Kimberly graduated from college last month and will start what she calls her “dream job” in the fall. She is well on her way to achieving her goals but she didn’t always see a future for herself.
As far back as elementary school, Kim was changing the diapers of her two younger brothers, bottle feeding them, and putting them to bed. Her family had little money and her mom worked a lot. Her parents had a difficult marriage and her mom left when Kim was in middle school.
Kim’s father wasn’t around much. When he was, he was mentally, physically and verbally abusive to the children. Kim saw no choice but to take on the role of mother and father. She did the laundry, cooked dinner, and signed permission slips.
Kim loved going to school. “It was the only place I could get away from the situation and not think about what was going on at home.”
On Halloween day in high school, Kim was called to the principal’s office and the police were there to take her into protective care. She and her brothers were placed into foster care.
Ultimately, they were placed with one of Kim’s friend’s families who had four children of their own. The parents encouraged her to be a teen and relieved her of her mothering duties. However, with seven children in the house, the family didn’t have money for extras.
After learning about Orangewood Foundation from her social worker, Kim applied for and received an Orangewood grant for cheerleading. Cheerleading helped her feel normal and fit in. “Cheerleading helped me come out of my shell,” she says. She also received funds for drivers training.
In her senior year, Kim wanted to attend college but had no idea how she was going to afford it. Again, Orangewood Foundation was there for her, providing college scholarships. This financial support plus other scholarships allowed her to attend Cal State Fullerton and focus solely on school. In May, Kim graduated from CSUF debt free.
This summer Kim is studying for the CPA exam to become a certified public accountant. An Orangewood Advanced Studies scholarship is covering the fees for her preparation courses. Starting in September, she’ll begin her job as an auditor at Ernst & Young.
Thinking about her past, Kim says, “When I was living with my father, I had no clue what was going to happen in life. I had a brighter future than I’d thought. If not for Orangewood, I would not be the outgoing person I am. I would not be able to overcome my situation and live out my dreams. I can face anything and I’m very excited for what the future holds.”
“I found a home,” Riley says as she smiles widely. The word “home” doesn’t come easy for foster youth like her. It may bring mixed emotions or it may feel completely foreign. For Riley, she was glad to find a home.
Riley grew up in Oregon thinking everything around her was her fault. “I just doubted myself a lot,” she says softly. “I was told I was being too sensitive or I was just exaggerating things. So, I ignored my gut feeling and went along with what was being said.” Riley learned about responsibility at a young age. She took care of her younger siblings, taking them to school and feeding them. One day, Riley listened to her gut and spoke up. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she explains. “I was upset at the adult figures in my life, no one said anything.” Social workers were in and out of the house once she told a counselor at school. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that Riley was placed in foster care.
Riley was sent from Oregon to Laguna Beach to live with her grandparents. Laguna Beach was “definitely a shock,” Riley recalls. “I felt misplaced. I was already a bubbly girl in Oregon and to be in Orange County, I felt like I didn’t belong.” She felt disconnected from her peers and decided to take online classes and finish high school early. Riley says, “I just really wanted to go back to Oregon. But I needed help to do so.”
Then Orangewood Foundation came into Riley’s life. She met Danielle, a Youth Support Specialist, through a social worker who suggested that Orangewood Foundation could help her. “I could tell right away, this girl had her mind set,” Danielle smiles. “She wanted to focus on moving back to Oregon and that was the ultimate goal.” Danielle and Riley started researching scholarships, grants, and colleges in Oregon. “We met about two times a month for about a year,” Danielle explains. “We had to make sure she had all the necessary resources up there.” They found an Independent Living Program for foster youth and was set to have Riley move back to Oregon.
“People around me, like Danielle, helped me prepare for my move,” Riley shyly smiles. “But my gut was telling me I wanted to stay. I naturally ignored it.” Riley was slowly hearing back from scholarships and colleges. “I wasn’t exactly excited about it,” she says. “I knew something was wrong when I didn’t bother to open the envelopes from colleges.” Riley listened to her gut once again.
Riley timidly asked Danielle, “How would you feel if I told you I wanted to stay?” Danielle beamed as she recalls the questions, “Of course I said, ‘If that’s what you want, I’m totally happy.’” Riley was relieved. “I felt like I made a home here,” says Riley. “If I went to Oregon, there wouldn’t be an Orangewood or Danielle to help me, and that wouldn’t be home.”
