Every new foster home came with a fresh set of rules. It did not matter how many or how few. It did not matter if they were lax or unreasonable. They would not be obeyed.
In the nine years that Shaquille Samuel spent in foster care, he landed in 16 homes. Impermanence was met with impertinence.
“I had a rough time,” Mr. Samuel, 23, said, adding that he would not listen to anyone. “I was hurting.”
Mr. Samuel, who never knew his father, entered New York City’s foster care system when he was 12, after he and his sister, a toddler at the time, were taken from their mother’s custody. His relocations in the system became more frequent as he grew older.
According to Children’s Aid, one of eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, less than one third of the foster families it supports accept children 13 or older.
Mr. Samuel’s mother was often absent. “My mom would always give me money to eat, money just in case she doesn’t come back for a couple days, or a week,” Mr. Samuel said, defending her actions.
He suspects it was the sight of a young boy hauling plastic bags with a week’s worth of groceries that caught the attention of nosy neighbors and led to a visit from the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. He entered the foster system in April 2006.
For the next decade, Mr. Samuel grew inured to upheaval. Compliance with foster families felt pointless, he said, and putting in effort at school seemed futile.
“It was a lot of pressure for me, not seeing my parents, going to school at the same time,” Mr. Samuel said. “It was too much to balance.”
It was not until his late teenage years that he began to rein himself in, grasping the necessity of better positioning himself for a successful future. That revelation was born of discipline hammered into him from part-time jobs in the retail and service industries.
“Instead of me hanging outside at 2, 3 in the morning, I got a job and I’m coming home at 2, 3 in the morning,” Mr. Samuel said. “I love to work.”
Since aging out of foster care more than two years ago, he has lived in supportive housing in the Bronx. Mr. Samuel became interested in earning a high school diploma, but he admitted that procrastination had hampered his studies.
“I wish I could have done it at a younger age,” Mr. Samuel said. “I’d have been so good.”
Mr. Samuel also began taking advantage of the services offered at the Next Generation Center, a Children’s Aid program in the Bronx that helps young people transition to adulthood and independence. There, he connected with a life coach and enrolled in its culinary arts program.
In 2016, just shy of his 22nd birthday, Mr. Samuel received his Regents diploma from the High School for Service and Learning at Erasmus, an alternative school in Brooklyn. Weeks later, he received his food handler’s license. He would like to open a restaurant, if his rapping ambitions are not realized. College is probably on the horizon, he said, just not right away.
“I definitely need the break from school,” Mr. Samuel said.
In the spring, Children’s Aid used Neediest Cases funds to buy $150 in gift cards for Mr. Samuel for food and professional clothing — khakis, shirt and tie — for a job search. He currently works in concessions at the Barclays Center and Yankee Stadium.
Mr. Samuel’s sister, now a teenager, remains in the foster care system, and he implores her to learn from his mistakes.
“I tell her, all the homes have rules and you have to abide them,” Mr. Samuel said. “Even if they’re not your family, they’re the reason you’ve got a roof over your head. Go to school, do what you got to do. It’ll be a breeze.”
Those heart-to-heart talks remind him of his delayed progress, and reinforce for him that his recent successes have paved the way for untold opportunity.
“I had a bunch of traffic in that lane,” Mr. Samuel said. “Now it’s clear. I can go straight, and do what I really want to do now.”