A success story in her neighborhood, Nadia Flores left Costa Mesa when she turned 18, went to a university and got a job at a Spanish-language TV network.
But in her late 20s, she realized success was also about paying forward the help she received as a teenager at the Shalimar Learning Center.
So Flores, 31, changed careers to be a part of THINK Together, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit that serves at-risk kids and families throughout California.
"I feel like I'm fulfilling my purpose," she said. "I feel like I'm exactly where I need to go. It's fulfilling the investment the volunteers made to me."
The third-largest nonprofit in Orange County, THINK started with the center in 1994, staffed by volunteers serving 100 students. THINK now serves 100,000 students and is the largest "extended learning time" organization in the nation, according to company information.
"We're basically trying to do what we did for Nadia on a larger, more systematic scale," said Randy Barth, THINK founder and chief executive.
Flores first got involved with Shalimar when she was 13.
Her family wasn't well off, she said. Her mother worked two jobs, and Flores and her siblings still had to get jobs to help the family survive.
Flores starting working as a telemarketer at 13 and held down three jobs simultaneously in high school.
"It was just tough, but it was kind of what I had to do," she said.
At Shalimar, she started to learn about the path to higher education.
Former Shalimar volunteer Sam Anderson said he remembers Flores knowing she wanted to do something, but she didn't know how to channel it.
"It was pretty obvious at that age that she had a lot of ability and a lot of drive," he said.
Anderson, a former chief executive of health-care and pharmaceutical companies, helped Flores and other students figure out what careers they were interested in and if those careers would support the lifestyle they wanted.
Shalimar was also where Barth first saw Flores' leadership potential when she acted as a spokeswoman for a group of eighth-grade students in the program, he said.
"I remember her showing that leadership and sort of that chutzpah," he said. "She impressed me, so I kind of kept my eye on her."
Flores started pushing herself in school and was accepted to UC Santa Barbara. She left Costa Mesa — for good, she thought — at 18.
"I had such a huge urgency to get out because I needed to expand my world view and who I was," she said.
Flores spent her summer breaks in Washington, Sweden, Japan and Mexico, Anderson said, adding that she also went to Cuba after she graduated and at one point talked to him about joining the reserves, which she did against his advice.
"That's what she's like, when she makes up her mind about something, she does it," he said.