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Interview with Cal Winslow

This CEO of Orangewood Children's Foundation has dedicated his life to helping youth overcome devastating obstacles to achieve their goals. And sometimes, even more.

RALPH PALUMBO

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Child abuse and abandonment don’t happen here in Orange County, right? Wrong. It may come as a shock – it does to most – but here in the home of The Happiest Place on Earth, there were more than 36,000 cases of suspected child abuse, neglect or abandonment in 2011.  

Cal Winslow, CEO of Orangewood Children’s Foundation, thinks that’s about 36,000 too many. And he and his Santa Ana-based organization are fighting hard to lower that number while at the same time helping the victims of child abuse.

It’s an effort to break the cycle of child abuse by helping current victims get an education (nearly half of foster care kids drop out of high school) and become productive citizens. To do it requires a combination of what some might consider tough love, respect for what the kids have gone through, and unconditional support, says Winslow, who, when he ran for governor of California, was labeled a fiscal conservative with a social conscience.


“We are not giving them a handout, we’re giving them a hand up. We realize that kids are going to make mistakes, and our kids are probably going to make more mistakes than others because they’ve had a tougher time. But if they’re willing to do the work, we’re willing to work with them,” he says.

And the results are sometimes nothing short of amazing. Consider the girl who was abandoned at a campsite with a jar of peanut butter. Thanks in large part to Orangewood, she now holds a master’s degree from Harvard. Another former Orangewood kid is going for a PhD at Stanford. And thousands of others have more modest, but still life-changing, successes.

But make no mistake, it is hard work. Due to the tough economic times of the past five years, Orangewood has had to get leaner while serving more kids. “We lost $1.5 million in corporate gifts in the second six months of 2008. These were big corporate donors who just dropped off the map in the fall of 2008. We had to lay off about 20% of our staff. At the same time our needs were going up,” says Winslow.

But, he says, they became a better organization for it. And Winslow has never been more dedicated to helping young victims of abuse through Orangewood’s universally respected programs. That’s saying a lot, too, since Winslow has had a 40-year career in social assistance. He’s worked with Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and served four terms as a Montana state representative, where he chaired the Appropriations Committee on Human Services. So we sat down with Winslow to ask about Orangewood, politics and his career in helping others.

Most of your career, both private and public, has been devoted to helping people in need. Why?
It’s always been where my heart is. As I look back at it, I was critically naïve too, but my political career was really involved in trying to change the world. That’s what you go into politics for, after all: you want to change things and make a better world. So my career today and most of my life has been directed toward helping individuals.

Where did that come from?
When I was in high school my parents worked at a boys ranch and by the time I was 21, I was married and had a child of my own, but we were also lodge parents at a boys ranch. Then I went to work for Jerry Lewis [the Muscular Dystrophy Association] when he was taking his telethon nationally. So I’ve had a lot of exposure to opportunities to help people who are having a tough time.

You went from the boys ranch to help grow Jerry Lewis’s telethon campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Was that difficult?
Yes. Jerry Lewis was trying to take his telethon on a national level. So I was hired as the district director for the MDA. But I was only 21. I was given the state of Montana and told we’d have five TV telethon stations. I said, “Sure, I’ll do it,” but I had no idea what a telethon even was. No one in Montana had heard of them yet.  But I was able to start a summer camp and a clinic and some other things and we were able to help a lot of kids.

This is a political season, and a lot of political debate centers on whether or not to cut certain social services. Where do you come down on the question?
When I was running for governor I was labeled a fiscal conservative with a social conscience and I really worked hard on some welfare reform because I felt that the able-bodied shouldn’t be taking welfare dollars. But that didn’t mean I took the dollars away. I wanted to have them redirected for those who had a greater need. There are a lot of people in our society that are hurting and many more today than when I got started, I believe.

What do you mean?
When I grew up there weren’t people living in tents on the street and standing on street corners. Much of that was created when the mental health institutions were closed down [beginning in the 1970s]. I’m not saying that wasn’t the right decision, but there wasn’t any place for the mentally ill to go. I remember the discussion, because I was in the legislature at the time. It was a bad decision on the part of the public to shut the institutions down before they knew what they would do with the mentally ill. And I think that decision is still plaguing us today.

What would a cut of the charitable deduction do?
It would devastate the charities. It would force [all] care [to be] done by government. And if anything should be certain for those of us who live in California, and this country, it’s that we can’t have government fund these programs because then they have the ups and downs of all the crazy things that happen in government. When I came [to Orangewood], we had about 65% to 70% government funding. We reversed that. It’s about 70% private and 30% government now. And I think that’s much healthier because there’s always an up and a down, or the county or the state going broke. But the need for the kids is always there.

Has the last five years of a tough economy made raising funds more difficult?
It’s been the hardest five years of my professional life. I’ve been through a lot of downturns in the economy, but there were always segments of the economy that were doing OK. This one wiped out everybody. And [Orangewood clients] are right in the heart of the area that was extremely damaged by the economic downturn. You look at our youth; when they turn 18 they are no longer getting [government] support, they are out on the street as adults with probably no significant – if any – family support. In fact, nationally, 50% of foster youth end up on the streets, incarcerated or in some kind of drug treatment program within 18 months of their 18th birthday.

