Ricardo Rodriguez is a 26-year-old San Diego resident and former foster youth who balances a job in tech with volunteer work and entrepreneurial pursuits. Thanks to his relentless drive and support from key sources, his life has turned out far different from previous expectations. During his childhood, medical professionals said Rodriguez would never be able to walk, talk or understand words. Despite many obstacles, Rodriguez has made his lifelong dream of working in the tech industry a reality.
As a child in foster care, the physical challenges that I faced were quite severe. In addition to having partial vision in my right eye and no vision in my left eye, I did not have the ability to walk, think or to understand what was happening around me. I wasn’t able to do any of the things that a regular 3-year-old could do – up until the age of 11.
At the time of my birth, the birth giver was, essentially, not taking care of herself and unable to take care of me. I was born three months premature and spent the first four months of my life in the hospital.
When I needed immediate surgery, my parents were not available to provide consent. They could not be reached at all. And it was decided that at that time that I could no longer be in the hospital, so I had to go into foster care.
Growing up, there were 10 kids in my foster home, and we all had one very specific disability: we couldn’t speak. We were always mistreated. I remember that I would always be locked up in cold and dark rooms for reasons that were unknown to me. Regardless of what happened, we couldn’t report it to anyone.
The first time I was taken to the park, I wouldn’t go [out] at all. I would run back into the foster home – where I was constantly abused and hurt and damaged – because it was instinct. I was running back to that home because, instinctively, I had a fear of the unknown.
My grandmother would come to visit me, but she didn’t know any English, and that was the only language being spoken around me.
Eventually, she filed for adoption, and once the adoption was finalized, when I was 3, the change in environment definitely helped me to open up and start to communicate with her, very, very slowly. There were times when my grandmother — who quickly became my mom — had to be really patient with me because of my developmental delays. There were times when, for weeks, we would go over one particular phrase again and again until I would eventually get it, and that sort of started our communication.
It was diagnosed that I would never be able to walk. I would never be able to talk. I would never be able to understand. I would never be able to have a “normal life.” It was projected that time spent on me would be wasted because I would never have a normal future.
But I had that one person by my side, my mom, who was able to put in the work and say, “You know what, it doesn’t matter what he has wrong with him. It doesn’t matter if he has to do things differently. What matters is that he gets them done.” My mom wanted to make sure that, even if I couldn’t drive, that I learned how to use the buses and trains to get around on my own.
But when I was 11, something clicked. I finally started to understand how to interact with the world around me. I learned how to read and tie my shoes.
Technology was always around me, at home and in school, and I decided that it was something I really enjoyed. When I was in high school, I asked my teacher if I could speak with the computer technician at our school and ask him how I could start a career doing that kind of work.
But my teacher shot me down. She denied me the opportunity to speak to that individual. And it’s something that stuck with me because my school environment was supposed to nurture my ability to gain knowledge, and it didn’t. That inspired me to look for alternative ways to get into the technology industry.
When I was around 18, I was starting to look for work. Partnerships with Industry, an organization that helps people with disabilities find employment, gave me a job coach named Josh Bueno.
He was the first person who took the time to explain to me how to prepare and dress for a job interview. He also understood my interest in technology, and he had been given a flyer for a brand-new technical training program for low-income and disabled youth. It was at the San Diego Futures Foundation, which provides computers and other technology to individuals who cannot afford it.
Working on the equipment in their warehouse, I learned the components of a computer, and how to repair computers, routers and other equipment. These days, I volunteer there every week to stay connected with the organization that gave me my training.
Now I work for ecoATM, a company that allows people to put old cell phones into a kiosk and recycle them for cash. As a tech-support technician, I work in an office and answer calls from customers, technicians who are trying to fix the machines and police when they need to unlock a cell phone for an investigation.
I have also learned computer coding. So far, I have two projects that I’ve completed. One is a website based around human trafficking for foster youth that I’m presenting to the Junior League of San Diego. My goal is to create an awareness of human trafficking among the younger foster youth population.
The other project was creating a website for a mentoring program with a group called Journeymen of San Diego. Our goal is to provide young men in foster care with mentors that will teach them, essentially, what it means to be a real man in society. That can involve anything from how to manage your money, how to get a job, how to go out and look for an apartment – all the things that our dads would have taught us in a different environment.
My ultimate goal is to build a technology company or a nonprofit that focuses specifically on foster youth. My objective is to be able to provide them with technical skill-sets, such as computer repair, coding and web development. Those are all things you could do pretty much anywhere, including from home that can give a person stability.
I’m able to be here today because I decided that I was not going to use my situation or my disabilities as an excuse. I’m not going to let my inability to see stop me. I’m not going to let my label as a foster youth stop me.
I’m going to succeed because I know that my success is going to be a beacon for other people coming up behind me. I want people to know it is possible to succeed. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work. And there’s nothing that’s worth doing that’s easy.