In The News
In the News
12/25/2015 - Orangewood youth named one of OC’s “Most Influential of 2015”
Oree Freeman was 11 years old when she became a victim of the sex trade. After four years she was able to leave that life with the help of Jim Carson of Orangewood Foundation. She has since graduated from high school and is currently attending college. Read about how her transition from sex trafficking victim, to survivor, to advocate made her one of the Orange County Register’s “Most Influential of 2015.”
12/17/2015 - Raquel’s Story
The holiday season can be especially hard for current and former foster youth. Images of loving families and abundant presents can be a reminder of what they don’t have. But the upcoming holidays don’t seem to be getting Raquel down. Raquel and her two-year old daughter, Nevaeh, will be receiving Christmas gifts from Orangewood, thanks to those who donated to our Holiday Gift Drive. She’s excited to celebrate Christmas with her daughter, and she’s looking forward to next year, when she hopes to land her first big job.
As a teen, Raquel didn’t feel cared for by those closest to her. Her father was physically abusive, an alcoholic and a drug user. Her mom struggled to provide for her nine children both financially and emotionally. When Raquel was 13, she and her siblings were placed into foster care. From age 13-18, she had five different foster care placements, and attended five different high schools. Feeling like she had no place to call home, Raquel would often run away from her foster care placements and go stay with friends or older siblings.
It was during this period of her life that Raquel was introduced to Orangewood. “I came to Orangewood because I heard I could get a toothbrush and some food,” Raquel explains, “but I kept coming back because it was the only place I knew I could get emotional support.”
Since then, Orangewood has continued to help and encourage Raquel. When she decided to go to college, Orangewood staff helped her enroll (even driving her to the campus) and provided scholarship money. Now in her second year at Cypress College, her goal is to get her A.A. degree, transfer to Cal State Fullerton, and become a social worker so that she can help kids navigate the foster care system. She still visits the Orangewood resource center for emotional support, hot meals, and groceries when money is tight. Through it all, Raquel is working hard to give her daughter a better childhood than the one she experienced. “She is so smart. I know she can grow up to be strong and independent. The biggest thing I can give her is to know what it feels like to be loved unconditionally.”
When asked to describe what Orangewood means to her in one word, Raquel pauses for a while. “How do you find one word that means everything? I just love you all so much for everything you’ve done for me!”
12/03/2015 - PALS Holiday Party
Date: December 2, 2015
Click below to view photos from the PALS Holiday Party!
12/02/2015 - 44 Women Peer Mentor Bowling Party
Date: December 02, 2015
Photos from the 44 Women Peer Mentor Bowling Party are below!
10/15/2015 - Mark’s Story
Mark is a full time student at Cal State University Fullerton, majoring in psychology with a minor in art. He has a calm, quiet confidence, big dreams for his career, and he spends his free time giving back to the community. Upon meeting him, you would never guess that just six months ago he was basically homeless.
Trouble began for Mark and his seven siblings when he was young. His mother was battling a mental illness and the family also experienced abuse from the stepfather. Mark’s mother began to struggle with paranoia and moved the family around, which caused the children to switch schools frequently. Mark went to a different school every year. Despite this, he loved school, and always kept up his grades. “School was my escape,” Mark explains, “it has always been the place where I could get away from all the bad things happening at home.”
Eventually, Mark’s mom was deemed unfit to take care of her children. The youngest five siblings went to live with his stepdad, and Mark and his older sister were placed in foster care. When Mark graduated from high school, he entered community college. Without a support system, or much preparation to live on his own, he spent two years couch surfing or sleeping in his car, partying, and falling behind in school. When his GPA dropped below a 2.0, Mark knew he had to make a change.
Mark was familiar with Orangewood Foundation from having attended Independent Living Program workshops while he was in foster care. When he decided to get back on track, he turned to Orangewood for help. With Orangewood’s guidance and financial support, Mark brought up his grades, and transferred from community college to Cal State Fullerton. In April of this year, he was accepted into our Rising Tide housing program, and moved into an apartment. Since then, he has been working with a Rising Tide staff member on increasing his savings, and he has saved almost $7,000 in six months! He plans to apply this money to graduate school. When he graduates with his Bachelor’s degree in psychology in the spring of 2017, he will be the first person in his family to graduate from college.
Mark has also shifted his focus in life to giving back. This summer, he studied abroad and volunteered in Guatemala, teaching English to 4th-6th graders, leading art workshops, and teaching basic writing skills to a group of indigenous elders. He joined the Peer Mentor program at Orangewood so that he could serve as a role model and a support system for his peers who are still in foster care. He wants to go to graduate school to study clinical art therapy, with the hopes of one day becoming an art therapist for abused children.
“Orangewood to me is like a family,” Mark says. “They are the real home I never had. My life before Orangewood was dark, and full of sadness. Now I have lightness, happiness, a supportive foundation, and most of all, hope.”
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.