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.
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 October 2017, our newest program, The Lighthouse residential program for survivors of sex trafficking, has 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.
In the program’s first year, eight young women 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 Sarah 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 Program Supervisor 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,” Sarah 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.”