Dr. Ana Jimenez-Hami is the Founder and Executive Director of the Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center (OCCTAC). During the past 35 years, Dr. Jimenez-Hami has dedicated her life to helping underserved communities and families with special needs students in California and Puerto Rico. Prior to founding OCCTAC, Dr. Jimenez taught at various universities in Southern California and Puerto Rico, such as: Chapman University (2015-1999), California State University, Northridge (1998-1995), Loyola Marymount University (1995-1993), University of Southern California (1993-1989) and the University of Puerto Rico (1988-1986). Dr. Jimenez-Hami’s passion is to bring artistic access, educational and therapeutic programs for families with special needs children of limited resources; and inspire youth and parents from underrepresented communities through educational empowerment, advocacy, and social justice to fulfill their highest potential in life!
Dr. Ana Jimenez-Hami has been recognized continuously in the community for her contributions in the fields of Arts and Culture, Education and Social Services. Some of her awards include: a (2020) OC LULAC Award, (2017) Women who Make a Difference in OC Award; a (2013) OC Register Hero of the Year award; a (2012) OC Department of Education, Outstanding Contributions to Education Award; a (2007) National Hispanic Business Women Association Award for Organizational Entrepreneurship; a (2007) Faculty Award from Chapman University; a (2006) City of Santa Ana Community Building award; a (2006) Human Relations Award from the Orange County Human Relations Commission for promoting equality, human rights and social justice; a (2003) Arts & Culture Award by the National Organization of MANA, and others.
OC Register: The Healing Arts
It’s not so easy for Ana Jimenez-Hami, Ph.D., to talk about why she founded Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center (OCCTAC) 15 years ago.
“I get very emotional,” she says as she wipes tears welling in her brown eyes with the palm of her hand. “I’ll tell you that later.”
From the brightly painted hallway of OCCTAC, “Dr. Ana” – as everyone calls her – points to walls adorned with the works of the budding Picassos and Diego Riveras who go there. The center began with 150 children in a storefront office and now serves more than 1,000 every year from the bottom floor of a building on North Broadway in Santa Ana.
See, it’s very easy for her to talk about all the kids learning to dance and paint and play music at the center. “They’re amazing!” is always the description.
Dr. Ana can’t get the words out fast enough when she talks about kids like Stephanie Diaz, whose desperate mother brought her to the center at age 5 hoping for help reaching her autistic daughter, and who now, at age 18, is a multitalented instrumentalist.
Words gush like a fire hose when she talks about 22-year-old Martha Rivera, who came to the center at age 9. Martha was failing at school but wanted to learn piano; her mother, who spoke no English, offered to clean in trade for her daughter to be able to learn. Dr. Ana spotted her talent right away and gave the family a scholarship. Today Martha not only plays a number of instruments but just graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in education, and has her eye on pursuing her doctorate.
It is also easy for Dr. Ana to talk about her passion for making thinkers and artists and problem solvers out of poor kids, and kids with special needs, and troubled teenagers – let’s just say it, all the kids who too often get written off in the race to achieve.
Oh yeah, that part in particular is real easy for Dr. Ana.
“Ay, don’t get me started,” she says in her lilting Puerto Rican accent. Then, of course, she starts anyway, talking about how every year between 5,000 and 6,000 are designated as needing special education in the Santa Ana, a number she sees as high for the given population.
“It is really troubling to see when kids are over-represented in special education because of a lack of resources,” says Dr. Ana, who is executive director of OCCTAC. “There are some really great and amazing teachers and principals in the school system, and I am like, thank God you are here. But then I get kids coming to the center telling me that somebody told them, ‘Why bother? You are never going to make it.’ You would not believe the things I hear …”
Yet it is not so easy for Dr. Ana to explain why, year after year, she throws herself into an executive director job for which she has never received any salary. Tears come when she starts to explain why she started this nonprofit that is the first – and still only – in Santa Ana to give kids access to the kinds of multidiscipline arts enrichment programs that are usually beyond the reach of poor families: “Serving communities that are poor really touches my heart. I will never forget my father’s story. He is my hero, he is my inspiration.”
Her father, Freddy Jimenez, was born into poverty on Puerto Rico’s southern shores. Bounced around between relatives as a child, he eventually moved to New York as a young man and went to vocational school to learn watch and jewelry repair. He moved back to Puerto Rico and became a successful jewelry store owner in the capital of San Juan, where Dr. Ana and her brother and sister were born.
Once he was wealthy, Freddy told his family, “It’s time to give back.” Dr. Ana grew up not only learning the family business, but learning the culture of philanthropy – going to children’s hospitals to entertain the sick with songs on the guitar, giving food to the poor, donating clothes and toys to the needy.
“My father, he didn’t have money to go to college,” she says. “He told me this over and over – in this world nothing is more important than education. It does not matter how much money or status you have because those things can come and go. What matters is education. ‘Anita,’ he would call me, ‘Get your highest degree – do it for me, do it for your mom.'”
She was doing just that as a doctoral student at USC – where her husband, a pulmonologist, was doing his residency – when the phone rang one day. What she heard coming out of the receiver made her whole body go numb: Her parents, Freddy and Aida Jimenez, had been murdered.
She wouldn’t find out the details until she arrived the next morning in San Juan.
“These crazy people, a corrupt cop and some gang members, just for the money robbed the jewelry store and killed everyone in the store, 15 people. It was a massacre.” Each word catches in a sob as she talks, sitting now in her windowless office. “It was so traumatic for my family. Thank God we were raised in a strong spiritual faith, but it was so … devastating.”
She was able to finish her doctorate, sustained only, she says, by her commitment to her parents’ wish for education. It wasn’t until a few years later when she and her husband and two young children moved to Irvine, and she had decided to take some time off, that she got the idea for the center as a way to keep paying her father’s legacy of philanthropy.
There’s this, too: Through the thousands of faces who come through the doors at OCCTAC, Dr. Ana sees the potential for all of them to be a Freddy Jimenez. Perhaps, too, Dr. Ana sees what these kids who come to OCCTAC will not become – those so hopeless and disenfranchised that they envision nothing but a life of crime and violence.
Whatever the case, she says the work is far from done. She dreams of adding more services to the center’s ever-expanding roster. “And wouldn’t it be nice to have a building that is just ours?” she says, enthusiasm and smiles brightening her face. Ideas, she has a lot.
“Sometimes I worry her body is not big enough for her heart,” notes music therapist Inez Amaya, who has worked with Dr. Ana for over a decade. “I think her heart might just bust out of her body and start walking around by itself!”
Written By: Samantha Dunn