Carlito has just one memory of life outside foster care. He is 2 years old, sitting in a front yard, eating tiny hot dogs out of a can. He doesn't know why he has spent his life in group homes, nor is he curious. His mom once reached out to him on Facebook. He didn't ask questions.
From one home to the next, Carlito learned to cope.
He remembers slipping into the woods where he would chase snakes and swim with turtles and kiss toads. He'd catch them, then set them free.
He once lived with a poodle mix named Pepper. "She was very protective over me," he remembers. "She loved me more than anybody in the house . . . At night, she'd always come in my room and sleep in my bed.
"It sucked leaving her."
Carlito is 17 now. His wish for adoption has faded. "It's mostly for younger kids," he says.
In five months, he will "age out" of the system, as it's called. Statistics are not kind to kids like him. There's a one in five chance they will wind up homeless, reports say. They're eight times more likely to go to jail than finish college. High school graduation? Not much more than a 50-50 chance.
But Carlito predicts otherwise.
"I can't wait to get my high school diploma to show that I did it," he says.
He has attended three high schools. That happens sometimes in foster care, when you change homes.
"It's like being a stranger in a village," he says. "No one knows you. You're lost. You're bumping into people. You're, like, the nerdy kid."
But now he's on the wrestling team at Plant City High School. He's making A's. He taught himself how to play the piano, interpreting the songs he hears on the radio into textured, emotional ballads. He's practicing for the next talent show.
He wasn't always like this.
He used to steal, fight, run away and get in trouble. He was arrested for the first time at age 11. He got kicked out of a group home and uprooted his little brother Dontriel in the move because caseworkers wanted to keep them together. That's part of what made him change; he realized he needed to be better for both of them. His caseworker says he's now one of the best kids she has.
He and his brother now live in a foster home run by a married couple Carlito calls Ma and Pops. He hasn't been in trouble since he has lived with them, and they say he can stay as long as he wants.
Carlito has a dream many kids share, but never pursue.
He knows it will take years of study and grants and scholarships, but he insists he will one day be a veterinarian.
Throughout foster care, he found comfort in animals. They may bite, but their world makes more sense.
Humans, however, are complicated creatures. Sometimes, when you first meet one, they ask about your mom, and you have to tell them you're in foster care, and they give you a blank look and you feel embarrassed, Carlito says. Sometimes, humans reject you. Sometimes, it gets awkward.
Animals are different. Carlito cried once over a smushed lizard. His brother teased him, but Carlito told him to shut up. He scooped it up, dug a hole and buried it with a benediction.
You're in a better place now.
He's hoping someone will give him the chance to learn more about the career he wants to pursue, maybe in an internship on weekends or after school, working with animals on a farm or in a clinic. "I definitely know I want to work with animals the rest of my life," he says.
He wants to be an animal doctor.
"And if it takes over eight years, that's fine. I'll do it."
He wants to help other creatures, to take them in when they have nowhere to go, to fix them when they're broken.
Carlito's last name was withheld because he is a foster child. Contact Alexandra Zayas at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.