Girls Inc. of Orange County celebrates turning 70

Program alumna Emily Olvera and Girls Inc. of Orange County CEO Lucy Santana, from left.
Program alumna Emily Olvera and Girls Inc. of Orange County CEO Lucy Santana, from left, will help celebrate the organization’s 70th anniversary during its annual gala next weekend. The nonprofit’s mission is to empower girls to be strong, smart and bold.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Emily Olvera is the keynote speaker for the Girls Inc. of Orange County 70th anniversary gala, and she’s well equipped to talk about the program and its benefits.

Olvera’s mother first put her in Girls Inc. when she was a 7-year-old growing up in Costa Mesa. Matilde Olvera, an immigrant from Mexico, was a single mom and working three jobs to support Emily and her older brother.

Soon after that, Emily’s dad left, and she said she briefly turned to harming herself.

From those dark days have come a bright future. Emily Olvera is now 24, an Oregon State graduate and headed to Colorado this summer to pursue her doctorate.


“Girls Inc. saved me,” she said. “I say that in the realest sense. I was in a very dark place, and now I’m not. I’m so much of a happy person and have so many dreams and aspirations. The sisterhood is like a safe haven.”

The nonprofit’s platinum birthday celebration will take place Saturday, April 20, at Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach, featuring a performance by local favorite band the Tijuana Dogs.

Girls Inc. of Orange County chief executive officer Lucy Santana is ready to party and celebrate the growth of an organization that started in the 1950s with programs on things like being a good homemaker, sewing and cooking.

Nowadays, its mission is more about self-empowerment and offering girls the skills they need to make their own decisions.

Emily Olvera and Girls Inc. of Orange County CEO Lucy Santana, from left.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“We talk a lot about finding your voice with our girls, whether they’re in kindergarten all the way through college or career,” Santana said. “We realize that everybody’s going to be on their own journey, but I think what’s important is to help girls understand that they have a right to speak up for themselves and to feel safe in the world. To me, that’s always really critical, that we’re ensuring that as girls come through our programs, that they’re seeing what their opportunities are and that they have a choice.”

Olvera said a program like Eureka!, which teaches middle school girls about STEM opportunities, was critical to her success. The Eureka! program, first offered on the Orange Coast College campus in 1999, turns 25 this year, and Santana said it will be offered at three sites this summer.

She ended up playing soccer and running cross country and track at Costa Mesa High before graduating in 2017. She participated in the College Bound program, and Girls Inc. helped her earn National Scholars and Angels Baseball Foundation scholarships that ended up sending her to Oregon State on a full ride. She’s been working as a veterinary technician.

But she learned other skills that were also beneficial to her family. At age 12, she would ride her bike to go deposit checks for her mother’s housecleaning business because she was the only one in the family who knew how to do that.

Matilde has now built her Emynesh Maids business — the name is a combination of her two children’s names — to include more than a dozen employees and about 100 clients. She will be joining her daughter at the 70th anniversary gala. Both are proud of each other in different ways.

“Once my mom was more financially secure, things started changing a little bit for us,” Emily Olvera said, adding that she and her mom are like best friends. “I feel like we grew up together, in a sense … Now she’s a big boss lady.”

Emily Olvera competes for the Costa Mesa High girls' soccer team in 2016.
Emily Olvera competes for the Costa Mesa High girls’ soccer team in 2016.
(File Photo )

Girls Inc. of Orange County is well-positioned, but Santana said there’s room for growth in the future. It has traditionally served girls in central Orange County, leaving more chances in north and south county as well.

The organization currently serves around 9,000 girls and wants to increase that number to 13,000 by 2027.

“We feel like for every girl that we serve, there’s still about 50 more out there that aren’t being reached by us,” Santana said. “Our goal is to continue to partner with different school districts, different community centers and really be able to expand.”

Olvera, for one, is glad that she’s part of the family. Girls Inc. of Orange County recently hired one of her longtime friends in the program, Yvonne Padilla, as its staff accountant. Laura Chavez is another good friend and program alumna who now serves as a senior program success coordinator.

Olvera will be giving her speech to more than 300 people at the platinum anniversary gala, and admits she’s a bit nervous. She’s a dynamic speaker, though, and her story of her time in the program also speaks for itself.

“I thought I was the only one, but there’s a lot of girls out there who are [first-generation Americans] and navigating life in a country that they’re not used to,” Olvera said. “A lot of the girls I was in my writing programs with were just my best friends because they were going through the same things. I wasn’t alone anymore in my thoughts; I had women who supported me and loved me.

“These relationships are forever, really, these connections you build. At 24, I’m still involved, which is really special.”