When she was around 8 years old, Ocean Hill resident Sandy Bryant-Townsend was in an accident that left her with third degree burns on her entire right leg, hospitalized for over three months, and wanting to be a nurse. "A traumatic experience landed me in hospital but I was surrounded by people who were loving me," Bryant, 57, says. The nurses were early role models.
"As a little girl I didn’t have many positive role models," she says. "I remember reminiscing over my childhood and being grateful that it was over."
Bryant dropped out of high school, became a teen mother, started job corps where she earned a nursing assistant degree. She was a home health attendant for some time, worked in a fast food restaurant, and had a second child. In 1988 Bryant started a temporary position in a Human Resources Administration office, beginning her career as a public servant.
"I began meeting wonderful women who poured themselves into me," she says. "Cynthia Vail, who is still my mentor, hired me as a clerical associate in 1989. Louis Wright told me to just take one college course... She told me to put 1% of my salary into New York City's Deferred Compensation Plan." Bryant has a masters degree, has been investing for over 30 years, and is Deputy Commissioner for a social services agency. She says she was open, willing to follow directions, and studied herself: juvenile delinquents. boundaries, saying yes, and relocating.
Bryant pays forward support and encouragement given to her with Girls Just Want to Have Fun (GJWTHF). Before starting the process to get non-profit status for the volunteer-led organization, Bryant had planned to design and offer programs for women’s and girls' empowerment after she retired. But the talker shared her plan with others. The “We need that now” responses led to the first annual program, a day of learning for women in 2019.
The Exchange, a signature GJWTHF program, meets weekly. "I like to create a space where we can be intimate and vulnerable and talk about what we are really thinking and feeling and not being shamed and embarrassed. I don’t want to pretend everything's okay. It’s okay not to be okay," Bryant says. "When we're vulnerable and intimate, I find we're not alone." Recent topics include frientimacy, boundaries, saying yes, and relocating.
The pandemic didn't shut down GJWTHF programs for long. "We went into treatment facilities virtually.... and had conversations that were slightly different." Bryant adds about the conversations about the women in treatment, "We [talked about] self-care and credit scores because of the re-integration into society. We had conversations around how to get your ID back, your birth certificate and social security card, supporting the cleaning up the wreckage of our past."
In June 2022 Bryant and her team re-started weekly in person Exchange programs. Because they had adopted a hybrid approach, they were able to have the conversation in the room and "have women from all over join us... from various states.... We went from 15 a week to averaging 30-50 a week in our conversations."
In April GJWTHF will host its first pop-up boutique offering new and slightly used clothing and necessary items to women currently in treatment facilities, supportive housing, and women creating a new life for themselves. New or slightly used shoes and sneakers will also be available. “I have a bathtub full of panties,” Bryant says about some of the necessary items.
What's on Bryant's playlist:
Black Butterfly by Denise Williams
This is Me by Kesha
Jireh by Elevation Worship
Refiner by Maverick City