ORANGE, Calif. - The ACLU of Southern California opened its first regional office today in Orange.

'We have been making plans to open an office in Orange County for a while, so we are pleased that the day is finally here,' said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU/SC. 'The ACLU has always monitored civil rights and civil liberties across Orange County, but with a full time staff we will be able to look at access to health care, education equality and immigrant rights more closely in Orange County.'

With more than 5,000 active members, Orange County has one of the highest concentrations of ACLU members in Southern California. The Orange County office is the first ever ACLU office in Orange County.

The Orange County office will report to the Southern California headquarters in Los Angeles. Hector O. Villagra will serve as the director of the office and Belinda Escobosa Helzer as a staff attorney. Nora Preciado was selected for a two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship and Meera Manek will be the community outreach administrator.

'We've already been busy,' Villagra said. 'When we learned that the Orange County registrar scheduled a special election on the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashana, we worked with community leaders to ensure broad access to early voting and absentee voting. We are also working with high school students in Garden Grove who were treated unequally because they are lesbians.'

ACLU/SC Orange County Staff:

Hector Villagra, ACLU/SC Orange County Office Director

Hector is the former Regional Counsel for MALDEF. He managed and supervised MALDEF's legal office serving California, Arizona, and Nevada. A graduate of Columbia University and Columbia Law School, Hector clerked for the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, Robert Wilentz, and for 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt before joining the law firm of Fried, Frank in New York as a MALDEF fellow.

Belinda Escobosa Helzer, Staff Attorney

Belinda is an Orange County native experienced in civil rights litigation and community organizing. At MALDEF she focused primarily on immigrants rights and employment issues. Belinda is a graduate of Southwestern Law School and clerked for Senior Justice Joseph Baca on the New Mexico Supreme Court. In addition to her legal work, Belinda has volunteered as the Chair of the Major Gift Solicitation Committee to raise funds to restore a historic Orange County public elementary school, and co-founded a program to provide comprehensive services to emancipated foster youth as they transition out of care into adulthood.

Nora Adriana Preciado, Equal Justice Works Fellow

Nora is a recent graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law, where she served as senior projects editor of the California Law Review. She is the recipient of numerous public interest scholarships and grants. During law school she interned at the National ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, and MALDEF, and was a judicial extern for federal district court judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Nora was selected for a two-year fellowship that will concentrate on ensuring that non-English speakers have meaningful access to vital government services, particularly in the area of health care.

Meera Manek, Community Outreach Administrator

Meera is a graduate of UC-Irvine and completed an internship in the ACLU/SC Public Policy Department. She also attended the 2004 National ACLU Membership Conference. Meera serves as president of her local Toastmasters Club. She also interned at the Orange County Human Relations Department and the World Affairs Councils of America in Washington, D.C.

Orange County journalists seeking to contact the new office, should call Elizabeth Brennan at (213) 977-5252.