It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since Orangewood opened Samueli Academy, our public charter high school for foster and community teens. Over these first years, our first class of freshmen has helped shaped the school into an innovative and successful place of learning. In their first year, they created the school mascot, the “Firewolves,” which combines the tenacity of the phoenix and the loyalty of a wolf pack. They excelled academically and in their extracurricular pursuits, and consistently demonstrated the school values of “Trust, Respect, Responsibility.” And a few weeks ago, on a Monday night at the Sergerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, they became our school’s first graduates.
During the ceremony, senior class president Jason Acosta, and Valedictorian Violeta Vega addressed their classmates. Jason recalled how strange it was to enroll in a school “that didn’t even have a building constructed,” and praised his peers for “taking a chance and putting our trust into the promise of a unique educational experience.” Violeta called her peers “trailblazers” and remarked on how uniquely prepared the class was to take on college and other future pursuits.
Head of School Anthony Saba could barely contain his emotions as he addressed the class. “You have given me hope that an innovative educational experience works,” he said. “I can’t even describe how proud of you we all are.” Keynote speaker Dr. Henry Samueli discussed the “truly remarkable achievements” of Samueli Academy in its first four years, including the 99% graduation rate, the 97% attendance rate, and the majority of the students on the honor roll. Additionally, Samueli noted, 97% of the first graduating class were accepted to a college or university.
At the beginning of the ceremony, Jason Acosta asked on behalf of the class for the teachers to come to the stage to receive a rowdy round of applause from the students. As the ceremony closed, the teachers reciprocated, forming a circle around the student section to deliver an equally rowdy round of applause complete with the school’s signature “firewolf” howl. After the ceremony, students, families, faculty, and supporters of the school celebrated the graduates with punch and cookies. Graduate Ivan Mendoza, wearing leis of candy and money made by his mother and grandmother said “If I hadn’t come to Samueli Academy, I don’t think I would have found myself or figured out who I want to be.”
Congratulations to our first graduating class! Samueli Academy Class of 2017, we are all so proud of you, and we can’t wait to see where your futures will take you!
Helping current and former foster youth overcome their painful pasts is the reason Orangewood Foundation was formed. Each year, we work with nearly 2,000 youth, helping them prepare for adulthood with programs that offer health & wellness, housing, life skills & employment, and education services. We’re particularly proud of the courage and determination foster youth possess. Brandon is just one example.
Brandon was in foster care for more than eight years – “eight years and seven months,” he notes. When Brandon was just nine years old, he and his four siblings were removed from their home because their mom couldn’t care for them. They had been living in a garage with one king size bed and little food or clothing. The five children were taken in by a loving couple who became their foster parents. But, for Brandon, it felt odd being taken care of by strangers. Ultimately, he grew to love the couple as if they were his biological parents. He also felt out of place socially and at school due to being in foster care. “In school I had a separate counselor from my friends and peers due to the fact that I was a foster child,” Brandon explains. “It felt strange being around my peers knowing that they all lived with their biological parents and I would never be able to experience that.”
Today, Brandon is finishing his first year of college at U.C. Santa Cruz, thanks in part to a scholarship from Orangewood. The scholarship helps him pay for school fees, food, supplies, etc. He is majoring in business and raising his daughter, Annalise, with his girlfriend who is also in college. Ultimately, his goal is to become either a bank manager or an English teacher – and to be a good father to Annalise.
He says, “I have two motivations for going to college. I want to graduate and have a successful career to show that foster kids can be successful. So many people look at foster kids as though they will never amount to anything. I want to prove them wrong! More personally, I want to be a role model for my daughter. I want to support her financially and give her the life she deserves.”
He adds, “I am so grateful to Orangewood Foundation and its donors. My Orangewood scholarship has made my life significantly less stressful.”
Orangewood’s Peer Mentor program is a way for former foster youth who have successfully transitioned from foster youth into independent adulthood to serve as positive role models to current foster youth. For Alejandra, the Peer mentor Program is a chance to give back to Orangewood, and to connect with current foster youth and support them the way that Orangewood supported her.
Alejandra was not placed into foster care until she was 16, but the trauma in her childhood began when she was much younger. When Alejandra was in elementary school, her mom began dating a man who soon moved in with the family. When Alejandra was only five years old, her mother’s boyfriend began molesting her and her sister. “We tried to tell our mom about the abuse and she just told us to lock our door at night,” Alejandra remembers. The abuse continued for eight years.
When Alejandra was 16, she opened up to one of her teachers about what had happened at home. Alejandra was then removed from her mother’s care and place into foster care, along with her 5 siblings. A year later, their mother regained custody of Alejandra and her siblings. Although Alejandra was only 17, her mother kicked her out of their house and Alejandra moved in with her boyfriend. When the relationship with her boyfriend ended, Alejandra had nowhere to go. “I had this box full of pamphlets and information that a social worker had given me when I was placed in foster care,” Alejandra says, “so I opened it up to see if there was any information that could help me find a place to live.” In the box, Alejandra found information about Orangewood’s Rising Tide transitional housing program.
Alejandra applied and was accepted into Orangewood’s housing program, and moved into an apartment with her young daughter, Victoria, in late 2014. With Orangewood’s help, Alejandra decided to pursue a career in social work. Rising Tide staff helped her enroll in Santa Ana College to pursue a Human Services degree, and she is receiving Orangewood scholarships to help with books and other education-related materials. Staff members also helped Alejandra with a plan to save money to buy her first car.
