Maggi Henrikson: Bringing her enthusiasm to StuNews

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Maggi Henrikson could not wait to be featured in Laguna Life & People.  And if you believe that we should talk about some real estate deals involving the Brooklyn Bridge.  Henrikson, Associate Editor of StuNews, is accustomed to asking the questions, not answering them, but she showed her commitment to the cause and made time during a busy holiday season to sit down and chat.

An auspicious start in journalism

 Henrikson’s journalistic career had an auspicious start with “The Top Sail Tattler,” the neighborhood newspaper she created as a child in Connecticut. She wrote stories then would go door to door and sell them.  After “mimeographing” the needed copies she’d hand deliver them to her paying customers.  

Her journalism career took a rather lengthy hiatus after she ended her efforts with “The Tattler.” First there were things like middle school that needed to be completed followed by the rest of her schooling, college, an art career, marriage and a family.  However, when she finally returned to her journalistic endeavors, she did so with her characteristic enthusiasm.

Maggi Henrikson, Associate Editor of StuNewsLaguna

Curiosity leads to StuNews

“I’ve always been creative: painting, drawing, making jewelry.  I’ve even made lamps.  Stu(News) fulfills a lot of that.  I love words.  I love to be stimulated in that way.  When we decided to remodel our home that took two years.  I was bereft when it was over. What was I going to do?  ‘Stu’ came along at a good time,” says Henrikson about her growth at StuNews.  It started out innocently enough. 

“I was involved in the schools, PTA, water polo, all that kind of stuff.  I started sending things to Stu about water polo and the Glennwood House.  Stu liked what he saw and I started doing more…the photo quizzes; we started the dining section.  It was organic.  I guess it was meant to be.  I’ve always been curious about all kinds of subjects,” explains Henrikson. 

A plane ticket and a dozen roses

Another thing that was meant to be was her marriage to her husband, Richard. 26 years ago, he sent her a plane ticket and a dozen roses in hopes of enticing her to leave New York City, where she worked as an art consultant, for Laguna Beach. 

“I lived on Martha’s Vineyard for seven years and I remember hoping the man I married would love it as much as I did.”  He did, but his work was here and Henrikson was game to try something new.  So she moved to Laguna with plans to continue her consulting career.  After all, Laguna Beach is known for its art so she figured the transition would be easy.

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Maggi Henrikson and her family: sons Nick and Erik, Maggi and husband, Richard

From art consultant to stay at home mom

“I naively thought I could just pick up and continue doing what I was doing there, here, but the art scene was a little different than in New York,” she says with a laugh, “So I ended up driving to LA a lot, which was not great.”  Luckily, a gallery called Sata Fine Art opened in Costa Mesa that was more her style.  Owned by a wealthy Japanese businessman, Henrikson worked with him and the two made plans to create art tours at his French chateau.  Unfortunately, the owner ran into financial problems and the tours  – and gallery – were scrapped.  Pregnant with her first child, Henrikson decided this was a good time to stay home and be a mom. 

“I hate it when people say ‘just’ a stay at home mom.  I really think we should be factored into the GDP,” she adds emphatically.

Immersed in family life

As a mother of two boys, Henrikson was fully immersed in the rhythms of her family.  Her oldest son, Nick, has special needs and her other son, Erik, was a star goalie for the LBHS boys water polo team.  Both required a lot of her attention and energy.  Her efforts paid off as Nick is quite the town celebrity with his job at Ralph’s and Erik is playing water polo at Johns Hopkins University.  With her boys grown, all of that energy had to go somewhere. Lucky for the readers of StuNews, Stu Saffer, founder of StuNews, knew a good thing when he saw it.

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Maggi Henrikson at home working her magic

Becoming an important asset to StuNews

“It has been fun having Maggi on board!” enthuses Saffer.  “Her contributions have been amazing, especially when I think of where she began. In my wildest imagination, I never would have thought that she would have become such an important asset to us! Thank goodness Shaena [Stabler] saw Maggi’s talents!”  

Henrikson is also somewhat surprised at how it has evolved.  Agreeing to become associate editor about a year ago expanded Henrikson’s role at the newspaper. “I write stories, I edit other people’s stories and PR pieces.  I do the photo quizzes and birthdays.  People submit stuff and I’ll investigate and research.  We just had the whole election season with an online discussion with our readers where we followed up on their questions to the prospective candidates.” 

 A lot goes into putting out a community newspaper twice a week.  The old adage “the news never sleeps” means there is always something to add and do and create.  Just managing her StuNews duties is a lot, but Henrikson has other interests she likes to indulge in, as well.  Balancing her many interests was something she had to consider before accepting the associate editor position. 

“I told Stu I was still going travel and all that and he said it was no problem.  

It works out,” she says.

Making time for travel, tennis and other endeavors

Their travels take them all over, but the Henriksons have set up homes away from home, as well.  They have had a house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for 16 years, as well as a 200-acre farm near Olympia, WA.  Henrikson is also an avid tennis player. ”I love playing tennis.  I will play it anywhere!” she says enthusiastically.  “The reason we started going down to San Miguel de Allende is because it’s the art capitol of Mexico, but I could also bring my tennis racquets. 

“We found a school for the boys where they could learn about the culture, the language and do field trips.”  She told me that she’d driven there three times – a 34 hour drive – when her boys were young. A 34 hour car ride with young boys and dogs is not a journey for the faint of heart, which tells you a lot about Henrikson’s enthusiasm.

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Maggi and her dog, Banshee, on her lovely deck

And while all of this is definitely enough, Henrikson has ideas about new ways she wants to contribute to StuNews.  “We are always talking about our passions. I love home design, architecture, food, travel.  If I had the time I’d love to have a feature about the Laguna lifestyle: travel, real estate, living. Kind of like what they have in the Sunday Section of the New York Times.”

The only thing stopping her is the time to make it happen.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if this new section should appear in StuNews one of these days.  Henrikson has a way of taking her interests, weaving them together and making them something more  – a talent we, as readers, get to enjoy every time we click on StuNewsLaguna.



Ivan Spiers: The man behind peri-peri and apparel

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He may not always enjoy the fact, but Ivan Spiers manages to shake things up.

This week he was a little emotionally bruised after yet another City Council meeting having to do with parking at his iconic restaurant and music venue, Mozambique.

“I want to be a good neighbor. I want to help everybody,” he says. “I just don’t want to be micro-managed. I don’t need this aggravation.”

