At 21, Dmitriy aged out of the foster care system on Long Island. While many young adults in the same situation are uneducated, unemployed and homeless, he has a high school diploma, a full-time job and an apartment to call home.
Dmitriy‘s life has been fraught with more challenges than any person—young or old—should have to endure. One of his strongest character traits is determination, which has surely helped him on his path to becoming a self-sufficient independent adult.
Dmitriy was born in Russia and, at age three, was placed in an orphanage four hours southwest of Moscow. Through his eyes, the building looked like a castle, but he wasn’t treated like royalty. There were roughly 100 kids grouped into “families” with no formal living standards, structure or discipline, says Dmitriy. The staff members would often get drunk and make fun of the children. Dmitriy frequently ran off to the bazaar to pick pockets, steal candy and beg for change. “I loved feeling like a bad ass outside of the orphanage.”
When he returned home, older bullies would burn him with cigarettes if he didn’t hand over his money.
While he could read by the first grade, Dmitriy preferred mastering street smarts rather than academic lessons. His excursions were a way to escape the staff and bullying children. “It was survival mode, period,” says Dmitriy. He also had a longing for better things, even though he got his money and sweets by breaking all of the rules.
The eight-year stay in the orphanage was punctuated with just one perfect day. The kids got dressed up and former president Boris Yeltsin brought them cakes and toys.
Life seemed to be taking a turn for the better when Dmitriy was sent to the United States to attend summer day camp and live with an American family, who later adopted him when he was 11. His new life with a mother, father, two brothers and a nice house in the Long Island suburbs with a swimming pool appeared to be ideal.
Nevertheless, Dmitriy often felt like an outcast. Back in Russia, the local children treated the kids from the orphanage differently. The school kids in Amityville weren’t any different. “It was a culture shock,” he says. He only knew a few words of English and the kids called him cracker. Dmitriy didn’t fit in with the cliques at school and he was always alone. He hadn’t lost his resolve though. “I had a phrase. I can do this. I am Dima. I am Dima.”
When Dmitriy turned 14 he hopped on a bus and found jobs at the Adventureland amusement park and a Subway restaurant. He spent as much time working as he could and resumed an old cigarette habit. At home “the honeymoon period was over,” he says.
Short on cash one day, Dmitriy reached into his adoptive father’s pants pocket to borrow $5. His adoptive mother saw him and thought he was stealing. “Things were never the same,” he says.
Whenever he got home from school or work, he had to sit Indian style. “They put me in the playhouse outside day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out. When it got dark I would go to bed.” His room had been moved to the corner of the basement. “I hated school. I got depressed. I was sitting Indian style in a house. It went on for almost a year,” says Dmitriy.
One day, unable to control his anger, Dmitriy got into a physical fight with his adoptive father. He was removed from the home and sent to a psychiatric facility for a year where he felt like a prisoner. After returning home for a short period he was placed in a series of group homes. He would run away and frequently get into fights.
Some people agree with the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. For Dmitriy, it was just a couple of people who had a positive impact and helped him take all of his determination and channel it toward improving his life.
Dmitriy began to realize it wasn’t worth fighting the system and was assigned a new caseworker, Janet. “She was a county saint,” he says. “She did whatever she could for me and always looked out for my best interest.” He welcomed placement at a small family-oriented group home in Brentwood where the kids looked out for each other and the staff was attentive.
Dmitriy signed up for YouthBuild Long Island, an alternative school that also helps kids develop life skills with apprenticeships and training programs. Finally, at age 18, he could relate to other students and even became class president. He earned his GED, learned construction skills and proudly spoke at fundraisers to help promote YouthBuild.
With his new skills, Dmitriy landed a construction job and got along with his co-workers. “I saw myself getting older…they called me kid but I saw myself fitting in.”
Alongside the founder of his group home, he began coaching football. After two years, a person affiliated with the town approached Dmitriy and said, ‘We see you have been donating a lot of time and don’t get paid to do this and you are a young kid. It’s good to see. Would you like to work for the Town of Oyster Bay?’
Dmitriy now has a full-time job working at the sanitation department and lives in his own apartment, thanks to assistance from HPRP, a pilot program operated by the Nassau County Office of Housing and Homeless Services. He isn’t really sure what happened to his parents. Right before the people at the Russian orphanage sent him to America, they told Dmitriy his parents were politically active and had been executed. Whether that is the truth or not, he may never know. His adoptive mother took him to a Russian barber when he arrived in America and he still visits him for haircuts. This is the only tie he has to his native country.