For his first 20 years, Greg Walton’s life proved that the Horatio Alger story didn’t have to be fiction. Walton was born to a mother who struggled with drugs. He spent some of his earliest years shuttling through North Carolina’s foster-care system. At age 6, he went to Boston to live with his great grandmother and, later, a great aunt in a gritty section of Dorchester. In a house filled with a dozen children and adults, he was often left to fend for himself.
Nevertheless, Walton got himself into the well-regarded Brighton High School. He kept his grades up, starred on the baseball team, and launched a business selling custom-mixed CDs. When he was admitted to Salem State University, he became the first member of his family to enroll in college. But in his freshman year, Walton stumbled—hard. He failed tests in all of his courses but one. He skipped classes, drifted from campus life, crashed on friends’ sofas, and quickly ran out of money. A few months earlier, he had been on his way to building a middle-class life. By age 18, he was spiraling toward a life on the street—a life he had assiduously tried to avoid.
What happened? Unprepared for the fleet of new experiences coming his way, Walton was quickly overwhelmed: He lacked the shock absorbers available to children of wealthier families—a network of parents, extended family members, and mentors—who could help him bounce back. “I was lost,” he recalls. “I didn’t understand how to grow into getting a career.”