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In the 10 years of operating Mozambique there have been great times, like the many charity events Spiers hosts there, and the amazing musical talent he has drawn to their first class performing and recording space. 

But there have been miserable times, too, like when the economy tanked in 2008. “Then the world fell apart,” said Spiers. 

His main source of income, the apparel industry, suffered disastrous times, and the restaurant business changed suddenly for the worse as well. “Every business was impacted. It’s still impacted. Our restaurant business went down 60 percent overnight.”

But he put his heart and mind into it, and used some creative thinking to stay in business. “Mozambique was a more formal restaurant until then. We had to re-work the menu, and make it affordable for everybody,” he said. “We stuck with it, and never laid anybody off.” 

Mozambique is a big employer in town, and that became the main issue with parking problems most recently. The restaurant staff had been parking on side streets, which bothers some of the neighbors. It was agreed that the employees will now be shuttled from off-site leased parking sites to their jobs at the restaurant.

While we talked about some of these challenging situations, Spiers’ best buddy, Max, helped him to keep his calm. Max is one gentle giant of a dog, who also happens to be a 110-pound therapy dog. His day job is to visit hospitals and VA centers where he brings his sweet charm and calming influence. Spiers has raised him since he was a puppy – surprisingly once the runt of the litter.

Max nudged his hand, asking for more fluffing and scratching of those enormous ears. 

“I bought this building by accident,” Spiers continued. The former Tortilla Flats building had been vacant for years when he drove by almost 13 years ago. “I came to the auction, and thought it would be a good idea to open a restaurant.” Little did he know it would take two and a half years to renovate. “It was falling down – a lot more than we thought,” he said. “It was just a garbage pile.”

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Now it is one of the most popular places in Orange County to see live music, or enjoy great food spiced with their famous peri-peri sauce, and gaze out on the ocean toward the Laguna sunset.

Roots

One side of the man has the giant persona of an international business magnate, and on the other is Spiers’ quiet, kind demeanor. His polite South African nature is always the undercurrent.

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He grew up in a small town that defies spelling much less pronunciation. Umhlatazana was about an hour and a half from the nearest city, and his parents ran a trading store, selling whatever was needed. “From plows to clothes, to food,” said Spiers. “You name it, we sold it.” 

The community was small and multi-racial – and everyone got along. Once roads and bridges were constructed enough to travel quickly to the city, the family moved to Durban. Ivan was 13, and heard for the first time the word “apartheid”. 

Living in Durban, he witnessed enforcement by the government to a racially segregate society. Ivan knew he had to get out as soon as he could. 

He moved to London when he was 19 and found a job with EMI, the music recording and publishing company. It seems obvious now in hindsight that music would play an integral role in Spiers’ life. But, of course, his father and the government of South Africa had other plans for him.

His father wanted him to be a banker. The idea was to join his banker uncle who lived in Hong Kong. The government’s rule was that first he’d have to serve two years in the army.

Spiers did all that, but only lasted four days as a Hong Kong banker. “It was terrible,” said Ivan, simply. “You’re making a big mistake,” said his father.

But at 21 Ivan Spiers was still too young for the stuffy life of a banker. He wanted to play rugby and surf. 

So he went to Australia and did just that until a rugby accident landed him in the hospital. The injuries to his ribs, and a broken spine still plague him today.

Once recovered and back on a surfboard, Spiers met his California connections. They were a bunch of young guys, all good friends, surfing in the Canary Islands. One of them had a family ranch in Monterey and said, “Come to Monterey, we’ll get you some work.”

That was in 1972, and consequently Spiers has added lettuce picker to his resume. 

At that time the economy was booming, gas was 40 cents a gallon, and you could buy a decent car for $500. Picking lettuce was very good money – about $400 a week, but hard work. “The first two weeks almost killed me,” said Spiers. Then he learned from the guys who’ve done it for years how to do the lifting. Just like music, it turns out it’s about rhythm.

Growing a business

It was in Monterey that Spiers began his huge career in the apparel industry. Out by the airport there was a sweater and sport coat factory. Ivan got to know the owners and began buying goods from them and selling.

By the early 1990’s Spiers had amassed 29 large retail stores, and had his own family. He has three children; twin daughters now living in Austin, and a son now living in New York. 

“In 1992 I thought I was retired,” he said. But the financial reality of life post-divorce meant he would keep his nose to the grindstone.

Thanks to many friends in the area, Spiers moved from Monterey to Laguna. He continued to flourish in the apparel business to the point where he is now known as an industry veteran. He has helped launch brands with financing, and he’s created manufacturing, warehousing and distribution networks worldwide for everything from clothes to shoes to sunglasses.

Though Laguna is home base, Spiers is global citizen. He’s in Sri Lanka, and much of Asia at least a few times a year, plus Panama, the UK, and Canada. This week he was closing the deal on a big merger that he was pretty mum about. “You’ll read about it,” he said, slyly. 

He comes off as a behind-the-scenes guy, somehow maintaining his privacy despite his high profile. It’s that kind of humility that makes him approachable. 

Music for the soul

When it comes to music, Spiers jumps in, hook, line and sinker. He appreciates everything about music, and plays the guitar as well. He’s been known to rock it on the Mozambique stage just for fun, with friends like Nick I, and Bob Hawkins. 

This past October, Spiers opened Daryl’s House with rocker Daryl Hall, in Pawling, New York. It’s a restaurant and music venue that also broadcasts shows live on the Internet. “It’s been great,” Spiers said. “We’ve been so well received.” 

During the live broadcasts there are about 80 people employed at Daryl’s House, and Spiers has been surprised at the support they’ve been given. “Governor Cuomo sent someone – in a suit – to see if they could help!” he said. “They want it to succeed and make sure we’re well taken care of.”

 Daryl Hall will be playing there himself, on New Year’s Eve, and the show will be broadcast. His former partner, John Oates, will be performing at Mozambique on Feb 4. Spiers is keeping Hall and Oates rockin’ on both coasts.

At home in Laguna, Mozambique is like Spiers’ community gathering place. He has opened its doors to countless non-profits for their fundraising efforts. He has made friends with musicians, and even the neighbors. 

“I try to help everybody,” he says.

And he does. It’s just in his nature.


Carrie Reynolds: Finding ways to do it all

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Carrie Reynolds wears many hats.  Not literally, (in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her wear a hat other than the occasional baseball cap), but she is one of those people who manage to do more than most.  This makes interviewing her both a pleasure and a challenge.  Do we talk about her successful marketing consulting business, Reynolds Design Group?  Do we talk about her charitable endeavors?  Or “The 10 Boys Who Care”, a philanthropic group she started with her son, Sam, and some of his Thurston classmates?  Then there’s Lagunatics and her “Nollaig Na Mna” event she hosts every year.  Where does one begin? 

