2021 Unsung Heroes of the Year Awards
Our Unsung Hero of the Year awards call out and acknowledge people from our partner agencies who go above and beyond – those who are tirelessly working day in and day out to end homelessness in our community.
It takes more than talk to ensure that our community’s children, families and individuals have access to stable housing. It takes people of action. Their compassion, devotion and passion shine through in all that they do, and they deserve to be recognized.
We thank the following nominated men and women who have made extraordinary contributions in helping champion our cause of inspiring hope and ending homelessness in Orange County.
Three words that describe Tobi: Compassion, Integrity, Humility
Tobi Aclaro has just celebrated her 10th work anniversary at Grandma’s House of Hope! She is a great listener and is always thinking of how each of her interactions might benefit the efforts of another associate. She is an inspiration in the way she commits to getting through both good and challenging times with grace, humility and integrity.
Grandma’s House of Hope offers end of life care through the Healing House Program, and all the people who were struggling with failing health knew Tobi well, as she made it her personal mission to care for their spiritual needs during hospice. After hours, when no one is watching, Tobi drops by to visit, bringing flowers or a special treat, sitting quietly when they are tired, laughing and joking with them on good days, but is mostly just present with them as they face their final days.
Three words that describe Jennylyn: Professionalism, Thoughtfulness, Passion
Jennylyn Adviento is a strong and supportive leader, delivering fantastic results for all the veterans that she serves. She does this in a quiet, unassuming way – never looking for accolades but taking her positivity from the program running well! Her team respects her and the support she delivers. When other programs need support, Jennylyn is always there to step in without question to ensure that everything continues to run smoothly.
During the height of the pandemic, Volunteer of America Los Angeles’ services needed to change quickly to accommodate veterans that were in need of emergency accommodation. Jennylyn was brilliant at planning and organizing her team to deliver these changes on short notice and in a professional way to ensure the veterans were safe and off the streets.
Three words that describe Carmen: Humility, Teamwork, Dedication
Carmen Balandran provides support and education to her team and is passionate about developing her staff into high performing mental health professionals. She is respected amongst her colleagues and her dedication is reflected in her length of service of 20 years at the Mental Health Association of Orange County. Carmen has a deep understanding and empathy of individuals with mental health challenges and she demonstrates that regardless of one’s level of wellness, every individual deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. She focuses on client empowerment while not shying away from being a strong advocate for the people she serves. Carmen understands that working with such a vulnerable population can be challenging and recovery to wellness does not happen overnight.
Three words that describe Annette: Energetic, Genuine, Supportive
Annette Battistone has shown up to support WISEPlace clients’ journey towards permanent housing day after day. She shows up with such a positive energy eager to serve no matter how hard her day has been. She is always eager to jump to the task if it means helping one person move an inch closer to housing. She is incredibly resilient and determined to do a good job for the women that WISEPlace works with.
Three words that describe Grace: Leadership, Compassion, Commitment
Grace Brown-Womack goes above and beyond the call of duty, sharing her knowledge and experience with staff members as she mentors and works them through the hardest challenges clients bring. Grace goes above and beyond; she comes alongside her team members to work with struggling clients and often works late hours and weekends to support her team members to find creative and compassionate solutions to unique challenges they’re experiencing. Whether it is organizing her team, helping a client address barriers, finding alternative shelter for a client escaping threats of violence, or working with a client in the midst of a mental health breakdown, Grace remains compassionate and composed.
Three words that describe Justin: Enthusiastic, Collaborative, Empathetic
Justin Coleman tirelessly partners with major donors and friends of the Salvation Army throughout Orange County to raise awareness about homelessness and the Salvation Army’s various programs and resources, to keep people housed and off the streets. He is humble, unassuming and does an amazing job telling Salvation Army’s story. For an annual fundraiser for the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope, Justin and his team truly went above and beyond to produce an incredible event featuring Jay Leno, a silent auction and inspiring testimonies (live and on video) giving hope to those who are unhoused. The fundraiser greatly exceeded expectations, raising $2.2M for the project.
