“God doesn’t give you anything that you can’t handle,” says Brandon Kolin, 27, a Brooklyn, New York-based dental surgery technician who wound up in foster care at age 8. “There’s something in every situation that you have to latch on to, whether physical or emotional. There’s something that has to ground you through whatever situation.”
Brandon found that grounding in Stephan McCall, his father of 10 years now. Brandon met Stephan after a nearly seven-year stretch in one foster care home on Long Island and a period of time in a psychiatric hospital—as he describes the meeting now, he says he knew instantly that this man was different, that with Stephan he had the chance for a loving, nurturing relationship, one to build a life on and grow stronger from. With Stephan’s guidance and support, Brandon successfully pursued school and work. He enrolled in and completed a certificate program to become a dental surgery technician at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and has been working and supporting himself from his career for seven years and counting.
Brandon’s life might have taken a very different turn. The abuse he suffered from his biological family sent him into the foster care system and in a period of just 18 months, he moved in and out of 24 homes. Then there was almost seven years of life in the one home on Long Island—that was abuse of a different sort, as Brandon describes it, with foster parents who brought in as many children as they could house, took as much money as they could get, and did barely more than provide a roof over the children’s heads. There was little if any humanity in that house, but there was always Brandon’s belief and hope that he wouldn’t suffer the fate of so many other kids who age out of the foster care system. And there was one meaningful relationship that carried him through and taught him enough about trust and love to ultimately accept Stephan into his life.
A dog is like a child. You can give it all the love in the world. It’s really about how you raise it.
I used to have a pit bull, it was in the foster care home I lived in on Long Island. I knew from day one, from the moment I walked in there, that she didn’t like anybody that came into the house. But the first thing she did when I got there was lick me.
They say that dogs can sense emotion. This dog—her name was Storm—was so emotionally inclined to my feelings. If I was having a bad day, she would come up to me and give me a nuzzle. If I was crying, she would come up beside me. She would sleep with me and wind up with her paws around my neck. As I got older, I didn’t want her sleeping with me so I’d push her off the bed. But she’d come back and sneak in while I was asleep and slowly approach me and cuddle up with me. The one thing I’ll never forget: if I was lying around my room at home, and you came in, you had to state your name. If the dog didn’t recognize your voice, she’d attack.
She was a friend to me. I would sit there, and I’d pet the dog, and I’d be like, “I’m ok.” And that little bit, just her sitting by me and standing by me, that meant a lot to me, to physically be there and let me pet her. Sometimes with relationships in foster care, you don’t really have that affection. There are so many different people with different personalities doing it for different reasons. I attached to the dog a lot. I had a hell of a lot of stuff inside. When I was with that dog, I could be myself and she would be in the room and she couldn’t say anything—she couldn’t get angry or retaliate. Even though she wasn’t a person, at the end of the day, you instill love into an animal just like you do with a person.
It’s funny, being in foster care, being ripped from your family, being moved from here to there, it does something to you. It kind of turns you cold, and you learn how to switch the emotions on and off. It’s hard to keep a relationship when you come back from foster care. And I’m not talking boyfriend/girlfriend, I’m talking personal relationships. You don’t connect with a lot of people after that, at least I didn’t. I didn’t know how to love anything, I didn’t know who to trust and who to love. At the end of the day, I didn’t love myself. I think that dog taught me how to love something that was physical, and it taught me to trust and to believe.
I grew up with my mom and my sisters. In the first 8 years of my life, there was a lot of trauma–if I wasn’t being abused, I was being neglected emotionally and physically. I didn’t have the best relationship with them and there was a lot of insecurity there. Storm happened to be a female – maybe it’s something deeper than that, maybe it’s not. The female dog attaches more and is more emotional, from what I know. I’ve thought about that a little bit.
The family on Long Island had 10 kids in foster care. I saw all the other kids get kicked out. I wasn’t worried about that, I didn’t think it could happen to me. But by the time I was 16, I was tired of my situation. They let me do whatever I wanted and basically they gave me a place to sleep and a roof over my head. They kept all the money, including my quota—the agency money I was supposed to get. So I had to get a job. I went and my friend got me a job, it just gave me something to do and it put money in my pocket. I started to buy my own brand new sneakers, brand new clothing, I bought everything brand new because I had earned it. I looked around my room and except for the radio, it was all new. And I said to myself, “I’m doing this all myself.” A lot of the foster kids I grew up with, they were either in jail or they died. I didn’t want to be incarcerated like everybody said I would be. That would just be feeding into what everybody was saying. I went to school every day. I went to work.
It’s funny, they’re still fostering. I went back a few years ago. That’s the thing, God is so good, and I love him but with all the stuff that I’ve ever been through I don’t think I could have forgiven anybody if I didn’t have that push from my dad. I forgive. I forgive my mother and my sisters. You know why? Because I realize that life is too short to be bitter. And so I went back there. I was the only child that they kicked out and never begged to come back. The only child that never called them and said, “Hey I don’t have any money, I need money.” I never looked back. And I told myself, when I entered the dental surgery program, “I got to make this work.” And I made it work.