Carrie Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Design Group

Going all the way to the coast

Let’s begin 25 years ago when Carrie and her husband, Mike, moved to Laguna from Laguna Hills. Back then she was driving to LA everyday for work and Corona del Mar was “too expensive.  Mike said he didn’t move all the way from Illinois to stop five miles from the ocean.  So we got married and closed escrow on a teardown the next day, but we didn’t tear it down.”  Eventually, they rebuilt their falling down cottage into an award winning home – designed by Mike – which they still live in today. 

After commuting for two years, Reynolds was hired by Pepsi Co. in Irvine where she worked for eight years on the restaurant side.  Realizing corporate life wasn’t for her (“I said if I’m still here when I’m 35, shoot me.”) she thought she’d start her own consulting firm.  But then she got cold feet.  

“Prudential Real Estate offered me their VP of Marketing position.  I took it out of fear.”  Working there for a year helped her conquer her fear. “Prudential is an insurance company.  They’re very staid, very follow the rules.  That wasn’t for me either.”  So Reynolds Design Group was born.

Taking advantage of new technology

“When I started the Internet was exploding.  I started doing consumer research online and this changed the research model.  I can do it out of my house, there’s lower overhead for me, which is good for my clients.”  A key opportunity was when Reynolds was asked by Apple to do a segmentation study that would tell them who actually shopped in their then four stores.  Finding this information so valuable, Apple incorporated it into their next ad campaign.  It was a good start for Reynolds’ fledgling business, now in its 18th year.

A graduate of UC Davis, Reynolds says she has always worked.  “My parents had nothing.  I never knew anything else.  When I went to Davis I worked during the year and then I’d come home and pack pears in the summer.”  It was a very different life than the one her only child, Sam, enjoys.  “I’m sure we’re ruining him,” she says with mock conviction.  “But we haven’t seen this movie yet.”  

A challenging baseball season offers an opportunity

Though the movie is far from over, Reynolds, like any good director, is doing what she can to make sure it has a fulfilling ending.  With Sam’s baseball team slogging their way through a 2 and 12 season, Reynolds came up with an idea. 

“During the baseball season we were so impressed with the kids’ attitudes. We were getting all depressed as moms, right? But they really were showing strength of character.”  This fact, coupled with Jon Madison offering up some of his unsold Christmas items for charity, as well as hearing about her friends, Kendall and Chris Clark, and their scholarship to LBHS students converged into the idea for “10 Boys Who Care.”

10 Boys Who Care, Back row: Gustav Morck, Sam Reynolds, Carrie Reynolds, Noah Linder, Kent Cebreros. Front row: Ayrton Garcia, Zack Bonnin, Mason Lebby, Blake Pivaroff, Sam Kluver and Enzo Sadler

10 Boys Who Care helping others

10 Boys is a group of, yes, ten Thurston Middle School boys, who raise money throughout the year to provide scholarships to LBHS seniors who exhibit excellent sportsmanship.  The group has officers, takes minutes – everything an “official” non-profit does to run smoothly.  

“I wanted it to mean more.  I want them to be doing it for more than just the service credits.  Now people come up to them and ask for help.  It’s great.  They made $400 busking at hospitality night!  The town’s generous.  Last year the boys gave $3,500 worth of scholarships with the money they raised.  They read every one of the 30 essays they received, discussed them and made their decisions.  And they can almost run meetings by themselves,” she says with pride.

Reynolds’ philanthropy does not end with 10 Boys. She has her own causes she gives her time and talent to.  She was on the Board of the Boys and Girls Club for five years, has been a SchoolPower trustee since Sam was in kindergarten, she sits on the Orangewood Foundation’s marketing committee, sits on Thurston’s PTA Site Council and is involved in the PTA’s parent education series, Coffee Break.  All this while somehow cranking out a 40-hour workweek.

 

Conquering fears and finding a family in Lagunatics

As if this isn’t enough, Reynolds finds time to perform with Lagunatics, something she has done for the last eight years. “Every year I ask Bree (Rosen, the Lagunatics founder) to fire me,” she says with a laugh. “I did it originally because the thought of it made me so uncomfortable – like the Aquathon.  But now I’ve gotten over that part of it.  And it has introduced me to a community of people in town that I would never know otherwise.  The family is interesting.  We get close.” As for the Aquathon, she did that to overcome her fear of swimming in the ocean.  “I’m not saying I’ll swim out to the buoy by myself but…” Oh, well. She may have conquered her fear of performing, but that ocean thing is apparently still a work in progress.

Nollaig Na Mna hits Laguna

Something decidedly not a work in progress is Reynolds’ social media prowess.  A fun way she has used it is to connect with her 62 first cousins in Ireland.  There they have a tradition called “Nollaig Na Mna” (Christmas for the Women).  The idea is that the men serve the women who use the time to connect, relax and make a wish on a three-legged stool.  Reynolds and her sister thought this was a great tradition and imported it to their respective towns in California.  While unsure how many Nollaig Na Mnas she has hosted with the help of Jon Madison at his Madison Square Garden and Café, it has become quite the event over the years. 

“I love bringing an Irish tradition here that helps me tell my girlfriends how much they mean to me. It is a few hours of sharing stories, making personal wishes or declarations on our three legged stool and reminds us what having girlfriends means to us in our lives. I wish we had the chance to all do it a little more often.”

Recognizing a good idea, bringing meaning to it and then making it happen.  This is how Christmas for the Women, Laguna Beach-style, came to be, and it’s also a good description of how Reynolds approaches her life.  

And she does it with a wicked sense of humor.  When I contacted her to set up our interview her response was typical Carrie, “What the heck is the topic? Crazed mother of an only child…or crazed wife?” Of course she left out crazy entrepreneur, crazy “renegade do-gooder” (her words) and crazy fear conqueror.  

Maybe we should all be so crazy.

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A Reynolds Family Christmas Card


Tom Davis: reflection and inspiration, or how many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos By MARY HURLBUT

He’s a little quiet and seems often serious, even though I know he has a good sense of humor. Tom Davis just may be the opposite of all those lawyer jokes. 

A giver and a doer, Tom is the kind of person to reverse the lawyer stereotype. He’s reached out way beyond himself, and given many others a lift up. He’s so involved with non-profits, he laughs that his legal work is not much more profitable. He calls it his “theoretical work”. 

