“The Lighthouse is peace and family to me,” says Makaila, a two-year resident of Orangewood Foundation’s residential program for survivors of sex trafficking in Orange County. Now she is one of the first residents to graduate from the program.
Makaila remembers the day she visited the house before moving in. “It was a real home,” she says. “The bedrooms were decorated and the kitchen cabinets were filled with all my favorite foods. But there were strict rules. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to join but I felt like this was an opportunity for me to figure out who I really am.”
Makaila admits the first couple months were rough. “When some of the girls and I went to the Independent Living Program workshops Orangewood Foundation hosts, we felt out of place with our flip phones and 7:30 p.m. curfews,” she says. “We’re normal teenagers. We want to be like everyone else in society.” Restrictions and curfews intended to give the young women structure and keep them safe were
re-traumatizing some residents.
Makaila and other residents were a crucial part of changing some aspects of the program. “The staff encouraged us to speak our minds and give our opinions.” Today, the program is individualized for each resident and reflective of life within the “real world.”
When she first came into The Lighthouse, Makaila was quiet and fearful. Over the past two years, she has created a new life for herself. Makaila is excelling in her job as a security guard and plans to go back to school to major in journalism, a passion she discovered in The Lighthouse. “I took back control of my life,” she says. “I made goals and with that I maintained a job, went to college, opened a savings account and most important, built a safe support system.” The residents at The Lighthouse built a sisterhood among one another. “Seeing my peers achieve their goals has motivated me. Success is possible,” Makaila says.
When Ashley, Makaila’s case manager, joined The Lighthouse a year ago, she recognized immediately that Makaila was a leader and made her a pivotal part in the hiring process. “She represented the residents and asked all the right questions,” Ashley says.
Makaila enjoys her role as a leader and is thankful for the family she made. One of Makaila’s favorite things about The Lighthouse is the family activities. The staff and residents play games and celebrate holidays with each other. “I just like being in a supportive and homey environment,” she says. “It’s something I didn’t have before and something I didn’t expect to have when I came here.”
As Makaila reflects on her time at The Lighthouse, she’s both scared and excited about what comes next. She and another graduating resident will be moving into their own apartment in February. They will continue to have the support of Ashley, but Makaila tearfully says, “I’ll be leaving the house and a place I became familiar with. I feel like this was the place where I developed my life. It’s one of the hardest things about the program; it’s like leaving home.” Ashley agrees with Makaila’s sentiments. “She’s the core of this household,” says Ashley. “I’m sad she’s leaving but excited too.” Makaila came into the program as a shy teenager. She walks out as a young woman laughing and joking with staff.
“Despite the background or daily lives, everyone brings a positive energy to the house,” Makaila says. “I know the staff and the home will always be there for us, even when we leave.”
*Name has been changed to protect her identity. Additionally because we cannot share a photo of Makaila, she created this bitmoji to represent herself.
If someone told you, “You’ll never succeed,” how would you react? Most teenagers would take the comment and believe it. But not 16 year old Kim. She is proving her doubters wrong as a student at Samueli Academy charter high school.
In elementary school while her peers were in the classroom, Kim spent most of her school days caring for her younger siblings. Her dad was never around and her mom was struggling with mental illness. Kim looked after her three younger siblings. “I didn’t really go to school,” she explains. “I had to stay home and be the mother figure for my siblings.” In the morning, Kim woke up her younger brother and got him ready for school. During the day, she took care of her toddler siblings. At night, Kim made dinner with whatever she could find. “Ultimately, it was determined that my mom was unfit to care for us,” Kim explains. “It was at that time that I was told by case workers that I wouldn’t be able to catch up educationally to my peers and I wouldn’t succeed in school.”
When Kim was 13, she and her brother moved to California to be with her aunt. “My aunt and I took a tour of Samueli Academy and thought it would be the perfect place for me,” she says. “The class size was small and learning was hands-on. I could catch up.” Kim started Samueli Academy her freshman year.
Now a junior, Kim has thrived both academically and socially at Samueli Academy. She ended freshman year with a 4.0 GPA and currently has a 3.75 GPA. She is on the engineering pathway and her favorite subject is science. She successfully made the girls softball team for the past two years and she can’t wait until softball season this year. She is an avid member of numerous of clubs on campus.
“Kim has grown so much since her freshman year,” says Ms. Callis, Kim’s chemistry teacher and softball coach. “She really struggled academically during her first semester. During her second semester, she tried out for softball and blossomed. She finished the year strong and opened up socially.” Samueli Academy Executive Director Anthony Saba says, “Kim has a HUGE heart and she cares deeply for others. After college, I see her finding a career using her compassion for others.”
