Billy O'Connell knows how to get things done. Maybe it's the tough Irish accent, or the fact that for years he was an L.A. County sheriff. Whatever it is, when you talk to him, you understand he's a no-nonsense, take-charge sort of guy. So years ago, when he got the calling after helping out at a Santa Ana soup kitchen, it was easy to predict he'd soon be making a difference.
Noticing the unspeakably rough conditions that many young moms and children had to endure right here in Orange County, in 1998, O'Connell founded Colette's Children's Home with the stated mission "to provide homeless single women and homeless mothers with children a safe home and nurturing environment where they obtain compassionate support and services needed to achieve self-sufficiency."
Now, 13 years later, Colette's (named for O'Connell's daughter) maintains eight transitional housing shelters (spread throughout Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Anaheim and Placentia) and three permanent affordable housing projects (located in Huntington Beach and Anaheim).
To date, Colette's has helped shelter and care for more than 2,100 women and children. And to hear O'Connell, he is just getting started.
"Last year, we had over 4,000 requests," he told me. "We live in such a rich county, yes, but our homeless numbers are up there with some of the worst cities in the country. We've got to help get these homeless women and children off the streets, and we have a long way to go."
Colette's is one of the few homes that serve homeless women who suffer from a variety of issues such as economic hardship, domestic violence, mental health issues and substance abuse. Their goals for each person are to:
•Remove issues causing displacement into homelessness
•Build character that supports sound decision-making
•Teach relevant knowledge and life skills
•Transition families into stable, permanent housing
During the holidays, the stakes are obviously higher as the organization also looks to make sure that homeless children are able to enjoy at least some warmth, spirit and gifts of the season.
It's also a time when many of the mothers are able to reflect on how much Colette's has done for them.
Rosie Littlejohn, 36, spoke with me at length about how Colette's "saved" her life.
"I had a normal childhood in a good family in Riverside, but I made bad choices," she said. "At age 28, things were great. I managed a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf store, I was very responsible — but then I got hooked on crystal meth. A stupid thing to do. I had a young daughter.
"By age 31, I was in jail for fake IDs, forgery — what they call 'commercial burglary.' I got out and went right back to the drugs. I lost my daughter. I was heading toward some very scary things. All my efforts at sobriety failed. Then someone at the Orange County jail recommended I contact Billy."
Within a week, she had been approved into the program. Within a year, she was working again, regaining her life. Soon, she was reunited with her daughter. And she was married this past October.
"Colette's taught me so much," she said. "How to weed out good people from bad people, how to budget money, how to be an adult. Billy's approach is intense and he is forthright about his mission — to help people like me. He cares. It's not for money, believe me. It's just what his heart tells him to do."
By the way, Rosie even works for Colette's today as an "intake coordinator," working with women and children as they enter the program.
To find out more about how you can help Colette's Children's Home, especially during the holidays, visit http://www.healinghomelessness.org.
On another local holiday note about helping out, kudos to fourth-grader Ryan Mazza at Agnes L. Smith Elementary School here in Huntington Beach. He had the idea last year to create a local Operation Santa Paws chapter at his school to help shelter dogs.
As Ryan's mom, Stacey, told me, they have a rescue dog at home (Bella, a pit bull) and Ryan wanted a way to help generate donations of old towels, blankets, bleach, laundry soap, dog food and other items.
"The things don't have to be new," she told me. "Old towels, blankets, couch cushions — many times, these animals are outside, and so Ryan really wanted to help focus attention on their needs."
Every year the school's Kids for Kindness program targets meaningful charities, and so this fits right in, obviously. Stacey also wanted to acknowledge the efforts of teacher Terri Combs at the school for helping to facilitate the idea.
Ryan's drive at the school ends Friday, but he'd still like for you to help out if you can, and you can visit hautedogs.org/santapaws.html for information on where to drop off your things for the shelter dogs.
The great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late."
I think Emerson would appreciate Billy and Ryan.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at email@example.com.