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During our first week, we met with Duke alum and a handful of representatives from non-profit agencies in Orange County at the Orange County United Way building. This meeting was very informational and enlightening. It was a pleasure to meet Max Gardner, a notable and impressionable Duke alumni who was deemed a Top 100 Most Influential Person in Orange County, California for his work at United Way. Max Gardner was very welcoming and it was inspiring to see that a successful, happy, and hardworking man started out just as I am with an undergraduate education at Duke University.

The representatives at this event came from Mercy House, Project Hope, Second Harvest, and Human Options. Each agency has worked hard towards addressing the different issues present in Orange County but all of them stressed one common message: despite California’s (specifically, Orange County’s) image of being an affluent paradise, there are still many problems; and because of this image, many of its issues are not given the attention, time, and care that they need.

One particular example of such an issue not being addressed because of California’s image stood out to me. When we first arrived in Fullerton, California I was filled with excitement. I had landed in sunny California at the beautiful John Wayne Airport, met up with my fellow DukeEngagers, and was ready for my first experience on the West Coast. We moved into our dorm rooms on the gorgeous California State University Fullerton campus, went shopping for things we needed or forgot at home; we visited the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace and Laguna Beach during the first few days when we had free time before work; and we met the lovely people working at Girls Inc. during our first week of training. The instant I had stepped foot into California, I was surrounded by sun, incredible people, and restaurants and stores from street to street. It seemed exactly like what I had seen on TV, in movies, or had heard about from others.

During this United Way event, however, the representatives from Mercy House and Project Hope stressed that one of the issues in California was homelessness. I listened intently, understanding that homelessness is a common issue in large cities, but held the information that I was given as an abstract. I believed that homelessness was predominant in other parts of Orange County, not the main parts that everyone sees, and not in a large enough area that it was known to everyone—it was just a concept, but not a reality. This belief of mine was shattered when, the very next day, we stopped by a coffee shop after a long day of training. We drove through Santa Ana on our way back from Costa Mesa (where Girls Inc. is located) and soon enough I saw many homeless individuals on the street. I was jolted.

This first week has been very rewarding: I’ve met and gotten to begin working with amazing people, and to see California for the first time. But I’ve also learned that sunny California isn’t always sunny and I shouldn’t have simply accepted that it is the paradise that it’s often advertised to be. There is much work to be done, and I hope to continue learning about what issues are prevalent in this area while I work for Girls Inc.