For some youth school is a task; for Orlando it was a chance to escape. Orlando explains, “It provided stability. It was going to be there no matter what happened. I was always there.”
While growing up, Orlando saw the struggles of his mother living paycheck to paycheck, trying to support him and his siblings. At one point in his life, the family was living in a motel room, which they called home. When Orlando was 12, his mother was arrested and he and his younger sister, Desiree, were placed into foster care. Orlando didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his older brother who was in a gang at a young age. So he gravitated towards books and school instead, as a mean of providing a better life for himself and his sister.
In addition to school, Orlando’s focus has always been Desiree. He’s taken care of her since she was a baby. While they were in foster care, he helped her get ready for school each day, making sure her homework was done, and that she was doing well and had the help and support she needed.
By Orlando’s senior year of high school, he was thinking of his future and a way to show his sister a better life. And with that motivation Orlando looked into college. The small high school Orlando went to didn’t have experience helping foster youth. No one in Orlando’s family graduated high school, let alone college. Orlando quickly realized that getting in to and being able to afford college was up to him. He says, “I frantically starting looking into scholarships. I wasn’t even sure scholarships were real.”
It was then that Orlando discovered Orangewood Foundation. Foundation scholarships allowed him the opportunity to focus on school and his education. With Orangewood’s help, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Northridge. In 2017, thanks in part to Orangewood Advanced Studies scholarships, Orlando received his Master of Social Work from USC. “Receiving the scholarships was a testament that people believed in me when I didn’t really believe in myself.”
Orlando’s sister, Desiree, is also receiving college scholarships from Orangewood Foundation. When he thinks about the time a year from now when she’ll graduate, with tears in his eyes he says, “To see her walk across the steps and receive her diploma, my heart is going to be completely full. Everything that I had to sacrifice was worth it. She’s going to be able to pursue whatever she wants. I’m so incredibly proud of her and her strength.”
Our program staff work directly with over 2,000 Orange County youth per year. Many of these staff members have been doing this work for nearly a decade. But there are some youth whose experiences stick with these staff members for years. For Mo in our Resource Center, Angel was one of these youth. “Angel has really touched my heart,” she says. “Every time I see him now I am so happy. He is miles from where he used to be. He’s such a good kid who just needed a chance, and we were able to give him that chance.”
Angel was born in North Carolina to teenage parents who were in a gang and frequently abused drugs. His mother had lupus and was frequently in and out of the hospital, and his older brother was being abused by his father. When he was four years old, Angel was removed from his parents care. With this move, his life became even more tumultuous. Of his placements he says, “It’s confusing when you’re five years old. There are these two big people who are supposed to be ‘mom and dad’ now and then the next thing you know, you’re getting moved to live with two new people.”
At age five, Angel was placed with his aunt in California. Because he was scared and confused, he became combative and his aunt soon surrendered his care to his grandmother. “I didn’t feel like I was worthy of love,” Angel explains, “and I used this as an excuse to fight. I was really just scared but I put on this act like I didn’t care.” When he was a teenager, he started doing drugs and dropped out of high school. Soon after that, he became homeless.
It was during this time that Angel’s social worker introduced him to Orangewood Foundation. He started coming in to the Resource Center for food and a place to do laundry, and soon connected with Mo. “There was this day, about a year and a half ago, that I will never forget,” Mo says. “It was Thanksgiving and a volunteer had brought in a Thanksgiving lunch. Angel had just left to take a nap, so I went outside to try to find him and bring him some lunch. When I found him, he was in between two buildings, sleeping in the dirt. It has been so hard for me to shake that image. No human being should have to live like that.”
Eventually, with the persistent support of the Resource Center staff, Angel started to turn things around. Today, he is 10 months sober and has a steady job in San Diego as a manager at a pizza restaurant. “I used to not feel like I was worthy of love or care,” Angel says. “Mo and Lisa, the Resource Center staff, they changed that for me. Orangewood Foundation is my home, and the staff are my family. This program literally changed my life. I have no words to explain how grateful I am.”
Our mentor program is a great opportunity for community members who want to gain an in-depth, hands-on experience with our youth, and a huge benefit to youth who need a stable adult presence in their lives! Mentors and mentees spend time together bonding, having fun, and experiencing new things. But mentors also help their mentees through tough stuff and growing pains. Michelle has been involved with mentoring at Orangewood Foundation since 2011. She has been matched with her mentee, Alicia for almost 2 years. Michelle is extremely patient and understanding, and has been a tremendous support and advocate for Alicia. She assists Alicia through life’s challenges and barriers, and celebrates her successes and milestones.
“There have been lots of firsts for her during our time together,” Michelle says. “The first time she did a horseback trail ride, the first time she bowled a strike, the first time she lived in her own apartment, the first time she had a makeover. We have experienced many fun and happy firsts together, but there have also been some firsts that are memorable but not in a good way. That’s what being a mentor is all about, being there for your mentee no matter what life throws at them.”
Michelle and Alicia met shortly after Alicia turned 18, just before Alicia graduated from high school and gave birth to her second son. All of these life events are major transitions. Michelle was able to support Alicia through these transitions and work with her to help Alicia meet her goals along the way. “Most of our time together is focused on ways to work towards meeting her goals,” Michelle says. “When we aren’t together I spend time researching various things to help her out or to find things to do on outings. We also spend a lot of time texting between outings. She relies on me to help her in ways I never thought I would be needed.”
