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We touched down in dusty Santa Ana, CA Saturday to begin our eight weeks here in the “happiest place on earth,” but quickly learned that this wasn’t all there is to the story. From visiting the Richard Nixon Presidential Library to a presentation about various OC nonprofits at United Way to Girls, Inc. and STEM training and lesson plans to simply driving from our dorms in Fullerton to work in Costa Mesa, there is a lot more to Orange County than the scenic palm trees and distant mountains. As the home of places such as Disney Land, many of OC’s persistent issues are hidden: homelessness, domestic violence, hunger and even many of the OC residents don’t realize that problems exist. In addition, as a native South Carolinian who had never been to California before, this first week was a whirlwind of new experiences, from heavy traffic to dry weather to the lack of green space.

Richard Nixon, president of the United States from 1969 to 1974, was born in Yorba Linda to humble beginnings, just down the street from our lodgings at the current location of the Presidential Library. He came into office just after the tumultuous 60’s, chock full of protests and uneasiness, from the Civil Rights movement to Kent State and Vietnam to the Cold War. While most people just know of Nixon from the disgrace of Watergate, he did much more: beginning the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, forging new relations with China and the Soviet Union, ending the draft, founding the EPA, and signing Title IX, among other achievements. Even though I learned a lot of this information in AP US History, I had never really connected all of these actions together as the main works of one man who came from basically nothing. Visiting the site was a great introduction to a small piece of California history before embarking on this eight weeks.

Another thoroughly interesting learning experience was hearing from a few of the nonprofits that operate in the OC: United Way, Mercy House, Project Hope, Second Harvest, Human Options. All five of these organizations stressed the importance of educating the public, as many affluent individuals in the area don’t realize and/or care about those struggling in their midst. A family earning less than $90,000 per year is considered low income here, and to be considered middle class with a median home, a family must earn $160,000 per year. Just from these numbers, it’s obvious that anyone working a minimum wage or low-paying job will be readily shut out of the housing market. In addition, HUD only defines homelessness as those who sleep on the street or outside, without cover. This leaves out many families’ cohabitating places, such as a one bedroom apartment or sleeping in someone’s garage. Because of this, nonprofits receiving federal funding must turn these families away, as they have “adequate housing” when they’re sleeping in a tub or an unheated garage. Each of these non-profits is trying to attack these issues, among others, in different ways, doing the best they can with what they have. But there is so much more work to do, and I am looking forward to helping in the way that I can: through education.