Hope through hoops:
Ken Bryan learns to help himself by helping kids
By Christine Wong
At the renovation site of the new $2 million supper club he’s helping to launch in Toronto’s club district, Ken Bryan manages to keep a calm confidence despite the chaos. “It’s Art Deco inspired,” says Bryan during a visit to The Roosevelt Room Supper Club. “The main focus will be on service, food and people.” Bryan can smile amid the rubble and racket of this massive project because he’s used to surviving chaos and coming out the other side. The makeover of this downtown building is nothing compared to the transformation Bryan has gone through himself with the help of Serve!.
“Serve! saves lives by changing lives,” Bryan says. “Everything I am, I owe to that program.”
Bryan was born in Toronto to Jamaican parents. Shortly following his birth, he returned to Jamaica with his mother, who was deported after being falsely implicated in a shoplifting incident. When Bryan was two, his father took him back to Canada, telling the boy’s mother it would be a temporary stay. But it was a lie, and Bryan never saw his mom again until he was 14. Back in Toronto again, Bryan’s father (who he refers to as a career criminal) eventually exited his life, at which point he was raised by his paternal grandmother, whose boyfriend was extremely violent.
“When I was four or five I remember seeing him stabbing some people and my grandmother trying to get the blood out of the carpet. It was totally crazy,” Bryan remembers.
Bryan’s grandmother eventually left her violent partner, but then placed her grandson in foster care. Bryan boomeranged between two different foster homes until he was about 16.
When his last foster mother moved to Ottawa, the teenager agreed to maintain upkeep of the Toronto rooming house she owned in exchange for cheap rent. With no real job, educational path or adult guidance, Bryan slipped into an aimless lifestyle that landed him on the cusp of homelessness.
“I just started bouncing around, staying on different people’s couches. I was looking for a job for about six months and I didn’t know what I wanted to do in terms of college,” he recalls.
That's when a friend told him about Serve! and the Hope Through Hoops project within Serve!'s Experience This! program. In the program, participants earned a stipend and used basketball as a springboard for teaching life skills to younger youth from Parkdale and Regent Park. Though he lacked an adult mentor in his own life, Bryan signed on with the Hope Through Hoops project to take on a leadership role for the first time in his life. Besides job skills development, the program provided Bryan with valuable links in Toronto's professional community.
“For one thing, I needed the money. And two, I realized it was a good opportunity. I was able to get mentored by people like V.P.’s from Scotiabank,” he says.
Through helping the kids he coached, Bryan ultimately learned to help himself. The confidence and public speaking skills he built in the program helped him land future jobs in the financial services and marketing sectors. He even launched Firebrand Consulting, a marketing and promotional firm he sold three years ago. He’s now the Marketing Director at Glam City Media, where he focuses on promotions, event organizing and, of course, the launch of 'The Roosevelt Room Supper Club’. Following Serve!’s tradition of helping the wider community as well as individuals, he’s now on Serve!’s advisory council. And he hasn’t forgotten what he gained back in 1996 as an unsure teenager overcoming a violent background.
“(Serve!) gives you hope and teaches you the skills you need to fill in the gaps in your life,” Bryan says.
He notes that one of the kids he coached at Hope Through Hoops went from getting kicked out of school for pulling a gun on the principal to later setting up his own music studio.
“Everyone has challenges and it doesn’t matter where you come from, whether it’s Parkdale or Rosedale. It teaches you that if you put together a plan, work hard on it and follow through, you’ll succeed.”
To check out The Roosevelt Room Supper Club visit, www.therooseveltroom.ca