He’ll take the lawyer jokes and professional epithets with stride, and a quiet chuckle.

Tom Davis

During our conversation the other day we were both thinking about what the meaning of a career is in relation to the meaning of a life. On the one hand you have your own goals and aspirations, including the drive for success – maybe accolades and “gold stars” on your professional report card. 

On the other hand you have responsibilities to your soul: your relations with other people, the joy of a family, and a perspective beyond your own sphere.

Recalling his own very serious awakening  

There he was going through life with all the gifts of brain, ability, and circumstance. Tom grew up in North Hollywood, graduated from USC and then completed post-graduate work at Duke University Law School. He got great job offers. He was hired and working at a big-time law firm in Newport Beach, when his father went suddenly and drastically ill. His father was young: just 67. 

It was acute leukemia, something I know about from first hand experience. My brother-in-law was a young 70 year-old, a former coach, who ran every day and ate all the right veggies. One day he was tired, and a few weeks later he died. There’s shock, disbelief, and a great sense of cursed un-fairness in the universe.

Tom’s father, too, just felt a little tired. Two weeks later, he was in the hospital.

While the family was still in a state of denial, Tom’s father called him and his brothers to his bedside, individually. He had a parting message for each of his sons.

His father could see that some change was needed. Tom was at a stage and place in life where he thought the world revolved around his orbit. 

“He might have seen some self-centeredness,” Tom recalled. “He said, ‘I think your strength is in community involvement.’ He felt I had more to offer than focusing on my own little life and career.”

His father’s words hit home, and he took them to heart

And so, now here we have Tom Davis, board member of St. Mary’s Church, the Peace Exchange, the Chhahari Organization Nepal, active with Glennwood House, the Friendship Shelter, OC Shanti, the Surfrider Foundation, and the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, just to name a few. 

He has embraced his father’s words not only in deed, but also in passion. And dad was right, community involvement has made his life that much richer.

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“The work we do as lawyers is difficult and stressful, and often not emotionally or spiritually fulfilling,” Tom said. “Non-profits offer a lot more in terms of those rewards.”

The Chhahari Organization, for example, has made a real difference in the lives of the 25 Nepalese children it houses. “These are kids who were living on the streets. They might have been sold into slavery, sold for their organs, or for sex trafficking,” Tom said. “They would most likely be dead without this program. There’s no government organization that protects them.”

Then there’s the lighter side

I actually do go back a bit with Tom and his wife Martha. Our kids were in school together at the same time, and I always loved watching Chandler Davis in her many fantastic theatrical productions from middle school through high school. The highlight for me was seeing Chandler as Maria in the LBHS production of The Sound of Music.

Martha Davis is also accomplished on the stage, and I think she got her husband bitten by the bug. Martha is a dancer and an athlete, along with a shared commitment to theater, and community organizations. She’s been busy raising their kids, Sarah and Chandler, and did much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes at the school theatrical productions. Currently she’s working with “The Pearl”, a yoga, hiking, and cleansing retreat located in Laguna Canyon. 

Tom may have been front-row center at all the kid’s performances, but Martha got him on-stage, singing with her in Laguna Tunes, the fun choral group, and he’s hooked.

“We’ve got a concert coming up (Dec 19), with some jazzy Christmas tunes,” Tom said. “It’s not a serious classical concert. We do fun and funny music.”

Now their daughter, Sarah, a graduate with a degree in chemistry, has said that she wants to pursue theater. Looks like it runs in the family!

Tom also has a daughter from his first marriage, Jessie, who works with him at his law firm, Davis Law. “And my grandkids,” says Tom. “I want to mention Sophie and Preston!” Sophie is four years old, and Preston is two months. “Jessie’s a great mom,” he adds.

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Life is a great balancing act of work, family, love of one’s self, and love of others. 

What’s next Tom?

“If I could do anything at this point of my life, I’d like to travel, and hang out with my grandkids - and those grandkids yet unborn. But there is one other thing I have had in the back of my mind for a long time. 

“It’s a project, or a book or maybe a speaking gig,” he continued. “I’d like to work with a group of like-minded lawyers and write and speak about ‘The Soul of a Lawyer’. 

“I started this not-yet-project about 20 years ago. In fact I gave a talk to group of lawyers entitled The Soul of a Lawyer at about that time. In my profession, as in many others (or maybe all others), we get caught up in the work, the necessity to make a living, and as a litigator ‘the battle’. 

“We often lose sight of ourselves, our souls, our real purpose in life, which I think is to love, to care for each other, and to teach and learn from one another. I want to try to discern and share how we do our necessary work but not lose ourselves in the process. 

“Non-profit work is one way that I do that, but there are many other ways. I would like to explore that.”

A lawyer with a soul – that’s not a joke. That’s Tom Davis.


Marian Keegan and Fernanda Rocha

The Art of Fitness: The evolution of a partnership

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Art of Fitness owners, Marian Keegan and Fernanda Rocha, have worked hard to create a place that provides more than just a good work out for their clients, although with 40 exercise classes a week for $88/month, they certainly have done that.  Keegan said she “was called to be in the space” where her gym is now.  

“Everyone knew this place as Jean’s Market, but then it was a church. To me it still is a church, just a different kind.”  

This passion is what elevates Art of Fitness beyond just a place to sweat. 

Partners with different backgrounds, but similar values

Despite being from seemingly very different places, Rocha is from Brazil and Keegan from the Midwest, their backgrounds are surprisingly similar.  “We have a lot of core values together,” explains Keegan.  Both come from big families; both earned academic degrees in exercise-related areas and both were drawn to Laguna Beach. 

“When I first moved here I lived in Lake Forest.  I couldn’t understand why my Laguna friends wouldn’t visit me,” explains Keegan laughing. “They wouldn’t leave the bubble.  I figured it out pretty quick. I feel like I was born here.  I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

The Art of Fitness, Laguna Beach

An adventure turns into US citizenship

When Rocha arrived in the US 14 years ago she was not planning on staying, let alone becoming a US citizen.  “I came here because I wanted to do something.  I wanted to explore.  I took Business and Marketing classes at UCLA, just getting knowledge about the fitness industry.  I had the vision that I could experience something new here, but it was not my intention to stay.” 

Armed with a degree in kinesiology from Brazil and a thirst to learn, Rocha hit LA then branched out, eventually landing in Laguna 10 years ago - and hasn’t left.

