“Can anyone spell candidate?”
Three boys stood on one side of a worn pool table. Russ Sullivan quizzed them from the other side.
“C . . . a . . . n . . . a” ventured the 10-year-old, who was sandwiched between his 9- and 11-year-old brothers. Sullivan, 53, nodded in encouragement, leaning forward, telling him to keep going.
“d . . . e . . . t?”
Sullivan smiled and shook his head: “Not. Even. Close!”
The boys, and the six 20-something men who have promised to help Sullivan watch, feed and educate his young charges, erupted in laughter. The winner of the weekly session — with rounds in math, spelling and social studies — was promised ice cream. The losers’ tutors agreed to do push-ups.
The oldest boy won, but all three bounced around happily, jumping on their mentors’ backs while they hit the floor.
For the past decade, Sullivan, a McGuireWoods lobbyist and former top staffer on the Senate Finance Committee, has come home from long days crafting health-care and tax reform to a gaggle of displaced youngsters in need of guidance and a place to live. In August, he hopes to take on a new challenge: adopting these three boys, whose mother died of breast cancer in January. He has temporary custody.
“Russ has two personas,” said Sean Neary, a former aide. “He has this persona of being the buttoned-up professional on Capitol Hill who knows the ins-and-outs of every piece of information and really is a deal maker. . . . What people didn’t realize was that he had this whole other side of him, which is one that cared for some children that were at risk for many, many years.”
So far, 21 boys and young men have been a part of Sullivan’s unconventional family. Some lost their parents, some were abandoned, some had behavioral or substance-abuse issues. Most are in college now; a few dropped out of high school and are working toward GEDs.
The oldest calls him Dad. The others call him Pops or Mr. Russ.
“There’s a huge need here, and somebody’s got to fill it,” Sullivan said. “Once I started doing it, the joy of seeing the light bulb go off in their mind — that they can actually get a job, they can function in the business world, they can go to college, they can succeed in sports, or whatever it is they decide they want to do — is really an incredible thing.”
Sullivan was known on the Hill for his seriousness and humility — eschewing an office in favor of a desk among the interns, for example. While he is happy to talk about the complicated logistics of guardianship or the dearth of foster parents, he downplays the scope of his undertaking.
To hear him tell it, “Son No. 1” came along by chance a little over a decade ago.
Sean Jackson was the 16-year-old friend of Sullivan’s then-girlfriend’s son. She took the boy in when his father died, but she couldn’t handle his lying, sneaking out and taking her car. Sullivan said he understood such “teenage boy” behavior: He had worked with kids through church since he was in his 20s. He became Jackson’s legal guardian.
“The worst two years of my life,” Sullivan said. “I learned to be a parent, and unfortunately I had to practice on him.” As soon as Jackson turned 18, he moved in with his pregnant girlfriend. Sullivan vowed to try again, to do better.
They didn’t see each other for years, but eventually reconnected. And on a recent Sunday, Sullivan was at church to see Jackson’s child, now 11, baptized.
“What did you tell me?” Sullivan teased.
“That everything you said was pretty much right,” Jackson answered.
“That’s my favorite line,” Sullivan said with satisfaction.
Sullivan has met most of the kids through Capitol Area REACH, a mentoring program he helped found. But his name has gotten out to counselors at high schools in Alexandria and Annandale. Few people want to take in teens. Historically, children 9 and older are more likely to age out of the system than be adopted.
His drive to foster comes from a deep Christian faith.
“Moses was a foster child,” he said. “Jesus was an illegal immigrant in Egypt. . . . You can’t tell me that every kid who comes to America for whatever reason or has a family challenge can’t turn out to be one of our leaders.”
Over the years, Sullivan built his life around the boys. Colleagues on the Hill eventually stopped inviting him to social events he never attended. He left the Senate last year because he needed to make more money to pay for college.
Sullivan has moved around in Northern Virginia several times so boys he took in could stay in their local schools. In the Arlington split-level he now shares with the young boys and four adult helpers, Sullivan sleeps on a mattress in the unfinished basement, his suits hanging from a metal beam.
He would show up on basketball courts in Alexandria, asking if anyone wanted to go bowling or see a movie.
He finds them odd jobs and encourages community service.
Abu Massaquoi, 28, or “Son No. 3,” recalls Sullivan stopping by his mom’s house on Saturday mornings to take him to volunteer.
“This African lady is thinking, ‘Who’s this white man coming into my house to wake up my son?’ ” Massaquoi said. Like many of Sullivan’s kids, he’s Sierra Leonean. “I was kind of rough around the edges. So she knew that if I was trusting him, it was a big deal.” Massaquoi ended up living with Sullivan after high school and joining his church.
At one point, Sullivan had seven teenage boys living with him in a three-bedroom apartment on Hampton Court in Alexandria.
The house rules for the boys were strict and frequently broken: no alcohol, no girls without supervision, a curfew of 10 p.m. on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends. Church every Sunday, unless you went to mosque on Friday. No cursing, a rule Sullivan also imposed on his Senate staff. For teens who often had little supervision in their lives, it rankled.
“It was like raising a pack of wild hyenas,” said Maligie Conteh, 24, who moved in with Sullivan his sophomore year of high school. The now-grown boys discuss Sullivan’s ability to learn of transgressions with a mix of annoyance and awe. “Somebody would always tell,” said Noble Maduakor, 24, one of a couple kids who were kicked out several times. “And even if you figured out who it was, he’d have somebody else.”
But if you told him the truth, the boys said, Sullivan would do anything for you. When Conteh was found guilty in 2009 of a robbery he said he didn’t commit, Sullivan marshaled lawyers who got the conviction overturned. Those who have left home for school still get regular check-ins by phone. Every year, he takes the whole clan back to his hometown in Arkansas for Christmas with his extended family.
Beyond his investigative powers and indefatigability, Sullivan is blessed with a seeming complete lack of self-consciousness. The boys fondly remember a West Virginia ski trip where he cleared the room by asking if any of them wanted to talk about sex. Less fondly, they recall the time he offered to drop them off at a party, then walked in and demanded to speak to the parents. Learning that there were none around, he rounded up his kids and ushered them out.
A tragedy in the family only increased his intensity. In fall 2011, A.J. Hassan, another of the young men Sullivan took in, suffered a severe head injury during a fight outside a bar in Morgantown, W.Va., where he was a college student. Deep in negotiations over the debt ceiling in the Senate, Sullivan traveled back and forth from West Virginia to visit Hassan in the hospital. Hassan survived for eight months before dying in a D.C. hospital of complications from surgery.
“It finally clicked after my brother passed away,” said Loretta Hassan, A.J.’s sister and a 21-year-old college student. She is the only girl who considers Russ a father. “He was there. All these years, Russ has been just the most important person in my life.”
Once his last set of kids graduated from high school, Sullivan planned to take a break. He and his girlfriend were talking about marriage and adopting together — maybe girls.
Then the three boys came into the picture.
Rashid Fullah, one of Sullivan’s charges who is about to graduate from George Mason, had coached the boys in football for about five years. When their mother died and their father was unable to care for them, Fullah knew where they could find a home.
At first, Sullivan worried the skills he has developed wouldn’t translate to a younger set of children.
“Teenage boys need boundaries. They need fences to make sure they don’t do something really stupid,” Sullivan said. “None of us are really good at that emotional side of what these 9-, 10-, 11-year-old boys need.”
Fullah changed his mind, promising he and the others would help.
“Russ has been there for me. So to be able to do that for someone else, it’s a blessing,” Fullah said. “It just felt right.”