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By Ashley Ryan | Contributor


Orange County is filled with nonprofits that aim to fund important causes — from pets, wildlife and the environment to the many issues people face, including hunger, homelessness, domestic violence and access to education. With so much good happening in one place, it’s easy for organizations to fly under the radar. These nonprofits may be lesser known, but that doesn’t stop them from putting their whole hearts into the cause.


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Photo courtesy of Laura Ford

Three years ago, Orange County resident Laura Ford decided it was time to step in and help the butterflies. “I always enjoyed gardening when I was a child … and so, when I came to Laguna, I learned about what was happening to the monarch butterfly population,” she says. “I was walking through Heisler Park and I thought, ‘How can we sit here, being essentially in paradise, and not think outside of ourselves as to how we can help a beautiful butterfly?’”

So, the Pollinator Protection Fund was born. Since 2021, Laura has led the effort to help not only monarchs, but other pollinators as well, including various species of bees and hummingbirds. A big part of this push has been the creation of public gardens from Los Angeles to San Diego. Laura herself draws up the blueprints for these nature-driven masterpieces, which can be found in parks, hotels and housing communities along the coast. She also does much of the heavy lifting to add the proper soil and maintain its health before selecting and planting milkweed, native grasses and other plants.

In addition, Laura put together roughly 20 habitat boxes that were given away to teachers and parents in early June. Containing chemical-free, organic soil and plants like lilac verbena and narrowleaf milkweed, the boxes also serve as educational tools to spread the word about how creating new spaces can help birds and insects thrive. Another giveaway will be held Aug. 3 at Los Rios Park in San Juan Capistrano during the Festival of the Butterflies. 




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Photo courtesy of WISEPlace

For nearly 100 years, WISEPlace — “WISE” meaning women, inspired, supported, empowered — has fought to house the homeless in Orange County. “We exist because we believe in a future where every woman can and should be housed and safe,” explains CEO Brateil Aghasi.

The nonprofit currently has a 96 percent success rate through efforts that include providing secure shelter and more permanent solutions for housing. It also offers wraparound services such as counseling, case management, goal creation, financial planning, employment assistance, socialization and addiction recovery.

“All other nonprofit organizations in O.C. focus on women with children [or] families, which leaves thousands of unaccompanied women, and more and more older adults and seniors, … vulnerable and experiencing homelessness,” Brateil explains. “WISEPlace stands in this gap of services for women of all ages without children [or] families, and has proudly served over 8,600 unaccompanied women since our 1929 inception.”

But the path to this goal has not always been easy. Despite the nonprofit’s long-standing history, Brateil says it almost had to shut down in 2017. Having to rebuild the following year was difficult, but she says they pushed through to reach a place where the organization is thriving rather than just surviving. “We’ve come a very long way, and I’m proud of our desire to keep growing and evolving with our current affordable housing expansions to reach even more women in the community with quality and sustainable services that end homelessness,” she adds. 




Photo courtesy of Abound Food Care

Hunger and food waste stand in opposition, yet they’re two very common problems. Abound Food Care works to combat both issues by linking restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, growers and other distributors with places for them to donate excess food items. Beyond that, the nonprofit combines modern technology and human kinship to connect food recovery organizations throughout the region.

The group started more than a decade ago — originally launched as Waste Not OC by Eric Handler, a former public health officer, and Mark Lowry, director of the Orange County Food Bank — with the hopes of reducing the 35 percent of food that is wasted each year. With a lack of consistency throughout the supply chain, Abound Food Care has had to develop its own ways to measure the effectiveness of its programs. By connecting major players, developing solutions to waste and optimizing systems, it believes food items can be utilized more effectively and help strengthen the community in which we live. 



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Photo courtesy of Wildlife Jewels

“Wildlife living freely in their natural habitats are more precious to me than any precious stones,” says Azi Sharif, founder and executive director of Wildlife Jewels. “That is why I came up with the name of Wildlife Jewels. Sadly, wildlife face[s] growing devastation from human-induced threats.”

Initially, Azi launched a line of jewelry to showcase the beauty of wild animals while also raising awareness to help them. But her practice has expanded since with a goal of protecting these helpless animals from the threats they face. The nonprofit’s programs combine the arts with conservation and education to get the community involved, which she accomplishes through marine waterway and beach cleanups, art exhibitions, rescue programs, wildlife monitoring, outreach initiatives and educational webinars.

One cause that Wildlife Jewels has focused on this year are the starving and emaciated brown pelicans on the California coastline. Azi’s plans include developing a pelican crisis response team to search for distressed birds and improve their chances of survival. “During the height of the crisis in Orange County, we monitored local beaches daily, including Corona del Mar State Beach,” she shares. “We found at least 30 distressed pelicans, with one severely entangled in fishing gear.”

The recent rescue of a 2-year-old female that the team named Amazonite further enforced Azi’s faith in the importance of her work. “This experience underscores our belief at Wildlife Jewels that every … [animal] is invaluable, and every action counts in saving lives. We are excited to showcase Amazonite the pelican in our upcoming art collection launch, where her story and our arts program will shed light on the beauty of pelicans and the threats they encounter.”


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