a foster dad, Guy focuses on helping young men in their teens and early 20s.

Guy Bryant's Foster Children 1
Courtesy of Guy Bryant

Guy: My job is to make you a responsible adult and to prepare you for being on your own. I don't do laundry. I will cook. Um, but there's things that I won't do because they're going to have to learn how to do it real fast, because by the time I usually get these guys, they only have a short time left in foster care.

I'm not the kind of person to run to school and let's go to the doctor. If you want to continue in school, we'll get you into a school program and you make your own doctor's appointments and you keep them.

Julia: But there's one thing Guy always makes sure his kids have: a house key.

Shaun: That might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes kids in the foster care system don't actually get one.

Guy: Well, I'm not a babysitter. [Laughs] I'm not going to sit and wait for you. When you live on your own, you're going to have keys to your apartment. So I mean, it's, it's important. It gives you a sense of security, gives you a sense of independence and it gives you a sense of belonging.

Julia: We'll hear more about what else Guy does to build that sense of security, after the break. Stick with us.

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Julia: Welcome back to We Are Family. Today we're talking to Guy Bryant, a single dad who's parented over 50 foster youth—mostly in their late teens and early 20s.

Shaun: Julia, every time you say that number—50—I am amazed. I can barely keep up with the two kids I have. I cannot imagine having as many as nine teenagers living with me at one time. How does he do it?!

Julia: I know! But the way he sees it, it's just not a big deal.

Julia: One thing I love about you Guy is that you are so kind of humble about what you do. Like it's no thing, you know, you're just like, this is what I have to do. This is my calling in life. And I'm sitting here, like I said, mom of one kid, and I'm like, I don't even know how he does this.

Um, and I think it's really interesting because when we first contacted you about being interviewed for this show, you were kind of surprised.

Guy: I was.

Julia: And can you, can you tell us why.

Guy: Well, you know what it is. I don't understand. Like I can't understand why people think that this is like such a great thing. I don't know.

I mean, it's a great thing to me personally, but I don't, I don't understand why other people see it that way. They could do it. That's how I feel like, just do it then, but it's like, I feel like, OK, like somebody has to do it and I enjoy it. I've gotten a whole lot of enjoyment over the past few years out of this. And so many, I've had some definite heartaches and some hardships. Um, last year one of my kids passed away and that destroyed all of us. He was just with us a few days before and he went back home to Connecticut and he had a heart attack and he's only, he's in his thirties.

Julia: Guy had been part of this foster son's life since he was 16, and he was the godfather of his child.

Guy: I think that's the worst moment that I've had. For him to pass away was devastating to me. Um, but the majority, I'd say 90 percent of the things that have gone on over the years that I've been doing this, they're enjoyable, pleasurable, and definitely give you a feeling of self worth.

Julia: You've spoken about being a parent before, and you've said a quote that I really liked that was, I can be somebody's pop without being biologically connected to them. What does being somebody's pop mean to you?

Guy: You can call me whatever you want. I've had kids that would call me Mr. B, and then all of a sudden, one day they flip and they say Pop.

And then we just continued that way. And that's just how it goes. It's whenever they feel comfortable, but what it means to me is to be available all the time for that person. At 2 o'clock this morning, I got a text from someone that lived with me and he said, "I just want to say, I was thinking about you and I would just want to say thank you for all that you do for me and all that you've done for me. Whenever I think things have gone really bad, I know that you'll be there." And it was so unexpected and so nice considering how rough around the edges this guy is. He's like, was involved with a gang and everything. And for him to feel that way was really special to me. And to think about it at two o'clock in the morning and send me a text message, it was important.

So I want to have that impact on everybody that they know that there's somebody here. Um, no matter what. And no matter how things, how bad things might get, um, that I'm here.

Guy Bryant and Foster Child
Courtesy of Guy Bryant

Shaun: And of course, being a pop has its bumpy moments too—especially when you're parenting teens. But Guy manages by staying calm, and aiming to start each day fresh.

Guy: I may be upset with you today, but tomorrow is a new day, so I don't hold on to it, you know? You have to adapt to their peers, the school they go to, um, the interaction they have with their biological family. All of that comes into play. So you have to keep it pretty level because you never know when it's going to be some kind of outburst.

