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.”
“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.