Even now, Jennifer Friend wonders if her former classmates from sixth and seventh grades bought the stories she would spin.
Growing up, she masked her family's financial instability and episodic homelessness by claiming that her phone wasn't working or that she was house-sitting. She wanted to avoid visits and sleepovers at all costs.
"Really, it didn't matter if they [believed me] or not," she said. "I was just too ashamed to tell them the truth."
Friend and her three brothers, who split their youths between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, were raised by a technology-entrepreneur father and a mother who taught preschool. When her father's business did well, the family stayed afloat. When it didn't, neither did they, forcing them to take shelter at friends' homes and in motels.
"I would try to gauge if we were close to being evicted by looking through the mail, paying attention to what was or was not in the refrigerator, being aware of where we did or did not drive to because of gas money and if our utilities were or were not connected," Friend said.
"This is all to say that while I was incredibly blessed to have loving, nurturing and engaged parents, for a kid, I had a lot on my mind."
It's no wonder that now the Costa Mesa resident's thoughts are about other similarly-afflicted children. Today, every email that takes flight from her inbox is signed "For the kids."
Friend is the chief exective of Project Hope Alliance, an Orange County-based nonprofit striving to end homelessness for an estimated 28,000 children in the area. She zealously oversees all efforts to not only educate them but also help their families move from shelters into homes.
Many youngsters ages 10 to 18 tend to be concerned about making the football team, cheerleading squad or student council or participating in the yearbook, Friend said. By contrast, those eligible for aid from Project Hope Alliance and its partner agencies worry about whether they will have dinner each night or a place to get a few hours' sleep.
"This leaves little room or energy for doing math homework, dreaming of becoming a scientist or learning how to play a musical instrument," Friend remarked. "I know that because I once 'had a lot on my mind,' I am passionately protective over what the children that we serve have on their minds."
Hope for 500
The board members of Project Hope Alliance made a bold move earlier this year. The organization, established in 1989 by elementary school teacher Ann Robinson, who tutored students residing in motels, announced its "Hope for 500 Campaign" — an intent to end homelessness for 500 children and their families in Orange County by the end of 2014.
The program will work on increasing the education level and skills of parents to increase their earning potential and confidence in their parenting. It also includes tutoring, educational advocacy, counseling and other academic enrichment opportunities for students.
Many of the people with whom Friend works take refuge in transitional, or temporary, housing. Others pack their families tightly into one-bedroom houses.
She has found that such situations are caused — and sustained over long periods of time — by bad credit scores, perhaps an eviction notice at some point, and an inability to save a deposit and first and last month's rent. So the families shell out about $1,200 monthly for motel lodging instead.
Friend added that the recession wiped out jobs in industries like construction. Also, close to 30% of the parents with whom her team works have not passed ninth grade. The prevalence of undereducation encouraged Project Hope Alliance to partner with the Clinton Global Initiative to help these adults get their high school diplomas.
By way of its year-old Family Stability Program, Project Hope Alliance works with property managers and apartment owners in backing low-income families who may have poor credit and even providing the first and last month's rent for them. It costs $1,500 per child — a total of move-in costs, utility assistance and rental support — to place a family in a permanent home. Of those families that work with Project Hope Alliance, 77% become financially independent within a year, Friend said.
When she joined Project Hope Alliance in 2013, the organization was serving about 65 children, all of whom attended one school. Now it works with children attending 39 campuses scattered across 21 cities in the county, and even offers transportation to and from school for some of them.
"I can't wait to see how many kids we are serving in 2015," Friend said.
An invisible population
Project Hope Alliance was informed that the Newport-Mesa Unified School District had 254 homeless children as of 2012. But when its team began working with the district, it discovered that the number was well above 500 in just two schools, Friend said. In Orange County, homeless residents aren't always readily visible. Locally, they appear in pockets throughout the region, namely Beach, Harbor and Garden Grove boulevards, which are flanked by motels.
Friend counts Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County as a key partner. Project Hope Alliance has directed about 30 children to the nonprofit, where they are then paired with mentors, said its chief executive, Melissa Beck. Some attend weekly after-school programs and receive learning-based help on homework and projects. Others spend a couple hours with their mentors, two to four times a month, going to parks, movies, sporting events and elsewhere.
A consistent adult presence is important in the youths' lives, Beck said, so they have someone to turn to if a situation they can't handle arises.
"We put [mentors] into children's lives to help them make the right decisions if perhaps their parents are unable to provide for them due to time constraints or if they are absentee parents," Beck said. "The most impactful way to get a kid surrounded by challenges to make good decisions and break the cycle of poverty is to introduce them to a positive, dynamic adult role model."
'A catharsis of colors'
Another way to combat the malaise that can permeate these youngsters' days is through art. That's where Laurie Zagon and her team at Art & Creativity for Healing Inc. step in to work with Project Hope Alliance.
In the 14 years since its inception, the Laguna Hills-based nonprofit has worked with more than 43,000 people, some of whom are cancer or AIDS patients. Others are victims of domestic violence or homelessness, such as those from Project Hope Alliance, who take Zagon's workshops in batches of 10.
"It's designed for people who are not artists — we are not trying to teach them how to draw or paint," she said. "We begin by asking them to express with two colors what is upsetting them or making them angry, and so on. It's a catharsis of colors on canvas to help them get out some of everyday life's adversities — a way to get it out without having to talk about it."
Looking back on her dysfunctional childhood in New York, Zagon said that she has always considered art her friend. Feelings that were tucked away deep inside gained a life through her expression of colors — something that helped her heal and is now benefiting others she works with.
Through collaborating with Project Hope Alliance, she has found that children who have dealt with homelessness are much more mature than their counterparts who are accustomed to a comparatively more comfortable environment. They also thank her repeatedly upon receiving Healing Art Boxes — shoe boxes containing paints, sketch pads, markers, color pens and other supplies.
"I've never met children who are so grateful," she said. "Others who have already been given a lot and are used to getting everything very rarely thank me. These kids say, 'Oh, art supplies!' 'I love these,' 'This is exactly what I wanted.' They can't thank you enough."
For more information about Project Hope Alliance or to make donations, visit http://www.projecthopealliance.org.