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.
Flores had started her career at Univision and was doing public relations for People Growers when she said had a "faith calling."
She got a job at THINK as the director of community outreach and moved back to Costa Mesa, despite the bad memories it brought up.
Barth said he hired Flores because she is a brilliant young entrepreneur, is fearless and "she's been one of our kids. She's been through the whole journey and she represents the finished product."
At THINK, Flores works with parents of 3- and 4-year-olds to help them be their child's best first teacher so the children are prepared to go to kindergarten.
In the early-literacy program, which is supported by the Children and Families Commission of Orange County, she works on the administrative side to decide on curriculum and how to best engage parents.
The parents she works with, mainly Latino and Spanish speakers, feel isolated and are "thirsty" for information about education, she said.
"I love the work that we do," she said. "I'm extremely passionate."
Her work also lets her help the next generation while paying back the mentors who gave so much to her.
"I don't think Nadia has even scratched the surface of what she is capable of," Anderson said, "and I think she will."