Mychal doesn’t have many happy memories from his childhood Christmases. His mother struggled with alcoholism and Mychal and his older brother lived with their grandmother for most of his childhood. “I remember one Christmas when my mom realized we weren’t going to get any presents, she took all the money she had to the 99 cent store and got us each a couple of cheap toys. It doesn’t seem like much, but at the time it meant so much to us.” When their mother died, Mychal, 15 at the time, and his brother, 17, were placed into foster care. When they were released from the foster care system at 18, Mychal and his brother, with nowhere else to go, were immediately homeless.
Mychal was homeless for two and a half years after he aged out of the foster care system. It was during this time that he started coming to the Orangewood Resource Center. During this time, Resource Center staff helped Mychal get his GED and get a job that paid just enough for him to stay in a motel room with his girlfriend at the time.
While Mychal was still trying to get on his feet, he and his girlfriend had two children. When they eventually separated, his girlfriend was given custody of their children. But, not long after they separated, Mychal began noticing signs of abuse and neglect in his little girls. He knew that if he wanted to fight for custody he would need to get a stable job and secure housing. So Mychal turned to Resource Center staff for help. “Orangewood staff helped me get a steady job and find a place to live. But more than that, they motivated me and they never gave up on me. I can’t describe how much that meant… Everybody else in my life had always given up on me.”
Last year, Mychal and his wife Sharnett were awarded full custody of his two girls, six-year-old Stacy and four-year-old Shanell. The family rents a two bedroom condo and Mychal’s life is devoted to being a good father. Despite working two jobs, sometimes even 20 hour days, Michael still needs help around the holidays. Last year, gifts from Orangewood’s holiday drive helped him make his first Christmas together with Stacy and Shanell memorable. When he describes last Christmas, Mychal’s face lights up. “We had saved up to buy this little plastic Christmas tree, and I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to get any presents to put under it. Orangewood made sure that didn’t happen. When I got done piling all the gifts from Orangewood under that tiny tree, you could barely even see the top of the tree. The look on my girls’ faces on Christmas morning…I can’t even describe it.”
We asked Mychal what he would say to all of our generous donors and volunteers who help us make our holiday gift drive possible. “I can’t even explain how much your donations mean…how much your support means. What you’re doing may seem small but to someone like me, it means the world. The joy on my daughters faces on Christmas morning means everything to me.”
The holiday season can be especially tough for current and former foster youth. Kathryn and her family are no exception. When Kathryn was just six years old, she and her four siblings were removed from their parents and placed in foster care. The family didn’t have much money, and all seven shared a studio apartment. Kathryn’s father had anger issues and was physically abusive to their mother. “The sound of my mother sobbing would often wake me up in the middle of the night,” Kathryn says. The abuse finally stopped when her oldest sister Julie called the police.
Kathryn’s mother eventually regained care of Kathryn and her siblings, but this family history dimmed the usual shine of the holiday season for Kathryn’s family. “After we were reunified, my mom tried to celebrate Christmas by putting up a tree and decorating but it wasn’t the same anymore. Because we spent the holidays apart the year my parents got divorced and my siblings and I entered foster care, the ideal family holiday was shattered for us,” Kathryn explains. “I remember as a child, I would love sitting in the car while my mom ran errands and staring at other family’s Christmas lights and decorations.”
The only Christmas presents Kathryn and her siblings received growing up were from Orangewood Foundation. To this day, her family does not celebrate holidays. Today, with Orangewood’s financial assistance and guidance, Kathryn is a senior at UCLA, majoring in Asian Studies with a double minor in Global Health and Korean. She celebrates the holidays with her friends from school in lieu of celebrating with family.
Kathryn is grateful to Orangewood and gives back when she can, including working as a Peer Mentor so she can help youth who are going through the same things she did when she was younger. “I am so thankful to Orangewood for all the support they have given me to help me get to where I am today. Orangewood Foundation is a blessing, not just during the holidays, but all year long.”
Breanna’s life has been filled with violence, abuse, drugs and alcohol since she was a child. Her mom died of melanoma when Breanna was just seven. She doesn’t really remember her mom. Instead, she remembers trips to the hospital and being abused by her stepdad. After her mom died, Breanna lived with her stepdad, who continued to abuse and neglect her. “I was always hungry and there was never any food in the house. And I had to wear my stepbrother’s clothes to school because I didn’t have any clothes of my own,” Breanna says.
At age nine, Breanna was taken from her stepfather’s care and placed at the Orangewood Children and Family Center. She was then placed with an uncle who was a drug addict and an alcoholic, and ended up back in foster care at age 13. As a teenager, she lived on the streets. She went to seven different high schools and dropped out in the 10th grade. When she turned 18 and was released from the foster care system, Breanna met a man and things moved very quickly. “I just wanted a normal life,” she explains. “I wanted to be loved.” Breanna got married at age 19, had two children in the next few years, and was divorced by age 23. Her next relationship, with a man she met online, was an abusive one. They had a child together, and Breanna stayed with him for four years. Eventually, Breanna’s children were taken from her by Child Protective Services.
When she got pregnant with her fourth child, Breanna realized she couldn’t live this way any longer. She moved into a homeless shelter for pregnant women and worked diligently to turn her life around. She regained 50% legal custody of her two older children, graduated from high school, and got a paralegal certificate from Irvine Valley College. But once she had her fourth child, she could no longer stay at the shelter. “I found myself facing homelessness again,” she says, “this time with my kids.” Although she thought she might be too old to qualify for Orangewood’s programs, she called anyway, and told us her story.
