Bruce Frankel and Bill Hewitt
July 24, 2000 12:00 PM

One of our country’s most enduring beliefs, starting with Horatio Alger and stretching through William Jefferson Clinton—a poor kid from a broken home who grew up to be President—is that anyone, by dint of hard work and perhaps a little luck, can become a success, no matter what the obstacles. The truth, of course, is more complex. The stark reality is that the great majority of disadvantaged kids—those born in extreme poverty or in shattered families, for example—face long odds if they hope to improve their lives significantly. Take foster children, for instance. Only half graduate from high school, and just 4 percent finish college, according to the Orphan Foundation of America. But as Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, puts it, “None of us has any right to give up on any child.” And indeed, as the following profiles of young adults who have overcome overwhelming difficulties suggest, some kids do accomplish seemingly impossible acts of self-salvation—and in so doing provide all the others with badly needed hope.

Liz Murray

From homelessness to Harvard

When she starts her first year at Harvard this fall, Liz Murray will, of course, be getting a top-notch education. She will also be getting a place to live, something she hasn’t always had. Growing up in The Bronx, in New York City, Liz, now 19, and her sister Lisa, now 22, lived a Dickensian existence that frequently involved keeping their mother, Jean, a cocaine addict, away from the monthly welfare check. “She would be banging on the walls in the tenement, screaming, wanting her money for drugs,” says Liz, who was caring for herself by age 6.

Soon Liz was scrambling for money—bagging groceries, pumping gas—to help put food on the table. Her father, Peter, also a cocaine addict, was unemployed—and as for school, Liz scarcely ever showed up, except at the end of the year, when she relied on her native smarts to pass the standardized tests. In 1994 her parents separated. With her mother suffering from both tuberculosis and AIDS (Jean died in 1996 at age 42) and her father living in a shelter, Liz took to the streets, sleeping outside or in hallways, or crashing at friends’ homes.

It was at that, her lowest point, that Murray began to formulate a strategy for turning her life around. “I felt all this potential bubbling up inside me that I wasn’t putting to use,” she says. “I knew I wanted to go back to school.” She managed to talk her way into Humanities Preparatory Academy, an alternative public school in Manhattan. Though she was still living hand to mouth, sometimes sleeping in the park or subway, and relying on money she had saved, she managed to pack the four-year curriculum into two years—with an A average.

Murray, who is again seeing her father (who is no longer using drugs) and her sister Lisa, a receptionist, will be attending Harvard on scholarships and financial aid. Thanks to the celebrity she has attained with her remarkable story, she has had the opportunity to hobnob with the likes of Candice Bergen and Naomi Judd, which should make it easier to realize her next dream: getting into acting or directing. Meanwhile she intends to continue doing what she has always done: never getting bogged down by feelings of misfortune, no matter what happens. “People are so wrapped up in their bitterness,” she says. “People are shocked to hear that I am not angry.”

Esteban Toledo

An iron helps him out of the rough

Their home was a weather-beaten shack near Mexicali, Mexico, a dirt-poor area south of the California border, where each night the 11 children of the Toledo family would go to sleep in one room, with a thick chain on the door to keep out the coyotes. The youngest, Esteban, was only 4 when an older brother drowned under mysterious circumstances. A year later his father, a subsistence farmer also named Esteban, died of a heart attack. “I can’t remember what he looked like, because we don’t have any pictures,” says Toledo, now 37, explaining that his family never could have afforded a camera.

And then one day, at age 5 or so, Esteban found a magic wand of sorts—an old discarded golf club. On days when the oppressive heat left a local golf course deserted, the youngster would swim across a small river, sneak onto the links and play a few holes with his 7-iron. Never did he dream, though, that he would be where he is today, earning a living—quite a good living, in fact—as a pro on the PGA Tour. “But I think God sent me a wonderful opportunity to take a chance and learn,” he says with a laugh.

As a teenager, Toledo started putting in long hours of practice each day. But his biggest break came, at 17, when a wealthy California businessman, Jon Minnis, now 64, who had heard about the youngster from some friends, dropped by to see the prodigy for himself. Almost immediately Toledo hit it off with Minnis and his wife, Rita, 62, who speaks Spanish. But frustrated with his inability to communicate with Jon, he began practicing English 16 hours a day. The Minnises were so impressed with his raw talent and hunger to excel that they invited him to live with them. “My wife and I started with $400,” says Minnis. “Inside the heads of all people who’ve made it is the desire to help someone who will help himself.”

