Making Family Where You Find It

A foster family and college roommates help bring out the best in me.

by Leroy Chen

When Covid shut down New York City in March 2020, I lost my home. I was part of the FCSI/Dorm Project, a program that lets college students in care stay in dorms year-round. Most of us suddenly left the dorms, and I moved in with a new foster family.

It was my third placement since going into care when I was 17. I was removed that year from my mom because she was schizophrenic, which affected my mental health too. My father had left the family when I was 12, as soon as my sister, Lily, graduated high school and got a job as a dental assistant. My sister told me that my dad left because he felt she was old enough to provide for the family.

My father never got in touch after he left. The next five years were hard. My mom’s schizophrenia got worse, and she argued with Lily. When I was 17, Lily moved out. Then it was just my mom and me.

I was hoping things would be different for us because my mom and I were closer than she and Lily were. But I struggled to live with her just as Lily had. Part of her schizophrenia was paranoia: She didn’t trust other people. One night, we got into a heated argument, and she shouted, “You should never have any friends! You should’ve never got close to Lily! You should’ve stayed alone!”

I thought about all the lies I told so I could hang out with my friends or even see Lily. I lost it and I shouted back, “All I ever did was try to be a good son. But I get accused of being a bad one. I got suicidal thoughts because of you!”

That’s when my mom called 911 on me. When the nurses arrived, I told them everything about my mom’s paranoia and they heard her saying delusional things too. We both spent the night in the hospital, and that’s the night I went into care.

Lily, who was married by then, got me placed with her mother-in law in Brooklyn, where she lived with her eldest son. On my 18th birthday, my foster mom called me at school and told me to come home quickly. I thought I was in trouble.

“I Don’t Know You”

It was worse. I came home to see my father, my aunts, and my cousin sitting at our dining table! I hadn’t seen my father since I was 12. I remembered all the times he was abusive with my mother, sister, and me.

I said “Hi” when I saw him, but I was filled with rage. I left the kitchen to talk to my cousin, and as soon as I returned to the kitchen, my father said, “Sorry, son. I have to go back to Pennsylvania. Here’s some money. Happy Birthday.” Then my eldest aunt said, “Happy Birthday! I hope we get to be family again. I used to hold you when you were a baby.”

I thought, “OK. Good to know. I still don’t know you.”

Another aunt said, “We haven’t formally met, but it’s so good to have you! Happy Birthday.” Just like that, they all left.

I hoped it was my last time seeing them. I resented them, they thought they could just reappear after so long and act like family. I didn’t want any part of it. 

I Felt Like Harry Potter

However, a few months later, during my junior year of high school, my foster mom had to go to China, and I was moved to my father’s eldest sister in Brooklyn. I called her “gu ma,” which means “elder aunt” in Chinese.

I lived in their basement. I felt like Harry Potter living under a family, hearing laughter and joy upstairs. In a huge basement all by myself, I felt small and grew depressed.

As time passed, I grew numb. But being alone in the basement didn’t make me cold-hearted. It clarified what I want in life: A big loving family. A family that’s the opposite of my father’s.

At age 19, I became part of the Dorm Project, and I loved it. Living in a dormitory helped me explore my freedom, and my three wonderful roommates felt like family. I was the oldest and it was like having three younger brothers.

We had our own bedrooms but shared a bathroom and a kitchen, where we sometimes cooked together. Sometimes our dinners went well. Sometimes they turned into hilarious disasters and set off the fire alarm. We watched movies and played games all night and regretted the missed sleep the next morning.  

I also fell in love with a girl at my dorm at City College. But then Covid struck and the college kicked us all out of our dorm. I went to a new foster family. I worried that moving to another family would take all the good things in my life away. I assumed the worst, that I’d be alone, again put to the side of a family.


Mr. Lance and Ms. Tomeka lived on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Queens. The day I moved in, the elevator was broken. As my caseworker and I carried boxes up the stairs into their home, we passed by three kids standing by the dining table staring at me. They looked timid and confused.

After we finally moved in all the boxes, I sat alone in the dark and looked out the window. I checked my phone and read the texts from my girlfriend, “Hey, you OK? Call me when you’re there.” I quietly sobbed, missing her presence, knowing because of Covid, I couldn’t hold her or kiss her. 

We FaceTimed until she had to eat dinner. It was quiet after our call, and I didn’t know what to do. I unpacked and fell asleep.

My Dorm Project roommates and my foster parents helped me stay sane in the pandemic, and meeting them helped me see a happier future for myself.

Mr. Lance woke me up.

“Hey, champ, you hungry? We cooked up dinner for you,” he said.

“Yeah, I am actually. Thanks. I’ll be right there.”

In the kitchen, a tall woman with long dreads handed me a plate and said, “Hey, you must be Leroy. You can call me Ms.Tomeka. It’s very lovely to have you in our family. How are you? You doing OK?”

I nodded. “I’m very tired, that’s all.”

“Alright well, I hope you enjoy my cooking, and I hope you’ll feel better.”

What These Foster Parents Did Right

I appreciated Mr. Lance and Ms. Tomeka welcoming me, but I had a hard time getting used to my younger foster brothers who were 7, 11, and 13. They all have ADHD and behavioral issues.

Mr. Lance was a good father figure to them. He’d put them in time-outs, let them cry until they quieted down, and then talk to them. He’d explain what they did wrong. He made sure they got the medication for their ADHD.

I liked watching a good father in action, and I tried to discipline them as he did. It didn’t always work, but Mr. Lance didn’t get mad at me since he knew I was trying to help. Over time, they started to listen to me more, and I got a little better at handling them.

My foster parents also distracted me from the pandemic. They drove us around the city, took us on long walks, and I even met their families and friends. I also met my foster father’s motorcycle club members when he brought me to meetings with him. He introduced me as the “new foster son.”

When the lockdown was lifted during the summer, my foster parents allowed me to head out to be with my loved ones. I was especially excited to see my girlfriend. I also met my friends in Brooklyn, and we’d work out in the park together. My foster parents knew how important it was for me to keep human interactions to not lose my sanity and my hope.

I’m very thankful to have lived with them. While being an older brother to my young foster brothers, I matured and got to be my best self. I knew I had to be a role model to them, and I was. As a result, my foster parents trusted me and their friends and family wished the best for me. With their praise and support, they helped me to be more confident and forget about the pandemic.

You Get to Choose

After eight months with my foster family, I moved into Hunter College’s dorm. An important thing I learned while living with them is that it doesn’t matter what environment you live in, it’s the people you live with who make your home life good or bad. A good friend happens to be in my same dorm, and we’ve already helped each other through some setbacks.

I also learned that you can make a family with all kinds of people. My college roommates and my foster parents helped me stay sane during the pandemic, and meeting them helped me see a happier future for myself. In contrast, when I was living in a basement at my aunt’s house, I lost hope.

Sometimes you have to find who you can love and call family. And those you don’t want to be with, even if they are family: It’s OK to drop them. What I learned from all these relationships was what I want in a family. Since I didn’t receive the love and care I needed from my parents, I want to make sure that when I have a family of my own it does not lack affection. Family should shower the people in their life with attention, love, and care.

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