Riley now calls Orange County home and she’s currently finishing up her first year at Saddleback College. She hopes to transfer to Stanford or UCLA to study neuroscience. Riley grins and says, “I’m glad I found a home with Orangewood Foundation.”
Courage. It’s the word that comes to mind when Orangewood youth Brandi thinks about Orangewood Foundation. “Orangewood gives you help and more courage than you ever had,” she says. Brandi’s courage has helped her overcome her mental health challenges over the past several years and will help her in this next phase of her life.
Brandi first came to Orangewood Foundation seven years ago as part of our Full Service Partnership program (FSP). FSP is a program of the Orange County Health Care Agency and administered by Orangewood. FSP provides mental health and case management services for current and former foster youth, ages 16-25, who have mental health issues.
Over the years Brandi has had a few case workers at Orangewood Foundation but Program Director Sheree Crosby has been with her through it all. Brandi was just 17 years old when they first met. “At that time she was angry and had an ‘I got this’ attitude,” says Sheree. “But there was something in her that stood out. She was sweet, caring and loyal. She’s one of the most honest people I know, which helps us know where we stand with her.”
One of the biggest areas of support FSP has provided for Brandi is with anger management. Before FSP, Brandi would explode when she was angry. Orangewood FSP staff encouraged her to identify coping skills that would help her avoid hospital stays. But she was doubtful. “The biggest challenge was getting Brandi to believe that the ideas would work,” Sheree says. “I was skeptical,” Brandi admits. “I thought, ‘It will never work.’”
Together, Brandi and the FSP staff created a poster with more than a dozen ideas including taking a walk, listening to music, playing with Play-Doh, journaling, counting backwards, and calling supportive people in her life. As she tried them, Brandi found that they worked. Today, Brandi has the poster hanging on her bedroom wall and it now has over 20 different healthy coping skills listed.
Two years ago, Brandi summoned her courage when Sheree assigned Brandi to a new Orangewood FSP case manager, Garvin Brown. “Brandi has always been hesitant working with male service providers and I wanted to show her that there are positive male support figures she can have in her life. But when I told her that her new case manager would be a male, she started to cry and didn’t want any part of it.” Sheree explained to Brandi that she wouldn’t match her with just anybody. “I thought they would work so well together,” Sheree explains. “So I asked her ‘Do you trust me?” Brandi did.
Garvin and Brandi focused on daily living skills such as grocery shopping on a budget. “Garvin taught me how to go grocery shopping,” she says. “We’d go shopping every two weeks. And he bumps up the music when we drive. That’s cool.”
Today, at the age of 26 Brandi has transitioned out of Orangewood’s FSP into an adult FSP. She takes classes at Coastline College in reading, writing and math. Someday she hopes to be a computer technician.
Sheree has seen Brandi grow into an extraordinarily resilient young woman over the eight years they’ve worked together. “Brandi’s been through a lot of hardship in her 26 years. The fact that she is still here is inspiring,” says Sheree. “I’m so proud of her for opening up, asking for help, and accepting it.”
Brandi is grateful for the support, resources, and direction Orangewood Foundation provided to her. “This program was the best help ever,” she says with a smile.
Orangewood youth Alex has received assistance from our onsite Orangewood Resource Center which includes hot meals, groceries, laundry, and job assistance. But he says it’s the staff that is “the secret sauce.” “They uplifted me to be the person I am today,” he says.
As a child Alex was placed at the Orangewood Children & Family Center shelter about 11 times. He spent years in foster care before being placed back with his family at age 15. He first learned about Orangewood Foundation when he was 16 but admits that he didn’t take advantage of the services available to him.
It wasn’t until Alex was kicked out of his home that he realized the Orangewood Resource Center (ORC) was a resource. He had held various minimum wage jobs and lived in different places. For a few weeks he slept in bushes. Eventually, he moved into an RV with three other men where he lived for three years.
While he was unemployed, Alex would visit the ORC daily. “I was there the whole day but I wasn’t doing anything productive,” he explains. “It was a place where I got a chance to get hot food and hang out with friends.” ORC staff noticed his lack of motivation too. Lisa Evans, a longtime ORC staff member, says, “Alex wasn’t following up with his tasks. He would get distracted and was indifferent about getting a job and housing.” The staff told Alex he wasn’t allowed back for 30 days until he got serious about his life. “I was so mad,” Alex says. “But I realized I had to get motivated to better myself.” Thirty days later, he swallowed his pride, went back to the resource center, and ultimately landed a job.
While living in the RV and saving money for a car, Alex received a call from a housing program. Years earlier, ORC staff member Lisa had urged him to apply but the program had a long waiting list. The program now had a spot available for him. Alex took the money he’d been saving for a car, used it for the first and last month rent, and moved in. Over time, he was able to save money once again and bought a car.
Two years ago, Alex was enjoying a hot lunch in the ORC that was prepared by volunteers at Lyon Living. Alex struck up a conversation with one of their employees. Alex shared that he was looking for a higher paying job so that he could afford some car repairs. The Lyon Living employee asked for a resume which Alex notes he had on-hand in his car. Alex interviewed and got the job as a leasing associate.
Among the different kinds of help Alex received in the ORC, he says the emotional support and relationships with the staff have been the most impactful, or what he calls “the secret sauce.” He describes the staff as caring, loving, tough, and most of all real. He adds, “The food is the gateway. Everyone has to eat to survive. But the staff members are where the real magic happens.” Today, Alex visits the ORC occasionally, mostly to say hi and check in with staff. His goals now are to buy a nicer car and someday own his own business.
To Orangewood donors, Alex says, “It’s not easy being a foster youth, or a youth in general. Not everyone has the same level of opportunities in life. Your investment in me made me believe in myself and what I could accomplish.”
Orangewood Foundation staff members, regardless of the department they work in, have a passion for helping the foster and community youth we serve. They believe all youth should have the opportunity to thrive and prosper. Several of our employees have a personal connection to our mission, having once been in foster care themselves. Danielle is one example and she recently shared her experiences and perspective with us.
Danielle was born addicted to drugs and was immediately removed from her parents’ care. Her mom was in and out of jail, and her dad suffered from schizophrenia. At the age of five, Danielle was adopted by her paternal grandmother.
“I never thought of myself as a foster child,” she says. “But working at Orangewood made me realize that, as an organization, we’re helping youth in the same situations I was in years ago. Our department was discussing how we can reach out to youth who are in family care and who don’t think of themselves as a foster youth. That’s when I realized we were talking about me! I was that youth we’re trying to reach.”
Throughout the years, she had contact with her parents and grew up witnessing drug use, aggression and violence. Danielle had another revelation about her past while in a training about foster youth and their long-term health. “The trainer asked 10 yes/no questions and had the attendees take note of their answers,” she explains. “If you answered ‘yes’ to at least five, you had a traumatic childhood. I had yes on all 10.” She continues, “I’ve spent my life downplaying the things I’ve experienced and just kind of ignored it. You don’t know what ‘normal’ is until you step away from it.”
When Danielle was in high school, the counselor told her, “Don’t bother with college; it’ll be a waste of time.” To her credit, she didn’t listen. Danielle went to a local community college and had her first taste of academic success. She says, “The moment I got to pick my classes and actually tried, I did well.” She then transferred to UC Berkeley where she earned her bachelors in sociology.
Danielle was hired by Orangewood Foundation in January of 2013, and today is a Youth Support Specialist. She meets each of her youth wherever they are on their individual paths toward adulthood and no two days are ever the same. “I love what I do,” Danielle says with a smile. “I get to create a healthy relationship with our youth, something most of them don’t have.”
She also expresses the joy of working in a comfortable and open environment. “Orangewood values my opinion; my opinion matters,” she says. “Growing up, I had little to no self-confidence. Graduating from UC Berkeley definitely gave me a small boost, but Orangewood was where I became confident in myself. This organization helped me become comfortable with who I am. Orangewood has fostered my growth professionally and personally. I found my voice through Orangewood Foundation.”
Danielle also has a message to our donors. “Thank you for caring. Thank you for making a difference, not just in the youth’s lives but also in the lives of staff like me. If this job wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now.”