Crediting a secure childhood for her love of helping runaway teens, Myldred Jones, 88, thanked Cypress College for naming her Woman of the Year on Saturday at a dinner benefit in Anaheim.
"I was pondering the thought: 'How did I get here?' " she told the 600 guests who greeted her with a standing ovation in the Grand Ballroom of the Disneyland Hotel.
"And, as I reflect on this, my thoughts go way way back," she said. "I grew up in a family that was rich in love, rich in the knowledge that there is a God who loves and cares for us--someone to always depend upon, someone to call when life was rough.
"That early life, combined with many of the efforts of you tonight, made it possible for me to fulfill my dreams and aspirations."
Jones was honored for founding Casa Youth Shelter, a temporary haven in Los Alamitos for troubled teens, which has served thousands since it opened in 1978.
In the early '70s, she had founded the Hotline of Southern California, which helps people in crisis. She was also a founder six years ago of We Care, an organization that assists the homeless.
Her decision 20 years ago to establish Casa came after she experienced a spiritual calling, Jones said last week, sitting in her home next door to the shelter on Reagan Street. "It was as if God was saying, 'Myldred, there is something I want you to do.' "
For years, she had volunteered with young people, counseling them, helping feed and shelter them.
Was she being called to do more?
"I was working on a hotline [for people in crisis] and got a call from a runaway child," she said. "There was no place for him to go. It was then that the answer came, loud and clear, 'This is what I want: I want you to take care of them.' "
Where would she begin? "Immediately, my mind filled with all kinds of reasons why I couldn't do it," she said. "Then, I decided to see my attorney because I didn't have the same idea God had."
She told her attorney, a friend, to draw up a will stipulating that money from her estate be used to build a shelter for troubled youths.
He had a better idea: Create the shelter now.
"He thought I should put my stamp on it, make it what I wanted it to be," Jones said.
With the help of the community, she opened Casa and found a peace she had never known. "Finally, I had a certain knowledge I was doing what God wanted," she said.
During the past two decades, more than 8,000 children ages 12 to 18 have been welcomed to Casa, staying a week or more, to learn about a better way of life.
Looking back, Jones recalled a night, several years after Casa opened, when a boy--"just 12"--came to the shelter door. "I saw him through the window and went to meet him, as I often did, and, before I could open the door, he turned and ran away."
He returned, only to run away again when he saw Jones head for the door. Worried that she might lose him, Jones enlisted the help of two boys living at the shelter.
She stood behind the door as the boy approached the third time. When he stepped upon the porch, she opened the door. He ran away again, hiding in some bushes behind a church down the street. But this time, the boys went after him, coaxing him to return, assuring him that he had found a safe place.
Terrified, the boy told Jones an all too familiar tale of Friday-night beatings by an alcoholic parent--tirades with a strap that left the him in physical and mental anguish.
He couldn't go home, he told Jones. When he had seen his father staggering down the street after coming home from work, he knew it was going to happen again.
"He broke my heart," Jones said. "We both sat there, crying."
With intervention from Casa, the boy's father eventually enrolled in a rehabilitation program.
Things got better.
Years later, Jones was visiting the Juvenile Probation Department in Santa Ana. As she sat in a hallway, waiting to see a judge, a tall man walked by, stopped, swiveled, came back and yelled, "Myldred! Remember me?" she said. "He said, 'Casa. My father was an alcoholic.'
"I sat there thinking, 'Ahhh. And my heart just sank," she said. "I thought, 'Oh no, he's coming here to report to his probation officer.' "
But the real story was a happy one. The young man, newly graduated from college, was there doing field work. He was becoming a probation officer.
He leaned over, held Myldred and told her, "Thanks to you, I am here today."
Well, she said, "It was like the heavens opened up and God said, 'See Myldred, I knew you could do it!' "
On Saturday, Jones was joined on stage by representatives of PacifiCare--which received the college's first Distinguished Business Partner Award--and winners of the Citizens of the Year Awards.
Named Citizens of the Year for their community volunteer work were: Jeff Bowman of Anaheim, Buck and Emily Levine of Buena Park, Nick Eighmy of Cypress, Steven La Fond of Garden Grove, Frances Klepl of La Palma, Kay Koford of Los Alamitos and Boyd and Diane Coddington of Stanton.
Event proceeds of more than $100,000 will go to scholarships for needy students.