Child welfare advocate David Ambroz opens up about the life he endured as a homeless child in New York City and how he persevered in adulthood in his new book, “A Place Called Home: A Memoir.”
Growing up homeless and in and out of foster care for 11 years, one of Ambroz’s only solitudes was at the library, where he and his siblings would read through literacy programs. Many would write him off as a lost cause, but he defied the odds set against him by pursuing a higher education. He saw a college degree as a ticket out of the poverty-stricken life he knew, and he’s now a high-level executive at a multinational company and an advocate for foster care and adoption.
This is an excerpt from “A Place Called Home: A Memoir” by David Ambroz, published with permission by Legacy Lit. Copyright © 2022 by David Ambroz.
Relentless, Insanely Impossible Hope
Back in the town house where I live with Sydney and Mia, it looks like a bomb has exploded. I love my housemates, but their version of packing is to throw everything on the floor first — dishes, art, clothes, and pillows are scattered willy-nilly. We’ve been here together for only a year, but we assembled a life, and it makes me a little sad to see it dismantled without ceremony. They’re shoving their belongings into bags. There’s no graduate housing at UCLA, so I’ve rented the only space I can afford. I found it on Craigslist — it’s a converted garage a few miles from the law school. I’ll be able to walk or bike to classes. The owner has made it a point to emphasize how raw the space is, but even so I will soon learn that he’s oversold it.
That night, at dinner in the cafeteria, a guy named Micah asks me, “Who the hell is Tony Kushner?” He points to a flyer announcing him as our graduation speaker.
“You know, the playwright? He wrote Angels in America?”
“They must be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Couldn’t they get Oprah? Or at least an actor?” Lucas says.
I head back to my room, which is almost entirely packed up. There is nothing left on my desk but a stack of MapQuest printouts showing my route to LA. I put on my cap and gown and walk toward the hillside where we will graduate. On the way, I cross paths with the head of the college, President Fergusson. She is in full regalia, accompanied by a few people I don’t recognize. I have been the student liaison to her office all year, and I realize this is my last chance to get a picture with her. I shove my analog camera into a man’s hands, saying, “Would you please take a picture of me with President Fergusson?” So just before his speech, Tony Kushner does the honors
Graduation takes place in an outdoor amphitheater built into a hill, with metal folding chairs leaning perilously forward in the grass. The sky is gray, threatening rain. We march in, capped and gowned. Vassar’s colors, pink and gray, trim our gowns. Holly, Steve, Brianna, Ruth, and Jessica are somewhere in the audience, though I can’t see them from where I sit. My mother isn’t here. She has been homeless through most of my time at college and hard to keep track of, but I was able to reach her last night. “I’m graduating, and it’s because of you,” I told her. I gave her credit to make her feel good, but also because it was partly true.
Given our upbringing, the fact that all three Ambroz kids had earned undergraduate degrees was a miracle. My mom played a part in both sides of that equation — the difficult childhood, and the value placed on education. She threw us overboard and gave us our lifelines.
“Why didn’t you invite me?” she asked.
“Because I don’t want you here, Mom,” I said truthfully. “You’ll disrupt the event. This is for me.”
“David, that’s not true. Well, I am very proud of you. I love you.”
Then she said, “I need money for a winter jacket, so if you get a chance, could you please send that to me?” I hung up, feeling mixed emotions. Grateful to be free of her, sad that she was unable to experience this moment with me, and appreciating the irony that even in this moment, at the height of my achievement, she found a way to make it about herself.
I watch in awe as, in a fast-paced staccato, Tony Kushner delivers a riveting hour-long commencement address in thirty minutes. He urges us to be aware of what is coming in the post-9/11 world. It is a call to action for us to be aware and honest and agents of change. He implores us to organize, to be political, and to claim power, redistribute it, and legislate it into justice. His words converge with everything I’ve been thinking and working toward and fighting for my whole life. This is exactly what I am going to do. This is my plan. And what can drive us forward in a world that is full of people who seem determined to bring it to an end? He answers his own question: Hope isn’t a choice, it’s a moral obligation, a human obligation, an obligation to the cells in your body. Hope is a function of those cells, it’s a bodily function the same asbreathing and eating and sleeping.
It is hope that has made me brave. Hope that has kept me clawing for the surface when I was drowning, hungry, bruised, torn down, and almost erased. Hope that has preserved my fight and my identity and my soul. Relentless, insanely impossible hope that has gotten me to this chair on this hillside, with this black gown and awkward cap — my full family behind me and around me, I will drive west infused with that spirit and determination. I am, finally, my whole self.
The next morning, I slowly drive my 1994 Chrysler out the stone arch of the main gate and onto Raymond Avenue. Upstate New York is in full bloom; the trees and even the weeds are vibrantly alive. It’s twenty-six hundred miles to LA and I am going to law school, not as a vessel of the trauma that happened to me, but as an out gay man determined to hasten change. Driving down I-95, the sun on my back and spread through my eyes, I think of all my foster siblings, and other foster kids whom I met along the way. Their faces flash by in my mind. My heart presses toward them, hoping that they’ve made it too. My soul holds on to a hope that some have even made it out of the poverty and violence. That they are all safe and determining their future. Hope should be theirs too. I know that I’m not going to law school for me, I’m going with the determination to help them. To help get kids like me off the streets, to make sure they are never put through a system that grinds away hope. This mission gives meaning to everything I have seen and experienced. It will give shape to everything I do. Out of all the darkness, it becomes my home.