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Putting a career on hold to help kids cope

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

A recent Northeastern University graduate chose to defer his admission to several top law schools, choosing instead to spend the year launching an ambitious nonprofit organization that will provide practical life skills and emotional stability to foster youths in Boston.

Marquis Cabrera, who grew up in a drug- and poverty-stricken neighborhood in Harlem, N.Y., was in foster care from 1996 through 2003, when he was adopted by a couple in the upstate community of Scotchtown. Now, Cabrera is trying to improve the lives of foster children here in Boston.

“When you’re in foster care, it’s really easy to get disconnected — from school, from your peers, from life,” Cabrera said.

To help encourage and support foster children from Boston, Cabrera founded Foster Skills, Inc., which this fall will welcome its first class of students, who will stick with the organization from high school through college.

According to a University of Chicago study, less than 10 percent of children who go through the foster care system graduate from college. Yet Cabrera persevered, graduating magna cum laude from Northeastern University this May.

Cabrera originally decided to attend Northeastern University because of its co-op program. He worked co-op jobs at City Year, where he was involved in managing the national hiring process; and at the White House, where he was the first intern from Northeastern in the chief of staff’s office, working under Rahm Emanuel.

His final co-op was split between the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, where he was paired with an at-risk youth who court officials hoped could benefit from a mentor like Cabrera, and CSN Stores, where he worked as a consultant helping to drive company revenue and assisted the vice president of corporate communications in writing traditional and nontraditional media pitches.

Cabrera met daily with the youth for lunch or simply a walk to offer support and guidance. It was a critical time for the teenager, who was struggling to cope after just having learned he was abandoned as an infant and later adopted. “We talked about the feelings of being left in the dark and how that feels, and I worked to normalize those feelings,” Cabrera said.

Foster Skills has garnered the attention of national political leaders, Fortune 100 business executives, and nonprofit organizations that have reached out to Cabrera to form partnerships with his new organization. With the help of Northeastern graduates armed with a wealth of experience from their co-ops at top finance, accounting, design and tax firms; and with guidance from faculty advisors, Cabrera said Foster Skills will help Boston’s foster youth achieve life success.

“Northeastern University provided me support systems and a battery of people who challenged me to succeed,” Cabrera said. “More importantly, Northeastern has given me access to completely new social structures, which in turn has enabled me to put together a rock-star staff and advisory board.”