The Imprint reviews “A Place Called Home,” by former foster youth-turned Amazon exec David Ambroz.
Growing up in the late 1980s and early ’90s, David Ambroz and two older siblings slept in New York City’s Grand Central Station and other public places along the eastern seaboard. They did their laundry in bathroom sinks of fast food outlets. Having enough to eat was a persistent problem. His mother’s untreated schizophrenia upended consistent employment, and the social services labyrinth made it difficult for the family to get help. Even as a small child, Ambroz took on the role of managing his mother’s mercurial moods, and trying to deflect her escalating abuse.
Ambroz, who is in his early 40s and is currently the head of Amazon’s external affairs and community engagement for the The West and Inland Empire, connects these powerful childhood experiences to his foster care advocacy work in his upcoming memoir, “A Place Called Home.” It will be released by Legacy Lit on Sept. 13.
“In putting it down on paper, I felt free from it to some extent and unashamed, de-shamed, post-shame,” Ambroz said in a recent interview with The Imprint. “When we share authentic selves, that’s when we move people from empathy to action. When we share our stories, people will see us not as a statistic but as a person.”
Ambroz was eventually taken into foster care at age 12 in Massachusetts, where his mom had moved their family not long before. A social worker would later tell him that “she’d never seen a child so excited to be separated from his parent.” Yet for years, it was not much of an improvement.
Even before he understood he was gay, he felt ostracized by child welfare workers, who seemed to have pegged him as a “challenging placement.” With options lacking, he writes that he was shuffled into an inappropriate placement within the juvenile justice system, followed by a foster family home where arbitrary rules and abusive adults kept him in survival mode.
Relief arrived in the form of a summer job as a junior camp counselor where he met a woman he identifies as Holly, who, alongside her husband and two biological children, was eventually able to take him in. While all was not smooth over the following years, at Holly’s house he was consistently cared for — for the first time.
One constant Ambroz clung to was his intention to go to college. He and his siblings rarely attended school while with their mother, and this continued throughout his early foster care placements, he writes. But, even though she struggles with keeping her children in school, his mom is still the person who imparts the wisdom that education is what will save them.
Like his brother and sister, he pursued higher education. Ambroz has an undergraduate degree from Vassar College in New York and became a lawyer after graduating from UCLA School of Law. “She threw us overboard and gave us our lifelines,” he writes.
“A Place Called Home” is a book about failure — parental, systemic, societal. It is also about grace, passed from Ambroz to his mother and the under-resourced social workers he comes to understand.
He also writes of receiving compassion from others in his moments of need, both large and small.
For all the people who don’t intervene when they should, or who actively make his family’s situation even more challenging, there are others who try to make things a little easier: a restaurant manager who looks the other way so Ambroz and his siblings can eat; school nurses who treat chronic lice; his mother’s elderly employer and, later, a neighbor who both try to protect Ambroz from his mother’s abuse.
Ambroz said he wanted “A Place Called Home” to be more than “a collection of things that happened to me.” He sought to share his experiences that also comprised “a representative example of what children are experiencing today.”
He accomplishes this with evocative, well-paced prose that drops the reader directly into the perspective of his younger self. His skill makes for a personal and vulnerable story that Ambroz found “impossible and beautiful and scary” to write. The writing process also brought back portions of his childhood he had previously blocked out.
It’s the adeptness with which Ambroz learned to navigate poverty, his mother’s mental illness, and foster care that turned him into a successful advocate, beginning when he was in high school. Those successes also gave him the adult validation he craved.
“I felt I was doing something important, that I was worthy of love, which I think is something a lot of foster kids and children from trauma experience,” he said. “What I found was it connected to a really core identity that I have, which is I wanted to be an agent for change.”
In 2012, Ambroz co-founded FosterMore, a coalition of media and entertainment companies, foundations, nonprofits, businesses and philanthropies “working to create greater understanding, empathy, and action to improve the future of youth in foster care.” And under President Barack Obama, he was named a White House Champion of Change — a designation for “people doing extraordinary things to make a difference in their communities.”
Ambroz is clear that his achievements are “not because of the system,” they’re “in spite of the system.”
He now speaks out frequently in his capacity as an advocate for foster youth, challenging audiences to close their eyes and think about a child they love.
“If that child had to go into foster care, what system do they picture in their head?” he asks. “If that child was experiencing homelessness, what services would they want that child to have?”
While noting social supports have improved greatly since he was a child — foster care can now be extended care until age 21 and there’s greater attention paid to the foster care-to-prison pipeline — many problems for struggling children and families remain “in a perpetual state of crisis and fire.”
To that end, the afterward for “A Place Called Home” details examples of direct actions the reader and their policymakers can take to affect change in the foster care system and reduce child poverty that lands families in the child welfare system. This includes providing dorms on community college campuses specifically for kids raised by the government.
Many of these issues are “so solvable,” Ambroz said. “We sent a person to the moon. We’re taking pictures of the universe as it was billions of years ago. We can make sure that David Ambroz today is not living in Grand Central.
“We can make sure that the thousands of homeless children in Los Angeles today aren’t homeless tomorrow. We have that ability.”