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'A Place Called Home' is a vivid account of David Ambroz's harrowing childhood

David Ambroz (right) with his nephews, Alberto (left) and Alex (middle), at his home in Los Angeles earlier this month.
David Ambroz
David Ambroz (right) with his nephews, Alberto (left) and Alex (middle), at his home in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Updated September 14, 2022 at 10:21 AM ET

It's one thing to be homeless, but it's certainly another to be homeless as a child on the streets of New York with a mother suffering from severe mental illness.

That's what David Ambroz faced for much of his childhood – and now he has described that harrowing experience and how he overcame it in his new memoir, "A Place Called Home."

On a brutally cold night in New York when he was about four years old, Ambroz said he thought he might die.

"My sister and brother stopped speaking. We couldn't control our bowel movements and we started having fuzzy thoughts and collapsing," he told Morning Edition host Rachel Martin. "We sat on tops of grates so the subway air pushed out was warm until we couldn't. So there's moments of neglect. That certainly was a moment I thought my Mom, through her mental illness, might do that, might lead us to death."

A difficult realization that Ambroz and his siblings must enter foster care

There were many trying times that followed that cold night. When Ambroz was about 12, he and his older siblings, Alex (13) and Jessica (14), realized they needed to leave their mother and enter foster care.

"Right before I entered foster care was one particularly clear moment in my mind," he recalls. "My mom really lost control and became destabilized, and she brutally beat me to near-death, and that is when I put us in foster care for the final time."

"I was able to stand up and realize that my mom was going to kill me," Ambroz said.

Foster care certainly had its challenges for Ambroz and his siblings, but they had shelter, access to food, and some stability – and perhaps most important to the author, they began going to school on a regular basis.

"School was everything," he said. "I think schools today, and even then, have become so much more than a place where we learn – they are a place where kids are fed, where we access health care and where we're cool or we're warm, we're safe."

"I loved school [and] I mean, I would live for that free lunch. Teachers saw what was going on and did just a little bit more to help my siblings and I get through the day or the moment," Ambroz recalled.

Ambroz finds happiness and ways to support others

He credits foster care and the compassion he received from teachers as part of the reason he was able to turn his life around and get on the right track – and today, he's found happiness.

"I have the best life," he said. "I'm so happy. I'm in a home that I own. I have a beautiful foster son who's in graduate school [at Cornell University]. My brother and sister are thriving. They have advanced degrees and beautiful, healthy families. I care for my mom. She's no longer homeless, but she's still, you know, fighting her demons ... and I'm an active member of my community."

In the mid-1990s, he became a leading advocate for child welfare, and remains one to this day. In 2016, he was recognized by then-President Obama as an American Champion of Change, and Obama had this to say about him: "You will fall in love with David Ambroz, his beautifully-told, gut-wrenching story, and his great big heart."

Ambroz now lives in Los Angeles, where he works for Amazon as head of community engagement for the Western U.S.

He calls it "the best damn job you could possibly imagine."

"I'm literally charged with doing good in the community ... they want me to go out and do good in the community. And I think about that every day," Ambroz said.

"How could this kid that lived in Grand Central go out today with the resources of this company and try and change lives? And literally, my measurement of my success is that impact. How is that possible? And that's why I remain optimistic."

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Kurt Gardinier
Kurt Gardinier is a producer for Morning Edition and its podcast, Up First.