I never got to know my birth mother. I spent the first eight years of my life being abused and neglected—my eldest brother had to steal snacks from bodegas in our Harlem neighborhood just to feed us. I was eventually taken from my mother and placed in foster care, where I spent three years in three different foster homes. At age eleven, I was extremely lucky to be adopted by great parents.
I have never ever felt comfortable openly sharing the arduous details of my childhood. As an adolescent and young adult, I kept it a secret. Yearning to be the opposite of my mother, I spent my time doing good in my community: carrying groceries for the elderly, mentoring elementary school students, rallying legislators to invest in quality education, filling inmates’ reading list requests, raising money for the study and prevention of various cancers, aiding the American Legion in putting flags on veterans’ graves, helping churches and food banks to feed the homeless, and donating to and working for well-renowned nonprofits.
While working for City Year in 2008, I learned that dedicated champions are needed to truly affect change. People must be selfless in order to advance their societies; the socially minded and fortunate must be willing to share their time and treasure because they care. This is why I turned down internships with top consulting firms to become a member of the 2009 inaugural class of White House interns under President Obama. While there, I helped members of the Obama administration turn aspiration into action. I contributed beyond myself. I didn’t have a large office or a fancy title, but I know that my work made a difference.
During my senior year of college, I took a juvenile law course with Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland in which I was required to sit in on cases at the Boston Juvenile Court. There, I witnessed many heart-wrenching care and protection cases and was quickly reminded of my childhood and the appalling challenges facing foster children (for instance, less than 3% of foster youth graduate from college, and less than 10% graduate from high school). After thoroughly researching the foster care system, conducting focus groups with successful foster care alumni, and independently mentoring foster children, I decided that I would be a champion to improve the odds for foster youth.
So I deferred law school, couch surfed to live frugally, and founded Foster Skills, an umbrella nonprofit and social business dedicated to empowering foster children to overcome the odds, follow their dreams, and become successful, productive citizens. I wanted to create an effective resource system for children in foster care. By connecting stakeholders and pulling together a fragmented system of care, I would be a catalyst for collective impact within the child welfare system.
In two short years, Foster Skills has grown exponentially with support from committed student volunteers, a stellar senior leadership team, and fantastic board members (Chris Hollins, a White House cohort of mine, serves as Vice Chairman). We have connected with over a hundred foster youth to provide social support systems; put together a Massachusetts-specific Foster Youth Handbook; collaborated with D&A Consulting to develop a website full of resources for foster children; and launched the Foster Youth In Action Blog, an outlet for successful foster care alumni from around the country to share their voices and stories.
I recently completed Foster Marque,a science fiction novel based on my life story. Through the protagonist, Foster, I tell my story—one that I have only recently become comfortable sharing. I do so with the hope that people like you (called “super people” in the book) will empower kids who grew up like me to have a fighting chance in the world.
Marquis Cabrera, a former foster youth, is the Founder and Chairman of Foster Skills—a social enterprise dedicated to empowering foster children to beat the odds and achieve life success.