By Rita Soronen, President & CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption
There are no more critical voices in this business than those with lived experience. David Ambroz has a powerful voice and a compelling and very difficult story that he has shared in “A Place Called Home.” His riveting memoir chronicles his childhood experiences with persistent homelessness, unrelenting hunger, physical abuse and a damaging journey through foster care, eventually emancipating from the system to find a path to attend college and law school.
Significantly throughout the book, David finds grace and forgiveness for those who failed or hurt him. He reminds us that issues of poverty, mental health and system accountability are squeezed into overwhelmed government structures that too often react to our most vulnerable families with judgement, criminalization and dismissal rather than support, compassion and true human and family engagement. Yet he remains optimistic, hopeful and driven to make change.
Today, David is on the board of Equality California and is a co-founder of FosterMore. He is noted as a national poverty and child welfare expert and advocate, being recognized by President Obama as an American Champion of Change. After law school, David went on to lead Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television and is now serving as the Head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.
He recently sat down for a conversation with me to discuss his memoir. Read a portion of our conversation below:
Soronen: What went into the decision to both revisit a very difficult childhood that extended into young adulthood and what made you finally decide to put that to paper and publish it so that others could delve into who you were as a child?
Ambroz: It was a couple of things. One, I have a beautiful foster son who needed me to be vulnerable in order to help him on his journey, and kids will teach us if we’re smart enough to listen and learn. The other piece was I reached a certain point in my life where I think deep in my soul that I knew I was okay, and I was safe, finally, and that I could start to unpack all of these things that had I kind of pretended didn’t exist anymore.
I would say we’ve made tremendous progress on poverty for children and families … we’ve made tremendous progress on improving foster care and adoption, but there’s still so much more work to do. And I think the way that we’re going to get there is by sharing our stories with each other. That, to me, is what we need in order to achieve real, lasting, permanent change, so I had to do that if I wanted to ask others to, and it has been quite an experience to publish my diary.
Soronen: From the first page of your book, you make it very clear that the reason you, your mother and your brother and sister were in the system is because of poverty and mental health issues of your mother, which led to abuse, neglect and other things that bring kids into the foster care system. Talk about that phrase that you use “the criminalization of poverty” and how that was your movement and your families experience moving into the foster care system.
Ambroz: I think it’s quite clear that we have made it really hard to escape abject poverty in this country. It is this inheritance that children and communities get so seamlessly. It’s a poverty of hope, it’s a poverty of job opportunities, it’s a poverty of quality education, it’s a poverty of systems that are supposed to be designed to lift people, like my mom, and they’re not doing that work.
Two-thirds of the kids ending up in the foster care system are there because of neglect. Neglect is often a euphemism for poverty, which is a euphemism quite often in this country, for racism. We hyper-vigilize communities … mom misses the rent or dad’s engine breaks down or just some sort of crisis happens, and we put those kids in a system that is already overwhelmed and what happens? Well, they come out the other side with horrible statistics. What if we decriminalize poverty? What if we helped families either form them or preserve them, instead of putting kids through the meat grinder of what foster care could sometimes be.
Soronen: Throughout your book, you allude to these “occasional angels” who would come into your life only for a moment to help you survive. For people that are listening or watching, how do you link that “occasional angel” to concrete action?
Ambroz: We need to rewire our brain a little bit. Ten years before I was born, we sent a person to the moon, and yet today we’re proud when we fill potholes. We’ve given up on our collective responsibility to each other.
First and foremost, we have to believe that we can do giant, big, huge, enormous things together because we can, and we have, and we need to do that again. Individually we need to think to ourselves ‘what can we do?’ If you can’t do one thing, which is completely legitimate, what can you do? Can you commit to go to one meeting a year for the system in your area that deals with foster kids? Can you log into one meeting a year? Can you Google or look up on the Internet what happens to homeless children in my city?
Move beyond ‘I can’t,’ because in order as a country to get to the moon again, especially with children, we need to believe that we can. We need to believe in each other, and we need to lift up the systems that we have … that’s the only way we’re going to collectively change things.
Take the initiative. Take it. It’s yours … you’re smart enough to do it.
Thank you, David, for writing “A Place Called Home” and sharing your story!
To learn how you can move your empathy for children lingering in foster care to action that will help us find them the safe, permanent homes they deserve, visit the Foundation’s Get Involved page.