Don’t tell brothers Alex and David Ambroz that foster youth aren’t succeeding. They don’t want to hear it.
Don’t tell them that foster youth have a hard time growing up in the foster care system. They already know it.
What they want you to hear is, how despite all of that, foster youth have found ways to excel.
David and Alex are prime examples. Growing up with an abusive, paranoid schizophrenic mother, they and their sister bounced around New York, Miami and Boston until they entered foster care.
By David’s 13th birthday, he had attended over 13 schools. When Alex was 14, he ran away from his foster home in Massachusetts on a bike stolen from a neighbor’s porch. He rode over 83 miles from Greenfield, Mass., to Albany, N.Y., the last place he remembered being happy at home and at school. Eventually, he was taken back to Massachusetts and reconnected with his siblings.
Despite the difficulties they had growing up, the brothers say their biological mother always told them they were going to be great, and were going to be successful through education.
“Our mother would always say that Alex would be a neurosurgeon, David would be a Supreme Court Justice, and Jessica would be President,” said David Ambroz.
“Our mother, as crazy and abusive as she was, did love us. And the only thing I remember in terms of a life message, was we were going to be phenomenally successful, and we were going to do that through a great education,” said Alex.
Because of their mother’s expectation, they both say they were determined to graduate from high school despite any difficulties and attend college.
“When adrift in a sea of instability, insanity and insecurity – there was one constant for us three – it was school. Some youth lacking a mother like ours, or siblings might turn their frustration and energy towards other less savory activities – but we chose school,” wrote the Ambroz siblings in an email.
“We got there early to eat the free breakfast, and stayed late to participate on committees and sports teams, throughout the foster home moves. Schools, all of them, were a place of sanctuary where we were not hit, were not hungry, and for at least a few hours, we could dream big about a future that awaited us beyond the control of the adults immediately surrounding us with their benign mediocre expectations for our futures.”
Alex enrolled at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and David went to Spain to finish high school and complete a year of college, before transferring to Vassar College in New York. Their sister, Jessica, attended Regis College in Boston and later received her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Southern California School of Social Work.
While the brothers were able to excel in school, they didn’t have the same resources as many of their classmates, and paying for their education proved a significant challenge. To offset the cost of college, Alex joined the military and after resuming his studies at UMass, graduated in 2005. This year, he received Masters degree in business from The Fuqua School of Business At Duke University.
For David, scholarships from Foster Care to Success (formerly the Orphan Foundation of America) and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts covered tuition, books and other expenses he couldn’t afford on his own. In 2005, he graduated from UCLA School of Law.
“I have a very big pet peeve to money being an obstacle to a kid’s success,”
Alex said. “A lot of times these foster youth don’t have anyone to turn to.”
With a “pay it forward” mentality, the Ambroz brothers are working to make the road to higher education easier for the younger generation of foster youth, and give them the high expectations they received at a young age.
Alex Ambroz created OnwardAndUpwards.org (http://onwardandupwards.org), a hub for scholarships and other education resources for foster youth. The website aggregates scholarship opportunities and other resources for foster youth pursuing higher education, but is also the hub for the scholarship at UMass-Amherst which Alex created for foster youth who attend the campus.
Each semester, two students receive $1,250 of renewable funds as long as they are in college.
“My goal is for everyone associated with foster care to know about Onward and Upwards as a resource in foster care so it can continue to help those success stories and they can pay it forward,” Alex said.
David worked with the Los Angeles City College Foundation from 2007 to 2011 and brought the Guardian Scholars program to the campus, which provides housing, financial and other assistance to foster youth attending the campus. Guardian Scholars program is on the campus of 30 California community colleges and universities, according to the Stuart Foundation. He now continues to help youth in need by working in the corporate citizenship and philanthropy division at the Walt Disney Company.
“You can have all the college tuition in the world, but you also have housing costs, transportation, book costs and other things which usually mom or auntie or uncle provide,” said David.
During the implementation of the program at LACC, David and others noticed the difficulty foster youth faced receiving classes on time. So they rallied to pass a bill that would prioritize registration for students who were in the foster care system. In 2011, AB 194 gave priority enrollment to California’s foster youth attending state colleges and universities.
The Ambroz brothers believe the great expectations their mother gave them for their lives are not only what all foster youth need, but deserve to have and have been using to become accomplished.
“We are an example of what can be achieved,” said David. “We want to be a voice that we are not all tragic stories.”