Fernanda Rocha, co-owner of The Art of Fitness

Laguna Beach means volleyball all year round

Keegan, similarly, came to Laguna Beach while traveling on vacation over 20 years ago.  “I was running health clubs in Houston.  I went there to get my PhD in fitness - no one had any education in fitness back then.  I ended up liking the business of fitness clubs as opposed to teaching.  I loved it here.  I played basketball and volleyball in college (at Northern Kentucky University).  I thought, ‘I can play volleyball all the time here!’” Keegan didn’t work in fitness when she arrived, however, deciding to open her own commercial upholstery business.  “In five years we had 800 restaurants.  So I just would come and hang out in Laguna.”  Then “the space” opened up and Art of Fitness was born.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Keegan.  “Everything about it has been good. We’ve had marriages; people have lost 40 pounds…so much of my heart has gone into this place.  I love what I do.  I’m excited to go to work every day. In the beginning, I had to fight the city - for five years,” explains Keegan. “It was very difficult.  I had to constantly prove we were a good fit.  Now, it’s worked out.  It wasn’t easy, but now I appreciate what they were doing.  I mean we’re not competing with 24 Hour Fitness!”  

Marian Keegan, co-owner of The Art of Fitness

From business partners to “family”

After several years of going it alone, Keegan met Rocha and the two eventually became partners, both in business and in life. “Fernanda lights the whole place up.  She’s very talented.  Her classes are packed.  She’s the best instructor I have ever seen in my whole life.  She’s also really organized.  I’m not so organized.  That’s good for me.” 

Their relationship became familiar to many from their stint on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”  However, sitting down with the two of them now they are decidedly un-dramatic. “We are family now,” Keegan says. She’s referring to Rocha, of course, but she could just as easily be talking about their clients. Rocha feels the same.  “We are the Art of Fitness family.”  

Fernanda Rocha teaches a class at The Art of Fitness

Change is good, in life and business

 Rocha says her experience on the show was both a “good and bad experience.” Nevertheless, it undeniably opened doors for her and they’re still opening today.  She is currently working on a re-launch of her Jiinga Workout and Jiinga Brasil fitness clothing line, as well as becoming the face of a new television venture in Brazil next year.  Yet, despite all these projects, The Art of Fitness is never far from her thoughts.  

“The idea is to create a health and wellness facility.  Marian and I talk about this.  There is a need to explore the mind along with the body.  Laguna is a perfect place for this.”  When I spoke with Keegan she mentioned their desire to offer a transcendental mediation class for her “Type A” clients as well as their goal to have a full-time nutritionist.  “If you listen to your clients they will tell you what they need,” says Keegan.  Which explains why the club has been remodeled five times in its 13-year history.  “We’re always evolving,” says Keegan.

The Art of Juicing takes it to another level

A recent addition to the evolution is the Art of Juicing, their locally sourced, organic, cold-pressed juice bar.  Keegan enthusiastically explained the special process for washing the produce (a lot of talk about ph levels that went over my head), the care that goes into making their almond milk (suffice it to say it’s quite laborious).  

“Our nutrient value is off the charts!” she raves.  

She then told me of one of their clients whose liver enzymes were extremely elevated.  After two weeks of juicing, they went back to normal.  While I can’t attest to the long-term benefits of their juice, I will say that when we met I was in the middle of a horrible cold. Keegan gave me a juice for the road.  I don’t know if it was the dandelion greens, the turmeric or just knowing I was going to go home and get back in bed, but I definitely felt better after I drank it.

Marian Keegan runs a spin class for her clients

A community, a family, a place to feel better

And isn’t that the point? Don’t we just want to feel better?  Whether it’s a frenetic spin class or gentle yoga, don’t we do these things to feel better? (OK…looking better is up there, too.) But sometimes feeling better isn’t just about sweating or burning calories.  Sometimes it’s about feeling like you matter.  Marian Keegan and Fernanda Rocha understand that.  They’ve become like family to each other through the years and see The Art of Fitness as an extension of that family. 

“We get involved in our clients’ lives,” says Rocha.  “80% of my friends are from the gym,” explains Keegan.  “This place is more than a gym.  It’s a community, a family…The biggest compliment we can get is when someone says, ‘I have no idea why I’m at this gym, but I’ve been here for five years and I’m not leaving,’” she says emphatically. “That’s when you know you’re doing good.” 


Karen Polek: a medicine woman for the new age

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Karen Polek is a healer. It has been her life’s mission since she can remember.

Karen Polek

“I’ve always been a sensitive person,” she says. “It’s a gift from God, really.” She felt it in her hands especially. “When I was very young, I remember my hands moving. They were highly sensitive.”

Polek used those hands to help her father, a farmer, pick the tobacco they grew in western Connecticut. Those were the times when kids would play in the cornfields as the crop dusters flew overhead. She remembers building things with the empty DDT pesticide cans. And those hands turned brown from the tar on the tobacco leaves.

Her mother, a devout Catholic, did not appreciate her young daughter’s special sensitivities. Being the good daughter, Karen conformed to her conservative environment. “I learned to stifle my energy,” she said.

She went down the expected path, pursuing a marketing career in a traditional corporate environment, and married a man working for the same company. The moved to Laguna in 1975, while she worked for Combustion Engineering, and her husband, an engineer, worked on the San Onofre power plant. Her mainstream world started to spin in a different orbit after their divorce. 

Past and present

Polek became more interested in the spiritual aspects of life: meditation, therapy, healthy eating, and exercise. “Your answers are within,” she says. “It’s just a matter of getting quiet and listening.” She slowed down, and paid attention.

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” she says. Her “teacher” appeared in the late 1980’s, when she began to study holistic health practices. Finally it all made sense to Polek as she was able to grow and utilize her sensitivities.

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The healing office

She studied at ISPB College in San Diego learning massage and other techniques as a health practitioner. After a thousand hours of training she opened her holistic practice in 1988. She continued to learn physical and emotional therapies, and one day a special teacher found her and guided her to CranioSacral Therapy.

The Cranium and the Sacrum

CranioSacral is a therapy developed by an osteopathic physician, Dr. John Upledger, in the early 1980’s as a way to relieve pain and dysfunction in the body, and improve whole-body health and performance. Practitioners use touch to evaluate the flow of the central nervous system.

“The beauty of CranioSacral Therapy is that it’s a gentle and self-corrective method,” said Polek. “It balances the neurological system; brain, bones, spinal fluids, and everything in between.” 

She was trained at the Upledger Institute about how to listen with her hands. As the spinal fluid is created in the cranium, it then sends forth into the body nutrients that protect and cleanse the neurological system. 

