CAMDEN — From birth to 11 years old, Alexandra Cruz had no real place to call home.

Cruz, her mother and two sisters would jump between relatives' homes in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area until eventually being asked to move on. They lived briefly in a trailer park and spent three months in a homeless shelter.

Alexandra Cruz, 28, wants to open a boarding school for economically-disadvantaged youth. (Photo Credit: Lauryn Gutierrez)

"I think my sister and myself and my mother shared a full-size mattress for most of our lives," she recalled in an interview with New Jersey 101.5.

Working several jobs, her mother Margarita still struggled to make ends meet. She had given birth to Cruz at age 16, in a Catholic family and immediately was on her own to make it work.

Cruz's mother suffered from bipolar disorder and often had to choose between paying for medication or paying for food so her children could eat.

"And of course, she was paying for food so that we could eat and often had to go without her own medication," Cruz said. "I remember growing up and my mother often spending more time at work than she was able to spend with us, and we never faulted her for that."

While accompanying her mother on a job, working at a job fair, Cruz and a younger sister encountered the opportunity of a lifetime. A table was promoting the Milton Hershey School, a nonprofit boarding school for financially-strained youth.

She and her sister landed a spot, and her life changed on August 12, 2000. At Milton Hershey, founded by the famed candy maker, Cruz regained trust for adults, found a love for performing arts, and would dream of attending college for the first time.

Several years later, at age 28, the Rutgers-Camden doctoral candidate strives to give today's economically-disadvantaged youth the same help she was offered as a child.

"I am very, very lucky, but I don't want it to just have to be luck," Cruz said. "I feel like no child should have to feel like they're not good enough just because they don't have the money."

Cruz has a career goal of opening and operating boarding schools for impoverished youth in the Philadelphia and/or Camden areas. She believes her doctoral research in the areas of poverty, homelessness and urban youth will give her a leg up when the time comes.

Cruz achieved bachelor's degrees and a master's degree at Temple University. In the process, she studied abroad in Buenos Aires and taught at the Boys and Girls Club.

"The cycle of poverty is so deep that regardless of what you do to get yourself out of it, if somebody's not giving you a hand up, then you're just stuck," she said. "My interest is to be able to provide in the same way I was provided for."

The point-in-time homeless survey conducted by Cranford-based Monarch Housing on one night in January counted 8,532 homeless individuals throughout the Garden State. The overall count decreased by 4.6 percent from 2016, but the number of homeless children on their own nearly doubled to 49.

More from WOBM:

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.