'I Grew up Homeless and Starving, 18 Years Later I Beat the Odds'

If you looked at me today, a high-level executive at a multinational company, you'd never guess I spent my first 11 years living on the streets in New York City.

Growing up homeless with a mentally-ill mother and two siblings was brutal. We slept in public spaces, shelters and churches that took us in. These stays were too infrequent, and we always ended up homeless again. We bathed in fast-food restaurant bathrooms, to the annoyance of the staff and patrons who tried in vain to shoo us away.

I felt that New York City, at once the home of Wall Street and thousands of homeless families like mine, was indifferent to our suffering and wanderings.

When I was about four, I found myself begging on the platform in Grand Central as the Metro North morning train emptied with commuters. I begged there often enough, but I remember this day well because no one would look at me. Hundreds of people walked past and ignored me. I realized in that moment that my family was invisible to these people.

I was starving, filthy and covered in lice. But I knew, even then, that I would climb out of this state.

David Ambroz as a Child
David Ambroz as a child in 1993. Ambroz was in foster care from the age of 12.

At 12, I entered foster care. At first I thought my siblings and I had been saved, but our foster homes turned out to be chilling places that too readily lived up to the stereotypes.

Eventually, after years in foster care, I moved into a loving home. My foster mom, Holly, helped stabilize me in high school. While decades of trauma could not be undone in the time I lived there, and I have since spent over 20 years coming to terms with the instability of my early life, Holly's support changed my life.

As a child I had never really gone to school, so I had missed most of K-12. My siblings and I had learned to read through literacy programs at public libraries.

Through hard work, I got a grant to study abroad in Spain. While there, I was able to finish my high school credits, and to continue to rebuild my life. Graduating from this program helped me get into Vassar College.

When I was admitted to Vassar in 1998, at the age of 18, I was certain my problems were at an end. Yet I struggled to balance my multiple jobs while still maintaining my grades. I was also ashamed of my past, and remained closeted around my peers.

David Ambroz with Hilary Clinton
David Ambroz with Hilary Clinton in 2016. Ambroz has met many influential people throughout his career.

Education, however, was my way out of poverty. A campus job at Vassar College connected me to a White House internship. I later earned my J.D. at UCLA School of Law, then landed my first job at ABC in Legal/Business Affairs. Through those networks, I found a position that completely matched my passion: leading Corporate Social Responsibility at Walt Disney Television.

For more than a decade, I led the philanthropic efforts at Disney's TV networks. I met the famous and influential—and had the chance to influence storytelling across all of the networks.

Through some combination of grit, luck and privilege, my siblings and I have beat the odds. We have advanced degrees, thriving careers and healthy, loving families.

David Ambroz and Siblings
David Ambroz with his siblings Jessica and Alex Ambroz in 2022. All three siblings have found success in their lives.

But the reality is that more foster kids will go to jail than college. That haunts me. I believe a country that sent a man to the moon should be able to end youth poverty.

I am now a national poverty and child welfare advocate, and my aim is to reform the systems that trapped my family in a state of poverty. There is still so much to do.

I got here today because of the rare angels who helped me, like my foster mom Holly, and I am now a foster parent myself. Not everyone will be able to adopt or foster. But we can all try to raise awareness and, at the very least, we can all care.

David Ambroz is the author of A Place Called Home, which is out on September 13. He is also Head of Community Engagement in the West at Amazon, and the co-founder of Fostermore.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.