What’s so different about the last five years?
The kids’ lives are obviously challenging and they’re scarred, but before, there were jobs out there. They could get a $10 an hour job. But in the last few years, they’ve been competing with kids with college degrees for those jobs. So there’s nothing for them now.

Were new programs created in response to the economically challenging times?
We developed a program called the Orangewood Resource Center (ORC) because we couldn’t talk to these kids about extras, we had to talk to them about survival. We give out groceries, bread, diapers; we do everything we can for these 18-plus. We don’t have beds for them, but we have three different lunch hours they can sign up for, we have a washer  and dryer you don’t have to put quarters in. We even have 67 kids who have their mail come to us because they live on the streets and don’t have a permanent address.

How did the hard economy change your organization?
We’re a much better organization today because we’ve learned to do a lot more with less. We’ve all learned it’s not okay to have one job; you probably have to have five. And we’re serving way more kids now than a few years ago. We’re just learning to make it go further.

How?   
The year we had to lay off so many of our staff, we hired one person. That person was a volunteer coordinator, and we decided if companies can’t write us checks, they still have employees we would like to be involved. Today we have over 700 volunteers working for us.

Do you find that people are surprised that the problem is so great in a place as affluent as Orange County?  
Always. We struggle with this all the time. In fact, some of the more significant foundations in the country say “We don’t go into Orange County; we give money to L.A. County.” I don’t question that L.A. has a huge issue, but we have youth in OC that are hurting just as bad. And I think that there’s not always an awareness here because we do have such a beautiful county and there is more affluence.

How much responsibility lies with the kids themselves to get their lives in order?
We can’t fix kids and I know that every day I come to work. My job is to help them make the right decisions. They have to make the decisions though. I used to tell people there’s a switch inside every one of them and they can switch it to make something of themselves, or they can feel sorry for themselves. But they don’t start moving forward until they stop looking backwards. We can encourage them, challenge them, give them opportunities, whatever it takes, but they have to make the decision to make a better life.

A lot of them are too scarred for that, though.
Seventy percent of all inmates in California prisons have come out of foster care. That’s awful and unbelievable. It enrages me, but I also know that’s what the system does. It builds dependency in the kids and then at 18 it says, “Now you don’t get anything. Go figure out a way to take care of yourselves.”

Why should society be concerned?
Their parents failed. But if we fail they’re probably going to end up in jail and it’s going to cost us a whole lot more than if we help them succeed and live a productive life.

One of the big ways you help is through education. Why is that such a focus?
Because [these kids] are a tremendous resource that, as a society, we can’t just throw away.

You have 334 youth on scholarships. Give us a success story.
One of our scholarship recipients did not go to school one day of her life until she was 11 years old. She was abandoned in a campsite. left with a jar of peanut butter, crackers, and her younger brother and sister. She was five years old. It’s unbelievable what she’s gone though, yet she made it. We helped her through UCI on a scholarship, then she went on to get her masters at Harvard.

Yet with the high school dropout rate among foster kids at nearly 50% it must feel like an uphill battle. Why is it so tough for these kids to get through school?
We have kids that have been in as many as 20 different schools as they get bounced around in the system. They’ve lived in cars, apartments, on the streets, in foster homes, in Orangewood. We have one girl who graduated from college, but she was in 22 high schools. How can a kid like that survive? I don’t know. I couldn’t have.

Are you addressing that specific problem?
Yes. We have a project called the Orangewood Academy that we’re starting. It’s on 7.5 acres of land we purchased a year ago. We have the plans approved by Santa Ana, we have a charter approved by the district and we are hoping to raise money for a charter high school that will be available for foster and other youth. We’ll also have residences there for 80 kids, so they can live on the campus.

Why is high school so important for these kids?
If they don’t have a high school diploma they’re really trapped. We really believe in education. It can be the one area they succeed in, and that success can catapult them into a life that’s successful instead of a failure. That’s good for all of us.

Your Rising Tide program has been a huge success, too. Tell us about that.
That’s our residential housing that we started in 1999 for the post-emancipation kids [18 and over]. We’ve purchased apartment complexes with 80 apartments. Twelve to 15 are set aside for foster youth. They only pay $250 a month for a very nice apartment and can live there for 18 months as long as they follow the rules. They have to either be working or going to school, submit their budgets and not go into debt. Those programs are looked at around the country as examples of success. I’ve even gotten calls from other countries about them.

What’s so great about it?
Part of it is that it’s also a successful financial model where investors put up the money to get the apartments and the profit from the 65 [that aren’t for foster youth] pays for almost all of the expenses to run the programs. It’s also successful because we’ve found that you don’t want to put too many of the kids together. You want them to be part of society.

What keeps you going in what could be such a disheartening vocation?
I come to work every day with a smile on my face at Orangewood because I know the successes we have. I wasn’t like this when I first started my career years ago with the MDA. In the five years that I worked with Jerry Lewis, every one of those little kids who had muscular dystrophy died. And it just tore me apart because I knew the children and I knew the families. Here, I see kids go on to college and start families, so I see successes. It’s so exhilarating when one of the kids stands up and says, “I just graduated from college. You people might know them as Orangewood; I know them as family.” That’s the kind of stuff that makes it all worth it.




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