Homeless teen sets sights on U.S. Navy

After he stole from his last foster mother, she asked him to leave. Before that, he moved from home to home. His first home � with a twin sister � was a Polish orphanage.

"I have no clue about my parents, no clue about anything like that," Kulikowski said.

That is the past, though. That is his story, but it is not who he is. In his new life, which started Monday, Kulikowski will be inducted into the U.S. Navy . He plans to learn a trade, become an officer and return to Danbury in a uniform � with honor.

On Monday, Kulikowski left for boot camp.

"That's all I look forward to," he said.

A blank-faced little boy in a sailor suit. That's the earliest picture Kulikowski has of himself, from a Polish passport. The last time it was stamped was when a middle-class couple adopted him and his sister Margaret, and took them home to Newtown. They were 2�.

Kulikowski declined to provide his adoptive parents' names.

His earliest memory is not of the orphanage, but of Christmastime. Holidays with his adoptive parents, grandparents, his aunt and uncle.

It could not have been easy for the adoptive parents, whatever their parenting skills. Kulikowski, his sister, and another girl they adopted did not speak English.

According to a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, children who spent at least the first two years of their lives in institutional care were likely to have more social and emotional problems in adolescence than other children.

During his childhood, Kulikowski had serious anger problems. His rage was violent. There were "tantrums," he said. He would not elaborate. He and his sister ended up in state care.

There was a week Kulikowski spent in a juvenile psychiatric hospital in Hartford. "It was like camp," he said. "I really enjoyed the program."

Then, he and his sister lived in a crowded foster home in Middlebury for two years, long enough to get settled. They joined a couple, their sons and two foster daughters. "It was jam-packed with excitement," Kulikowski said dryly, adding: "The whole first year I wanted to go home."

The state moved him and his sister again when that family experienced problems. This time, the children, now 16, separated. Kulikowski's sister moved in with a friend in Danbury. He started living with a Danbury family.

Mr. and Mrs. August Spranzman were Baptists. House rules: church every Sunday. They have a son and two daughters. They encouraged Kulikowski to get his first job, at a coffee shop in the Danbury Fair mall. They urged him to finish high school, and he did.

He started cooking with his foster mother � muffins, cakes, chicken with pasta � and found he enjoyed it. The Spranzmans encouraged him to pursue it. He enrolled in the high school's two-year culinary program.

About 30 percent of children in foster care have severe emotional, behavioral, or developmental problems, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry . Physical health problems are also common. Most children, however, show remarkable resiliency and determination to go on with their lives.

It turns out that patriotism fueled by the terror attacks of Sept. 11 seized Kulikowski and charged him with purpose. He wanted to join the military. He had a direction. A year ago, he had a fluttering American flag tattooed on his chest.

"All those deaths. When I saw that on TV, in the news, it was like I lost somebody close to me." Kulikowski said. "I can't explain it, it's berserk."

Initially, Kulikowski spoke with a U.S. Army recruiter. However, he was in contact with an aunt and uncle � family of his adoptive parents � who convinced him to pursue safer duty. In April, he signed with the U.S. Navy.

Kulikowski had parted ways with the coffee shop in 2002. He drifted from job to job, never lasting more than a month: mall security, Arby's, the Hilton Garden Inn , The News-Times. "I had, like, 20 jobs," he said.

His problem was ambition.

"I didn't have any."

He said he was accepted into two culinary schools, but he didn't have the money to pay tuition and he didn't want to take out a student loan.

Instead of working, Kulikowski would take long meditative drives, sometimes for miles. "I loved to drive and be by myself," he said.

Gasoline, especially these past few months, has been expensive. Kulikowski had no cash of his own. He began to use his foster mother's credit card. It was mostly for gas and cigarettes, he said.

USA Gold cigarettes aren't expensive, but Kulikowski would drive 30 to 40 miles in a day. The credit card bill was $800.

"It was weird how everything fell into place. They reported the card stolen. She asked the kids," Kulikowski said. "I was just crying, and she got it out of me."

In May, Kulikowski was asked to leave the house. "She did want me to leave out of respect, and reflect on what I did," he said.

Eventually, he said, he vowed to pay the Spranzmans back with his earnings from the Navy.

Kulikowski wasn't scheduled to ship out until December. With no home and no job, Kulikowski slept in his car. He parked in commuter lots. One night, it poured outside and rain leaked in on him.

When his car died, Kulikowski's aunt suggested he take advantage of the local homeless shelter. He has been staying at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House for the past two weeks.

When he made his recruiter aware of his circumstances, Kulikowski's day to ship out was moved to Monday.

Most days, Kulikowski and other homeless people wake when the lights come on at the shelter at 6 a.m. They eat once each day at the soup kitchen on Spring Street.

During the day, he wanders the street. He reads an 83-page book his Navy recruiter gave him, called a "Success Accelerator." He runs 1� miles in 13 minutes at the Danbury High School track. He sits in Elmwood Park while memorizing his 11 "general orders" and the "sailor's creed."

He redeemed a homeless woman's bottles and cans � worth $4.35 � for her one day late last week. He socializes with addicts, knows their names and their stories, but he keeps his distance.

"This guy told me he stole these bracelets," Kulikowski said. "He said, 'I'm gonna take these to a pawn shop and get some weed. Wanna come?' I said 'No. I can't get in trouble now.'"

On Monday, heleft for an air base in Springfield, Mass. The Navy has eight weeks of boot camp in store for him at the Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois, followed by culinary school in Texas.

The Navy will process him now. In his dreams, that well-oiled machine, intolerant of errors, will buff away his jagged edges. In the Navy, "I can't screw up," he said.

"I find myself having a career and accelerating so well that I become an officer someday," Kulikowski said. "I never had a plan before in my life besides that I liked to cook. Now I can plan it out and follow through with it."