Trailblazer of the Month – Chris Simonsen

Meet Chris Simonsen our Trailblazer for the month of February. As the CEO of the Orangewood Foundation, Chris leads a mission-driven organization that provides shelter, safety and education to teenagers. Many of whom, are struggling with with addiction and abuse, as well as victims of sex trafficking. His unwavering commitment to the well-being of these young individuals has not only transformed the lives of countless teens but has also set an exemplary standard for community leadership in Orange County CA. Through his visionary approach, he not only addresses immediate challenges but also strives to create a lasting impact on the trajectory of these young lives, embodying the values of compassion, resilience, and community support. Please read on to hear his remarkable story of inspiration and courage. 

Could you share the journey that led you to become involved with The Orangewood Foundation? 

I was in the midst of a successful Finance career with AAA of Southern California, rising from a manager to become the CFO in 10 years. However, the extreme demands of the job and poor culture were very concerning to me. I was not sure what I should do when a letter from a recruiter somehow landed on my desk about a CFO position at a local nonprofit. To me, this was a sign that I should look into this. I did not know anything about Orangewood Foundation, foster youth, homelessness etc. but once I spoke with the leadership team, I knew it was the right place for me. Of course, they were concerned about hiring someone from a $3 billion company to their $7 million nonprofit. Would I be challenged?  Would I accept the much lower salary that they could offer? But at the end of the day, it was meant to be and here I am sixteen years later, and I can truly say that accepting their offer was one of the best decisions of my life.

As the CEO of Orangewood, you oversee programs in health, wellness, housing, life skills, employment, and education. How do these programs work together to address the diverse needs of 2,000 youth, and what outcomes have you observed from this comprehensive approach?

First, we stay true to our mission of serving teens and young adults. That is our area of expertise and we do not stray from that. The youth and young adults that seek our services are some of the most vulnerable in the community – former foster youth, young people experiencing homelessness, and survivors of human trafficking.  Most have experienced significant trauma and do not have a network of supportive adults to assist them as they become adults. That is where Orangewood Foundation can help. Many nonprofits do great work specializing in one service such as housing, or running a food bank/pantry, or running a drop-in center. However, that creates complexities for young people needing support, as they are forced to visit multiple locations and organizations each day to get all their basic needs met. The majority of the time, this is done by public transportation, biking or walking because these youth do not have a car like many young adults. But at Orangewood Foundation, We offer a large suite of programs and services that can usually meet all the youth’s needs. They connected to one primary case manager that can support them, creating an environment where they can build a crucial, trusting relationship with their Youth Support Specialist and our organization. 

Addressing the sex trafficking crisis is undoubtedly challenging. It is truly commendable that Orangewood Foundation has key initiatives, such as The Lighthouse program, focused on victims of sex trafficking. Could you provide insights into the positive impact of The Lighthouse program and share the challenges it aims to address for individuals who have experienced sex trafficking?

When a young person, typically a girl/woman is finally able to escape her trafficking situation, she needs a significant amount of support. Orangewood had been serving young ladies that had been trafficked for many years, but our “regular” programs and services were not a good solution for these survivors whose trauma was so severe. That is why we create the Lighthouse program, the first transitional housing program dedicated to serving survivors of human trafficking. This program has been successful for two primary reasons: our staff are well-trained on this issue and how to work with those impacted by it, and the survivors have a community within the home to provide support to one another. The recovery from being trafficked is not a straight line up and takes many years but Orangewood will stay with our youth for as long as it takes. 

Orangewood Foundation places a strong emphasis on education, through initiatives like the Samueli Academy providing scholarships for colleges and universities. Could you elaborate on the essential tools, steps, and preparations provided by the Orangewood Foundation that play a pivotal role in guiding these youth on their journey toward self-sufficiency through education?

Education is a key component of all of Orangewood’s programs. Many programs teach our youth life skills such as budgeting, financial aid, cooking, managing relationships, parenting, and having a strong physical and mental well-being. This is crucial as most of our young people did not have positive adult role models or family members to teach them these basic skills.  

