Home isn’t just where you hang your hat, it’s where you hang your heart. And that place, for Santa Ana College alumna Nora Mendez, is Orange County, California and the Orange County Community Housing Corporation.
Over the course of her distinguished 20-year career, this nonprofit executive has amassed an impressive list of awards and honors. California Community College Distinguished Alumni. California State Assembly Woman of Distinction. Orange County Woman of the Year. California State Senate Honoree.
But what’s more inspiring is her boundless determination to provide extremely low-income families with affordable housing and access to educational opportunities, to give them a chance.
Mendez was raised on a small farm in an agricultural area of Jalisco, Mexico. The economy was tough and crops meager. Her parents struggled to provide for the family. After the untimely death of her father and sister, Mendez and her eight siblings, one by one, were brought to the U.S. by their mother, who found work as a live-in housekeeper. It took years, but eventually the family was reunited in a one-bedroom apartment near Santa Ana. Even in a neighborhood fraught with crime, gangs, and poverty, it was better living.
Around the time Mendez was reaching her teen years, tenants in her apartment complex organized a rent strike to protest the dilapidated living conditions. That’s when a local organization, the Orange County Community Housing Corporation (OCCHC), offered to upgrade the complex. When the buildings were built, her family was selected to live in a new unit.
The new home allowed Mendez to shift her focus from the stresses of environment to the promises of education, a future. And she reached for it.
In 1994, after receiving her diploma from Santiago High School, she headed to college, Santa Ana College. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly,” says Mendez. “I just knew I needed to study. SAC was like a family environment. The classes were wonderful, and it was accessible and affordable. It was a really comfortable and safe place to be.”
At her counselor’s urging, she developed a path, graduated from SAC with an associate degree in 1999 and transferred to the university.
At California State Fullerton, Mendez majored in Human Services and earned a bachelor’s degree in 2001. She also began interning with the Orange County Community Housing Corporation, the very organization that put her family on the path to self-sufficiency.
"I always knew I wanted to help people, like the way I was helped,” she says. “I wanted to pay back the generosity that was shown to me.”
Fast forward 20 years and she is the executive director of the organization. She’s also a community leader who has made it possible for thousands of Orange County families to obtain affordable housing and a better future. As an advocate and administrator, Mendez is committed to creating groundbreaking partnerships, which have helped the OCCHC’s SteppingUP program distribute more than $2 million in scholarships over the past decade to students pursuing higher education.
In her own time, Mendez contributes to various charitable causes and sits on numerous boards, including The Kennedy Commission, NeighborWorks OC, and Community Housing Resources, Inc.
As Mendez sees it, she simply didn’t give up. “I had a lot of perseverance in everything I did. It didn’t matter what came my way. I just kept going, forward. I didn’t look back,” she says.
To the Orange County community, Mendez is a trusted friend, role model, leader. She’s also a really good neighbor.