Valedictorian: His mom sold drugs and he became a foster kid. Then a teacher took him in.

Robert Hurley, left, with Amy Krusemark, one of his teachers at Boca Ciega High School. Krusemark became Hurley’s legal guardian, allowing him to stay at Boca Ciega after foster care managers wanted Hurley to move to another county. He ended up as the valedictorian with a full-ride to Stanford University. [Courtesy of Amy Krusemark]
Robert Hurley, left, with Amy Krusemark, one of his teachers at Boca Ciega High School. Krusemark became Hurley’s legal guardian, allowing him to stay at Boca Ciega after foster care managers wanted Hurley to move to another county. He ended up as the valedictorian with a full-ride to Stanford University. [Courtesy of Amy Krusemark]
Published May 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — When she first got the email about her student, Amy Krusemark was perplexed.

Robert Hurley, a tall freshman with a messy bun of curls in her geometry class at Boca Ciega High, would have to move away soon. He had been living in a St. Petersburg foster home, and the managers in charge of his case were pushing to relocate him.

"It seems pretty preposterous that someone so sweet and loving would be in a system so long," Krusemark remembered thinking.

A former foster parent herself, with two open rooms at home, she thought about it some more. Then she approached Hurley.

"I want to help you be you," she told him.

So after navigating through paperwork and regulations, she became his legal guardian, and Hurley moved in. Three years later, it has all worked out pretty well.

After a fistful of full-ride offers from prestigious universities, Hurley, now 18, soon will make another move — to Stanford University. But first he graduates on Saturday at Tropicana Field as Boca Ciega's valedictorian.

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• • •

He was born in New Port Richey, where he spent most of his childhood in a two-bedroom trailer. His mother was a drug dealer and his father a drug addict. And when he was 6, his father left the family.

Hurley remembers that he, along with his grandmother and younger sister, Chloe, would sleep on couches — unless his mother's friends were visiting. Those were the nights they slept on the floor.

Still, he sensed his mother's love. She took her kids to the park. She would watch Sponge Bob SquarePants cartoons and play Monopoly with them. She sang him Elvis songs.

But after she was arrested in 2009, Hurley and Chloe were placed with Child Protective Services before being reunited with their mother after nine months.

"I knew my mother's business was illegal, but that did not mean our family needed to be torn apart," he wrote in his college application essay.

When she was arrested again in 2014, the two were sent to Children's Village, a Salvation Army program that provides long-term placement in group homes for siblings that are hard to place.

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"When I first moved, I was really sad and uncomfortable," Hurley said. "But eventually, after a year or so, that became home."

Gianna Barrett, who ran the group home, said Hurley was loving and protective, "the most chill person" she had ever met.

"A lot of kids in foster care are angry about a lot of things — and they have good reason to be angry about things — but Robert never let anything get to him," she said.

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Hurley was paired with Robert Davis, a 73-year-old volunteer mentor with the Pinellas Education Foundation's Take Stock in Children program who immediately was struck by the teenager's mature, intelligent presence.

"I saw this kid and I'm looking up to him in many ways," he said.

The two met every week and Hurley would update Davis about his life. They talked about football and band, and in later years Hurley would tell him about his girlfriend.

"He (wrote) like three papers while we were talking one day," Davis said. "I was like, 'How did you do this?' He said, 'I don't know Mr. Davis.' And I was like, 'This guy is like 30 years old right now.'"

At the end of his eighth-grade year, Hurley thought he and his sister would be reunited with their mother, but it didn't work out.

Barrett said the boy was sad at first. But a couple weeks later she approached him about the medical magnet program he'd heard about at Boca Ciega High. Soon after, he decided that's where he wanted to go.

He started high school while living in the group home, and Barrett came to learn his tastes and preferences. For his birthdays, she'd make bacon-wrapped meat loaf or "lasagna with all the types of meat possible." At Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the other kids in the home got visits, Barrett got permission to take Hurley and Chloe to be with her family.

Hurley learned to play guitar and stayed focused on his school work. "He always wanted to be something bigger than anybody thought he could be," Barrett said.

In 2016, Hurley's older brother was killed by a drunk driver.

Davis remembered being shaken. He didn't know how a young man who had already been through so much could deal with any more. The next day he asked him how he was doing.