In addition, we are big proponents of higher education and trade schools as a means to create a successful career and path to self-sufficiency. We support over 200 young adults in higher education with financial grants and case management support to help them navigate the college experience.

In addition, we were so disheartened by the national foster youth graduation rate of 54% that we created our own public charter school, Samueli Academy, in 2013 with the goal of getting more foster youth through high school and excited about attending a college or university. The school has been phenomenal success due to its strong culture and unique Project-Based Learning and Work -Based Learning curriculum. To date, 100% of our foster youth have graduated and over 97% of our entire student body, most of which are low-income Hispanic youth from the surrounding area, have graduated and most have become the first in their families to attend college. We are also so proud of students from our first graduating classes that have now graduated with their college degrees and have embarked on their professional careers.  

Could you highlight a specific instance where The Orangewood Foundation made a significant difference in a youth’s life, particularly in the areas of health & wellness, housing, life skills, employment, or education?

We serve over 2,000 young people each year, but some hold a special place in your heart. I got to know one youth, Angelo, very well. He would visit our Drop-In Resource Center every day to fulfill his basic needs because he was homeless after leaving the foster care system at age 18. To cope with his struggles and numb his pain, he turned to substance abuse. For two years, he was on a rollercoaster of emotions and struggled to maintain employment. At one point, his behavior with our staff was so poor that we had to take the drastic action of banning him from services for 3 months. During this time, he reflected on his situation and asked himself why he was treating the people that were trying to help him so poorly.  He decided to enter a sober living program and our staff visited him regularly, even bringing him a birthday cake while he was there. After 90 days, he emerged a new man. He proceeded to get his GED, attend community college, and hold down a job at Papa John’s. He relocated to San Diego to focus on himself, his job and get away from past acquaintances that were a bad influence. A year later, he was promoted to an assistant manager, running the store most days. He was able to save enough money to buy his first car and two years later, he got married. He is sober, stable and doing great! He still checks in with us periodically and always thanks us for never giving up on him and helping him get to where he is today. But we remind him that he was the one that accomplished everything. We were only there to guide and support him. He is the hero of his story, not Orangewood.

Your work is breaking barriers and creating an impact for the youth of Orange County. In what ways can the community actively contribute and provide additional support to further the Orangewood Foundation mission?

Orangewood could not exist without the generosity and support of our community. We rely on them heavily to deliver high quality programs and services. There are many ways individuals and companies can provide support beyond writing a check. We need volunteer groups to cook in our kitchen every day. They can donate groceries to our food pantry or buy products for our hygiene kits. They can be guest presenters at our Independent Living Workshops or volunteer at a youth or fundraising event. All of these acts of service are integral to our programs and serving our youth.  

We need ambassadors that are passionate about our mission and the work we do and are willing to spread the word about the struggles many young adults face and grow our circle of supporters and influencers. The more people that truly understand the numerous systemic obstacles that our society creates for youth like ours, the better the chance that we can remove those barriers in the future and create an equitable playing field for all young people.

What are your goals and aspirations for Orangewood Foundation for 2024?

Our biggest challenge is housing all of the young adults we work with.  We have made great progress over the past 4-5 years by adding more programs and resources for our youth to access, but the inventory of affordable housing options in the high-cost area of Orange County creates significant challenges. We are working on some housing partnerships with other nonprofits and local municipalities to create more housing capacity for young adults. We are also working with our local United Way to create a comprehensive, county-wide plan to address youth homelessness. Through collaboration, we can accomplish so much more than if we all work independently. We also want to do all we can to keep our young people safe and increase their perception of their self-worth. We tragically lost six of our young people last year due to various reasons, including Fentanyl overdoses. We do not want to experience that again this year. Every life is precious, and every individual has a purpose in life. For some, it may take a while to figure out what that is, but Orangewood Foundation will be by the side of any young person that needs someone to believe in them.


Instagram: @orangewoodfoundation



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