He could be any college-bound teen, all shaggy hair and bulky backpack, trying to package himself in a letter. "I'm a good kid," he writes, careful to stress all the positive stuff—straight A's, top 1 percent in ACT scores—while not skipping over the rough spots, like how his parents divorced when he was 2. "My most fervent dream," he will say, "is to be accepted to an Ivy League school." Then he sends the letter out, knowing no one has ever written anything quite like it.
That's because Alex Chivescu wasn't applying to colleges. He was applying for parents.
When he wrote the letter in the spring of 2008, Alex, 17, was a ward of the state of Michigan and had already cycled through several group or foster homes. After his parents' divorce and an accident that left his mother unable to care for him, Alex was lucky enough to wind up at Stoney Creek High School in upscale Rochester Hills, Mich., a place where he thrived (he made the National Honor Society) and, for the first time, made lasting friends. But then in 2008, he learned his latest set of foster parents couldn't keep him—and faced getting shipped to the Children's Home of Detroit, out of his school district and away from all the people he'd come to love and trust. "My friends, my school, my community—that was my life," says Alex in his soft, sure voice. "It would have been really bad trying to rebuild my life from inside an orphanage."
His only hope was to find new foster parents near Stoney Creek. "Alex is the first example that I've heard about of a minor in the system who's taken the initiative to find a family on his own," says Richard Strenger, the attorney appointed to represent him. "What he did was unusual and impressive."
To get a new family, Alex had to hope they could see beyond his tumultuous past. Born in Bucharest, he and his Romanian parents moved to Williamsburg, Va., when he was an infant. But his father soon left the family and returned home; Alex hasn't had any contact with him since. His mother—a college professor who spoke six languages—"was always there for me," he says, noting how she taught him self-reliance. "I'd ask her something, and she wouldn't give me an answer; she'd tell me where I could find the information."
But in 1999 a driver rammed into her car, causing a serious brain injury. Her behavior became erratic; doctors diagnosed her as severely bipolar. "She screams at Alex frequently," a 2007 court-ordered psychiatric evaluation declared. "She acts out in a violent rage by slamming doors and throwing objects." She lost her job, her apartment and, eventually, her parental rights. "She's a loving person, and even now she loves Alex very much," says Alex's grandmother Maria Sandor, who lives in Bucharest. "But because of the accident, sometimes she cannot manage her problems."
By the time he was officially declared a ward of the state, Alex—whose story first ran in the Detroit Free Press—had already spent years caring for his mother and himself. "He has been his own parent most of his life," says Colette Judge, the Stoney Creek guidance counselor whom Alex has leaned on during particularly tough times. "Sometimes school is the safest place for a kid like that." Alex felt that way too, slipping easily into the routines of a typical high schooler—adding friends on Facebook, joining an environmental club—and flourishing under the support of his teachers. "He once told me, 'You guys care about sports, your social life, your families,'" says his friend and classmate Arielle LaBrecque, 17. "He said, 'I care about school.'"
And when he faced losing that, Alex decided to fight. His first step toward finding new parents? "I did what any teenager would do. I turned to Google." He scoured Web sites and articles about foster parents, made a list of potential families in his area and wrote his heartfelt plea. "I'm sure you've never received a letter of this nature before," it began. "I understand it is a great emotional and financial burden to take a 17-year-old into your home, but I want to make several things clear ... I pay for myself, find my own scholarships, get myself a job."
The first call came three days later. "It was the most beautiful thing we've ever read, but we can't take him," one family said. Another lived too far away. Still another already had 11 foster kids. But Alex kept hoping. In Rochester, 30 miles from Detroit, a woman named Suzanne, a former therapist whose four children, ages 18 to 26, include a niece and nephew she and her husband, Jim, raised to adulthood, recalls reading Alex's letter and "thinking, 'Oh my God, this poor kid.'" Suzanne showed it to two of her daughters and "they started saying, 'Mom, you have to do something!'" She and Jim, an auto executive, agreed to meet with Alex.
That meeting went well. On Aug. 26, 2008, Alex moved into his new family's four-bedroom home. For the first time he has a dog—two, in fact: Mac, a golden retriever, and Sam, a Maltese bichon. He got an iPhone, and Suzanne and Jim told him to call if he ever ran late. The second time he didn't, he was grounded. Since then, he says, "I haven't made the same mistake." When Jim realized Alex didn't own a suit to wear to interviews, he got him one. "They treat me like a son," says Alex. "I got the whole family deal."
And he got to stay at Stoney Creek. Last April, on his 17th birthday, school staffers threw him a big party with cake, balloons and presents. He helped classmates come up with a jungle theme for a school dance, and he proudly posed for his senior-class picture—a photo which now sits on Jim and Suzanne's living room piano.
Perhaps most important, he felt safe and secure enough to focus on his future. He has been accepted into the University of Michigan honors program, and on March 17 he opened an e-mail and learned he got into Columbia University too. Yet despite the praise adults heap on him, he sees his story as less about him and more about the people who helped him. Yes, his Ivy League dream is coming true. But he had great teachers. And, yes, he wrote the most important letter of his life all by himself. But someone answered it. "At no point was I ever alone in facing this," he says. "There was always someone who stepped in: a teacher, a counselor, a friend. Without them, things could have been a lot worse."