Today Breanna is living in one of our Rising Tide transitional housing apartments and is attending a local community college. She is three years sober, and is working towards her dream of becoming a lawyer. She has recently been accepted as a Peer Mentor and is looking forward to giving back to teens in the foster care system. When asked to describe Orangewood Foundation in one word, she immediately says, “Hope.” She expands, “When I was younger, I ran from help. But the need for help for foster youth doesn’t always have a time limit. Now, because of Orangewood, I’m serious about creating a future for my children and myself. I’m set up for success.”
As the summer has been winding down and the school year has started back up, we’ve had the opportunity to reflect on some additional staff we had for a few months. Eight of our Samueli Academy rising seniors completed their summer internships at Orangewood. Jennifer, Jazmin, and Jesus were three of the stellar students who spent their summer helping Orangewood. Read what they had to say about their experience below:
Jennifer (IT): “This summer I was privileged to intern for Orangewood Foundation, specifically for the IT department. Throughout my time there, I learned so much about Orangewood Foundation, and what they do to impact the community in a positive way. My internship with the IT department exposed me to the workforce that I could possibly join one day and to another branch of technological studies I could pursue. I never imagined that I could learn so much by interning somewhere. My supervisors, Mr. Thai and Mr. Fish, stood not only as my employers, but also as my mentors. I’m more confident going into my last year of high school because of them, and I feel so much more prepared. There are no words to describe just how lucky and thankful I am for this opportunity.”
Jazmin (Marketing): “Orangewood Foundation is known for helping the youth and community grow. This summer they helped their marketing intern grow not only as an employee but as a person. Being a 17 year old girl entering the workplace can be very intimidating, especially if you aren’t too confident in yourself. Walking into Orangewood Foundation you are greeted by smiling, encouraging faces, and people who are always ready to give you a hand if you need it. Everyone at Orangewood Foundation really makes you feel welcome. During my internship I found myself becoming more confident in my work and growing as a person. Working in a place where everything I did benefitted someone really made me feel accomplished. I am truly grateful to have been able to work in such a healthy and positive environment. After this internship I would be very interested in working in marketing for a non-profit organization. I am very grateful that Orangewood Foundation allowed me to experience this opportunity.”
Jesus (Finance): “This summer, I interned at Orangewood Foundation in the finance department. Finance has always been something I have been interested in, and I have an interest in majoring in business in college. Therefore, I thought interning in finance would be a good thing for me to get me started. My experience at Orangewood Foundation as an intern in the finance department was a great one. I felt like I fit right in with the team, and the work I did was very eye opening to me. I learned a lot about how the business is run behind the scenes, and a lot of things the finance department does to make sure the foundation doesn’t fail. I want to thank the Orangewood Foundation for allowing me to be a part of such a great team and letting me learn so much while working there.”
Cinthia is a former foster youth who had a traumatic childhood. Now a mother herself, she embodies a fierce desire to give her children a better life.
Cinthia’s mother died when she was a baby, and her father left Cinthia and her siblings with their great aunt. The children suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of their care-takers and other adults in the family for years. Finally, when Cinthia was 13, a teacher noticed the signs of abuse in her older sister and the children were removed from their great aunt’s care and placed into foster care. Cinthia bounced around group homes and shelters from age 13 to 18. When she was released from the foster care system at 18, she was a young mother with no idea how she was going to provide for her children. “I felt like I was just thrown into the world with no preparation,” Cinthia explains.
It was around this time that Cinthia discovered Orangewood. The skills she learned in these workshops, together with support from Orangewood staff and services from our on-site resource center, helped Cinthia to get on her feet and chart a direction for her life. Today, Cinthia and her children live in a three bedroom townhome. Cinthia works full-time as a team-lead at Goodwill, and she is up for a promotion to a manager position. Her next goals are to finish her bachelor’s degree and get her license and a car.
Though she is mostly independent now, we still see Cinthia often – for two great reasons! First, she takes a day off of work every month so she can buy groceries and come in and cook a giant lunch for our resource center youth. “If someone gives to you, when you are able, you try to give back a little bit,” Cinthia explains.
The other reason we see Cinthia now? Her oldest daughter, Jessica, started her freshman year this week at our Samueli Academy charter high school! When Cinthia talks about Samueli Academy, she has a huge smile on her face and tears in her eyes. “I just feel so relieved that my daughter is going to get a good education,” she tells us. “For generations, my family has seen drug abuse, sexual abuse, high school drop-outs and teen pregnancy. My kids and I are breaking that cycle. I’m so happy that Jessica is not going to be just another statistic.”
Jessica is pretty excited, too. “When she found out she was accepted to Samueli Academy, she called me and she was just crying,” Cinthia says. “She was so excited I could barely understand her. She has a Samueli Academy t-shirt, and I swear she wears it once a week.” We caught up with Cinthia and Jessica at the school last week, and sure enough, she was wearing her t-shirt with pride. Jessica, who was bubbling with excitement about her first day, is especially looking forward to the engineering program, and the hands-on learning style of the Academy. “I can’t wait to start building things,” she says, giggling.
We are so proud of the amazing future Cinthia is building for herself and her family!