“There’s a flow of the cerebral spinal fluid,” she said. “I was taught to feel it and listen to the cranial movements of the bones as it goes back and forth.”

The body and the mind 

A part of CranioSacral work is what they call SomatoEmotional Release. “Most of our physical problems are a result of an emotion,” says Polek. “We guide the person to dialog with their body.” 

That can lead to an emotional release. 

“There are ‘Aha’ moments, maybe laughing hysterically, crying, or pain. It’s tapping into a memory,” she says. “The body stores memory in its tissues. The more your cerebral spinal fluid is balanced and flowing, the emotions can come out, and the body can get rid of it and heal.”

At her office in Laguna, and another office shared with a partner in cognitive therapy, Laurie Brodeske, PhD (Care Psychological Services), in Santa Ana, Polek sees a wide range of patients, including cancer patients, pregnant moms, newborns, and the elderly. About half of her patients are special needs children. 

There’s a thing called Reactive Attachment Disorder in cases where the child may have experienced abuse in utero such as drugs or alcohol, or children of sexual abuse. Polek works with many of these children once placed in foster care. 

“There’s such a trust issue with them, it’s hard to attach to parents,” Polek said. “Guilt can prevent the attachment, so they self-sabotage. 

“Kids can’t always decipher what their emotions are,” she continued. “I work with a cognitive therapist at the same time. I can feel when their cranial rhythm goes out, and that’s when we know to guide them into their feelings [with cognitive therapy].” 

Illness and Health

The best success story Polek shared was about a mom at Camp Pendleton. Her husband had been deployed so she was alone when she gave birth to their first child. The attending doctor immediately noticed a problem with the formation of the bones in the newborn baby’s skull, and he referred the mom to a specialist to perform a dangerous, yet necessary surgery.

Before that could happen, Polek was brought in. She did two cranial release sessions with the infant. When the mom took her baby to the specialist, he simply said, “Why are you here? There’s nothing wrong.” The bones had been perfectly re-aligned.

Dolphins and Therapy

If there’s one thing Karen Polek likes more than healing people, it’s dolphins. And even better than that, dolphins that heal.

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With her unique sensitivity, Polek can feel the dolphin’s energy. “You can see the sonar energy as they scan your body,” she says. “You can feel their energy on their rostrum.”

At one time, Polek was helping a patient who had been in a car accident, which severely damaged his hip. Polek was holding the man as he floated in water amongst dolphins in a natural lagoon. She watched as one dolphin swam to the far side of the lagoon. The next thing she knew, that dolphin came at lightening speed and bumped her away from the man. The dolphin stayed, and then gently rested its nose (rostrum) directly on the man’s hip.

She found that out at the Upledger Dolphin-Assisted Therapy clinic in the Bahamas. Polek often attends sessions there, to work with these intelligent and sensitive mammals. The dolphins provide their own form of healing within a gated lagoon during four-day intensive programs, which allow therapists and patients alike to experience the dolphin’s natural ability to sense and nurture humans.

The best of Karen Polek’s life has been guided by sensitivity, caring and feeling. The experience is in her hands and in her heart.


Mary Hurlbut: Finding an outdoor joy in pictures

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Scott Brashier

As a photographer, Mary Hurlbut strives to capture more than just the face of her subjects.  “My strength is interacting with people. When you’re creating a portrait you need to make your subject feel comfortable, otherwise you’re not capturing their spirit.” 

Capturing someone’s spirit is no easy task, either visually or with words.  However, in describing a recent summer afternoon she spent at the beach, Mary provided a very clear picture of who she is and why she is so good at what she does.

A self-declared “ocean fanatic”

“I’m a third generation Lagunan.  Spence, my husband, is local, too.  One of the things that we share is we are both ocean fanatics – anything that has to do with the water: sailing, surfing, snorkeling.  One of our favorite things is just diving in the waves. The water has been so amazing! So Spence and I went down to Woods Cove and we’re just playing in the waves.  Every time it makes me feel like I’m 20 years old all over again.  And then my daughter and her husband just happen to show up, too, because they love to do that.  So there we were, all four of us, diving and playing in the waves.  It was wonderful.”  

Envisioning her and her husband of almost 33 years frolicking in the waves, to me, captured something that is extremely evident when meeting Hurlbut: her exuberance.  Whether talking about her craft, her family, her town or the many organizations she is involved with, there is an enthusiasm and joyousness that’s usually reserved for the new. But Hurlbut is not a newcomer, either to marriage or her art.  She is just someone who has a deep appreciation for what she has and who makes the most out of a day of sun, surf and warm water.

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Mary Hurlbut with her ever-present camera and smile

Hurlbut’s husband, Spence, was a brass sculptor who participated at the Sawdust Festival for 38 years, retiring when the physicality of brass sculpting became too much.  She credits him with helping her make a living as a working artist.  

“Spence taught me to think about things like what materials cost, how long it takes to complete something…things like that that are invaluable to an artist, but things not all artists think about.”

The Sawdust Festival and 27 years of dual booths

Although both went to Laguna Beach High School, Spence is four yeas older so their paths didn’t cross until after Mary returned to Laguna from college with her Bachelor of Fine Arts.  Two weeks after meeting Spence at a Halloween costume party, she got accepted to the Sawdust Festival as a stained glass artist.  The good news was that both of them were exhibitors.  The bad news was they had to build their own booths – a very labor-intensive project that they did together for 27 years, until Spence’s retirement. “Now we only have to build one booth,” Hurlbut says laughing.

New technology leads to a new medium

Hurlbut’s interest in stained glass began to wane when, for her “jubilee year”, as she calls it, she got a digital camera.  No more film.  No more dark room. And very soon after, no more stained glass.  “I did stained glass until 2008, but I always had a camera in my hand.  When I got my first DSLR camera I got really excited about it, and it changed my life. I found myself just going through the motions with the stained glass so I switched over to photography.”

This was around 2008.  Fortunately, Spence had been paying close attention to the economy.  Sensing things were going to get worse before they got better, he felt they could no longer support two separate studios, but they did erect a “mini-booth” at the Sawdust Festival, a set up that Mary has used for the last six years.  

“Two years ago was the first time I sold nothing.  The booth just became a storefront.  It’s great because people come by and say, ‘I take terrible pictures.’ I love showing them the difference between taking a picture and creating a portrait.  Once I show them what I can do for them they’re dumbfounded.”