Three words that describe Angie: Leadership, Compassion, Integrity
Angie Degen provides exceptional contributions every day by consistently putting the health and safety of Illumination Foundation’s clients first and always remains open to innovative ways to further Illumination Foundation’s mission. Angie quietly works behind the scenes and does what needs to be done. She is always there to lend a hand and goes the extra mile for all clients.
Angie is an amazing manager because she truly cares about the quality of care clients receive, and she treats her staff with compassion and understanding. In crisis situations, she calmly and kindly responds while ensuring that staff and clients are treated fairly and given the respect they deserve. She comes in on her days off to host events for clients on holidays, and she is always available for staff with an open mind and heart. Angie makes Illumination Foundation shelters feel more like a home that people feel comfortable in.
Three words that describe Erin: Reliability, Trustworthiness, Inclusiveness
Erin DeRycke has been an incredible asset to not only 2-1-1 Orange County, but also to the participants in the Orange County Continuum of Care. Over the past six years, Erin has led the transition from one Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data platform to a new platform, which required running two systems in parallel for six months; oversight on new training programs; and working collaboratively with agencies all to create a system that met the needs of the community while also meeting HUD and County of Orange requirements.
In 2021, Erin went above and beyond in two key areas- the first was making sure that online database forms for rental assistance and prevention assistance would be able to connect seamlessly into the HMIS database. The second was the development of a mobile outreach app that was requested by an agency to make the access to HMIS easier for street outreach teams.
Tami Di Paolo
Three words that describe Tami: Leadership, Perseverance, Problem-solver
Tami Di Paolo was instrumental in helping Orangewood Foundation become a Coordinated Entry System access point for Transitional Aged Youth (people between the ages of 18 and 24). Tami took the lead even though it was above and beyond her role, got Orangewood staff trained, worked to get the organization set-up in the system and navigated many hurdles along the way. She did it without any indication of how much work it added to her plate. She also continued to be an advocate for our youth in meetings and the collaborative, and at one point directly advocated for a youth to get access to transitional housing and worked with them until they found suitable housing.
Three words that describe Antonia: Innovative, Integrity, Kindness
Antonia Dudney is a community and client advocate. Antonia led response efforts for unhoused individuals by connecting them to housing resources throughout Orange County. In her daily work, she is constantly working on connecting clients to housing resources and supportive services. She is a wonderful community partner and enjoys the rush of knowing she has changed a life! At one point, Antonia worked alongside another agency’s specialist and gifted an individual who is experiencing homelessness with much needed crutches.
Three words that describe Martha: Honest, Team-player, Inclusive
Martha Figueroa is the glue that keeps Thomas House Family Shelter moving. Her role is the Administrative Coordinator however, Martha goes above and beyond to ensure that the needs of residents are met on a daily basis if and when the program staff are not available. If she does not have the information or the resources to give to someone, she will do the research to figure it out. There are so many instances when Martha has gone above and beyond to help end homelessness in Orange County. Martha is truly amazing and embodies the mission of Thomas House and it shows in her work daily.
Three words that describe Amanda: Integrity, Compassion, Solutions-focused
Amanda Hood goes above and beyond for her clients. She is truly exceptional in her advocacy and dedication to the population City Net serves. She is kind, organized, and always willing to put in the time to make sure her clients are served with the utmost care and empathy. Amanda takes on challenges with a positive attitude. She navigates the lengthy social security application process with ease and manages to lend a helping hand to her team. She shows leadership and courage through her role.
Three words that describe Hanna: Creative, Insightful, Positive
Hanna Ibrahim is responsible to the families that Families Forward serves, available to staff for guidance, and volunteers her time to support on-site programs that sometimes need extra hands. Hanna constantly steps up for staff as well as clients and doesn’t think of it as going above or beyond.
While Families Forward was preparing for its annual gala, Hanna helped identify a family to feature and speak at the event. Hanna worked closely with a single mother to coach her for public speaking; she set-up meetings, practice sessions and led this client through the entire process, even making sure to support her throughout the entire evening when she shared her story. Hanna deserves to be recognized for connecting with families and being able to reach Families Forward’s community of supporters.
