Medical school is a lofty and ambitious dream for anyone. For a former foster youth like Emily, it could very well be an impossible dream. When she was a child, Emily’s father was a drug user and physically abusive. Emily, along with her two sisters and her brother, was placed in foster care when she was six years old. The siblings were taken in by Emily’s grandmother when Emily was eight. Emily’s grandmother provided a stable and loving home for the siblings. “She filled an indescribable void and became like my mom,” Emily says.
Those years of stability eventually led Emily to UCLA where, with help from Orangewood Foundation scholarships, she earned a B.S. in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology. Unfortunately, during a break from school when Emily was visiting her grandmother, she went into cardiac arrest. “I desperately tried to save her life by attempting CPR,” Emily says. “Yet amidst the sounds of cracking ribs and the sharp wail of the paramedic’s sirens, I was unsuccessful.” Emily’s grandmother died in her arms from congestive heart failure at the age of 81 that night.
The painful death of Emily’s grandmother motivated her to become a doctor. “I knew she would want me to carry on,” Emily explains. Emily was accepted to medical school at Albany Medical College in New York in 2013. Orangewood’s Advanced Studies scholarships gave her financial support while she was in school. “Orangewood scholarships made it possible for me to pay tuition, buy books, and have the occasional lunch out with friends, instead of eating Top Ramen alone in my dorm room.”
In June of 2017, Emily became Dr. Harris, making her Orangewood Foundation’s first medical doctor. She was able to achieve this ambitious goal through her intelligence and perseverance, the love of her grandmother, and Orangewood Foundation, which provided critical scholarships during her years at UCLA and in medical school. “I owe everything to Orangewood’s donors – silent and anonymous people whom I’ve never even met,” notes Dr. Harris. “I am in awe of how Orangewood’s donors have faith in former foster youth like me and I look forward to becoming a donor when I can.”
As of next month, our newest program, The Lighthouse residential program for survivors of sex trafficking, will have been operating for a full year! In honor of the program’s first anniversary, we wanted to share an update on our year and on some of the young women in the program. Due to the sensitive nature of the background of Lighthouse residents, where residents are mentioned below, their names have been changed for privacy.
Over the last year, six young women have moved into The Lighthouse, though some of them were unable to stay due to extenuating circumstances. Our very first resident, Elle, has been in the program for the full 11 months. For Elle, as with the other residents, getting out of “the life” of sex trafficking is just the first step in a long process of healing and growing. “These young women have spent so much time being told what to do and how to feel, that they struggle having healthy, safe, fulfilling relationships with others,” Lighthouse staff member Sara explains. “My main goal is working with our survivors to figure out who they are and what they want in life.”
For Elle, the housing stability, coupled with love and guidance from staff, has provided the foundation she’s needed to make great progress. When she moved in, she had just earned her high school diploma and she was ready for more. She worked over the holidays and earlier this year began a medical assistant certificate program. She was diligent in her studies, although there were challenging moments.
“Although the residents are excited to be taking the next step in their educational pursuits, thoughts about school are often filled with anxiety,” Lighthouse Director Polly explains. “Our young women worry that they have missed so much school they won’t be able to keep up, or that they won’t know what to say if a classmate asks them about themselves.” With lots of support, patience, and love from staff, Elle graduated from her certificate program in June and finished her four-week internship in July. And, we are thrilled to announce that she started community college this fall!
As important as her education is to her, Elle also appreciates the home environment at The Lighthouse. Some of her favorite things include playing with water balloons in the backyard with other residents, sitting at the table to do her homework, and eating meals together.
The same is true for Anna, who has been in The Lighthouse program for almost 10 months. “Living at The Lighthouse has opened up a lot of positive relationships for me,” Anna says. “I have been able to build friendships there and celebrate achievements with my peers like seeing them graduate from high school. The Lighthouse is a place where I can heal and grow… where I know I can build safe relationships and feel at home.” Like Elle, Anna is making great progress on her educational goals. She is working towards a degree in law enforcement at Cypress College while working two part-time jobs.
As our residents are building great relationships and attaining educational success, they continue to work to overcome the trauma in their past. “Sometimes some of the young women miss the security and protection of having a trafficker to take care of them,” Sara explains. “Some of the girls put their self-worth in sexual attention and struggle feeling accepted, so we work on separating the two. Some were exposed to drugs and alcohol in “the life” and they miss the numbing effects of that, especially when the stresses of life are weighing on them.”
Our residents continue to build coping skills and learn healthy ways of dealing with stress. They are sorting through their pasts and learning about themselves and their insecurities. With help and support from the Lighthouse, our hope is for these young women is to heal and grow, to set goals, to work, and ultimately to experience true happiness.
In what feels like the blink of an eye, summer is coming to an end, and kids and teens are headed back to school. For some students, the month of August can be bittersweet. But for Orangewood youth Elizabeth, it has been nothing but exciting!
