By Mike Lipton
September 13, 2004 12:00 PM

The abuse she suffered as a foster child still haunts Victoria Rowell. “There was a violent individual, who will remain nameless, who would beat my sister Sheree and me mercilessly,” recalls the Young and the Restless star. Yet in the same foster home, Rowell, 45, says she was nurtured by her foster mother Agatha Armstead, who encouraged the girls to write to their birth mother “because Agatha believed that she deserved to know how her kids were doing,” says Rowell. Armstead also encouraged her foster daughter’s ambitions. “She was the gateway to what was my passion, and that was fine arts,” says Rowell.

Her experiences in foster care—good and bad—have transformed the actress into an activist. The Rowell Foster Children’s Positive Plan (RFCPP), a nonprofit foundation she started in 1990, gives away 18 to 20 scholarships each year to enable foster youths to take after-school and summer classes in the arts. “We started in Maine with five students,” says Rowell. “One of them is now a contract player with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.”

To help raise funds for RFCPP (more than $1 million so far), Rowell calls on friends like Bruce Willis, Jamie Foxx, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Cedric the Entertainer and Samuel L. Jackson. “I hired one of the kids from her foundation [as a production assistant on his upcoming film Hostage],” says Willis. “He did a great job and worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. Victoria,” he adds, “has an incredible heart.”

Anita Johnson, 17, of Los Angeles, a current scholarship recipient who has been in foster care her whole life, agrees. “Victoria understands what it’s like to be in foster care,” she says. “I talk to her whenever I have a problem. I just call her.”

For Rowell, that sense of inclusiveness begins at home. She has a daughter, Maya, 15, by ex-husband Thomas Fahey, a retired pilot, and a son, Jasper, 8, by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; every Christmas she invites both exes—and their girlfriends—to her home to celebrate. “They’re part of the family,” she says. “It must be that way. I’m so passionate about developing relationships in this cohesive fashion because I didn’t have any of it.”

One of six children born to Dorothy Rowell, a waitress, Victoria never met her father. Dorothy was forced to give Victoria, Sheree and their sister Lori to foster care soon after Victoria was born. “My mother did not give us up willingly,” says Rowell. “She just could not raise all of us.” A white family, the Taylors, took Victoria in until she was 21/2, when a judge placed all three sisters in the custody of Agatha Armstead and her husband, Robert, who were black. “Agatha was elderly,” says Rowell, “so she called upon [a relative], this monster of an individual, for help, thinking she was doing the right thing. Because I was Sheree’s defender, I was punished too. I don’t know why, but everybody looked the other way.”

When Victoria was 14, Agatha helped her move in with a series of friends and other family members so that Victoria could pursue her passion for ballet. After graduating high school, Rowell won a full scholarship to the American Ballet Theatre, and at age 19 she began teaching classical ballet to inner-city youth in Boston.

But her interest soon shifted to acting. Rowell won her first film role in 1987’s Leonard Part 6 and followed it up with steady work in such TV series as Diagnosis Murder. In every show she has been in, she says, she has lobbied producers to include story lines on foster kids. This summer her Y&R character, Drucilla Winters, met a 16-year-old youth “who has been in and out of foster homes and is getting older and tougher to place,” says Rowell. “He reminds her of when she was a runaway.”

Today Rowell, Maya, Jasper and their two Corgis Ollie and Kigger share a 1920s three-bedroom Spanish villa in the Hollywood Hills. “I’ve invited all my living foster parents to this house [Agatha Armstead died in 1983, as did Dorothy Rowell], and the majority have been here,” says Rowell. Although they all did their best to raise her, she says she really didn’t know what it was like to be a child “until I had my own kids. Willy Wonka is something that I [first] witnessed with them. I can honestly say I’m living my childhood for the first time through my children, and I’m loving it.”

Mike Lipton. Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles