In The News

In the News

09/30/2015 - Violeta’s Story

Violeta is a junior at Orangewood’s charter high school, The Academy. She is smart, athletic, involved and popular. Upon first meeting her, you might assume she has always been this way, but that isn’t the case.

Violeta’s parents got divorced when she was young, and her mother moved Violeta and her siblings out of state.  As the children grew up, Violeta’s mother bounced around jobs in different cities and different states. Violeta attended over 15 schools elementary and middle schools.  Although she was always smart, Violeta never put much effort into her schooling. “I was a ghost student,” she explains. “I went to school and then I went home, and I didn’t do anything else.”  She had never had any interest in participating in clubs, sport, or student government. She never imagined she could have a bright future ahead of her. “I used to think that because I’m Hispanic and I come from a low-income family, my future was set for me: I would finish high school and then go to work in a fast food restaurant.”

After only Violeta’s first month at The Academy, everything changed.  “I fell in love with everything about this school,” she explains. “The teachers, the students, the environment, it was all just great.” She began not only to apply herself to her classes, but also to get involved with school outside of class. She joined sports teams, started a community service club, and started tutoring her peers in math. She went on a fieldtrip to Chapman University, and for the first time began to consider going to college.

Today, Violeta is the top student in her class, with a 4.37 GPA. She is taking four AP classes this year. She is Student Body President and President of the “Helping Hands” community service club. She is the captain of the girls’ volleyball and soccer teams, and she also plays on the girls’ softball team. She wants to go to college to study biomedical engineering, and her first choice school is Stanford. “The Academy shined a light on a future I never knew I could have,” Violeta says. “I’m doing all these things now that I never saw myself doing. Thanks to The Academy, I’m creating my own future now. I couldn’t be more proud to call The Academy my school.”


09/30/2015 - Robert’s Story

When Robert was 12 years old, he and his 8 siblings were removed from their abusive mother and placed in foster care. For the next six years he moved over 20 times – initially with his siblings, but eventually by himself.  He attended at least five different high schools; he can’t remember how many. Along the way he got caught up in the wrong crowd, and when he was 18 he joined a gang. Not long after he was shot in the back. “The bullet was so close to my heart, the doctor couldn’t even remove it,” Robert explains. “He said if it had been a centimeter to the left, I would be dead. That was the moment I knew I had to get out. Now the bullet is a constant reminder that I never want to go back to that life.”

When he made the decision to change his life, Robert turned to Orangewood staff. He had been attending Independent Living Program workshops and visiting the Orangewood Resource Center for meals and toiletries. He knew he could ask Orangewood staff for help getting his life on the right track. “They helped me through all of my ups and downs,” he says. “They never gave up on me. They always encouraged me to keep my head up and keep pushing for my dreams.”

Today Robert has a full-time job at a hotel and was recently promoted. He attends Santa Ana College, studying to become a mechanic. This month he moved into his first apartment at one of our Rising Tide transitional housing complexes. The thing he remembers most about his first day there was the joy of having his own bed. Before that he had been sleeping on a couch at his uncle’s house. His next goal is to purchase a car.

“I just want to thank everyone at Orangewood so much, because without them I know I would still be in gangs and I would probably be dead by now,” he says. “I’m exactly where I want to be now. I’ve got a job, I’m in school, and I’ve got my own bed and food to eat every day.” He adds with a laugh, “My biggest problem now is that I’m getting a little bit chubby!”

09/30/2015 - Oree’s Story

Like many former foster youth, Oree grew up with very little family love and support. She was born to a mother in prison and given up for adoption at four days old. Things didn’t work out with her adoptive parents, and she was placed in foster care at the age of nine.  When she was 11, she ran away from her group home, and she was recruited into “the life” of sex trafficking. For the next four years, Oree was beaten, raped and sold for sex on the streets of Orange County. At age 15, she met Orangewood staff member Jim Carson – the first person she had ever trusted to give her the support she needed. “He was the one who stuck around,” Oree says. “The one person who wouldn’t take my excuses and who talked to me eye to eye.”

Jim, whom Oree affectionately calls “pops,” helped her exit “the life,” and introduced her to Orangewood Children’s Foundation. Orangewood programs helped Oree find a place to live, finish high school, and enroll full time at Orange Coast College. Now age 19, Oree has a steady job, is majoring in sociology, and during her free time she speaks out about human trafficking in California. She hopes to someday start her own non-profit to help at-risk youth.