Last week Elizabeth began her first semester at UC Berkeley. We had the chance to sit down with Elizabeth a few weeks ago before she left for her orientation. Like any incoming college freshman, she was mostly excited (about her classes and exploring San Francisco) and a little bit nervous (about moving into her university apartment with her roommate whom she had not yet met). She is planning on majoring in English, hoping to get a chance to study abroad in Scotland, and dreaming of going to law school after she receives her undergraduate degree.
For Elizabeth, school has always been more than just an institution of learning. When Elizabeth was a child, she suffered abuse at the hands of her parents. From kindergarten on, school was an escape from what was happening to her at home. “I always particularly liked reading,” she explained, “because it let my mind totally go to a different place.” When she was in middle school, Elizabeth became comfortable enough with a school counselor to reveal the abuse that she and her siblings were enduring at home. Once the abuse had been reported, Elizabeth and two of her siblings who were still minors were removed from their parents’ care, and placed into foster care.
At first, the siblings were placed in a foster home together. Although the foster home was stable and the foster parents were kind, Elizabeth never quite settled into the placement. “I just never quite felt comfortable living in someone else’s home,” she explains. She bounced around foster homes for a year or two, and was eventually placed in a group home. Throughout these rocky years, school remained an escape for Elizabeth. She took honors courses and joined the swim team, filling her time and thoughts with school. And she never lost the ability to lose herself in a book.
While she was in high school, because of the trauma in her past, Elizabeth’s social worker connected her with a Mental Health Case Worker at Orangewood Foundation. Orangewood staff helped Elizabeth develop coping skills and manage her stress. When she graduated from high school, Orangewood staff helped her find employment at a local YMCA as a lifeguard, and encouraged her to keep swimming (as she had done in high school) to help manage her stress. For a few years after she graduated high school, Elizabeth worked two part-time jobs, and took classes at a local community college with the help of Orangewood scholarships. When she decided she wanted to enroll in a four-year university to turn her love of books into an English degree, Orangewood staff was there to help. Although she didn’t think she would get in, she applied to Berkeley because, as she explained, “If you’re going to go to college, you might as well try to go to the best one you can!”
“Orangewood has helped me every step of the way,” Elizabeth says, “from helping me learn coping skills, to helping me navigate the college application process. Orangewood staff members have guided me and served as role models, and the financial assistance has been such a huge help. I’m so appreciative of the help and very excited to be pursuing my dreams at Berkeley.” We are excited for you, too, Elizabeth, and can’t wait to see what your future holds!
Diana is a bright and bubbly 18-year-old who just graduated from high school, just got her first part-time job, and is starting her first semester of college in the fall. If you ask her what she’s worried about right now, she’ll tell you she’s worried about passing her driver’s license test. Upon first meeting her, she seem in every way to be a typical, happy 18-year old. However Diana’s life has been anything but typical.
Diana has been in foster care since she was two years old. She and her sister were removed from their mother’s care due to abuse and placed into the foster care system. The sisters were kept together at first, but soon separated. Over her time in the system, Diana had 34 placements in two different states. “It was just…hectic,” Diana says. “My life always felt so chaotic. I never felt like I had a moment to take a breath, or knew who to turn to when I needed help.”
At the end of 2016, Diana’s life took two fortuitous turns. First, she reconnected with a woman who had been the apartment manager at an apartment complex where Dianna lived when she was younger. “She was like a confidant of mine when I was a kid,” Diana explains. When they reconnected, Diana’s former apartment manager agreed to become her foster mom. Now Diana lives with her in Lake Forest, and for the first time in her life, she feels settled. “It’s so peaceful in the house. I feel like I can finally take a breath.”
Shortly after Diana moved in with her new foster mom, her social worker recommended Orangewood Foundation to her. Diana connected with one of our Independent Living Specialists, Alejandra, in March of this year, and the two formed an instant bond. Alejandra and Diana got to work on getting Diana her first part-time job. Alejandra helped Diana polish her resume, and connected her with another local nonprofit to get professional interview clothes. Diana had an interview with a local restaurant on the same day that she got her new interview clothes, and she was hired on the spot! Today she’s been working for a little over a month, and she loves it.
Diana and Alejandra are now working on Diana’s application for an Orangewood scholarship for her first semester at Santiago Canyon College in the fall. Diana wants to study at Santiago for two years and then transfer to a four year college. When she graduates, she wants to be an elementary school teacher. When we asked her to describe what Orangewood and Alejandra meant to her, Diana didn’t hesitate. “Stability,” she said firmly. “I know that I can call Alejandra whenever I need anything. Even if it’s something Orangewood doesn’t provide, I know she will connect me to someone who does. I’ve never had stability like that before, and it means so much.”
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!