About Samueli Academy, Kim says, “Everyone is caring and kind to one another. The teachers are supportive, not just academically but also personally. Samueli Academy really helped me become confident in myself.” Kim hopes to go to UC Davis in the future and become a wildlife veterinarian.
Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. For Evan, he planned on going to a four-year university but in his freshmen year realized that college may not be for him. Orangewood Foundation was there to support him and create a new plan.
Evan has been working with Orangewood Foundation since 2016 when he was a senior in high school. At that time, Orangewood Youth Support Specialist, Rodrigo, helped him land his first job, open a bank account, and apply for college and scholarships. “When I first met Rodrigo, he was really friendly and focused on my success,” Evan says. “It gave me confidence.”
Evan was accepted into several colleges and decided on one in San Diego County. But in his freshmen year, he struggled. He was the first in his family to go to college. He had difficulty managing his time and the responsibilities of being on his own. “I didn’t leave my dorm. I missed class and something wasn’t right.” Prior to college, school was as an escape for Evan. “High school was great,” he says. He was involved in sports, had a 3.2 GPA and was the commencement speaker. “To me, high school was familiar and constant. When I went to college, it didn’t feel the same.”
Evan made the decision to drop out of college and move back to Orange County to a housing program in Tustin. Evan and Rodrigo moved Evan’s belongings from San Diego and developed a plan for what he wanted to do next. “I tried going to a community college, but I was failing and it wasn’t working,” Evan says. “I didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so I dropped out.”
Rodrigo made it his mission to help Evan find a job. They worked on applying for jobs and interviewing skills. “We did mock interviews at coffee shops a lot,” Rodrigo says. “Evan has a can-do attitude and he always gets down to business. Most youth I work with are usually shy at first, but Evan was never like that.”
Evan’s spirited personality led him to a job at a local bowling alley that he loves. “He did everything on his own,” Rodrigo says. “He applied, interviewed and got the job without my help. I was just there as his supporter.” “I love talking to people and helping others,” Evan says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to college. But I came to the conclusion its ok if I don’t. Sometimes college isn’t for you.” Evan’s future plans include getting his driver’s license and buying a car.
Rodrigo looks back on the progress Evan has made, saying, “I’m amazed on how much he’s improved over the years. He listens well and is very respectful. He gives the best that he has. It is great to see.”
Angel spoke at our 2018 Ambassador Luncheon. Click below to view his journey.
Getting your license is a rite of passage into adulthood. For Blanca, that chance wouldn’t have been possible without Orangewood’s help. “I’m thankful for Katie,” Blanca says. “She waited with me at the DMV for hours, only to find out I didn’t pass.”
Blanca and her Orangewood Youth Support Specialist (YSS), Katie, visited the DMV determined to get Blanca’s written permit to practice driving. A trip together to the DMV for our youth and their YSS is common since most Orangewood youth have a goal to get their driver’s license.
Blanca was placed in the foster care system at six years old. She says, “I don’t think my parents were ready for me.” She was adopted by her aunt and uncle. However, the living arrangement with them wasn’t working out. “I noticed that I didn’t like the person I was becoming living with them,” Blanca says. “I was ditching school and making bad decisions and I realized that wasn’t who I am. I knew I needed to get away from the negative environment, so I applied for a placement request.”
At the age of 17, Blanca moved to a group home where she started to grow as an individual. “It was a relief to have my own space and be around some people that cared,” she says. “I graduated from high school with a 4.0 and I got to speak at my graduation about my journey as a foster youth.”
Blanca’s case worker told her about Orangewood Foundation while Blanca was struggling to apply for college. Blanca seized the opportunity and worked with Katie. “Katie is truthful, caring and relatable,” Blanca says. “If I didn’t have Katie in my life, signing up for school would be so difficult. I wouldn’t even know where to start.” Katie helped Blanca with school and creating her resume for job leads. “Blanca is driven and mature,” Katie says. “I’m really there for emotional support and to provide the resources she needs to succeed, like taking her to the DMV.”
On Blanca’s next try at the written test, she didn’t pass again. After both attempts, Katie took Blanca out for ice cream and went over what went wrong. “She helped me with flash cards and taught me how to study effectively,” Blanca says. After her third attempt, Blanca met Katie with a big smile on her face. She passed!