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Gigi Edwards Bryant on the Texas foster care system

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Austin businesswoman Gigi Edwards Bryant visited her brother, Charles Henry Rector,every day the week before he was executed in 1999.

"He told me more and more about his life," Bryant remembers. "He believed society had no place for him, and he encouraged me to never give up."

Austin native Bryant never did.

Even though she endured sexual assaults, teen pregnancy, separation from her mother at age 6 and a nomadic youth spent in 20 foster homes, she believes that the Texas system dedicated to abused and neglected kids, the one that swallowed up Bryant and her three siblings, can be fixed.

"I hope and pray that ‘our' children — and they are our children — have a system built around them that measures their possibilities of success, rather than being defined by their failures," said Bryant, who serves as chairwoman of the Texas Department of Family Protective Services Advisory Council, appointed successively to such positions by Govs. George W. Bush and Rick Perry. "It could be the difference in giving up, like my brother, or digging in and not letting go, like I had to do."

On Feb. 11, Bryant, 54, will be honored at the Hyatt Regency Austin during CASAblanca, the annual gala for Court Appointed Special Advocates, which provides advocacy services for thousands of vulnerable children.

Bryant, head of GMSA Management Services, a consulting firm, and her husband, Sam Bryant, who founded Bryant Wealth Investment Group, are known for sharing their time and treasure generously, but selectively.

"I narrowed it down to education, foster youth and drug and alcohol rehabilitation," Gigi Bryant said. "Those are things that affected my life and affect our society from birth to the ends of life."

Bryant's mother, the late Lola Mae Fowler,was locked up in the Austin State Hospital after she killed an intruder. There, she underwent shock treatments and suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life. Bryant and her three siblings were shuttled directly into "the system."

"People treat kids differently when they find out you don't have your parents," she said. "It is as if you did something to make this happen, no matter your age. First they are sad, then they ask: ‘What did you do?' I spent time explaining why I had no parents, until I decided it did not need explanation."

After growing up, her older and younger sisters wrote second life chapters in California and West Texas. Despite attempts by Bryant to keep in touch, they chose to part completely with their pasts. Given the inherent disjuncture of the foster care system, it's no wonder.

"I'd find my stuff at the door, and I knew we were going somewhere else," Bryant said. "Once, I was on the track team and we had a track meet that weekend, and I remember begging and pleading with the lady to take me back so that I could run. I remember crying all night telling the new house that they needed me. I never knew what happened at the meet, but I can guess. All I could think about is how much they must have hated me that Saturday. I know no one explained that it was not my choice."

Her brother ran away from the Waco State Home — subject of Sherry Matthews' compelling book, "We Were Not Orphans" — into a life of petty crime. He was first accused of murder at age 17, imprisoned, then released. In 1982, he was convicted of capital murder, and he was executed in 1999. Bryant visited Rector in prison every Christmas and sometimes in the summer.

So how did Bryant escape her brother's fate?

"My faith from my Big Mama, my grandmother's mother," she said. "And I knew love from my mother before entering the system. When we were younger, we used to go stay with Big Mama, mostly after school. She would hug us. She would kiss us. She would cook, pray with us, sing to us. She was the one who told me: ‘God loves you. Don't ever be afraid to tell him what's wrong.' "

She also avoided one potential trap faced by so many foster children: No doctor ever prescribed Bryant behavioral medications.

"I just believe that God protected me," she said. "He still does."

Despite her teen pregnancy, Bryant studied computer science, then business at Austin Community College and St. Edward's University. While in college, she worked full-time at the offices of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the Texas Legislative Council. Meanwhile, she raised a family and volunteered at schools and in the community.

"I guess I never got enough," joked Bryant, who earned an MBA in global leadership at University of Texas at Dallas. She met Sam Bryant in 1993 while he was working for Applied Materials and she was organizing charity events and fundraisers.

"He was known as ‘Mr. Applied' and was very nice," she said. Their blended family includes her three adult children and his two adult offspring. All are thriving in college or careers. Her most famous son is Marcus Wilkins, recruited for the Longhorns by football coach Mack Brown and a veteran of the NFL. Gigi Bryant is blessed with five grandchildren.

Yet she constantly asks the questions: Why not me? How did I get through the system and come out with this life? Bryant passes on this conclusion to anyone touched by foster care: "How you define yourself — through actions — has to be more important to you, so you can move past what should have been."

mbarnes@statesman.com