Passport to Education: Matthew Schwartz
I was left in a police station in Cliffside Park at the age of 13, and then put into a shelter where I spent four months of my life in a place called Conklin in Hackensack, a lock down facility for youth that are in emergency situations – basically a shelter. I lost four months of my education while I was there.
During this transition, I was brought to a group home in Park Ridge, New Jersey. It is there that I spent the next four and a half years of my youth.
Once I turned 18, I went to the independent living program. I soon found myself homeless for one stupid mistake that many teens make, having two unopened alcohol bottles. Yes, that was wrong, but most kids would have been warned. Punished. Parented.
I became homeless.
That was a harsh punishment and a lesson to learn as an inexperienced teen with no positive role models in my life. I lost my home, and eventually my job and my education, being forced to drop out of high school.
I was forced into a position where I needed to make adult decisions that would change my life forever.
I was not prepared to make these decisions. I was alone – homeless.
Four months later, DCF eventually found me a placement in Paterson in another independent living program. There I felt stagnant.
I was without a high school diploma. No GED equals no job. I had a bed, and that was it.
I remembered a police officer who told me about a program called New Jersey Army National Guard Youth Challenge Academy. Now approaching my 19th birthday, I began to prepare to go with support from my independent living program and almost no support from DCF, who eventually told me that this program was not an approved program and forced me to sign out of care.
I went into this program, graduated with class 30, earned my GED and enlisted into the New Jersey Army National Guard as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Specialist. (Long title, it’s basically a glorified car washer, but it had great privileges.)
I needed to go active duty though.
When I entered this program, I was homeless. I exited DCF with no supports. Now, I’m in a six-month program with the New Jersey Army National Guard Youth Challenge Academy, got my GED, but after that what do I do? I’m 19 at the time. It’s August 28th – graduation day.
Where do I go?
After training, I came back to Newark Penn Station – full uniform, homeless, GED, military ID, no other IDs, no birth certificate, no social security card; just a backpack and all my army uniforms.
That day I was panicking. I didn’t know what to do. I called everybody that I could, and the only person that actually came out that day was my CASA worker, who’s so graciously in the audience today.
Terry came and picked me up at 9:30 at night in Newark. We drove around Paterson until we found one of my foster brothers who had a section 8 housing voucher.
I was sleeping on his floor. I had no place to go. Just an army book bag, no belongings.
I was facing AWOL charges because I couldn’t get down to my unit in Somerset or Sea Girt. I don’t even know where they were going to station me.
So at that time I ended up listening to a sergeant who said, “Matt, I can’t get ahold of your unit. Out of training, we are discharging you. We’re going to give you an honorable discharge.”
That was probably the biggest regret of my life, not being able to go with my unit, not being able to go anywhere with the people that I served with and became very close to. That is my biggest regret, not continuing that.
However, it happened for a reason.
So while I was homeless and couch surfing with my foster brother, I walked into Passaic County Community College, not knowing what registrar was. What is the registrar’s office? I thought it was spelled wrong; I thought it was supposed to be register.
I didn’t know what the bursar’s office was either. I was so lucky that I ran into the assistant dean of Passaic County Community College.
I said, “Hey, I’m a veteran, I’m homeless, I don’t really know what I’m doing here, but I want to attend.” He said, “Perfect, let’s go for a walk.” So this is about an hour long walk, we go to testing, go apply, go do this, go do that and he signs off on the paperwork immediately. I’m accepted into Passaic County Community College.
I never graduated anything except the New Jersey Army National Guard Youth Challenge Academy. Going to college was like the biggest thing in my life. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to give back.
I knew what I wanted to do, however, how did I get there? Running into awesome people that led me to where I am today. Sadly, I did not graduate Passaic County Community College. I have 38 credits. I was homeless most of my stay at the college, eventually couch surfing between multiple foster brothers.
I believe it was Terry who told me to reach out to FAFS. So I’m looking at their website, I’m like, “Okay, I have to write an essay? Oh my God.” I never wrote an essay in my life. Doing that essay, even knowing how atrocious it was, they still accepted me. After that I started learning how to write essays. I know how to write great speeches.
I know how to do all this stuff now, because FAFS gave me an opportunity.
I had this amazing opportunity that FAFS gave me, a tuition waiver. I didn’t know what EOF was. I recommend that you go talk to an EOF counselor. Now I’m an EOF student, now I’m receiving $500 every semester.
On top of that, FAFS introduced me to the Dreams R Us Foundation where I got a laptop. That was probably my second laptop in my life and I was like, “This is awesome! This is amazing!”
I can actually do my schoolwork now. It helped me. It actually helped me do my classwork. I get As and Bs in my classes.
Foster and Adoptive Family Services is near and dear to my heart, even though I didn’t find out about FAFS until I was 21. I wrote my essay and had no idea how it was supposed to be formatted. They still accepted it.
Then I met the Director of Scholarship Services and many other FAFS support staff who I called three or four times a week. I asked a billion and one questions because I had no idea what I was doing here. I need help filing for financial aid. My school is telling me that I need to get my parental data. Guess what. I’m a foster kid; I don’t have parents. FAFS said, “Matt, you tell them A, B, C and D.” I told them A, B, C and D. Great! I’m an emancipated minor, I’m good to go and my financial aid is clear.
They’ve been there for me. They’ve been a big advocate for me. If it wasn’t for Foster and Adoptive Family Services, I wouldn’t be here today. I could have easily fell off the bus or fell into another pothole along the way. They saved me from a lot of them, so I’m forever grateful to Foster and Adoptive Family Services.
I’ve been caught as I was falling many times in my life. If it wasn’t for FAFS, and if it wasn’t for the supports that I found, and the people that I met, I wouldn’t be here.
This was written using segments of a speech given by Matthew Schwartz at a FAFS’ Passport to Education event. Edited for brevity.