Welcome to LAUREL HOUSE Providing a Home for Teens in Crisis for 30 Years

Laurel House Teen Featured in OC Register

Trauma and Fs behind her, Foothill High student found help and then a future

Lorena Cruz, 17, a straight-A student at El Modena High in Tustin on Tuesday, 13, 2018 will be attending Grand Canyon University’s Nursing program. When Lorena was 13-years-old she was kidnapped while walking home from school by two men. The trauma sent Lorena into a downward spiral where she struggled with alcohol, depression and rebellion. Lorena’s mother moved her daughter to Laurel House – a home for girls in crisis where she was able to overcome her trauma and excel. (Photo Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)


By  | sgoulding@scng.com | Orange County Register
March 20, 2018 at 3:29 pm

At the Miss Tustin 2018 pageant, Foothill High senior Lorena Cruz owned the spotlight.

Just 17, she confidently modeled an elegant evening gown and belted out a bilingual rendition of the Mexican ballad “Sabor a Mí.”

“It was the first time my mother ever heard me sing,” she said.

Although Cruz didn’t win the crown, she nonetheless reigned supreme. Simply by being there, she had achieved what once seemed an impossible dream.

Three years ago, Cruz was amassing Fs at El Modena High in Orange. She hung out with other troubled kids, used drugs and regularly ditched class.

Today she boasts a 4.0 grade point average. Last week, Tustin Unified School District  handed Cruz its annual award for “overcoming adversity.”

That turnaround began her sophomore year when Cruz moved into Laurel House, a shelter for at-risk girls. Ever since, her name has appeared on Foothill’s honor roll.

As with most children, her poor choices in middle school and ninth grade did not develop in a vacuum.

Cruz grew up in a family stretched thin both financially and emotionally, she said. Her mom rises early to deliver newspapers, and then cleans houses all day. Her dad suffers health issues that often keep him from working.

When Cruz was 13, her girlfriend invited an 18-year-old acquaintence to join them at a park. He brought alcohol.

“It was the first time I’d ever consumed liquor,” Cruz said.

After she passed out, the man raped Cruz inside his car. At a gas station, someone noticed the girl lying on the backseat and called police.

The man ultimately received an 18-year prison sentence.

Cruz already was an apathetic student in middle school and ninth grade. But after the traumatic event, depression sent her spiraling further downward, she said.

“I changed my hair color because I wanted to be someone else, someone who didn’t have that terrible thing happen to her,” Cruz said. “I stored my emotions inside, still wearing a smile on my face.”

That’s when she lost all interest in school and started experimenting with drugs.

A therapist told her family about Laurel House, which serves teen runaways and other girls in crisis. Her mother, Dulce Nava, 40, initially balked at sending her only daughter to live somewhere else.

“I can remember closing the front door after they drove her off, and wanting her to come back,” Nava said.

Still, Nava knew her daughter urgently needed a change of scenery.

“I’m very grateful for Laurel House,” she said. “Lorena is a different person from who she was before.”

Cruz, too, entered Laurel House with trepidation.

“I felt really shy and awkward,” she said. “It wasn’t me to move in with strangers, change schools and try to make new friends.”

However, her new address did not mean separation from loved ones. Cruz visits her parents and older brother often and chats with her mother on the phone almost daily.

The girls are not ripped from their families, dysfunctional though the home environment may be, said Laurel House manager Donna Giddings.

“The goal is reunification,” Giddings said, adding that families, as well as residents, undergo counseling.

The average stay is around 18 months, although Cruz decided to finish high school from the house. A nonprofit, Laurel House and the girls’ care is funded by corporate foundations and local service groups.

Located in a quiet Tustin neighborhood, the shelter has beds for six girls – ages 12 to 17 – who double up in three rooms. The spacious, well-appointed one-story offers such amenities as a crafts room, a homework booth and, for cozy backyard socializing, a fire pit.

Everywhere throughout are colorful landscapes, such as a large canvass of wildflowers covering a dining area wall. The paintings are on loan from the Ahmanson family, patrons of the arts.

“They told us they want the girls to be surrounded and inspired by beauty,” Giddings said.

Residents divvy up chores and learn such skills as sewing, gardening and cooking. For the first few months, they are not allowed access to cell phones or social media, but those privileges gradually return.

“They need to take a breath so they can start healing,” Giddings said. “In the beginning, it’s like a big hug, and then we slowly start releasing them. Eventually, they get to reengage with Facebook and all that stuff – because that’s real life.”

At Foothill, Cruz took zero-period classes and summer school to recover credits lost her freshman year. She is active in AVID, a support program to help shepherd kids toward college. She volunteers as a mentor to younger students and at the Boys & Girls Club.

“Her former grades did not reflect her capabilities,” said her school counselor, Julie McGinis. “Once she got the support she needed, her intelligence took over. She put in 100 percent.”

Cruz talks openly about the dark, and then darker, days before and after her assault.

“She is not embarrassed about it at all,” McGinis said. “She has a big heart, and she believes her story will help other people.”

Cruz candidly shares her difficult past, she said, “to show other people how far you can come.”

Next fall, Cruz will exchange Laurel House for a dormitory at Grand Canyon University, where she plans to earn a nursing degree.

“I would be a high school dropout if not for Laurel House,” Cruz said. “Instead, I’m heading for college. I feel really good about who I am.”