Being a mentor has also allowed Michelle to consider her own life experience, and build a gratitude for the strong support system she had growing up. “I frequently think back at what I was doing and what I was experiencing when I was a young adult. I realize how privileged I was to have a strong family support system and opportunities to go to college and find jobs with relative ease. Being a mentor is life altering and has allowed me to give back to young women who want a better life for themselves and their kids.” We are so thankful for Michelle and so proud of Alicia. What a great pair!
If you are interested in learning more about becoming a mentor, please visit our volunteer page.
In honor of Valentine’s month, we wanted to share some Orangewood love! For a staff member who is a former Orangewood youth, a current student at our Samueli Academy charter high school, and a current resident of our transitional housing program, Orangewood means love in lots of different ways. We wanted to pass these messages along to say THANKS for sharing the love with our youth!
If you’ve been to our office lately, you’ll surely have interacted with our delightful new receptionist, Alejandra. Before she joined the Orangewood staff, Alejandra was an Orangewood youth! Here’s what she wanted to share:
“When I was younger, Orangewood was the light at the end of a very dark tunnel for me. It was my place of compassion, hope and love. When I heard about the open receptionist job, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to help my family financially, while also continuing to be a part of the Orangewood family. I love working at Orangewood because I can spread love and happiness by making everyone feel welcomed, by being helpful, and by just providing a smile or a listening ear to anyone who walks through our doors.”
For Samueli Academy Senior, Kira, our charter high school is more like a family than a school. Here’s what she shared:
“What I love most about Samueli Academy is how it is like a family. I was really shy in middle school and there were cliques and things that made it hard for me to branch out. Here I have been able to blossom because it’s such a family environment. The teachers really care about you as a person and connect with you emotionally. And, I’ve built so many long-term friendships here than I think I would have at a traditional school. I feel so fortunate to have spent the last four years at such an amazing place.”
One of our current Orangewood youth, Jasmin, who lives in our transitional housing program with her son, Josiah, also had some Orangewood love to share. She says:
“To me, Orangewood Foundation means comfort, love, and home! I had lots of family problems when I was younger. When I found out I was pregnant with my son, I knew my environment needed to change. I applied for Orangewood’s Rising Tide housing program, and it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made! Staff members Mitzi & LaCretia have helped me every step of the way. They have taught me how to let my guard down and not be afraid to ask for help. They have helped me build a better relationship with my family and learn how to be a better mom to my son, Josiah. Without Orangewood I would not be who I am today. Thank you Orangewood staff for giving me comfort, love and a place to call home.”
Lucy* is a 22 year old woman with thick-framed glasses, sparkly fingernail polish, and a bright, easy smile. She draws people in with her warmth, energy and thoughtful speech. As she tells her story, her foot bounces nervously under the table but her voice never waivers. Lucy is a survivor of sex trafficking in Orange County. She shares her story because, she says, “If sharing my story can prevent what happened to me from happening to even one other girl, I’m going to do it. No one should have to go through what I’ve been through.”
Lucy was born into a loving family and from the first ten years of her life she has only happy memories. But when she was ten, her mom got sick and the family moved in with relatives. This is where Lucy’s happy memories of her childhood end. One of Lucy’s relatives began molesting her, and when her mother died when Lucy was 12, her relative began selling her for sex.
From ages 12-19, Lucy led a jarring double life. During the day, she appeared to be a typical Orange County teenager. At night, she was being sold for sex on the streets. “[My trafficker] allowed me to go to school and play sports, but he controlled every element of my life. What kept me hanging on was remembering how my mom used to tell me ‘God has a plan for your life.’ My faith became the only thing that he couldn’t take from me.”
When she was 19, Lucy ran away. She became homeless and was living on the streets when a woman – whom Lucy describes as “an angel” – brought her to Orangewood Foundation to interview for our Beverly’s House transitional housing. Lucy describes this day as a pivotal moment in her life. “After the interview, I was walking with Jim (an Orangewood staff member), behind him, with my head down, the way I had been forced to by my trafficker for the last ten years. Jim noticed, and told me gently that I didn’t have to do that with him,” Lucy says, with her voice quivering slightly. “That was the first time I really felt freedom.”
Orangewood’s Lighthouse residential program for survivors of sex trafficking opened after Lucy secured stable housing (first at Beverly’s House and then with a family). “If The Lighthouse had existed when I first left the life,” she says, “it would have made it so much easier for me. I needed staff members that were trained to deal with the specific trauma that comes from being trafficked. I needed someone there when I woke up from a horrible nightmare. I’m so glad The Lighthouse exists now for young girls who are leaving the life.”
With the help of Orangewood’s services and staff, Lucy is working towards a stable, happy life. She has a job as a caretaker, and is exploring creative hobbies like painting and writing. “I have to take life day by day right now,” she explains. “There is a lot of trauma in my past that I haven’t healed from yet. I used to believe that I wasn’t worthy of being loved so I took all the love I couldn’t give to myself and put it to good use by loving everyone else. My support team here at Orangewood and my faith keep me going and I’m humbled by the support I have received. It is a difficult process but every day I become a little bit more convinced that I’m worth it.”
*Name has been changed to protect her identity. Additionally because we cannot share a photo of Lucy, she chose this photo of two hands holding a heart to represent her journey towards healing.