By Alejandra Carrillo
Esperanza Ortega is the program director of Students Soldiers Justice Memorial Foundation, also known as The Hook-Up Resource Center, which offers college students and returning veterans help with job preparation, food and resources, a shelter and independent living skills.
Ortega started her involvement in programs that served the community 15 years after she opened her first program for teen moms. At the age of 15, Ortega found herself going through the struggles of becoming a teen mom and learned the importance of not being offered a place to go to and learn more about it.
“Although I had the support from my parents and family, I did not have the support from the community because being a teen mom in my time was looked upon as shameful and at that point I knew I was going to have to do something about it,” Ortega said. The lack of information the community offered to its residents triggered her to want to make a difference in the future for those students who are in the position she was in.
Although she was never homeless, the experience of being a part of other programs and foundations taught her the struggles people might be going through. She decided to open the Hook-Up Resource Center after she realized how little attention is given to homeless students and veterans attending East Los Angeles College, or living in the community, that are in need of assistance.
Ortega was inspired by a particular homeless student known as “Speedy” after she met him during the Occupy Movement, which took place late October – January. Started by Angie Rincon, the purpose of this movement was to try and get school officials attention for the increase of unit prices by protesting and sleeping in tents inside campus.
Ortega said that during this time she met with many homeless students, including Speedy, who were sleeping on campus or going from couch to couch in many homes, yet still managed to be well rounded, hardworking students. She couldn’t help but to try and do some kind of service for these students in need.
“It’s such a blessing to help someone and to provide them with necessities… It’s an honor,” she said. With the help of director of veterans at The Hook-Up, William Valenzuela, and volunteers Robert Musselman and Irene Castillo, they were able to contact city officials and rent as well as remodel the resource center which has helped about five students find a temporary home.
According to Ortega this center has in some way become a home for many homeless students. This is a safe and quiet place where they can come in to study or have a warm meal. Not only are books provided but also computers with free WiFi for those who are studying there.
Every Friday and Saturday they hold events for the community such as resume building, children’s art classes and music lessons.
Ortega’s next mission is to expand the center by purchasing a home for students to temporarily live in and keep off the streets.
Although she isn’t looking into starting new programs she has big plans for this one which she hopes to accomplish.
The Hook-Up is a 1200 square foot office located at 923 W. Whittier Blvd. in the city of Montebello and runs only on donations from school, other organizations or the community. Ortega says that providing this is a way of her giving back to the community.