Experiencing verbal and physical trauma and enduring the loss of a parent at age 13, can truly have devastating effects on a youth’s life. But with love, patience, and guidance from caring adults, an at-risk teen can grow into a successful adult who is celebrated in his community. Dave Armstrong, also known as “Sensei Dave,” is an example of what unconditional love can do for a child in crisis. A celebrated United States Air Force veteran, Sensei Dave is an in-demand author, speaker, mentor and former vice president, board of directors for numerous nonprofit organizations. He is also the creator of his own martial arts mentoring program, and has owned three martial arts schools (Faith Martial Arts Inc.) in the United States.
Now a life coach for parents and teens as well as a happiness/mindset coach at Unlimited Potential Network Academy, Sensei Dave’s early life was plagued with heartbreak, fear, and despair. Considered as an at-risk youth in his early years, Sensei Dave’s mom passed away when he was just 13-years-old. Afterward, he lost all contact with his family and lived in numerous boys’ homes, juvenile hall, and foster homes in San Bernardino and Los Angeles, California for over five years.
During these dark years, Sensei Dave’s self-worth was at an all-time low. According to Sensei Dave, “I was a horrible kid and didn’t care about anyone at all. A lot of people don’t realize that these young men and women have nothing to lose and when you have nothing, you tend to just not care.“
“The reason I developed resilience and decided to change my destiny is because of two people in my life. My first martial arts instructor Sensei Otto Johnson and my CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), Mr. Ron Barnick. They both showed me that there was opportunity for me beyond what I could see, and that that opportunity was actually obtainable with a bit of resilience and dedication,” he said.
Fortunately for Sensei Dave, his mentors were able to transform his life by helping him cope with anger, loss and resentment. Some of the major obstacles Sensei Dave overcame as a youth, mirror what many foster youth are facing today. According to Sensei Dave, “I watched my mother be abused by my step-father and I was also verbally, mentally, emotionally and physically abused by him.” Due to the horrific abuse he experienced, Sensei Dave had challenges handling his emotions. “Anger management was a huge deal to me. I was an angry young man, and I was also abusive toward my ex-wife. We both would fight — physically fight — each other. This is what we knew, and what we seen.”
Although Sensei Dave suffered from trauma, he learned essential skills that helped him overcome his emotional pain, such as how to love himself, and accepting or seeking help. According to Sensei Dave, “We’re not really taught how to love ourselves to accept ourselves and what self-edification is all about. Many young men and women in the foster care system experience a sense of abandonment. We tend to not trust others and we don’t think people are ‘out to’ help us or that people are even genuine or sincere in their offers to help,” he said.
“We also don’t seek help when needed. This is because we usually have only ourselves to rely upon.” According to Sensei Dave, “Children in foster care are in foster care for a reason. We don’t have the ‘normal’ family unit that provides (or should provide) some of the basic things a young man or woman needs in life. Care, admiration, guidance, compassion, and love are all things that are necessary to build a successful man or woman in life.“
Sensei Dave has learned many important life lessons on his journey. “The number one lesson would be that life is just life. I’m not ‘special.’ There’s often not a reason that bad things happen around us or even to us (unless it’s because of our own decision or indecision). Life is not always gentle nor fair. Life is just life and we have to have the mental fortitude, resilience and dedication to our own lives to tackle each bad and good thing. Resilience, mental fortitude, toughness, dedication, real desire and never giving up on any and every goal you have, no matter if it’s big or small, hard or easy. You must set goals — daily, weekly, yearly, and life–long goals,” he said.
“Have gratitude and be grateful for everything you do have and even being grateful for the things you don’t have and have the ability to obtain. I take my horrible upbringing/childhood as a positive. I’ve been able to succeed despite of this and have been able to impact thousands of people because I stuck to my goals. I was resilient and realized that I was good enough and could always become better and better each day,” said Sensei Dave.
A positive and dedicated role model, Sensei Dave is passionate about helping youth become their best selves. His advice to foster youth is to, “Accept advice, love and compassion. Strangers do care about you. I don’t even know you, and I care and love you, and so do (most) of the foster parents, social workers, judges and people in the ‘system.’ Find a mentor, someone you can look up to who also wants to see you succeed. This person should currently be a successful adult. Don’t be mentored by someone that hasn’t worked on his/her own baggage. Find someone that has developed themselves already! Also, Ask…Ask…Ask! Don’t be afraid to just ask for what you want or need. This skill will transcend into your adulthood, throughout your life journey and within your job/career. Learn how to ask for what you’d like, but, only after you actually put in the work to deserve it!”
For people who feel like they may want to foster teens, Sensei Dave’s advice is, “They’re broken, but we all are. Your number one job isn’t to ‘fix’ them. It’s to care enough about them to realize they need tools in their lives to succeed and you’re there to provide the right tools, the right love, compassion, and skills they’re going to need. Secondly, seek knowledge and help. I believe everyone, no matter the age, experience level, or role in society, should be seeking knowledge and skills consistently. The things you learn can and should be passed along to others, including the teens you foster. You also have to love unconditionally!”
After accomplishing so much in his life, Sensei Dave feels incredibly grateful for all that he has become. According to Sensei Dave, “I’m so absolutely lucky. All of my big dreams have been accomplished. I made it out of the hood and defied my destiny. I served 24 years in the US Air Force, owned three successful martial arts schools, opened my own nonprofit martial arts mentoring program for at-risk youth, earned numerous awards and recognition for my contribution to society, even two MOVSMs (Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medals) for the Air Force.”
“I also wrote a book, Why Me? My Fight For Life, and now, I’m retired in beautiful Greece. But, I can’t stop. I have such a deep passion to help and share my experiences in life to better other’s lives. So, I decided to relaunch my Motivational Speaking career, become a life coach and offer quarterly summits for free to youth and people working with youth.”
If you are interested in improving the lives of children in foster care, please consider becoming a resource parent. Start your foster care journey here.
Eve Powers, Foster Care Marketing Specialist
Eve has a strong commitment to helping foster youth and their families thrive and live successful lives. A former foster youth, Eve obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degree in Communications from California State University, San Bernardino, and is a certified Holistic Life Coach, motivational writer, self-help author and celebrity interviewer. Beyond the Trinity Youth Services blog, Eve’s articles can be found in numerous platforms including Foster Focus Magazine, Heart & Soul Magazine, BET Centric and Huffington Post. A passionate advocate for the LGBTQ community, Eve continues to educate, support and mentor foster youth throughout Southern California.