Executive Director, Project Hope Alliance
When Jennifer Friend was in her formative middle and high school years, she was smart, ambitious and had a supportive mother and father. Unfortunately, she was often also homeless. Or almost, anyway. For much of her school years, Friend was one of Orange County’s “motel kids” – children who live in motels because their parents lack the financial stability to afford a permanent home. Hence, entire families are relegated to a 214-square-foot room with no kitchen, no privacy and an assortment of nefarious characters doing everything from selling drugs and sex to committing violent crimes in the rooms around them. In Friend’s case, the 214 square feet was filled with her father, a technology entrepreneur whose business ventures were sporadic; her mother, a preschool teacher; and three brothers.
It made it a little tough to be a kid, let alone do her math homework.
But somehow Friend not only survived, she excelled. She graduated from high school – then UC Irvine – then Whittier Law School. At age 38, she made partner at the Santa Ana office of Selman Breitman law firm. It was, to say the least, an incredible feat for someone who once considered a closet her room in a one-bedroom apartment her parents managed to rent for a while between hotel stints.
“I was determined. I am sometimes determined to a fault. And my faith had a tremendous amount to do with it. I grew up always believing that I mattered and that I did have a purpose and that I was responsible for fulfilling that purpose,” she says.
That purpose is to help as many as she can of the estimated 28,000 homeless kids in Orange County, many living in motels and shelters, to get a good education. To do it, she left her well-appointed partner’s law office and took over as executive director at Orange County’s Project Hope Alliance – where her office is now used for the school’s kindergarten lunch and music. Project Hope Alliance is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending family homelessness in Orange County by helping kids get an education and families move into permanent housing. They do it through individual, corporate and foundation donors. And the dedicated work from people like Friend.