But even with your own kids, they're going to have to do that. You may not have the issue of another biological family involved, but you will have the issue of their peers and different things going on. So after so much of that, nothing surprises me anymore when something happens.

You know? I sit down and logically try to break down that situation and say, OK, if it's something negative, I'm going to say, how can I avoid this happening again? And I'll sit down and think about it. And then if it's something positive, I'll say, how can I make this happen again without forcing it? So that's basically how I handle it.

Julia: I love that. Um, I was just sitting here and getting teary hearing your story about, um, one of your kids texting you at 2:00 a.m. and thanking you. Sometimes being a parent can feel so thankless. So those moments are gems. Whenever you know, you feel that gratitude in return.

Shaun: You know, there are people out there who will hear your story and they'll say, wow, some parts seem easy, some parts seem hard. But what would you tell people who were thinking about becoming a foster parent?

Guy: I would tell them to go for it. If you feel in your heart that you can make a difference at all, go for it. Especially if you've raised like three or four children and those children are doing well and successful, and you feel that kind of emptiness, that kind of feeling like, OK, now what?

And you're not ready to settle down and just relax or retire. I'd say, go for it. This will never give you a dull moment, that's for sure. Although it's winding down for me and my two 21-year-olds, um, one is in college and one is about to go to college. And both of them have jobs and they're both slated to go into their own apartments soon.

I have the two sixteen-year-olds. One of them is about to leave because, um, foster care is not for everybody and he needs, um, a higher level of care. And the other one is about to go home. So I'm considering, am I going to continue to do this? I'm not sure right now, but I've considered this before, over the years, and another kid always comes up that I say, "I can work with this kid."

And I ended up back with a house full again.

Shaun: So far we've been hearing about foster care from the parent's perspective. But we wanted to know what it's like from a young person's point of view too.

Julia: It turns out one of Guy's foster sons happened to be in the room when we talked.

Guy: Actually the person who calls me Pop is here with me right now.

Julia: Is it Romario?

Guy: Yeah, Romario.

Julia: Does he want to say anything?

Guy: I don't know. You want to say something, Ro?

Romario: Hello. Who am I speaking to?

Shaun: Julia and Shaun. How are you?

Romario: Hello, Julia and Shaun.

Julia: Romario is 21, and before he came to live with Guy, he spent some time in a shelter.

Romario: I guess Mr. Bryant's seen that was not really for me, which I really didn't think it was for me neither. So he took me in and I really appreciate that. We have a lot of fun moments.

Like he'd bring us to Atlantic City. Brings us to, when we went to Washington D.C., I went there. I never went there like on a school trip. So that was pretty cool to see the monument. Mr. Guy is, he's the best foster parent.

Julia: Romario just graduated from high school, and he's got big plans for the future. He wants to be a fashion designer.

Shaun: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Romario: Oh. So I have my own, my whole plan. I love fashion. I love clothes. I love the trends. I love colors. I love-

Shaun: Me too, me too. Me too. [Laughs]

Romario: Whatever I don't see out there, I will be designing it. I want to be globally recognized, like everyone to say, oh, all my clothing line would be on my last name Vassell. So it would be Vassell. "Oh, I've got those new Vassell jeans" or, you know, [crosstalk]

So I have five years hands-on training on electrician work that I'm going to apprentice with someone five to six years, and then become a master electrician and then go straight into my, my real thing, like, which is fashion and I want to go to Parsons in Manhattan. And I heard like Marc Jacobs went there and stuff like that, but the workload is really hard.

So I was like, um, I'm just trying to get myself prepared for that and I needed more sketches and stuff like that and recognition, whatnot.

Julia: Well, you seem so organized and determined. I think you know, I've hugely high hopes for you. Thank you Romario.

Shaun: More organized than us, Julia right now,

Julia: I know, I'm sitting there thinking, "what's my five year plan?"

I don't know. You're going to be an electrician and a fashion designer at the same time. It's like skills up the wazoo. I love it.

Shaun: Thank you so much and good luck..

Shaun: Before we hung up, Guy gave me some parenting advice that I'm probably gonna carry with me for the rest of my life.

You know, we always say it takes a village and I want to just give you props because you are raising a village and I just think you're doing a really good job and you've inspired me to be a better dad.

I'm just hearing some of the tips you gave on you know, really just being present and being patient and being calm. Having toddlers right now who are not patient, who are in their terrible twos is, it just gives me light into be present and what's happening right now and just to really connect to them. So you inspired me today.

