n June of this year, Alex and Jacqui Cruz and their young daughters were living in a rental home in Garden Grove with two relatives when they noticed their lights were flickering. Then at 1 a.m., they awakened to screams.
The home was so choked with smoke they could barely find their way out. The house was red-tagged, and they were forced to live in their car in the driveway.
“It was tough,” says Jacqui Cruz, 26. “It was a small car, so we had to make it work.”
“But we did feel a little safer parking at our old house rather than being in the street,” says her husband Alex, 26. “At least the security cameras were still up around the house.”
After the fire, they made a home out of their car for four days, until Jacqui got in a car accident. “Some lady in a Civic was speeding through the bike lane, and she smacked right into me,” Jacqui says.
A local group started in 2007, The Illumination Foundation helps provide housing and services to homeless families. It was co-founded by Paul Leon, a public health nurse for the county, after some bleak but enlightening visits to the county’s cold-weather armories. He teamed with Paul Sungmin Cho, a Harvard and UC Irvine graduate who worked for 16 years in investment banking. Since its inception, the foundation has given more than a million nights of shelter to homeless people and last year had a budget of $22 million.
The Illumination Foundation brought the Cruzes into a family shelter offering private rooms in a big house.
“It felt like a home; it was actually in a home,” Jacqui says. “We had our own room and our own bathroom. Whatever trauma my girls were experiencing only lasted a short time because we were able to get into a shelter. There were other families there, everybody going through difficulties just like us.”
Rose Wolfrum, the director of Family and Children programs, says many families have experienced trauma, and a major goal of the program is to help them move past it. “Rather than making the trauma who you are, you integrate it into your story,” she says. “You know it’s part of you, but it doesn’t define you.”
The Cruzes each went to TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa, and both went on to become active on sports teams at Estancia High School. They joined a Christian fellowship for athletes. Alex had planned to join the military in part to help pay for college—he wanted to get a job in a medical field—but their two little girls came along, and that plan got delayed.
When I met them, the Cruz family had just moved into an apartment in Anaheim. I climbed the stairs to their new place and was greeted with a hug around the legs by their 3-year-old and 18-month-old daughters. Dressed in pink floral chiffon dresses, they bounced off the walls, chasing a ball through the dining area, which was missing a table.
This month in Stanton, The Illumination Foundation sponsors its seventh annual holiday carnival for homeless children. The event offers more than 600 low-income families something many toy handouts don’t: a choice. While the children are busy playing old-fashioned carnival games, the parents go into a room and pick out toys their kids might like.
Charitable and youth groups provide game booths, such as crafts projects, face painting, cookie decorating, snowball bowling, and Pin the Nose on Olaf. School groups also donate entertainment such as caroling. Segerstrom High School student athletes set up backdrops and decorations.
“It’s an environment that helps kids help other kids,” says Caroline Horstmann, director of Volunteers and Community Engagement.
The carnival is largely supported by the community, but the foundation is only able to get about a fourth of its toy donations from the big drives, so it welcomes unwrapped gifts.
“It’s awesome that we get to pick out our own toys for our kids,” Alex Cruz says. The holidays would otherwise be tight this year because he was just starting back at work, finally confident his young family was safe and not living on the street.
“It allows the parents ownership, to give their kids the toys they want,” Horstmann says.
The Cruz children are so young they will probably never remember the carnival they went to that horrible year when their house burned down and their car got smashed. They might not recall the toys Santa brought them that Christmas. But chances are they’ll get a few extra smiles this year, and those might be the best gift of all.
I’m familiar with most of the homeless programs in the county, and so many of them do great work. We’re lucky to have this homegrown Illumination Foundation, because it works to provide more than shelter; it gives families the leg up they need to get off the street.
HOW TO HELP
The foundation is supported by a combination of public and private funds, including the annual OC Chef’s Table in March.
For more information, visit ifhomeless.org.