Waymakers celebrates 50 years of helping those in crisis with reception

Sophia Alcaraz talks about how the Waymakers program saved her life, during the Waymakers 50th anniversary reception.
An emotional Sophia Alcaraz talks about how the Waymakers program saved her life, during the Waymakers 50th anniversary reception on Thursday at UC Irvine.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Waymakers, the Orange County nonprofit that helps people in crisis and conflict, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a reception on Thursday.

Held at the University Club at UC Irvine, it provided a couple of full-circle moments.

UC Irvine School of Social Ecology Dean Jon Gould remarked that it was appropriate the event was held on campus, considering Waymakers began with a pilot partnership between late UC Irvine professor Arnold Binder, a few of his students and a Costa Mesa Police Department captain in 1972.

The next year, funding allowed for the formation of the organization and paid staff.

More than 100 guests at Thursday’s reception also heard from Sophia Alcaraz, who entered the Waymakers Laguna Beach youth shelter at age 15. At the time she entered the program, she said she was dealing with issues like anxiety, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.

Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens, O.C. Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer and UCI School of Social Ecology Dean Jon Gould chat.
Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens, Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer and UCI School of Social Ecology Dean Jon Gould, from left, chat during the Waymakers 50th anniversary reception on Thursday at UC Irvine. Waymakers is an Orange County-based nonprofit that help individuals move from a crisis situation, to a safe and stable environment in local communities.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“The foundation gave me hope, at a time in my life when I had none,” she said. “If my younger self could see me now, I would tell you that she would be absolutely flabbergasted, but so proud.”

A decade later, Alcaraz is a success story. The Mission Viejo native is co-founder of Lightning Creative, a marketing agency specialized on the real estate industry. A percentage of the company’s sales each month is given back to Waymakers.

“I’m a big believer in what comes around goes around,” she said. “I can’t really repay them for what they did for me, but I want to make that message known to other people. That way, they might be able to give back in ways that they can.”

Speakers at the reception also included Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley and Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer, each of whom presented certificates to the organization.

A decorated cookie marks the 50th anniversary of Waymakers.
Each place setting at the Waymakers’ 50th anniversary event included a cookie decorated in keeping with the theme.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Foley, whose District 5 includes Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and much of south Orange County, said she’s done work with Waymakers on victim assistance, as well as educational work with students.

“We have a lot of Waymakers programs through the county of Orange,” Foley said. “They’re literally a direct partner with us to provide services related to homelessness and just a safety net for youth. They are so integral to the fabric of our safety net community of service providers that sometimes you don’t even know that they’re involved. They’re just always there.”

In addition to its youth shelters in Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and Tustin, Waymakers opened a fourth shelter for young adults last year, also in Tustin.

 Sophia Alcaraz wipes away tears as she recalls how Waymakers saved her life.
Speaker Sophia Alcaraz wipes away tears as she tells the audience of the life-changing experiences she had through Waymakers.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

That Crisis Residential Program is for people ages 18 to 25, known as a Transition Age Youth, said program director Lisa Samaan.

“At that point, they’re aging out of their home, so their risk of homelessness is really high,” she said. “Also, that is the time where we see a lot of budding mental health disorders. We’re able to do a little bit more of early adulthood intervention, in terms of mental health support ... and provide them support in pursuing whichever avenue they want to go.”

Annie Stawicki, the president of the Waymakers Board of Directors, is a Costa Mesa resident. She said she’s proud of the progress the organization has made in the last 50 years and excited about the opportunities to come in the next 50 years.

“We’ve been meeting as a board, putting together a strategic plan,” she said. “We really want to intentionally set our path. What does that mean? We want to stay focused on what we do well, but a big part of us also wants to take responsibility for training others to do this line of work as well. It’s a pretty exciting time, really, and I think the 50th anniversary makes us focus on what we are doing, what we have done and what are our opportunities for the future.”

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