Young Philanthropists Find a Cause of Their Own

Laguna High students of the Orangewood Club discuss their plans to assist emancipated former foster children under the care of the Orangewood Children’s Foundation..

The seed for the Laguna Beach High School’s Orangewood Club was planted last fall when Laguna Beach resident Mark Powell, a trustee of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, which promotes local philanthropy, took it upon himself to inspire a new generation of young philanthropists.

He began with students in Mindy Hawkins’ Peer Assisted Leadership (PAL) class, teaching them how to become effectively involved in charitable endeavors beyond the school campus.

The students settled on Santa Ana’s Orangewood Children’s Foundation, established to help victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment who are often placed into foster care. The local students started the Orangewood Club to make a tangible difference in the lives of an often-neglected group, foster teens transitioning to adulthood.

“When they emancipate and turn 18, most foster agencies no longer provide services for them and they are left without support,” said Orangewood’s volunteer manager Kristi Piatkowski.

For the 200 to 250 teens in this predicament each year, Orangewood’s drop-in Resource Center provides a welcoming location with services to smooth the road to independence, such as assistance in writing resumes and seeking housing, career guidance, mentors, the use of phones and computers, laundry facilities, groceries and sundries, and a hot meal.

At an interview with a few of the club members earlier this month, including club president Mia Hayes, Jamie Hendrickson, Perry Nielson, Lola Cant and Anika Larsen, all juniors, they all exuded enthusiasm for their mission. “The Orangewood kids have had tougher lives, but they are still teenagers,” said Lola.

Because of privacy laws protecting minors, teens outside of the program are prohibited from interacting directly with those at an Orangewood facility who are under 18. The exception is the Resource Center’s kitchen where the emancipated kids come for a meal.

Through their research, club members discovered that they could make the most impact by joining the as-yet-incomplete rotation of volunteer groups who provide lunchtime meals to the teens at the Resource Center. They are working out a schedule so that a Laguna group will make a meal at the center at least once a month, to start. In December, they plan to hold a gift drive to solicit donations of things teens “really want,” since most contributors think about smaller children, flooding the teens with dolls and toy cars.

In weekly meetings last year, Powell taught the students to assess charities by holding them up to benchmark standards on how well they fulfill their mission and manage their funding. He and Hawkins challenged the students to settle on an area of concern and to apply their newly learned analytic skills.

Mia said that she, Perry and Jamie got together to vet organizations that help children, including the Orangewood Children’s Foundation. The kids presented their results to the class last year, and over the summer decided they wanted a more sustained level of involvement. “So that’s why we started a club,” Perry said. After a club recruiting day in September, 37 kids signed up, though the girls admit that only 15 are truly active.

Powell helped arrange for six club members to visit Orangewood and meet with Piatkowski and development officer Carlos Leija. If the organization already looked good on paper, the visit sealed the deal. “It’s reassuring how organized they are,” said Anika.

The warm welcome and respectful treatment they received increased their determination to get involved.

And the feeling was mutual. Piatkowski said that while other teens have held fundraisers to support Orangewood, none have matched the long-term commitment of the LBHS club.

“What’s great about this high school group is that they took the time to come to the foundation, and they wanted to learn about it and what the needs were, so that they could help us with exactly what we could use,” said Piatkowski. “These guys have a great model, and I hope its something other schools can recognize and adopt,” she said.

Additionally, the students have committed to raising $1,000 towards a scholarship to help a teen attend college. Through bake sales at home football games and donations, they have so far raised $300, a sum they hope to augment through the sale of Krispy Kreme donuts on campus as well as through a link to Orangewood’s website, so that community members can donate on line by visiting: myorangewood.org/oya2012.

They call themselves Orangewood Young Ambassadors, setting themselves apart from the site’s other affiliated groups, all adults.

“It’s good to know we’re doing something important with our time that makes a difference,” said Mia.

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  1. Piero Wemyss

    The work these teens are doing has enormous impact on breaking the chain of child abuse, homelessness, and jail time for the Orangewood former foster youth. Assisting a dependent child to become an independent adult is a gift that will last a lifetime, and for generations.

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