Jennifer Friend: From Homeless to Hopeful

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Jennifer Friend at the Project Hope Alliance and Skyview Elementary school headquarters in Orange. —Photo by Sara Hall

Jennifer Friend has a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

The longtime local was recently named the Executive Director for Project Hope Alliance, a non-profit 501c(3) organization dedicated to ending homelessness in Orange County through education and family stability.

“There are 28,000 homeless kids in Orange County,” Friend said. “We would like to have the ability to make education accessible to every child in Orange County.”

She officially starts her new work on Jan. 1, but for her, it’s been 42 years in the making.

Friend, now a successful lawyer and a partner at Selman Breitman LLP, spent her middle and high school years going back and forth from an oceanfront house to living in motels.

“We either lived on the oceanfront or we lived in a motel,” Friend said. “It was pretty drastic… Economically schizophrenic. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

Her parents were loving and hard-working and, despite the family hardships, were determined to keep the kids in school. Friend and her three younger brothers all received good educations and went on to be successful in their respective careers.

But growing up with that kind of economic instability was hard to deal with, and Friend found herself constantly chasing stability in her adult life.

She was always “pushing, pushing, pushing” in her career, she said, “so that I would never go back.”

She was really afraid, she admitted.

The last few years flipped that all upside down, she said.

“I wasn’t happy just pursuing stability, it was hollow,” she said.

The more she got involved with Project Hope, the more she realized what a huge part of her had been missing.

In spring of 2010, the Project Hope board asked her to share her story at a big fundraiser. At that point in her life, she didn’t openly share her story.

She struggled with the decision, primarily because she worried it would be too much for her dad since he had a sense of shame associated with it and she didn’t want to put him in a bad light.

“He knew the importance of the story and he wanted me to be able to share that if it could make it better for another kid,” she said. But “he was really struggling with it (as well).”

So she agreed, but still wasn’t completely comfortable with it.

Then her father died suddenly, about one month before the event.

“So now I had this story to tell… and my dad wasn’t there anymore,” she said.

“Being vulnerable is not something that I’ve ever enjoyed being,” Friend continued. “And this was basically me putting my biggest point of vulnerability in front of people who were in my new world, who didn’t know anything about my past.”

But she did it, she put herself out there and told her story.

Soon, between her work with Project Hope Alliance and her dad’s passing, she started to deal with her past.

“Everything was really brought to the light and I started realizing that instead of this part of my life being my most shameful moment, it could actually be the most powerful tool used to be able to help others,” Friend said.

As she considered the executive director position with the Project Hope Alliance, she was unsure if she could give up the stability in her career that she had been working toward and pushing for her entire life and take the leap for something completely different and out of her comfort zone.

But she felt that working for Project Hope was what she was meant to do.

“My fear almost prevented me from doing what I feel I was called to do,” she said, “but I’m really glad it didn’t.”

A recent sermon by her pastor happened to be relevant to her current situation and helped support her decision.

“My pastor was saying to have courage, even if it makes you seasick,” to get out of the boat during a storm, she said, and trust that she will be able to walk on water with Jesus’ help.

“I thought that was so funny and so right,” Friend said. “I might get seasick sometimes, but there’s nothing else I want to do.”

“I feel really blessed that I’ve been given that courage to get out of the boat,” she continued, “and I never imagined that it would be this amazing outside (of the boat). I don’t think I realized how much I limited my heart by staying in the boat.”

For the first time in her life, she feels like she truly is herself and who she was always meant to be.

Her past, present and future all make her who she truly is. She’s the kid in the motel, she’s the determined lawyer and she’s the person who wants to change the world.

And through Project Hope she is helping change the world in her own way.

Project Hope supports Skyview Elementary’s kindergarten through eighth grade school, which accommodates up to 95 children from all around Orange County.

Some students stay from kindergarten through eighth grade.

“There are quite a few students who stay the whole entire time because this is pretty much the most consistent thing that they have in their lives,” Friend said.

Project Hope Alliance also pays for the transportation to Tustin Boys and Girls Club, as well as to educational classes and after-school programs.

“We have the ability to make a tremendous difference in their lives,” Friend said.

For a lot of kids, who maybe don’t have clean or fitting clothes to wear to school, or they haven’t eaten, or maybe they slept in the back of a car, Friend said, to have to deal with a regular public school environment with all of the issues they have, it makes it really difficult to focus on learning, Friend said.

“There was a lot of shame that I experienced as a kid,” she said. “Here, the kids don’t have to deal with any of those barriers, they just get to come to learn. So, by doing that, they’re able to boost their self-confidence and pay attention to what’s actually going on in the classroom, as opposed to what’s going on in their life.”

This increases their chances at success as they transition into a mainstream high school, she explained.

The organization recently leveraged a $15,000 grant from Bright Horizons, Friend said, and with the help of other sponsors and donors, is being used in what is turning out to be a complete makeover for the school.

“It’s really exciting,” she said.

They are getting new flooring, play therapy area, food storage area, storage bins and organizational containers, a computer lab, and more.

They have also begun talks with Chef Azmin Ghahreman at Sapphire to bring the food program to Skyview Elementary, Friend said, while still staying within their budgetary constraints.

“We couldn’t even be more excited,” Friend said. “This is amazing (nutritious, organic) food… This is the food their bodies need so their brains can work.”

From personal experience and as a parent, Friend said, she knows that the kids aren’t going to be able to learn properly if their bodies don’t have the fuel that they need.

“This amazing opportunity to feed their bodies so that the teachers can feed their minds, is incredible,” she said.

There are several strategic partners spearheading the remodel, Friend said, including Bright Horizons, Taco Bell, Lennova Inc., Christidis General Contracting, DIRT ON U inc., and Golden State Foods.

“Because our mission is to educate and empower homeless children in Orange County, to break the cycle of poverty, giving them an environment that’s stimulating, warm and can also be a sense of pride for them, is really important,” Friend said.

She recently came “full circle,” she said, as she signed some checks to help move a family into permanent, stable housing as part of Project Hope’s Family Stability Program.

And this is exactly what she feels she is supposed to be doing with her life.

“And what’s crazy is that to do what I feel I’ve been called to do in my life, which is to help children realize that they’re not defined by their parents economic circumstances, I had to give up my own stability to do this,” she said. “I really feel that God has shown me that it’s not the stability that matters, it’s the purpose of my life that matters.”

She feels blessed to tell her story now, she said, and she knows her dad is in heaven shaking his fists up in the air in silent cheers.

“So every time I get a little seasick, God gives me a little Dramamine,” Friend said. “If it was up to me, when it comes to this kind of stuff, I might have just stayed in the boat. But I’m so glad I’m not in the boat anymore.”

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  1. I went through what she went through in its entirety, growing up. That she is able to make that kind of transformation and help other children in similar situations is awe inspiring, and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you, Jennifer Friend. You are a true hero.