Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Maria Mendoza was on patrol in November 2017 when she got a call of an occupied vehicle.
She was surprised when she arrived to find a 70-year-old woman and an 11-year-old boy in the car – a child Mendoza recognized from her job as school resource officer in San Juan Capistrano.
Mendoza could have cited the family and moved on, but instead she worked to help them find housing, made sure they had food and clothes, and helped provide holiday joy during difficult times.
“I got this job because I wanted to impact lives and to help my community,” Mendoza said. “I knew that this was my opportunity to do just that. And I did.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department heard about her efforts, and honored Mendoza with the Medal of Merit during the 2018 Medal of Valor ceremony, held in April. Mendoza has been with the Sheriff’s Department since 2001, and became the school resource officer in San Juan Capistrano in 2014.
“I didn’t do anything spectacular,” she said. “I did what cops do every day all around the country… I truly believe I share that medal and that recognition with all our police officers and deputies out there in the field.”
The grandmother, who had custody of her grandson, had been forced to move out of the condo where she’d lived for more than 20 years when the owner decided to sell the place. Without another place to stay, the two began sleeping in her car.
“It was heartbreaking,” Mendoza said. “(The grandmother) had always helped her community by volunteering… I was shocked to see them living in a car after knowing they’d been living in a residence for so long.”
Mendoza had gotten to know the boy at Marco Forster Middle School, but the sixth-grader hadn’t mentioned anything about his family’s struggles or their living situation.
“No one had mentioned that they needed assistance,” she said. Mendoza connected the family with resources and verified that the boy was attending school regularly. She alerted school administrators to the problem, and asked the community liaison to keep an eye on him.
A few weeks later, she spotted the grandmother outside the middle school.
“She was in her car, in a different two-door car, but this time the back window was broken,” Mendoza said. The window was taped up with plastic. “The window had been smashed on one of the nights they slept at Doheny State Park. They believe it was from another homeless person that was territorial at the time, and they had broken the window while (the boy) was sleeping in the back seat. At that time, I realized I needed to do a little bit more than just give her referrals.”
She started by getting motel vouchers from a friend in the hotel industry so they would have a place to stay for a while. Next, she contacted the Orange County Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership (OC GRIP), which had been mentoring the boy. OC GRIP began collecting hygiene items, gift cards, clothing and shoes, and cash donations.
She also reached out to Orange County Sheriff’s Department headquarters to nominate the family for a $100 shopping spree at Walmart and a $500 holiday cash gift from the Orange County Trauma Intervention Program.
But Mendoza wasn’t done yet. She reached out to Marilyn MacDougall, Executive Administrator for the Sheriff’s Advisory Council, and got them a last-minute invitation to a holiday party in Santa Ana that would provide the boy with holiday gifts.
The holidays complete, she sat down with the grandmother to talk about available resources and housing help.
Mendoza also checked in frequently with administrators to make sure the boy was attending school regularly.
“They are finally breaking the cycle of homelessness and despair through the concerted efforts of many – all inspired by Deputy Maria Mendoza’s empathy and concern for two fellow human beings,” the department stated in the awards program. “Her kindness and concern exemplify the highest traditions of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.”