“Orangewood’s help has meant everything to me,” Alejandra says. “The staff have helped me understand that I’m worth so much more than I ever thought… that I can be and achieve anything that I set my mind to.” Looking for an opportunity to give back to Orangewood and to connect with younger foster youth, in 2015, Alejandra became an Orangewood peer mentor. Beyond working with current foster youth, Alejandra says the best part of the Peer Mentor program is the opportunity to connect with the other peer mentors. “They are not only some of my closest friends, but they are great examples of what I want from my future. I see a lot of what I want to do and who I want to be in the group of peer mentors, and I am so thankful to have their advice, motivation, and support.”
Alex is a 24 year old student at Cal State Fullerton studying human services and business. He has two part-time jobs, one of which he works full time during breaks from school. He has stable housing through Orangewood’s Rising Tide transitional housing program. But finding and maintaining safe and affordable housing has been a struggle for Alex since he aged out of the foster care system at age 18.
Even though legal adulthood in the US begins at age 18, most Americans experience a transition period into independent adulthood that is supported financially and emotionally by our families. However, former foster youth, who age out of the system between age 18 and 21, don’t have this type of family support. This puts them at a higher risk for homelessness and housing insecurity (poor housing quality or unstable housing such as “couch surfing”). In fact, 11-37% percent of former foster youth experience homelessness after exiting the foster care system, and an additional 25-50% experience housing insecurity. Alex is one of these former foster youth who has struggled with housing insecurity.
Alex was placed into foster care along with his three siblings when he was five years old due to his mother’s drug use and neglect. The children were eventually reunited with their mother, but it wasn’t long before she started using again. The neglect returned with the drug use. “We would have food at the beginning of the month,” Alex remembers, “but the shelves were usually bare by the third week or so.” Alex tried to protect his mother and care for his siblings throughout his childhood. He lied to teachers and social workers about his mother’s drug use, and never let friends come over to his house. “I never let anyone get too close to me, because I didn’t want them to find out how we were living. I was trying to protect my mom.”
When Alex was 16, he and his siblings were removed once again from his mother’s care. Alex lived with an aunt for the next two years, but when he aged out of the foster care system at age 18, he was on his own. Since then, Alex has lived in five different places. “When you’re 18 years old and out on your own for the first time, you need more than just a roof over your head,” Alex explains. “You also need support and help figuring things out. I don’t think 18 is old enough to totally be on your own.”
After years of bouncing around between housing programs, rooms for rent, and living with relatives, Alex landed in Orangewood’s Rising Tide transitional housing program. Here, he says, he feels truly secure for the first time. He lives in an apartment with one roommate and has been there for almost four months. One of his sisters, who also attends Cal State Fullerton, lives in a separate apartment in the same building. The two spend time together watching movies or doing homework, and Alex says having her close by makes the apartment feel more like home. But the biggest difference for Alex is the support from Orangewood staff. “The staff are available as a resource, they help keep you on track, and they are always there to listen when you need someone to talk to,” Alex says. “I’m so used to bouncing around that it feels kind of weird to be settled into one place,” Alex says through laughter, “but it’s a good kind of weird.”
February is a great month to celebrate the loving and supportive relationships in your life. Over the past year, former foster youth Kim and her Orangewood Foundation mentor, Christine, have forged one of these great relationships.
Kim is a 17-year-old junior in high school who was placed into the foster care system for neglect. Kim was ultimately reunited with her mom but needed a little extra support to help her achieve her goals. She applied to the Orangewood mentor program and was matched with Christine.
“When I first met Kim,” Christine says, “she shared with me her goals and desires for her future. I was amazed how she was able to juggle a full high school schedule with college prep classes, play two varsity sports (water polo and swim) and play viola in the school orchestra with limited support.” Kim didn’t have a driver’s license and was riding her bike to school, practices and events. She wanted to get her driver’s license and was also interested in applying to colleges. “She was motivated to achieve her goals but she needed some assistance to navigate through the steps to accomplish these goals,” Christine explains.
As Kim and Christine started to work towards Kim’s goals, a solid bond began to form between them. Christine began attending Kim’s swim meets and water polo matches, helped her with her homework, and helped her put a plan in place for getting her driver’s license. As Kim started thinking about college, Christine joined her for meetings with her school guidance counselor and helped her decide what schools to apply to. “Christine has quickly become Kim’s greatest advocate and biggest fan,” says Orangewood Mentor Program Coordinator, Lucia. “I think she has been to every single one of her swim meets this year! Kim is not one to gush about things, but she has told me that she loves Christine and couldn’t imagine a better mentor.”
“Ever since I met Christine,” Kim says, “she has led me down a path that has opened my eyes to possibilities I never knew I had before. She has made me feel that dreams can come true through hard work and dedication.” With Christine’s help, Kim has gotten her driver’s license, decided on a business/human resource management focus for school, and has been accepted to three California State Universities, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona. “When I signed up to be an Orangewood mentor,” Christine says, “I imagined how much I would be able to impact someone’s life. What I didn’t imagine is how she would impact my life. She has humbled me and taught me what it really means to rise above all odds. I have developed a life-long relationship with this amazing young woman who has the best attitude, a kind heart, and a love of life. I look forward to sharing more adventures with her and to watching her continue to grow and achieve her dreams.”