Guy: Here's a tip for you, Shaun.

Shaun: OK.

Guy: Think about that little vacation that you had or that little dinner that you had with them and how much fun you had and whenever things would get really rough. So I have so many of those good thoughts to think about that I can always resort back to those when things are really rough.

And they've been rough the last couple of days. It's been so hectic. I just think "this too shall pass," and I've had good times before and I'll have them again.

Shaun: Amen.

Julia: I love that so much. I love that. And talk about it takes a village, over 50 kids. I feel like that's a small town right there.

Well thank you so much, Guy. We so appreciate you coming on our show.

Shaun: Yeah thank you so much.

Guy: Not a problem.

Julia: OK Shaun, I know who I'm calling for parenting advice when Ezzie hits her teens.

Shaun: Me too, Julia! Since we did this interview I've already had moments where I'm like, all right, I'm channeling the zen of Mr. Guy Bryant.

Julia: Shaun, since we both have little kids, I feel like the hidden agenda of this show is that you and I are just building up our Rolodexes, so we'll be prepared to parent at all these different ages.

Shaun: You ain't sayin' nothing but the truth, because it's the best excuse to ask all the questions I have about being a dad.

Julia: And while as parents we can help each other out, kids give great advice, too. So I'm really excited that we have one more person to talk to today about foster care. Her name is Demetria Mack, and she just finished her freshman year at Howard University, where she's studying computer science. She wrote a beautiful story about building a relationship with her foster mom for a magazine called Represent, which is by and for young people in the child welfare system.

Demetria Mack
Courtesy of Demetria Mack

Shaun: When Demetria went into foster care, she was 11, and her little brother was just six months old. She was nervous, and didn't know what to expect. Her idea of foster care was based on little orphan Annie, who lived in the orphanage with mean Miss Hannigan—and y'all know Miss Hannigan was A LOT.

Demetria: Before I was in foster care, I was also taking care of my brother. So I had, I was just scared that we were going to be put with someone who was neglectful of my brother, like mean to him, and he was a baby at the time, and I didn't know if it would be an increased responsibility for me to take care of him.

Julia: Fortunately, Demetria's foster mom wasn't anything like Miss Hannigan. Her name was Ms. Pena, and she and her daughter were actually really nice to Demetria and her little brother.

Demetria: But like I realized, it's just sometimes we can just become too concerned with the, like um, stereotypes that, um, that surrounds something and like, it can really, like, not be like that at all.

Shaun: Demetria felt safe in her new home, and she finally got to be a kid for the first time. But it was still hard for her to trust Ms. Pena. And as she got older, Demetria wanted to feel like her foster mom trusted her to make good decisions, too.

Shaun: How was it like to write about your experiences with Ms. Pena?

Demetria: When I have to like compare my life living with Ms. Pena compared to my life living with my birth mother, it brings up a lot of emotions like you said. But my main goal when it comes to writing is to allow other people who are in foster care to realize that they're not alone.

Julia: Demetria's also really motivated by her younger brother.

Demetria: He's been in foster care since he was before he was 1. So it was, it's just, I just want to be able to show him that you don't have to be bounded by stigma surrounded by being a foster youth.

There are some people who won't be a product of their parents, won't be a product of their environment and will do things that will be great just like anyone else who has not been in foster care.

Julia: I love that. So a lot of our listeners might be thinking about becoming a foster parent. So I'd love to hear from your point of view, what you think some of the qualities of a good foster parent are.

Demetria: So I think one is just really being understanding and being able to sympathize with their emotions. Because a lot of these kids are coming from very traumatic, um, backgrounds, so being able to be patient with them and sit down and understand that they may have come from an unstable home, so they're just getting used to being somewhere more stable and being with someone who is willing to take care of them.

Also respecting that at first they may not be able, they may not want to like open up because they may be afraid, and being able to respect that. But in the same sense, making your home feel welcome to them, making sure you allow them to feel included.

So just making sure you always instill that sense of safety in them and letting them know that they're safe, that they have somewhere where they're welcome and they can come home to and be treated like family.