Three words that describe Tanner: Compassion, Leadership, Innovation
Tanner Lappano has been with South County Outreach for nearly two years and has shown tremendous passion and commitment to those who are in need of a helping hand, and is keenly skilled at de-escalating situations with people who feel they don’t have a voice.
He works directly with homeless families who are in need of basic necessities like food, and shelter. Tanner’s clients always have the most positive feedback and feel fortunate to have a case manager working with them who is so invested in their successes. He successfully managed the agency’s participation in helping the County of Orange administer Emergency Rental Assistance relief, where he led a team of case workers to help hundreds of families pay their rent. He is also leading efforts like the City of Santa Ana’s CARES program and the State of California’s Housing is Key program. In 2021, Tanner was instrumental in helping more than 2,000 individuals keep their homes!
Three words that describe Meng: Passion, Dedication, Commitment
Meng Liev has gone the extra mile in checking in and keeping in touch with her students throughout the pandemic even though she loves in-person tutoring. Meng has been a rock with virtual tutoring since School on Wheels transitioned and she has even been up for tutoring multiple students at the same time and helping them all succeed!
Three words that describe Christina: Selfless Service, Leadership, Servant’s Heart
Christina Moua truly has a servant’s heart and passionate desire to be of service to vulnerable populations. Christina worked tirelessly (literally night and day) to get American Family Housing’s Interim Housing Program up-and-running and was able to lease-up one of the program’s facilities within three weeks. Prior to her work at American Family Housing, Christina did not have any experience in Housing Services but was able to lease-up a program ahead of schedule, led by example and kept her team motivated throughout the process and ensured that the site passed all county audits and inspections. She not only worked diligently during the day to provide quality care for the most vulnerable, but as the head of a multi-generational household, she also provided respite care after work to her now late grandmother. Christina is remarkable–in both her professional and personal life.
Three words that describe Kay: Commitment, Tenacity, Compassion
Kay Ostensen has been an ardent supporter of Friendship Shelter since it was founded in 1988. In both a volunteer role and professional role, she made monthly dinners, led an annual spring work-team, and encouraged Friendship Shelter to begin an intern program. In addition to this, Kay independently worked to connect the organization with graduate school programs and pioneered having UCI medical residents provide in-house psychiatric services all while tirelessly working to navigate the healthcare system’s red tape.
Beyond these contributions, Kay brings an unwavering positive attitude and a sincere, infectious spirit of gratitude for the opportunity to serve. These attributes have provided immeasurable contributions to Friendship Shelter’s organizational culture and work ethic. Kay has mentored and encouraged several staff to become professional social workers, and she has had a hand in the professional journey of every agency all of the agency’s Director-level program and operation team leaders’ careers.
Three words that describe Richard: Compassion, Character, Competency
Richard Owens embodies a “whatever it takes” philosophy. His commitment to Jamboree Housing Corporation’s residents and mission can be seen in everything he does. Richard looks for solutions whenever a challenge arises. He remains calm and collected while leading his team and residents through difficult times. Richard is there to offer a hand and collaborate to get the best outcome. Richard has the unique talent of being able to meet a resident where they are at and deal with complex programmatic needs. Richard went above and beyond for Jamboree Housing’s two new Homekey Sites. He jumped right in and learned about construction and development to make sure the physical site would meet the needs of the clients. At the same time, he was able to create complex program models, oversite, and reporting processes. Without him these two sites would not be where they are at.
Three words that describe Josie: Teamwork, Reliable, Collaborative
Josie Mendez is a vital member of the Family Solutions Collaborative (FSC) team. Josie does a lot of important “behind the scenes” work that doesn’t necessarily put her in the spotlight or allow her to receive the recognition that she deserves. Nevertheless, she continues to work tirelessly without expecting praise. She never misses a deadline and will go above and beyond to offer support and guidance to team members and providers working together to end family homelessness.
Although it is not part of her assigned duties, Josie never hesitates to help in any way she can to ensure that all programs run smoothly while also making sure her regular tasks are completed. Without being asked, Josie took it upon herself to create a tool that described information about the various FSC projects which the providers found to be extremely helpful as they navigate the different types of assistance available to their families.
