By Amy Lynne Bowes
Five years ago, local business owners Joe and Esther Valenzuela sold their Fay Avenue store, Spoiled Rotten, and answered a call from God.
They started a nonprofit organization called the Casa Estrella Foundation that rescues abused children who are no longer safe at home with their parents due to stressful conditions.
Casa Estrella currently oversees 16 state-placed girls in their facility in Rosarito, Mexico, which is headed by a foster mom and a foster dad.
“God put in our heart, you want to do it, so get into it. We sold our business (operated from 1998-2005) and dedicated our years in this world to these children,” Joe said.
In 2003, through their church, the Valenzuelas had an opportunity to visit an orphanage in Tijuana. “Esther couldn’t make it because she was sick, but what we saw impacted us so much,” Joe said.
He described the orphanage visited two weeks before Christmas as “having conditions that we wouldn’t even keep our animals in.” There were mats everywhere as sleeping arrangements – even on the kitchen floor. The orphanage had 125 boys and girls, with ages ranging from infancy to 18. The facility had two showers and one toilet for everyone.
A couple of weeks later, the Valenzuelas returned together and visited three more orphanages and saw similar conditions. “Esther, being the leader she is, quickly started the nonprofit organization,” Joe said.
Today, they operate one home that can accommodate up to 20 girls. The Valenzuelas prefer not to have a mixed-sex residence and it just so happened that when they started the home, girls were entrusted to their care. In the future, the Casa Estrella Foundation wants to open more homes and help all children.
“We are not an orphanage, we are a home and a family,” Joe said.
One person the Valenzuelas moved to help nine years ago was La Jolla resident Olivia Peña Anderson.
“I met them when my daughter was first born and I was shopping at their store,” Peña Anderson recalled. “I wanted to know what to do with gently used clothes because they used to go to orphanages on weekends and bring supplies and clothes.”
She was encouraged by the Valenzuelas’ mission to help children, because of her own experience of being orphaned at the age 5 with her nine siblings. “I know exactly what it’s like to not have parents to take care for you, to not have a home or financial stability. It was very challenging to say the least – eating tortillas and beans was our only diet,” Peña Anderson said.
It was her 15-year-old sister who kept the family going and Peña Anderson considers that her own inspiration for giving back to society by keeping children, like the Casa Estrella girls, off the street.
“I made a pledge (to Joe and Esther) that I would financially help them every year until I couldn’t do it anymore,” a tearful Peña Anderson shared. “For me, it is very important to teach my daughter by example.”