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A History of Success, A Future of Promise

​​Alumni Hall of Fame

Nora Mendez

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: poverty-stricken.  

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 SteppingUP program.

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.