Alumni Hall of Fame
The Good Neighbor
California State Assembly Woman of Distinction. Orange
County Woman of the Year. California State Senate Honoree. Over the course of
her distinguished 20-year career, nonprofit executive Nora Mendez has amassed
an impressive list of awards and honors for her inspiring dedication to provide
extremely low-income families with not just an affordable home, but access to educational
opportunities so they can soar to unimagined heights.
Of all the monikers that have been used to describe Nora,
there is one in particular she’s never allowed to define her, or her potential:
Raised on a small farm in a disadvantaged agricultural area
of Jalisco, Mexico, where the economy was tough and the crops of corn, beans
and squash meager, Nora’s parents struggled to provide for their large family. After the untimely death of Nora’s father and sister
due to lack of finances for healthcare, the family of nine found it
increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
Seeking a better life and now the family’s sole breadwinner,
Nora’s mother left Mexico for Santa Ana, finding work as a live-in housekeeper.
Nora and her eight siblings stayed behind at first. It took years, but
eventually, Nora’s mother brought all nine children to the United States. Nora
was just 10 years old.
Though welcomed for its promise of prosperity, the move to
the U.S. came with unwanted circumstances, and challenges. The large family
settled into a one-bedroom apartment in the Mexican-immigrant neighborhood,
bordering on Santa Ana and Garden Grove. Known as “Hard Timers” and fraught
with crime, gangs, and poverty, it was better living, but it was far from easy.
Little did Nora know, the blighted community would change the course of her life,
and the community at-large, forever.
When Nora was a teen, the residents in her apartment complex
organized a rent strike due to their dilapidated living conditions. A local
organization, the Orange County Community Housing Corporation, stepped in to bring
affordable, upgraded housing to residents. Once new buildings were built, through
luck, fate or a combination of the two, Nora’s family was chosen to live in one
of the new units developed by OCCHC.
The new home allowed Nora to shift her focus from the
stresses of home environment, to her future. For Nora, that meant striving for
more than what her neighborhood, her socioeconomic status, and even her own
family history and expectations thought were possible. While high school
guidance counselors pushed Nora to consider trade schools and a cosmetology
career, Nora had larger ambitions. As the first in her family to pursue a
college education, Nora met and developed relationships with mentors and
friends who supported her educational dreams.
In 1994, after receiving her diploma from Garden Grove’s
Santiago High School, Nora headed to Santa Ana College. “I didn’t know what I
wanted to do exactly,” says Nora. “I just knew I needed to study.” Staying
there for five years, Nora took advantage of all SAC had to offer by taking
courses in everything from law to accounting. “SAC was like a family
environment,” says Nora. “The classes were wonderful, and it was accessible and
affordable. It was a really comfortable and safe place to be.” Immersed in
learning, at her counselors urging, Nora focused and developed a plan and a
path to transfer to Cal State Fullerton. “The counselors created a roadmap for
me,” says Nora, who graduated from SAC with an AA degree in 1999.
At Cal State Fullerton, Nora majored in Human Services,
earning a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in 2001. “I always knew I wanted to help
people, like the way I was helped,” says Nora. “I wanted to pay back the
generosity that was shown to me, and pay it forward.” While there, Nora began
interning with the Orange County Community Housing Corporation, the
organization that put her family on the path to self-sufficiency. That was more
than 20 years ago, and she’s still there to this day, paying it forward.
As Executive Director of OCCHC, Nora is known as a selfless
shepherd of community service and education. Through her humility, humanity and
exceptional leadership, she’s made it possible for thousands of families to
obtain affordable housing, and a rich future. As an advocate and administrator,
Nora’s commitment to creating groundbreaking partnerships has led to thousands
of individuals gaining access to housing in Orange County, through management
of nearly 250 units throughout the area. With more than $2 Million in
scholarships received over the past 10 years, Nora’s impact continues to make a
difference for students seeking higher education through the organization’s
When she’s not supporting the self-sufficiency goals of
Orange County’s most vulnerable families, Nora serves on numerous boards,
including The Kennedy Commission, NeighborWorks OC, Community Housing
Resources, Inc, and Thomas Housing Temporary Shelter. Nora also generously lends
her time to various charitable causes.
Her extensive collection of awards and recognitions include
the Orange County Department of Education and City of Santa Ana “Hispanic Woman
of the Year” honor, the “Women of Distinction Award” from the California State
Assembly (2014), the 2013 Latin American Citizens Orange County “Hispanic of
the Year,” and the U.S. House of Representatives Congressional Recognition
Award for her personal accomplishments and civic involvement.
To the Orange County community, Nora is a trusted friend, role
model, leader, and in many respects, a savior.
The way Nora sees it, she’s simply someone who didn’t give
up, that allowed herself to dream the American dream despite her surroundings
and humble beginnings. She persevered, built relationships and stayed the
course to find her place and purpose in the world. “I can reach the American
Dream, you can too. I had a lot of perseverance in everything I did. I just
kept on going, kept on going and it didn’t matter what came my way. I just kept
going forward. I didn’t look back,” says Nora.