Unfortunately, Oree story is not unique among the foster youth we serve. Between 50 and 80% of sex trafficking victims in California are or once were in the foster care system. Orangewood is working on solutions to help more Orange County former foster youth like Oree escape a life of sex trafficking.

09/21/2015 - Carlos Leija

Chief Development Officer

Carlos Leija was added to our management team in September, 2007, and comes to Orangewood from California State University, Fullerton, one of our Guardian Scholars Program partner universities. He brings nine years of fundraising experience to Orangewood, along with a passion for helping former foster youth succeed. Most recently at CSUF Carlos was the Executive Director of Alumni Relations for three years. Prior to that position, he was the Director of Development for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Guardian Scholars program. Previously Carlos had a Chiropractic practice in La Habra for 11 years.

In October, 2007, Carlos was selected as one of fifty honorees for Cal State Fullerton’s Empowering Minds: Querer es Poder photo exhibit which is part of the university’s 50th Anniversary celebration. The goal of the project is to increase awareness of the university’s designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution and their strong commitment to serving the Latino community. The photo exhibit aims to represent the rich diversity of CSUF Latino alumni in their path to higher education, their college experience, and respective careers.

Carlos earned a B.A. in Psychology from California State University, Fullerton. He has a Certificate in Fundraising Management from the Fundraising School at Indiana University/Purdue University (IUPUI). In the past he has volunteered for Orange County Teachers Federal Credit Union, the CSUF Alumni Association and the affordable housing committee for the city of Fullerton. Carlos and his wife live in Fullerton.

09/21/2015 - John Luker, C.P.A.

Chief Finance Officer

John Luker joined our Management team in July 2014 as CFO, replacing Chris Simonsen who was promoted to CEO. Prior to joining Orangewood, John worked as the CFO of the Orange County Rescue Mission for over 13 years. He is a Certified Public Accountant, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

John received both his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree in accounting from the University of Florida, and is a big Florida Gators fan. After having been in Orange County for years John became involved with Orangewood through our mentor program. He is an active volunteer in the community, serving on the Board of Directors for the Coalition of Community Health Centers, The Orange County Workforce Investment Board and Aragon Affordable Housing Inc. He lives in Santa Ana with his wife and three kids.

09/21/2015 - Robert B. Theemling

Chief Programs Officer

For more than twenty-five years Bob Theemling has worked with county youth services. His experience includes four years as a Probation Counselor, seven years as a social worker and supervisor with Orange County’s Children’s Services, and ten years as a Senior Manager in Children’s Services.

Bob maintained a private practice as a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist for five years. Just prior to joining Orangewood in February, 2001, he served for five years as Executive Director of David and Margaret Home for youth, an $8.5 million multi-service nonprofit organization, located in Los Angeles County.

Bob holds a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology from the University of Southern California; and a Masters of Science in Counseling from California State University, Fullerton. He has completed coursework for a Masters in Public Administration at California State University, Long Beach. He is currently licensed as a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist.

09/21/2015 - Greg and Cindy Dillion

July 2015

Greg and Cindy Dillion, Legacy Society members, have been involved with Orangewood Foundation for almost 30 years. “Helping youth escape to a safer place and have options has been an important issue for us,” Cindy says. Greg and Cindy grew up in violent households; back when there were no services for, or even acknowledgement of, battered families.

Cindy’s first assignment as a lawyer was to research tax issues for the public-private creation of the Orangewood Children’s Home (now called the Orangewood Children & Family Center). “Through Irell & Manella, and now Newmeyer & Dillion, we have stayed involved,” Greg says. In 2000, Cindy joined the Orangewood Foundation Board of Directors.

“We loved our visits to the Home and meeting youth in the separate cottages. More recently, the tremendous success of the Rising Tide youth in the Rising Tide transitional housing program; it has been fun to watch,” Greg says. Greg and Cindy view nurturing the next generation as a personal responsibility. Their dedication and longtime support of Orangewood has always been about innovative programs that address the needs of foster youth.

“The Children and Family Center, Rising Tide, and now Samueli Academy have all been cutting-edge, well-researched, well-funded and well-executed, positive additions to the lives of foster youth,” Cindy says.

