04.13.2012

Social-ability Creates Opportunity

During my sophomore year (2007) at Northeastern University, I listened to Tony Robbins’ TED Talk about the invisible forces that drive actions and lead to fulfillment. Robbins explains his point by asserting, “We grow individually to attain fulfillment, but we can only be completely fulfilled when we contribute beyond ourselves. The secret of living is giving. Life is not about me, it’s about we.” I believe that this must become a personal commitment and I seek to activate his words in my life.

As a young adult, I decided to contribute beyond myself and have committed numerous hours helping people by: 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 (2008), I learned that mission-driven nonprofits need champions that will empower the organization to create equality of chances. Ultimately, when working to ameliorate social issues and improve the lives of those who need opportunity, the socially minded must be willing to share their treasure and time because they care. People must be selfless in order to advance their societies. This is why I interned at The White House as a member of the 2009 inaugural class of Interns, did not receive a paycheck, and cut into my own personal bank account to help members of our government create significant, meaningful, and extensive change. I know that these small, personal, altruistic actions, and similar actions by thousands of others, truly make a difference.

During my senior year of college (2010), I took juvenile law 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. After thoroughly researching the foster care system and developing a 600+ page research bank, conducting numerous focus groups with successful foster care alumni, and independently mentoring foster youth, I wanted to empower foster children to beat the appalling odds. Less than 3% of foster youth graduate from college and less than 10% graduate from high school. This was problematic, and I needed to systematically capture my own luck.

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 beat the odds and achieve life success. But I am only one person...

I sought out Christopher Hollins, Spencer Coopchik, and Jessica Kong because of their strategic minds; Boston City Councillor Tito Jackson to help me navigate bureaucracy and champion our cause; Professor Donna Bishop to provide sage, programmatic advice; and many more people with a wealth of experience to join our boards. I recruited exceptional student volunteers and staff members, such as Nicole Fichera who rebranded the organization, and Bart Flaherty who coded our website from scratch. Foster Skills was equipped with the human capital necessary to empower foster children to beat the odds, follow their dreams, and become successful productive citizens.

In two years, Foster Skills has connected with over a hundred foster youth to provide emotional support systems; put together a Massachusetts specific statewide Foster Youth Handbook; collaborated with D&A Consulting to develop and code MyHome, a web portal of resources for foster children; and launched The Foster Youth In Action Initiative to empower successful foster care alumni from around the country to use their voices. It is my hope that Foster Skills will continue to innovate the child welfare system and empower more foster children, like me, to beat the appalling odds.

A year ago, in the middle of my workday, I read a Huffington Post article written by a former foster youth, and she said, “Successful foster youth need to share their stores because foster youth need positive examples.” I have never ever felt comfortable openly sharing my own personal story. One might ask, why?

As a child, I just wanted to be normal and did not want to be pitied or handicapped by emotive reactions to my life story, or stigmatized as a bad kid because of the consequences of awful parenting. I figured out how to share some learned life lessons with children in foster care, but was not yet ready to actually tell my own personal story. Through various readings, such as Michael Oher’s novel I Beat The Odds, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, and David Pelzer’s books, I worked up the courage to come out of my shell.

I was then selected to become an Opportunity Nation Scholar: Justin Kang asked me to be a speaker at The Opportunity Nation Summit. Justin did not know the details of my arduous childhood, but he knew I had been in foster care and had had some short-term life success. In the past, I would have declined, but I realized this was my chance to be brave and contribute beyond myself on a national platform.

The Opportunity Nation Summit provided me with a venue to be courageous and share my personal story with the public. I had never shared details of my childhood with anyone until I spoke at Columbia University. While it was heartwarming to receive the only standing ovation among a list of distinguish speakers—like Mayor Bloomberg, Fareed Zakaria, Serena Williams, and many others—I only gave the speech because I wanted to contribute beyond myself and shed a light on issues facing foster youth.

The months following were emotionally grueling, so I stopped answering questions about my childhood and put my head down and did a lot of work. I co-created The Collaborative Efficacy Project. I wanted to spend my time creating a resource system for children in foster care and I wanted to be a catalyst for a Collective Impact within the child welfare system. I wanted to connect stakeholders and ameliorate a fragmented system of care. I also was prompted, as a cathartic pastime, to finish a novel I had been writing, Foster Marque.

Foster Marque is a science fiction novel infused with my life story and worldview. The main character, Foster, is juxtaposed to me in real life. He is born a city dweller, and then is adopted by mountain climbers. Foster is given an opportunity to learn what it takes to be titivated with wings. A flier trains him, and he literally takes flight. Upon entering into a world abundant with opportunities and resources, Foster starts to have nightmares, and via this medium, I share some of the harshest realities of my childhood. More importantly, I also share my worldview. Like Foster, I cannot live in a world where I enjoy escargot and filet mignon, and know others are struggling to survive. The reason I contribute beyond myself is to empower city dwellers born to zip codes tendered by a morose hustle where there are not many opportunities to have a chance in the world.

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Marquis Cabrera, a former foster youth, is the Founder and Chairman of Foster Skills—a nonprofit dedicated to empowering foster children to beat the odds and achieve life success. Prior to founding Foster Skills, he worked at The White House, The Massachusetts Appeals and Supreme Judicial Courts, City Year, and Wayfair (formerly CSN Stores). He has served on two for-profit boards and three non-profit boards. He authored Foster Marque (2012), which is part of a trilogy. Marquis is a proud graduate of Northeastern University where he graduated magna cum laude. He will enroll in a JD/MBA program after successfully scaling Foster Skills.

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