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Mary Hurlbut in her home-office

Finding her style and the hazards of the camera phone

Her years of portraiture and wedding photography have helped her find her style.  “Photographers are artists, and we all have our own style.  You have to specialize.  I know my clients.  I know my style – natural, outdoorsy.  Not every photographer can work with everyone. I know my strengths.”  And, although Hurlbut loves what she does, she admits that photography is a very challenging market.  

“In hindsight I picked the wrong thing to go into from a business standpoint.  Everyone has a camera.”  And everyone thinks they’re a photographer.  She finds her work as a wedding photographer especially challenging in these days of the ubiquitous camera phone.  “You’ve got people stepping in front of you with their phones during ‘the kiss shot’ and things like that.  Weddings are exhausting!” she says emphatically.

Social media helps refine her craft

Ever the enterprising artist, Hurlbut has worked extensively in social media, which she credits with helping her refine her craft.  “I went to the Marketing Director of the Sawdust Festival and said, ‘We need a Facebook page.’  Because I’ve been there for so long – I know all the artists – I wanted to show the behind-the-scenes stuff.  It is a target rich environment.  So I honed my craft by producing product photos, portraits, everything like that.  Now it’s a sideline job that I’m really good at.”  She no longer handles the Facebook page for the Festival, but if you need a headshot for your page just let her know!

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Mary Hurlbut in work-mode

A post-workout chat with Stu provides a new opportunity

Another avenue for work is, of course, StuNews where she is called upon weekly to photograph the subjects of the Laguna Life and People section.  “I met Stu because my gym is right next door to Laguna Coffee, where he used to hold a lot of his weekly gatherings.  I had some questions about things that were going on in Laguna so I showed up one day all sweaty and we talked. After that I’d take a pretty picture and send it to him and that turned into a relationship.  I’m so grateful for the opportunity.  Plus I get to meet all these wonderful people.”

Hurlbut is currently gearing up for the Winter Festival at the Sawdust. “I just bought a new lens that I’m excited to use.  I will be photographing for Santa.  I did it last year.  You know, our Santa is the real Santa,” she says with authority.  The Winter Festival opens November 22 and runs for the next five weekends.

Living as an artist: a dream fulfilled

“What’s so wonderful is that my dream was to be an artist.  The Sawdust gave me that opportunity.  It allowed me to be an artist and stay at home and raise my daughter,” explains Hurlbut.  “When you’re self-employed you have to be very disciplined.”  

And it helps to be extremely busy.  Between the Sawdust Festival, the Winter Festival, weddings, portraits, teaching photo classes at the Sawdust, teaching different mediums at LOCA and managing social media sites for different organizations, Hurlbut’s plate is extremely full.  But when we finished our interview I left her contentedly roaming around The Ranch, camera in hand.  

She had appointments and other things lined up that day, but it was a lovely morning and she was going to spend some time enjoying it.


Boris Piskun: a Laguna global citizen with a big heart

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Are you Boris?” I asked the first gentleman I see at the coffee house. No, not him… “Of course!” I mutter as I smack my forehead, for there is the real Boris entering the coffee house, all six-feet-seven of him. I remembered he had been a pro basketball player.

“I used to be six-eight,” he laughs. “When you’re a forward, you’re always six-eight.” 

Boris Piskun

Little known fact to me. (But, then, I swear I used to be an inch taller myself.)

Boris Piskun is what my mother used to call “a long drink of water”, with wit and laughter to match his height. And with his self-deprecating sense of humor, he’s the first to call himself “the tall, goofy guy.”

Submitted photo

Piskun (left) was a Columbia University Lion in the mid 1990’s

Piskun had contacted Stu News because he was motivated by another Laguna Life & People story we had written about high school students, Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre. He wanted to help them in their work with the Day Laborers in Laguna. While he has a giving heart and a kind soul, Piskun also shares a personal reality about the hardships of immigrants.

An immigrant’s story

He was born in Azerbaijan while it was still under the control of the Soviet Union. His family emigrated when he was five, and settled into the ethnically complex region of Brooklyn, NY. “Now they’re all gentrified,” he said of the New York City boroughs. “But, back then, Bedford Stuyvesant was like Mogadishu. We’d say, ‘Do or die in Bed Sty’!”

 Piskun grew up playing basketball in the different leagues of New York City, where he was nicknamed, “The Mad Russian”. His dad drove a cab for 10 hours a day, then followed that with factory work for another six. “It’s the immigrant mentality,” Piskun said. They counted their blessings. Life was better in America.

Things were worse in the Soviet Union, or as he grew to learn, in South Africa under apartheid, and later in Tijuana where these days he witnesses people living in the dry river channel on a concrete embankment filled with tents. 

It’s a luck-of-the-draw where you happen to be born. “Hey,” he said. “We won the DNA lottery didn’t we? Sometimes we forget about that.”

On the other side of the border

Part of this philosophy stems from Piskun’s business. He and business partner, Andrew Gold, have a telemarketing company that targets solar energy for residential markets. He commutes to his office every week in the opposite direction of thousands of other people - into Mexico.

Piskun’s business employs 200 people, many of whom are Mexicans that were deported from the US. 

Having been deported mostly for non-violent crimes, such as DUI or drug possession, deportees’ lives can go from comfort to destitution before they realize what’s happened. One minute they may be having respectable, comfortable lives in the States, and the next they find themselves broke and homeless on the other side of the border.

“It’s either go to jail, or get deported to Mexico,” says Piskun. “A lot of them have been in the US their whole lives, and they don’t even speak Spanish.”

Piskun has seen it all from the comfortable perch of life on the US side of the border, and also as a Tijuana employer. 

They pay about double what wages are in Mexico, “Because we can,” he says. “My whole mentality is I want to be known by my deeds. We are there to make money, and we do, but it’s also great seeing people empowered. It’s a cool feeling.”

A global life puts things in perspective 

Piskun’s global outlook was born in Azerbaijan, and nurtured in New York (including a degree from Columbia University). Then he spent a couple of years as a pro basketball player in Israel. Just when he thought he’d go into banking (“I’m a finance/numbers guy!”), he visited Laguna, met a gal, and everything changed.

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Bella Piskun gets a push on the swing from the tall, goofy guy

Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans, right?

Little Piskun’s

Today he has a three-day-a-week commute to Tijuana, tennis has transplanted basketball, and he has two very important people keeping a smile on his face: Bella and Ruby.

Bella, Ruby, and dad, Boris, at Bluebird Park

Bella, nine years old, and Ruby, seven, are that special age that parents adore. “These are the times when kids think you’re cool,” says the cool dad. 