Shaun: Safe and inclusion. Wow. If I could just, I just want to like sit on that for a second in my own space, feeling safe and inclusion. And I remember when leaving my home, going to my grandparents' home, like you said, a lot of people or foster kids come from, you know, traumatic experiences. I was sexually abused by my stepfather. And so I was going into this new environment, hiding something. And in addition to that, as I got older, as I, you know, became an older teen, just, you know, accepting my sexuality and wanting to be able to express that, um, is really scary. So, but if you feel safe, and if you are in a space where you feel included.

Even if you have something that you don't want to talk about, you feel so much better. And you know, there's a line in your story where it says, odds are your foster teen has every reason not to trust adults. So be patient. And I think that's, you know, what I just described in my past, and obviously you as well. So I think the flip side of that, what can adults do to earn that trust?

Demetria: Hmm? Well, that's a good question. I never really thought about that.

I think it's important to respect their privacy, but also allow them to know that you're there for them if they need anything. If you see that your child has been distant, it's always good to reach out to them and sit down with them and have conversations from time to time just to see how they're doing, to see where their head's at.

I feel like that's what everyone wants—to have a parent that they can trust, and they can come to about anything, without worrying about being judged.

Julia: I heard a child psychologist once say that teenagers often want potted plant parents. So they want to know that you are consistently in the room and you are there for them, but they might just be walking past you and might not necessarily want you to always engage with them, but they want to know if they want to engage with you, that you're always there. And I thought that was really funny.

Shaun: I've never heard that. I have to remember that though, for sure.

I'm going to have Demetria's voice in my head when I start going down that path.

Julia: Right. I was actually curious, Demetria. Ms. Pena, did she ever read the story, and if so, what was her reaction?

Demetria: She has read the story and every time someone comes to her house, she has the magazine and she'll say, here read it, here read it. So she's really like supportive of me and like my writing career and she's always willing to, she always has like all my, anything that I've wrote, um, all the magazines out for people for if guests come over so they can read it.

Julia: That's so wonderful. That's the dream. I'm so happy about that.

Shaun: That is really so wonderful. You know Demetria, we have a line that we talk about a lot and how we say, "it takes a village." And I wanted to just, um, give you some props, if you will, just the fact that you keep your younger brother in your thoughts knowing that you're going to be an impact on him and, you know, you are a figure that he looks up to. I just want to say thank you so much for that because that in itself will inspire so many people. But I just want to talk about that just a little bit more. In the foster care system, what is the community like?

Demetria: Well, my foster care agency, Children's Aid Society, they give us a lot of opportunities to bond with other students. Basically we come together as a group within our, um, depending on what age range you're in. And we basically talk about various topics such as school, education, work, finding jobs, dealing with mental health, and for the graduating seniors, they would always have celebrations for them and they would have parties. We would just talk to each other and, like, congratulate each other on the things that we've been able to accomplish.

One thing I appreciate is, like, we don't connect based off of our trauma. We try to do things that are outside of that and like we can talk about it, but it's not the basis of us coming together. We can, we are able to talk about other things outside of just our past and just being in foster care.

Julia: So lastly, Demetria, what's one thing that you want people to know about foster kids that they may not realize? Or about the system in general.

Demetria: So. I think a lot of people, they usually go for younger kids. The stigma around teens, we're not that bad. Even though we've been in foster care, we may have like prolonged trauma. It's, we're not that bad. And I feel like with any kid, we're just looking for someone who's going to accept us and love us.

I feel like that's literally all we want.

Shaun: Oh.

Julia: That's beautiful. So consider taking in a teen. That's a really important message.

Shaun: Thank you so much.

Julia: Thank you. Demetria, it's so great to talk to you.

Demetria: Thank you. I really enjoyed being here.

Shaun: And that's all for today's episode on foster care.

Julia: If you're thinking about becoming a foster parent, head to parents.com/wearefamilypodcast for some helpful tips and advice.

Shaun: And go read Demetria's story in Represent magazine. It's called "Let Me Grow Up." You can find that link in the show notes too.

Julia: Tune in next week, because we've got another great story about fostering and adoption with bluegrass musician Barry Abernathy. We'll catch you next time on We Are Family.

Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert, Susie Armitage, and Lene Bech Sillisen. This show was recorded in New York and Arizona, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.

You can find out more at parents.com/podcast. You can find Parents on Instagram at @Parents. And you can follow Shaun at @ShaunT, and Julia at @juliadennison.

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