Tammy Terrell Thompson, owner/operator of T3 Consulting and Media, and retired journalist Jean Bryant, whose career has spanned over some 35 years between The Pittsburgh Press and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, met each other for the second time in 40 years earlier this month, at Panera Bread in Bakery Square. The circumstances of this second meeting were much better than the first meeting.
It was 1978, and Thompson, then age 8, along with her father, mother and 10-year-old brother, Jeffrey, had been through the horrendous ordeal of living in the family car. Bryant was doing a feature story on United Way funded agencies, and met them after Thompson’s family had been reunited.
On that hot, steamy month of August in Pittsburgh some 40 years ago, the Thompsons had driven here from Bluefield, West Virginia. The Thompsons were seeking greener pastures and Mr. Thompson had been told of a job he could get here. That grass turned brown quickly when first, their car broke down just as they arrived at the base of the Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown, and he learned that the job he was supposed to get, didn’t exist.
The car became their home for at least three weeks. Then, they were observed by the police and CYF (Children, Youth and Family Services) determined that 8-year-old Tammy and her 10-year-old brother Jeffrey should be removed.
“If I listen now, I can still hear the screams of my mother as well as my own intermingled as I was literally torn from her arms. It all was so overwhelming—one moment we were on a great adventure, all of us together—next thing I knew, my brother and I living in McIntyre home for children,” Thompson recalled.
Now, 40 years later, Thompson and Bryant sat across from each other, amazed at the irony of the parallel to their lives regardless of the 38-year difference in their ages. Tammy Thompson is now 48. Bryant is 86.
Thompson had clear recollection of that afternoon Bryant came to the family’s new apartment in Arlington Heights, secured for them by the Salvation Army. Bryant, however, with thousands of stories and interviews on her resume, admitted she could not recall the family. But she definitely recalled writing stories that hit into the hearts of her paper’s readers. “This is one that would be included in that mix; many times my editors assigned me to these stories because I had the empathy necessary to place myself into the spaces that folks would be experiencing,” Bryant said.
“My father was broken by this, and neither he nor my mother ever fully recovered, and our family did not survive it,” Thompson said. “Two years after the incident, my parents broke up—throwing us deeper into abject poverty.”
Three years before her interview with the Thompson family, Bryant started Ms. Black Teen Pageant in Pittsburgh, which ran for 36 successful years. “I felt compelled to begin the pageant,” Bryant said. “I thought it might provide a way for young girls to earn money for college. I recall vividly the struggle my parents had with money and having to make tough decisions. One of those would be which one of us would go to college since they could not afford to send both of us. It was my twin sister who got to go.”
Bryant discussed about the times she and her sister were “left out of things because of our economic status—A girl in my school whose family had more, came up to me once and asked me if I would like to see the list of kids invited to her fancy birthday party—knowing that neither me nor my sister were on her list.
“That was painful,” Bryant recalled.
“I wanted the pageant to be a way that girls would have access to a scholarship, affording them the opportunity for a college education, and ultimately give them better career choices.”
Five years ago, Thompson lost a job she had at a local non-profit where she was a credit counselor and a homebuyer education specialist. Once gone, she came face-to-face with two facts. First, that she could relate with what many of her clients were going through, and that empathy came from her vivid memories of the extreme poverty her family experienced; and that the experience with poverty results in trauma that far transcended being “out of money”—for her and the others as well—and she wanted to be a part of helping people overcome that trauma, while re-developing their relationship with money.
It is that personal trauma which fueled her to create T3 Consulting and Media, through which she was the executive producer for a film, “We Wear The Mask,” that features three local women and their journey through poverty. The film also shows that the trauma of poverty will find a home in your psyche no matter how far you rise from it.
Additionally, Thompson serves as a consultant to organizations working with members of this population, creating curricula that instructs social service workers on why being poor is more than just not having money, and helping them re-create the way they think about those they serve, in order to better serve them.
What Bryant realized through her own issues as a child, long before Thompson was born, is that there was indeed trauma for young women who were left out of things because of the family’s economic status. Her work with the teens over 36 years would help so many shift their lives to the next level—they would get college degrees, enter into amazing professions, becoming physicians, lawyers, judges, even ordained ministers. They would overcome issues like abuse, and for some, neglect, due in part to the one-on-one attention and caring they received from their time preparing for the pageant.
Tammy Thompson and Jean Bryant, the tale of two women who overcame, then created their own recent history; one demonstrating that poverty is more than about money, the other showing that pageantry is more than just outer beauty.
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