Michael Estrella

Location: Ft. Meyers, FL

I always knew I’d get married and be a father when I was 30 years old.

It started with a promise I made to myself when I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island. My mother was a drug abuser—coke, heroine, crack. She had six kids with four different men. I was her third child, the result of a quick fling with a man who had just gotten out of the Navy. I didn’t meet him until I was 25 years old.

Life with my mother was chaos, it was drama all the time. Even as a little kid, I knew that it was not the life I wanted for myself.

When I was 7 years old I watched someone overdose on heroine. It was probably one of the worst days of my life. It happened at the house of my mother’s friend. My mom dragged me out of the house by my ponytail, I remember her ripping hair out of my head in her panic to leave. When we got home she sent me to my room.

I sat in my bedroom for hours that afternoon. My little TV was on, Reading Rainbow was playing. A kid’s map of the United States was open on the floor. I stared at the map, thinking about the places I could go, the ways my life could be different. I focused on Florida—visually it was so striking—a long peninsula. And on the map, it had a big Mickey Mouse head smack dab in the middle of it. I thought: That’s where I want to make my life. That’s really far away from Rhode Island. That must be the furthest place away from Rhode Island in the world.

It was that day that I made a promise to myself: I would go to college in Florida, find my wife in Florida, have a family in Florida. Even then, I was looking forward to having a baby of my own, a chance to succeed where my mother was failing so miserably. I even had a name picked out for that first baby, who I hoped would be a boy. I couldn’t wait to give him things that I never had and experiences I missed out on.

My target date of 30 seemed like a very long way away then. But I knew that to make a good home—to avoid the craziness and the trauma that I grew up with—I had to earn money and establish roots. Even at seven, I knew that stability was important.

Of course the road from a seven-year-old boy’s bedroom to my life today was not without detours, setbacks and disappointments. Growing up, I lived in dozens of placements—foster homes, group homes, temporary homes. I made many mistakes, which I’ve done my best to learn from.

I like to say that I live off karma, doing good where I can and hoping it comes back around. But I’ve also been helped by many people along the way. One of them was my CASA volunteer, Kevin Richards. When Kevin came into my life, I was moving full-steam ahead toward college—working full-time at a nursing home to put myself through private high school, getting honor-roll grades, holding leadership positions on school sports teams and student government. But then the state of Rhode Island decided it was in my best interest to return me to my biological mother’s care, which would mean removing me from my foster parents of seven years—the longest time I had ever been in one home—and potentially derailing my plan.

Kevin broke his back to help me get in front of a judge, who ultimately heard my pleas and ruled in my favor, keeping me on course to achieving my dream. After graduating from high school, Casey Family Services helped fund my college tuition. And off to Florida I went.

I turned 30 this year. My fiancé and I live in Ft. Meyers, FL. I have a degree in business from the University of Tampa, and work as a logistics account manager for a food transportation company. The hours are long, but the pay is excellent.

Fourteen weeks ago, our baby boy was born. After cutting his umbilical cord, I sat in the hospital room and cried for three hours straight. We named the baby Damen Michael Estrella, the name I picked out for him more than 20 years ago. I’m lucky that he was a boy—and that my fiancé didn’t have any objections to the name. Being a dad is amazing, even more than I thought it would be.