Cindy and Greg’s vision is that Orangewood Foundation will be able to continue to help end the cycle of abuse for years to come. Their dream is that with Orangewood’s assistance, the next generation will become loving, successful and happy peacemakers in their homes and communities.

09/21/2015 - Jeff Johnson and Saddleback Church

May 2015

Jeff Johnson is dedicated to the teens in our Independent Living Program (ILP). Back in November, 2010 he volunteered to lead his first ILP workshop entitled “Skillz 4 Life.” ILP workshops focus on the four key areas of Career, Daily Living, Education and Relationships, and help prepare youth to live on their own more confidently and better prepared for the challenges that adulthood brings. 

Now more than four and a half years later, Jeff’s monthly “Skillz 4 Life” workshop is one of the most popular with our youth. They love his workshop, they explain, because they can tell what he is doing comes straight from the heart. Jeff has spent countless hours developing and tweaking a curriculum that teaches life skills in a way the youth can relate to. Jeff, a member of Saddleback Church, recruits volunteer speakers and helpers who bring dinner and serve it to the youth. 

When asked what motivates him, Jeff said, “We don’t look at the youth in terms of who and where they are now. We view them through a lens of who they can become and where they can go with the love, care, understanding, and encouragement we desire to be a part of giving them.” Thank you, Jeff, for your passion and devotion for current and former foster youth in Orange County!

09/21/2015 - Michelle Buck-Gordon

December 2014

Volunteers support Orangewood’s mission with foster youth in a variety of ways – through their time, their talent, or by connecting with our youth. Michelle Buck-Gordon does it all. Which is why Orangewood named her Outstanding Volunteer of the Year at our volunteer reception held in October.

Michelle has made it her life’s mission to help those like her – a former foster youth once placed at the Orangewood Children’s Home, the county’s emergency shelter for abused and neglected children. Since she started volunteering with Orangewood in 2011, Michelle has served a total of 340 volunteer hours. Michelle began volunteering at youth events. As she got to know Orangewood and the youth we serve, she began volunteering more and more. She started monthly “Baking with Mrs. Gordon” workshops in our on-site Resource Center to teach baking skills to our youth. She helped them train for 5K races and took them hiking and kayaking.

In the fall of 2013, Samueli Academy, our public charter high school, was looking for a volunteer to facilitate an after-school art class. Michelle, an art lover, jumped at the chance. She created the “Creating Paths” program, developed the curriculum and taught class twice a week.

When she was younger, Michelle was personally motivated by seeing her art on display. In an effort to share this experience with Samueli Academy students, she coordinated two art shows this year to display the youth’s work – one at the Orange County Fairgrounds, and the other at a local Fullerton gallery. The opportunity to have their work showcased in public was exciting and inspiring to the students.

Michelle’s passion has always been to motivate and inspire teens, specifically those with a difficult childhood. She has served both the Resource Center and The Academy with all her heart. Her care and devotion for our youth, and the ways in which she goes above and beyond to inspire them made her a natural choice for the 2014 Outstanding Volunteer of the Year. Congratulations, Michelle!

09/21/2015 - Frank T. Suryan, Jr.

October, 2014

Frank T. Suryan, Jr. is Chairman and CEO of Lyon Communities and a graduate of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. But growing up he had few thoughts of going to college. Eventually he decided to pursue a degree, thanks to the influence of his girlfriend at the time, and earned his Bachelor’s.

Today Frank has a personal commitment to youth who are likely to fall through the cracks and never make it to college, or even graduate from high school, especially foster youth. He has been a donor to Orangewood Foundation for nearly 20 years – giving in a variety of ways including: to our events, college scholarships, The Academy high school capital campaign, and toys/supplies/gift cards for our youth. Additionally, he has served on the Board of Directors since 2007.

Recently Frank was awarded the General Lyon Crystal Vision Philanthropy Award at the 2014 Ambassador Luncheon. The award is given annually at the event to a worthy individual who has given of their time and resources and who reflects the unending commitment to Orange County children that has been demonstrated by Founding Board Chairman General William Lyon. Coincidentally, Frank and General Lyon are business partners. They joined together as business partners in 1988 and formed Lyon Communities based in Newport Beach. In an interview before the ceremony, General Lyon remarked on Frank’s devotion to Orangewood, saying that he “truly recognizes that young people have a chance through what we’re doing at Orangewood.” Congratulations, Frank!