Upon arriving in Santa Ana, California, the second-most populous city in Orange County, I immediately felt out of place. I stood by the curb with my luggage, watching cars pass before me. Mercedes, BMW, and Tesla created the vast majority, with a glimpse of Bentley, Aston Martin, and Ferrari roughly every twenty cars. Close to Los Angeles, the illustrious home of movie stars and billionaires, this sight isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. In awe, I waited for our red van affectionately nicknamed “Clifford” to take me to Cal State Fullerton. My old 2004 Honda Civic from high school would’ve been the eyesore of the interstate, the laughing stock on I-5. With a week’s worth of experiences under my belt, this event feels insignificant, but I still can’t shake the fascination and disbelief I feel seeing such cars en route to work in the morning.
As a notably affluent area, Orange County doesn’t seem to need much. An outsider of California, I look at the clean sidewalks and gimmicky coffee bars and wonder, how can there be any way people need our help? Homeless people don’t stand at street corners and baristas are college-educated, making $12.50 an hour. My initial thoughts of Orange County are all positive, with no physically visible shortcomings. Until you look and think a little harder.
Our week began with our first enrichment activity, a trip to the Richard Nixon Library and Museum. A Duke Law School grad, Nixon came from humble beginnings in Yorba Linda, CA, a neighboring town to Fullerton. He worked at his family’s grocery store and earned a scholarship to Duke, also earning the nickname “iron butt” for his proclivity for lengthy study sessions in the library. He rose through the US government, becoming president and ultimately squandering his career through scandal. He met with government officials in China in one of the first US interactions with a communist state (which feels incredibly apropos to learn about given the current president’s recent visit to North Korea) and began withdrawing the US from the Vietnam War. A regular kid from Southern California, he built a career from scratch and resigned from the presidency a national villain, only to have 5 US presidents attend his funeral.
I don’t exactly know the economic standing of Orange County at that time in history, but that period in time seems far different from the wealthy, bourgeois population of the area today. Regular people have been replaced with real estate moguls. A few days ago we attended a meeting at United Way Orange County with Duke alums and other representatives from a number of local nonprofit organizations. The former CEO of United Way was in attendance, a Duke alum and former real estate giant, running the industry for three decades before turning to philanthropy. The presentation was informational about Orange County’s level of poverty, at best emotionally touching and at worst unintentionally tasteless, though illuminating regardless. The organizations provide incredible services to the less fortunate, if those in need are willing to jump through six hoops to receive them. During the presentations we learned the number of people in Orange County at risk of hunger could fill the LA Angels Stadium seven times. Homeless high school students hide amongst their peers undocumented, all due to fear of what would happen if they actually wrote “homeless” on paper. It would seem the super wealthy would jump at the opportunity to help those living in the shadows of the interstate their BMWs drive on. But when asked where the most donations to nonprofits in the area come from, the former CEO mentioned it’s the middle class that gives the most, quickly covering up the statement with the tendency of wealthy families to form their own foundations. I understand people have to make their money somehow, but these millionaires likely earned their bones in real estate a decade ago, ripping the heads off those who now live homeless and in need of the help those very millionaire’s philanthropy efforts give. Talk about a vicious cycle. Money is abundant in this area until you know where to look. When I first saw the affluent Orange County as a DukeEngage location, I never imagined the magnitude of need hidden in these long, flat alleys as I submitted my application.