LAWRENCEVILLE -- Dominique Carter's smile is a little more of a regular thing these days.
Sitting in a Lawrenceville restaurant this week, the 19-year-old can't contain himself -- he speaks of his newfound passion (advocacy for foster youth), his teeth, eyes and braces all glinting equally bright.
His neatly manicured beard can't restrain the grin.
"I'm just grateful to be in the position I'm in now to constantly help and give back," he says.
It's a far cry from his beginnings in New York. In the projects. In foster care.
"All that glamour and stuff, that was a facade to me," he says. "I didn't realize Broadway and what everyone else sees on TV. I didn't see any of that. I knew six-story brick buildings and the park where we would play that was constantly being vandalized."
Released to the custody of his aunt in Gwinnett at age 12, Carter and his 13-year-old brother moved into her Cruse Road home in Lawrenceville.
Soon enough, he was back in foster care, alone again.
In 2007, Carter found himself at the Foster Children's Foundation in Norcross for the first time. Then 16, he was there for government-mandated workshops that try to teach foster youth independent living skills.
He had been through it before.
"There was never a connection (in other programs)," Carter said. "You're just there because you have to be there, and they're facilitating them just because they have to facilitate them."
"They're just getting paid."
Something was different this time around, though. The people there seemed to actually care. They seemed to take an interest. They were volunteers -- they weren't getting paid.
"They [youths] put a concrete wall around them, because they don't want to be hurt anymore. They don't want to be disappointed anymore," said Suzanne Geske, the founder of FCF. "They see everybody that comes into their life as somebody that's only temporary. But that's what's great about the foundation. We're not."
Ten different elementary schools in New York, two middle schools, what would be four high schools in Gwinnett and everything else that comes with growing up in foster care suddenly weren't the end-all, be-all.
The smile came. Carter went through the Foster Children's Foundation's Tommorow Matters program, and enjoyed it. He graduated from the program, got on track in school, and by all accounts lost the attitude.
He came back to FCF to mentor. He'll work there this summer. Three years later, he's also a well-traveled national advocate for foster youth.
"When he got in our program he completely changed," Geske says. "He went from basically a survival mode ... to really looking at the big picture and looking at his future and allowing himself to dream about his future."
"We got to watch him grow as a young man into that. He's phenomenal."
This past Christmas, Carter found Geske. He was bearing a gift -- a check for $100, for FCF.
Her immediate response was shock, disbelief. She didn't want him to part with his money.
"I feel like I'm these kids' mom, so I was trying to say, 'Son, put this back in your bank account,'" Geske says.
Now it was time for Carter to teach her something. He asked her if she was familiar with the Christian value of tithing, giving money back.
He had her. She relented.
"It's good to pay your tithes," he says with that grin.
To paraphrase, the Bible says that when you give to a good cause, it comes back to you tenfold.
A month after his Christmas gift, a $6,000 donation to the foundation meant FCF was able to help Carter get a car.
'I'm the American dream'
In addition to mentoring and an upcoming summer job at FCF, Dominique is now a national advocate for foster children. He's been to California, Washington, D.C. and the Governor's Mansion (twice) to lobby for his cause.
He's an excellent student at Gwinnett Tech, majoring in accounting before hopefully transferring to Georgia State to study finance. He'll own his own business one day, he says.
"He's just a super fella," says Roger Green, president and CEO of Green Financial Services, where Carter interned while in high school. "He's just a super good kid, he's got a lot of potential. He's an amazing young man."
The recent recipient of a Hudgens award (given to Gwinnett County students with great grade point averages and greater community service) is still living with foster parents ("very supportive ones").
May is National Foster Care Month. For Geske, it's a time to remind the community of Carter's shining example -- and what can happen if no one helps.
"Everybody wants to adopt the little ones," she says. "But half of the kids are teenagers and they're most likely not going to be adopted, and most likely will age out of foster care. If somebody doesn't get a hold of them, help them learn the things that they need to know..."
It's been a long journey for Carter. His recent successes won't erase the memories of the past, the projects of New York, jumping from home to home, not seeing his brother for more than a year when they first entered foster care in Gwinnett.
All that, though, has turned him into a driven, passionate advocate for change. And, it turns out, something greater.
"Coming where I'm coming from, I'm supposed to be a part of that bad statistic," he says. "I'm supposed to be in jail or still in the projects. Just in my family alone, to go to college, that was a long shot. I'm the third person in my family to graduate from high school."
After a pause, a larger thought comes out.
"I'm the American dream."