Eventually the Minnises picked up the tab for Toledo to play tournaments around the world. These days Toledo is ranked 121st on the PGA Tour and has earned more than $210,000 in prize money this year. And he is the subject of a new biography, Tin Cup Dreams, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael D’Antonio. Three years ago he married Colleen Buday, now 31, who already had a son, Nicholas, now 10, by a previous marriage. The couple have a 1-year-old daughter, Eden, and have just moved into a five-bedroom home in Irvine, Calif. But all the success in the world can’t extinguish the fire that got him there. “I’m never going to be satisfied—ever,” he says. “There’s always something to learn.”

Sang Tran

A teacher’s gift, born of the killing fields

Her formative years were spent in the burnt-out hell of a war zone. In 1978 Sang Tran’s family, then living on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, were forced to flee the murderous Khmer Rouge. At the time, Sang, who now calls herself Tammy, was only 5. During the three-month trek on foot into Thailand, the family dodged soldiers and bullets but not tragedy. Along the way, Sang’s 4-year-old sister Ting died, possibly of chicken pox, and had to be left under a tree with only a blanket to cover her corpse. “Lots of guns were being fired,” recalls Sang, now 27. “There were bodies everywhere.”

Then came two years in a Thai refugee camp, where the Trans, including Sang’s mom and dad and her siblings—two older sisters and a younger brother—managed to get by growing and selling vegetables. Finally an uncle sponsored their re-location to the United States, where they arrived speaking almost no English. Sang and her family ended up in Los Angeles, and her life was able to blossom at last. By the time she hit a San Fernando Valley high school, she had shown a remarkable gift for teaching. Her specialty was helping new Asian immigrants with their math homework. After attending Cal State L.A., Sang landed her present job as a fourth-grade teacher in the city’s Chinatown. “Being a refugee made us more sensitive to people who are needy,” says Sang, who married Matthew Quach, 29, an engineer at Mattel toys, last year. The secret of Sang’s success, says former math teacher Kathie Faught, is that, while not forgetting the traumas of her past, she never lets them define her. “You could do lots of teasing with her—she didn’t act like a victim,” says Faught. “She just picks herself up and goes on.”

David Ambroz

Surviving a mentally ill mother

In one sense, David Ambroz was an unlikely victim of a troubled childhood. His mother, Mary, who was a single parent, had a college education and worked as a registered nurse. The problem, though, was her erratic behavior, which was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Her neglect of her three children—David, now 20; Jessica, 23; and Alexander, 22—who were sometimes left to care for themselves when they were barely old enough to be in school, resulted in their being shunted from one foster home to another. When they returned to her care and complained to teachers about their treatment, says David, their mom retaliated. “Once she hit me over the head with a piece of glass pottery and knocked me unconscious,” says David, who was 12 years old at the time. “My mother is a very smart woman, but she’s mentally ill.”

Over the years the family moved so many times—mostly in Florida, New York and Massachusetts—that David has no idea how many schools he attended. Despite the dislocations and often having to work at low-paying odd jobs, he excelled academically. Now, having completed his sophomore year at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he is driven by a desire to go to law school and then into politics, so he can help spare other kids the sort of upbringing he had. “Unlike many politicians, I’ve lived on the street and I’ve lived in shelters,” says David, who recently started a summer internship at the White House. “No politician is going to truly represent me unless I run. How can you talk about the minimum wage when you’ve never worked for minimum wage?”

Shakneeka Gilbert

Determined not to accept defeat

Having grown up in one of Atlanta’s housing projects, Shakneeka Gilbert’s parents wanted to give their children the life they never had. And for a while, they did. Through hard work and determination—values they instilled in Shakneeka, now 26, and her three younger sisters—Vivian and Harrison George bought their own house in a middle-class neighborhood and raised their burgeoning family in relative prosperity. But when Shakneeka started high school, her parents, pulled back to their old orbit of friends, began using drugs. In short order, they sold their home, lost their jobs and landed back in the housing projects where they’d begun. “Now it was my turn to make my way out,” says Shakneeka.

She surrounded herself with friends from stable homes “who wanted to do something with their lives.” Then she quietly patched together enough scholarship money to attend Georgia’s Albany State University. Now a financial analyst at Bank of America, she and her husband, Johnny Gilbert, 29, a high school football coach, have brought her youngest sister to live with them. “I always promised her, ‘I’ll make sure you have everything you need,’ ” says Shakneeka, who plans on getting a master’s before starting her own family. “I never consider myself set.”

Bruce Frankel and Bill Hewitt.

Mark Dagostino and Edmund Newton in Los Angeles, Ivory Clinton in Poughkeepsie, Ericka Souter in New York City and Jill Westfall in Atlanta

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