It happens every day. A young child is removed from his parents’ home due to abuse and neglect. Not only is the experience traumatizing, but it also can devastate the potential for success in adult life. For instance, less than 10 percent of former foster youth graduate from college. And there’s a greater incidence of homelessness for foster kids.
It’s a heartbreaking situation that recent grad Marquis Cabrera, SSH’11, wants to help right. So in 2010, at just 21 years old, he started the social enterprise Foster Skills, a first-of-its-kind organization that helps Boston-area foster kids beat the odds.
Foster Skills teaches everything from self-management and personal finance to nutrition. It also connects foster youth with necessary resources provided by other organizations. Foster Skills advocates for policy change for foster kids, and works with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to innovate its approach to improving the lives of the state’s foster children.
Cabrera has the smarts, network, and drive to help foster children succeed. He graduated in the top 5 percent of his high school class and earned a bachelor’s—magna cum laude—from Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Cabrera has the support of Mayor Thomas Menino and City Councilor Tito Jackson. Wayfair—named one of “America’s Most Promising Companies” by Forbes—Microsoft, and entrepreneur Steve Case and his foundation support Cabrera’s endeavors. In May, The Boston Globe recognized Cabrera as a Massachusetts Innovator of the Year, and in June the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network presented Cabrera with the Massachusetts Young Nonprofit Professional of the Year Award.
Though he originally planned to become a corporate attorney, he was passionate enough about the foster-care cause to put law school on hold.
Cabrera is motivated by his own experience with foster care. He entered the system at age 7, when his home life became untenable.
“Both my birth parents had gone to college [his mother at Columbia University]. But as a result of mental health issues and uncertain circumstances, I ended up staying in foster care,” Cabrera says.
He was in foster care from 1996 to 2003, participating in his school’s gifted-and-talented program all the while. Once adopted, he moved from Harlem’s Martin Luther King housing development to a house in Scotchtown, N.Y. “We [had] a pool and a backyard. … There is a stark difference living in an impoverished neighborhood and living in a comfortable suburb.”
Cabrera excelled in high school; the scholar-athlete became the highest-ranking cadet in a JROTC battalion of 150 cadets, vice president of student government, and president of the Academy of Information Technology. He was offered a free ride at the University of Pennsylvania, and was nominated by Hillary Clinton and Congressman Maurice Hinchey to the Air Force Academy. He chose Northeastern.
College, Full Speed
When Cabrera arrived on campus in 2006, he pushed himself to take advantage of everything at the university. To maximize his education, the criminal justice major says he often sat in on nonrequired classes and spent nights reading books outside of the scope of his major. He started the pre-law chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, the school’s law fraternity. And he served as campaign manager for frat brother Rob Ranley, who was elected student body president.
He went after his co-ops with equal force. First, he worked in human resources at City Year, an education-focused service organization that seeks to improve graduation rates. It’s an experience that Cabrera credits with teaching him how to run a nonprofit and brand an organization.
For his next co-op, Cabrera was selected from among 10,000 applicants to do an internship in the White House. He worked in the office of Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff, preparing reports for the president’s daily news briefings and spearheading the creation of webinars relating to Recovery Act requirements.
But it was his final co-op that put him on the path to his current position. Cabrera was working at the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, and he was asked to talk to a troubled teen in foster care. Soon he found himself mentoring the young man.
“I had a personal relationship with him. I tried to normalize his feelings,” recalls Cabrera. “I implemented skills I learned in my ‘Counseling in Human Services’ class.”
It was this experience, even more than his own upbringing, that became the seed for Foster Skills. Cabrera wanted to systematically transform the foster care system. Once he had rigorously researched the many issues surrounding foster care—from education to healthcare to policy—Cabrera launched Foster Skills.
“I wanted to make a difference in the system, and I needed to do it now—while I was young enough to be credible among foster kids—and not later,” he says.
Foster Skills has ambitious plans to help foster kids. It’s launching a web portal of resources called MyHome. It’s also developing and piloting a workforce development program to quantify youth skill sets and create more pathways to the workforce for foster kids, who often hold only GED diplomas.
Cabrera has been approached by Mentor, a nonprofit for youth mentoring, about using his organization’s skills program as the basis for a nationwide model. Having advised professor Greg Goodale’s senior capstone class on making foster care policy, he’s now working on legislation to bring more judicial and educational stability into the foster care system.
“We’re trying to tackle the situation from a holistic standpoint,” Cabrera says. “Everything we want to do has to directly benefit the foster kids.”
As for his own career path, he plans to take time off before starting a JD/MBA program in 2014 (he’s deciding between Stanford and Harvard). Now that Foster Skills has become established and widely recognized, Cabrera has transitioned out of his CEO role to become the chair of the organization’s board. But he knows Foster Skills will be in excellent hands; many of his key staff members are fellow Northeastern graduates.
One of Northeastern’s 100 Most Influential Seniors in 2011, he credits the university for providing him with a launching pad to achieve his goals. “Northeastern has given me a platform and an outlet to ultimately make my dreams come true,” he says of his time. “There are movers and shakers here who are doing really cool stuff.”
He should know.