"He said, 'I'm feeling better, but this is going to be hard,'" Davis said.

For the first time since being removed from his mother's custody, Hurley saw her at the funeral. She has been arrested nine times since 2014, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Davis said Hurley's maturity and strength inspired him.

"I don't know who was the mentor and who was the mentee some days," he said. "I'm grateful for him. … He's one of my favorite friends now. … He's taught me the value of being quiet in the hectic world. … He had the capability to be strong and kind."

• • •

Children placed in group homes stay about eight months on average, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hurley said he and his sister had been with Barrett the longest in the time they were there.

At the end of his freshman year, after the pair had lived in the home two years, the foster care system, which prioritizes the reunification of families, began pushing for a change. Hurley and Chloe could live with distant relatives in Alabama, or Hurley could move in with an older man in Spring Hill who didn't have a family.

"I had already moved a couple times and didn't want to re-establish myself," Hurley said.

That's when Barrett emailed his teachers at Boca Ciega High, asking them to provide information on why it would better if he stayed at the school and not be made to move.

Krusemark began to sort through the possibilities.

She was no longer active in the foster care system, but she once took in a fifth-grader who was later reunited with her mother. She had found her hands tied at times with rules and restrictions trying to provide a normal childhood. Even sleep-overs at a neighbor's place weren't allowed.

"You can't, you can't, you can't," she said.

She also worried that being a foster parent again would take away time spent with her students. "Sometimes, being a teacher, I feel all 170 kids are my foster kids," she said.

But when she heard about Hurley's situation, she knew she had to help. She offered to take Hurley and Chloe into her home.

Chloe decided to move to Alabama. But Hurley accepted his teacher's offer, though he asked to stay with his friends in the group home a little longer.

Krusemark told him she wanted to be an advocate for him and let him have a say in what would happen. So she and her boyfriend began the process of becoming Hurley's legal guardians and allowed him to stay in the group home until he had to leave.

"In our family," she said, "we don't take no for an answer."

• • •

Hurley moved in with Krusemark and her boyfriend, who had previously fostered a daughter he adopted. The daughter now has three young children who live nearby and stay close with the family. Krusemark also shares custody of her 12-year-old daughter with the girl's father.

She tries to keep two spaces in her brain for Hurley: student Robert and foster son Robert. Her boyfriend just calls him his son. At home, Hurley just calls her Amy.

"We live in a modern, weirdly put-together family," Krusemark said. "These labels don't matter to us, but I guess they do to other people. … You can't really have too many people who love you and support you. He was starting to learn he was adding people to Team Robert. And he had more power than he knew."

As for the other members of Team Robert, Barrett still makes him a cake on his birthdays and Davis still meets with him. Hurley became involved in football, wrestling and theater — activities he was never able to join when he had to accommodate his schedule around the group home.

Each morning and evening, Hurley and Krusemark began riding to and from school together, discussing everything from Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs to Robert Hurley's long-term goals.

As he began to work on college applications, they bonded more.

"The whole process was cathartic," Krusemark said. "We got to know each other. It gave us things to talk about."

Krusemark told him stories about growing up in rural Illinois, and he told her about growing up in Pasco County near a man who called himself Elvis Priestly .

As he filled out essay questions, Krusemark said it became easier to have conversations that were otherwise difficult to approach.

How did he feel that his mother hadn't contacted him? What did he want for himself?

This spring, in addition to being valedictorian, Hurley received the Guardian Ad Litem Triumph Award in Tallahassee, which included $5,000, the opportunity to work as a legislative page, and a laptop, which he gave to his sister in Alabama. He also received offers for full-ride scholarships to Yale, Stanford, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Florida.

"Living in a group home will probably help in college," Hurley joked. "Random people have already lived in my room."

Hurley picked Stanford, where he hopes to study chemistry and enter the medical field.

"I want to do something," he said. "I want to be successful and make an impact. With all the relationships I've made, I don't want to let anyone down."

"You're not going to let me down if you're not Mother Teresa," Krusemark retorted.

Hurley smiled.

"I came from not the best situation," he said. But, along the way, he created a vision for when he got older.

"I wanted to be able to support a family and care for them."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Divya Kumar at Follow @divyadivyadivya.