A 12-year-old girl sitting on a motel bed, surrounded by homework, siblings, and parents, all crammed into one small room.A 9-year-old boy entering a classroom with his head down, ashamed about not knowing where he will sleep tonight.

These are the images of children in Orange County who struggle with homelessness — the county’s best-kept secret. Although we may not see these “motel kids” in the streets or desperately gripping cardboard signs, they exist in overwhelming abundance.

Under the area’s veil of affluence are the faces of almost 30,000 children who experience homelessness and 120,000 children who live in poverty. They say goodnight from motels, shelters, and couches. They are forced to focus on where they will sleep instead of what they will learn. Tragically, their educations and futures suffer.

Years ago, I was one of these faces. For decades, I silenced my past as an Orange County motel kid, but in the spring of 2013, I shared my story to spark hope and conversation about childhood homelessness.

As a technology entrepreneur, my father experienced unpredictable lapses in income. Although my mother worked as a preschool teacher, keeping a roof over our family of six proved taxing. While there were periods of financial stability, there were also times of despair.

During my junior high and high school years, my three brothers, our parents, and I often packed our lives into 214-square-foot motel rooms. Feelings of shame, lack of privacy, and an economically schizophrenic childhood created an environment where the basic elements of being a kid, like doing homework, were sometimes lost.

Childhood homelessness data from the U.S. Department of Education is shocking. According to the department, 1 in 30 children in the country experience homelessness. Here in Orange County, it’s 1 in 6. California has the largest population of homeless children in America, and Orange County has more homeless students than the average for the state and for neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego counties, according to the California Department of Education.

The effects of youth homelessness are devastating, ranging from chronic emotional stress and physical malnourishment to significant academic gaps and difficulty making friends. In comparison with their peers, children experiencing homelessness are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times more likely to drop out of school, and three times more likely to be placed in special education programs, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.

But there is hope.

At Project Hope Alliance, we start with the kids. Our goal is to make sure that every homeless child in Orange County succeeds academically.

Our impactful approach ends the cycle of generational homelessness by empowering our kids with a unique academic program that is lovingly tailored to their skills and strengths to help them achieve financial independence.

Since 2012, we have ended homelessness for more than 1,500 kids and parents by stabilizing families in their own homes and providing their children with an exceptional education.

Take my story as an example of the boundless power of faith, hope, and determination. Since graduating from the University of California, Irvine, and Whittier Law School, to becoming a partner at a large law firm before age 40, and then leaving the practice of law to proudly serve as Project Hope Alliance’s CEO, I now realize that my story is not about me. I just happen to be the one with a voice right now to communicate that a child’s future should never be determined by their parents’ economic circumstances.

Read the LA Times article about Jennifer’s story.

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