Former foster youth Ruben Ochoa shares his story in honor of National Foster Care Awareness Month.
Last month, I had the unique opportunity to sit down with former foster youth, Ruben Ochoa, and hear him tell his story. Through the Foster Youth Strategic Initiative at the Foundation, we seek to fund projects that help improve the self-sufficiency of foster youth and populations that affect foster youth (e.g., caregivers). Although our approach at the Foundation focuses largely on changing systems and improving practice, having the opportunity to hear the story of a real person like Ruben is a reminder of the vulnerability of foster youth, and why we focus our efforts and resources in this area.
We are honored and humbled that Ruben would share his life story with us, and it is my great privilege to share it with you now. We hope that his touching and inspiring trajectory will inspire others to support foster youth to find their path to success. Ruben Ochoa is an avid runner. This June, he will be running in his second marathon, having run more than a dozen half-marathons, supporting causes such as the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. He’s ridden a bicycle 545 miles over seven days from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of AIDS LifeCycle to raise money to support people living with HIV and AIDS. He’s fostered and rescued dogs and cats, and has helped save countless others through his work with Wags and Walks, a local animal rescue organization.
At the age of 18, he started his own business working with computers. He has since catapulted into his career as a digital communications strategist, and at the age of 32, currently holds the title of Director of Digital for Allison + Partners, a global communications firm in Los Angeles.
What you wouldn’t guess is that Ruben is a former foster youth. Fifteen years after exiting the foster system, he is ready to share his story, as a way to begin his healing process and to provide hope for other children in the foster care system.
Ruben was born in Fountain Valley, California in 1983 to his mother, Pamela*. She was a kind, caring smart and loving person who struggled with a substance use disorder throughout her life. Pamela developed a relationship with her drug dealer—Ruben’s biological father, Ray, with whom she had another, younger son, Ron.
At a young age, Ruben was exposed to intravenous drug use and dealers, gang activity, prostitution, and even narrowly avoided being shot at the age of three.
Hoping to lead a quieter life, Pamela moved with Ruben and Ron to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1988 to live with the boys’ maternal grandmother and aunt. Just six months later, Pamela returned to Los Angeles to a life of substance use and prostitution.
This was a turning point in Ruben’s life. Five years old at the time, he remembers what it felt like to watch his mother leaving her children, and to this day suffers PTSD and abandonment issues.
Ruben and Ron continued living with their grandmother, who had a history as a perpetrator of domestic violence, and his aunt. Both women were physically and emotionally abusive toward the Ochoa brothers.
Four years later, Ruben’s mother returned to Arizona from Los Angeles with some news: she was pregnant and she was HIV-positive. Thankfully, her daughter, Daniella, was born HIV-negative later that year. However, three years after her diagnosis, Pamela’s health began to decline rapidly and Ruben watched helplessly as she succumbed to the disease. Pamela passed away the day after Mother’s Day in 1995, just a few days’ shy of Ruben’s 12th birthday.
Following Pamela’s death, the brothers’ abuse at the hands of their grandmother and aunt continued. Now in their mid-teens, Ruben and Ron started acting out: shoplifting, committing vandalism and experimenting with drugs. At the age of 15, Ruben realized that he was in a very bad situation and knew he needed to break the cycle of poverty, violence and disease. Proactively, to escape, he sought out the foster care system as a vehicle to turn his life around.
After an investigation, Ruben and Ron were removed from their home and placed into separate group homes. Though there were a few different placements, he ultimately ended up thriving in his third group home. One staff member in particular was willing to bend the rules of the group home so that Ruben could pursue his strengths and interests, in a way that one’s parents might do. It was in this setting—home—that he was encouraged to learn more about computers and technology. The group home staffers allowed Ruben the flexibility he needed to secure a position doing tech support for AT&T, even though it meant he would be working past the home’s nightly curfew. This very flexibility on the part of the staffers set Ruben on a path towards a successful career in digital communications.
Despite his lack of traditional educational experiences—he started school at the age of ten—Ruben attended an alternative school and obtained his GED. At the age of 18, he started his own business doing computer repairs, and building servers, networks and websites. Ruben, like many other young people, went in and out of college, but managed to earn his Bachelor’s Degree over an eight-year period while also working. We know that a college degree is a direct link to higher pay and better life outcomes than those who do not have a degree.
Take a look at this video where Ruben shares, in his own words, how his life has been impacted by his experience, and how he makes the best out of each day he is given.
Ruben’s story of having the opportunity to pursue his interests, earning his Bachelor’s degree and thriving both personally and professionally as an adult is a good example of all that foster youth can achieve.
We work closely with our partners to support foster youth like Ruben, as they emerge into adulthood, by strengthening the systems that provide services to youth in care, and supporting innovative research that informs policy and practice.
Thanks to the love and support of a handful of key people in Ruben’s life, and perhaps also thanks to their innate sense of self-determination, Ruben was able to find a new trajectory for his life. It is our hope that the work we do with our partners in New York and Los Angeles will help other children like Ruben find success and happiness and lead a fulfilling life, despite the challenges they face.
Learn more about our strategy and how we work with our partners to bring about changes in the foster care system to support the unique needs of transition-age foster youth.
We are very grateful to Ruben for the strength he displayed in telling his story in public for the first time.
*Some names have been changed to respect the privacy of Ruben’s family.