Poised beyond her 22 years and articulating an inspirational story in a strong, confident voice, the young woman might be seen as having her work cut out for her: convincing the audience that she had been an at-risk teenager a few years before.
Jessica Vieira is working her way up in management at Wal-Mart, where she's been promoted three times in the past three years. She took time out from her job earlier this week to speak at the eighth anniversary celebration of the Community Service Programs' Huntington Beach Youth Shelter. She credits the facility with saving her life.
"I didn't really have a home," said Vieira, who arrived at the shelter when she was 15, after she'd been kicked out of several other youth programs.
"I was never a person people wanted around. I didn't have people that seemed like they cared. I thought those people were fiction, in my imagination — people who were genuine and compassionate and just wanted the best for people, that loved people for just who they are. I never found that before."
The Community Service Programs' Huntington Beach facility, one of two youth shelters operated by the nonprofit — the other is in Laguna Beach — honored several individuals and groups during its annual open house.
Volunteers Kathy and Chuck Wooten received the Inspiration Award for their weekly visits with their dog Rodrigo. Jacki Wirta was given the Unsung Hero award for teaching cooking and other life lessons to residents over the past three years. Carole Kanode and Irene Briggs received the Legacy Award for their long-standing commitment to volunteerism.
Huntington Beach City Councilman Joe Carchio accepted the Distinguished Partner Award on behalf of the city. Huntington Beach Kiwanis and Santa Ana-based Cable Exchange were recognized at the outdoor event June 10 as vital partners in providing important services and financial support.
"It's an expensive operation because of the intensity of services we provide," shelter director Elsa Greenfield said, noting the $500,000 annual operating budget.
Community Service Programs is funded with federal, state and county monies as well as United Way and private donations, according to its website.
"It's not just a shelter," Greenfield said. "It goes beyond basic needs, basic food clothing, a clean bed. We provide therapy for the youth and their families. All the kids are home-schooled here so there's tutoring. We also teach them life skills, job-career readiness. It's a lot of comprehensive services."
Community Service Programs works to create synergy between community groups and at-risk youths, who range in age from 11 to 17 and typically stay at the shelter for about a month. The shelter serves about 120 residents per year.
"Why these events are important is that there's kind of a reinforcement where you go, 'Oh, look at all these other people doing the same thing that we are, that I am,'" said Jeff Lebow, a past award recipient who supplies the shelter with fresh fruit through the Harvest Club of Orange County. "It's more of a visual representation of what the community really is."
Shelter graduate Vieira said she was offering proof of what community support can accomplish: her own remarkable transformation.
"I want better for myself, like, I deserve better. I am worth it," Vieira told the crowd. "This place planted the seed that I carried with me. And when I was ready, it blossomed in to a beautiful flower."