Given his academic and professional success, it may be hard to imagine that the well-spoken Northeastern University graduate spent eight years bouncing between three foster homes, after he was taken at age 7 from his mother, who was found to have neglected him. But it was the time that Cabrera spent in foster care that inspired him to start Foster Skills after graduating from NU.
Cabrera recognized that many children in foster care were falling through the cracks – (for example, less than 3 percent of foster children obtain a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2011 study) -- and wanted to find a way to help them become successful. In 2011, he launched the non-profit Foster Skills, based in Woburn.
The organization provides emotional developmental and practical life skills programs, connecting youths to community resources and partner organizations.
Foster Skills has reached over 170 at-risk youths and has established partnerships with two-dozen groups, including Northeastern, the Hyde Square Task Force, and The Home for Little Wanderers. The organization is supported by private donations.
City Councilor Tito Jackson, who has known Cabrera for four years, said he is impressed by Cabrera’s dedication. “He’s a testament to overcoming adversity,” Jackson said.
After being removed from his mother’s care, Cabrera said he initially was placed in a foster home with a strict, “overly stern” woman in New York City, where he was born. “I didn’t mind that she was so strict,” he said. “I was just happy to have a roof over my head and three square meals a day.”
Although the woman had plans to adopt Cabrera, she died before it was finalized. Her daughters attempted to raise Cabrera themselves, but he admittedly was acting out. “I was a ridiculous type of kid at that point,” he said.
Cabrera’s second foster home did not last long. After refusing to go back to his school, where he was in a demanding honors’ program, he was considered AWOL and was given a choice between entering a group home or living with a family in upstate New York.
He chose the latter.
“I went from being in the projects to living in a beautiful home in upstate New York,” said Cabrera. He struggled to fit in, earning good grades while repeatedly getting in trouble with his friends.
Finally, after being showered with a combination of love and strict boundaries by his new foster parents, Cabrera decided to turn his attitude around.
“I just didn’t want to disappoint them anymore,” he said. “My mom is a wonderful woman and part of the reason that I started Foster Skills.”
Cabrera graduated in the top five percent of his class of over 400 students in high school. He was a member of the math team and an officer in ROTC. After a rigorous application process, he was accepted into the Air Force Academy, but opted to attend Northeastern instead.
Cabrera made the most out of his Northeastern experience, despite some early struggles. He did work co-ops at City Year and the White House, but it was his final co-op, at the Appeals Court, that made the biggest impact, even though he left the job after just two months. Bored with the mundane work, he asked if there was any additional work he could take on. He was asked to mentor a foster child to try to stabilize his behavior.
Cabrera enjoyed the time he spent with the boy. “I thought, if I can make a difference in one life, I can make a difference in any life,” he said.
From that, Foster Skills was born.
James Eggers, Foster Skill’s chief of staff, was a volunteer with the organization since its beginning.
“Marquis asked me if I wanted to get involved with the non-profit that he was starting. Honestly, to me, it didn’t really matter what the non-profit was about,” said Eggers. “I knew that if Marquis was investing his time in something, I should be involved, too.”
Eggers is now a friend of Cabrera. He said that what impresses him most about Cabrera is that “regardless of how much he has achieved, he is always preparing for the next step. To say his work ethic is incredible would be an understatement. Being in his presence is motivating.”
Christopher Hollins, who also has worked with Foster Skills since its inception, is now the organization’s vice chairman. “What Marquis lacks in management experience, he makes up for in real-life experience and passion for improving the lives of kids who share his plight,” Hollins said.
Hollins said working with foster children is rewarding. “The obvious reward is knowing how many young lives are being changed for the better. I have also seen firsthand how children—despite their initial circumstances—can lead great lives if they are cared for, loved and supported.”
As CEO, Cabrera works in all aspects of the organization, but it’s the time he spends with the kids that he enjoys the most. “They keep me young and grounded,” he said.
Foster Skills’ future plans include expanding into workforce development – something Cabrera said he is excited about. Because corporations that want to hire at-risk youths have trouble evaluating their skills, Foster Skills is coming up with programs that teach sought-after skills.
“A lot of people underestimate what kids can learn in a small amount of time,” said Cabrera.
Foster Skills has received recognition for its work: the agency was a finalist for the 2012 Nonprofit Excellence Awards and the Case Foundation Finding Fearless Award.
Jackson believes that Foster Skills is truly making an impact on the community.
“He’s assembled a dream team that is passionate about the future of young people,” Jackson said. “It’s not about giving people a handout, but what Foster Skills is really based on is giving people a hand up and giving them the opportunity to be the next Marquis Cabrera.”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.