Three words that describe Joey: Compassionate, Positive, Team-player
Joey Rocha is a dedicated staff who never complains and is always open and willing to take on any task, with excitement and a smile. A lot of the work he does is behind the scenes, and is not always widely recognized, though it is highly noticed and appreciated. Joey has accepted almost every individual case that came through Pathways of Hope’s Access Point without hesitation and strived to help each and every person with their food and housing insecurities by assisting them with resources and support services to aid in their efforts to obtain permanent housing. Joey did all of this without ever anyone having to ask him, and while knowing that Pathways of Hope’s Access Point mainly serves families, he still wanted to help everyone.
Three words that describe Vanessa: Creativity, Energy, Persistence
Vanessa Sher cultivates, nourishes, and maintains hundreds of relationships with Project Hope Alliance’s volunteers. She does this every day with a smile on her face and a mission in her heart. Under her leadership, Vanessa also ensures that the organization efficiently collects and distributes thousands of backpacks, food bags, holiday gifts and monthly care packs to kids experiencing homelessness. While the agency’s frontline team is busy providing direct care, Vanessa inspires the rest of the community to get involved in ending the cycle of homelessness, one child at a time.
During the 2021 holiday season, Vanessa successfully ensured that every family the agency serves was taken care of in terms of food, gifts, and holiday cheer. She single-handedly converted a community center into Santa’s Workshop, and invited parents and guardians to shop for their children. When there were extra gifts, Vanessa did not hesitate to share the items with fellow nonprofits, schools and others in need.
Three words that describe Anthony: Motivation, Creativity, Positive
Anthony Trejo is the rock of the Homeless Intervention Services of Orange County’s CHESS program. He gives selflessly to all the men in the program. Anthony puts the clients first and is always trouble-shooting on how to get them motivated. His positive energy and willingness to give has not only contributed to great outcomes but also lasting relationships. Last year, Anthony and his wife gave up their Christmas holiday to spend time at the house ensuring that the young men in the program had a great Christmas dinner.
Three words that describe Jennifer: Leadership, Positive, Client-focused
Jennifer Vallejo oversees the daily operations of over six permanent supportive housing sites throughout Orange County and works tirelessly to meet the needs of Veterans that are housed at each location.
In addition to her strong program development skills, Jennifer is hands-on with her interdisciplinary staff. She has supported them in everything from high-risk situations to their professional development goals. She understands the importance of building and maintaining relationships between the Department of Veteran Affairs and the community, which has resulted in positive and effective collaboration between the local program and stakeholders. This has resulted in successful connections and retention of permanent housing for Veterans, and has also brought in additional services to Veterans in need. She is an asset to Veterans Affairs Long Beach Healthcare System and ending veteran homelessness in the greater Orange County community.
Three words that describe Porsha: Empathy, Compassion, Cheerful
The cultivation of healthy relationships is no easy task, but Porsha Westbrook does so with passion in her role as a Senior Operations Manager with Chrysalis. As the leader of the Roads Transitional Jobs Program in Orange County, Porsha spends a significant amount of time and care developing clients with lived experience who are enrolled in the program. As clients navigate challenges, Porsha partners with her supervisors and team to craft solutions that enhance the client’s ability to positively respond and thrive in a professional environment.
Porsha’s superpower is active empathetic listening. Porsha recently assisted a client whose bike was stolen. Porsha helped connect the client to a number of resources, which included the purchase of a new bike. The client was very grateful and was able to continue working. This is but one example of Porsha helping clients.
Three words that describe Denise: Caring, Strong, Teamwork
Denise Zermeno is passionate, selfless, caring, and patient. Since day one of working at StandUp for Kids – Orange County, she has demonstrated her commitment to serving youth and young adults who are at-risk of experiencing homelessness. Denise is an extraordinary role model and mentor and is often a beacon of hope to the youth she serves, whom she ensures receive the support, respect, and safety they deserve.
Denise always goes above and beyond. When a family was sleeping in their car, Denise went after work hours to get the family into a motel so they had a safe place to sleep in. She was then able to connect that family to an apartment through Rapid Rehousing. When there was not enough money for a security deposit, Denise paid out of her own pocket to make sure that the family didn’t lose the housing opportunity.