And they are the reason Piskun plans to help with the Day Laborers in Laguna. He’s a giving person who believes in volunteerism, and teaching that same practice to his daughters is what it’s all about. 

One of the immediate needs that he’s focusing on right now is his dear friend, Alyssa, who is battling stage four cancer. On a scale of just-not-fair-ness, she came up short. “It’s a roll of the dice, and she got snake eyes,” he says.  Along with other friends, he is busy organizing efforts to help with her medical treatment and with the care of her son.

“It’s inspiring to pay it forward,” Piskun says. “If there’s one thing I want to teach my girls, it’s that it’s about giving, not taking.” 

Spoken like a true forward.


Lynn Epstein: Maximizing potential with humor

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Lynn Epstein has a lot of energy.  When you’re on the floor, working with young kids for a good part of your day, that’s a helpful trait.  

For the last 28 years Epstein has worked with children as a speech pathologist, helping them find their voice and better communicate with others.  Communication, to Epstein, is a theme that not only runs through her work life, but it’s an important part of her life away from work, as well. As a former stand up comic, a writer and illustrator, an award-winning performer and an App creator, this highly-regarded speech pathologist, who has committed herself to helping others communicate, has a lot to say herself.

Lynn Epstein, clinician and owner of Laguna Beach Language and Speech Clinic

Therapist by day, comic by night

Epstein is originally from Florida. “Laguna is like Florida without the humidity,” she explains when asked what brought her here in 1992.  She has been here ever since, excepting a two-year stint in Pensacola when she was engaged and then disengaged to a Marine pilot. (“I definitely served my country,” she says wryly.)  

When she returned in 1996, she took a comedy class at the Ice House.  “People said, ‘You’re funny,’ but I wanted to see if I could do it on cue; being on stage is different than telling jokes at a party. So I took another class in LA and started doing open mic nights.  Then I started getting hired as the MC, and I started producing my own shows.  I worked with a lot of people that are now on The Tonight Show. I worked with Chelsea Handler at the Comedy Store.  She’s great.  I then started teaching comedy classes.  It all comes back to language; helping people discover their own style.”

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Lynn Epstein shows some of her tricks of the trade

A hiatus from stand-up leads to other things

While busy with her comedy, Epstein was still working full time as a speech pathologist.  She finally decided that rather than doing what she did for others, she could do it for herself and opened her own practice.  This put her stand up on the back shelf.  Nevertheless, she still managed to find the time to write and illustrate a book titled “Why is It?!” that has 80 pages of questions such as, “Why is it the one who snores falls asleep first?” and “Why is it your mom said, “Be careful” AFTER you fell?” Epstein gave me a copy and joked that it fits perfectly on top of toilet tanks. 

Another outlet Epstein found for her self-expression is Lagunatics, the local and much-beloved theater group. “Yeah, I was scouted in Vons,” she deadpans. “I’ve got my Best Schmactor Award, the Golden Ham.” 

It’s not hard to picture her in full comic mode, gleefully embracing whatever role she is assigned.  It’s pretty clear that when Epstein is “in”, she’s “all in”.  

“My mom passed away young,” she explains. “So I think I have this ‘just do it’ attitude.  And yahoo! If you get paid for it!”

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Books and toys are everywhere in Epstein’s office

A little bit of science and a little bit of magic

When she taught her comedy classes her adult comic students came willingly.  Sometimes, however, her younger students who arrive at her office for therapy need some coaxing to let her teach them.  Humor is a perfect way “in.”  “When a kid says, ‘You’re funny’ I’m all, ‘Yes!’  This is all a little bit of science and a little bit of magic,” as Epstein describes it.  

Add App creator to the list of accomplishments

Her latest endeavor is work-related, but the enthusiasm is the same.  She developed an App titled “How do you Know?”  “I’ve been using this therapy technique for the last ten years, helping the kids learn to think out loud.  I haven’t officially launched it yet and I just added a read aloud component to it, but it’s something parents and other speech therapists can use.  Basically, there are 500 questions with pictures like ‘How is she feeling?’ and it will show a worried face, a stressed face, etc. The kid answers the question but the follow up question is ‘How do you know?’ It helps them learn to verbalize how they know what they know.”

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Epstein knows what kids like (because she likes it, too!)

Bringing parents into the process

Just to make sure she stays going at full throttle, Epstein is presenting at the American Speech Language Hearing Association in Orlando this month, an honor she is very proud of.  Her paper has to do with the parental component of therapy, an area that is critical to her students’ success, but often overlooked. 

“The first year they didn’t accept my paper, but they encouraged me to try again.  I guess you can’t quote yourself,” she explains with a laugh.  But she went back, found more research on things like the “grieving process” of therapy, as Epstein describes it.  Because therapy can be such a commitment, it can impact a family’s life in ways that, while not tragic, can be stressful. “Sometimes it’s not what the parents expect. Their kid can’t go to ballet anymore, they miss their other kids’ soccer games, it can be expensive,” she explains.  All these things can put stress on families.  By developing a better strategy for bringing parents into the process, Epstein believes she can help minimize that stress while better helping her students.

“I always say I’m a jack of all trades, master of one – that’s framed on the wall,” laughs Epstein.  

After meeting her, that seems like quite an understatement. Whether she’s helping a youngster expand their language, helping parents with the process of therapy or telling jokes to an audience, in Epstein’s world everything comes back to communication.  “I’m all about maximizing potential, whether it’s for a student, a colleague or a parent. I really enjoy that.”  

And if she can do it while making you laugh, all that much the better.


Creighton Wall knows, it’s character that counts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Everyone says he’s a character, and sure enough, the first time I see Creighton Wall he is actually in character: Captain America.

“I love superheroes,” he says, and that’s an understatement. “I like to make people smile.”

Arriving on the beach

Creighton and his brother Spencer grew up in Nebraska, and they were always close. So when Spencer moved and started a life in Laguna, Creighton seized every opportunity to come out and visit, along with their parents. 

Back in the flatlands of Nebraska, Creighton was something of a big fish in a small pond. Just about everyone knew everyone, but especially so in the community of individuals with Down Syndrome. 

They would get together socially, often for movies, their bowling club, and regional events like the Special Olympics. 

Creighton was also known around town by his bright red VW. He would drive to his custodial job at the YMCA. 

It took him five years, but he was very determined to learn to drive, Spencer told us. “He’s a very slow, careful driver. He’s cautious, and really good.” 

“But, it’s too busy here. Too dangerous,” chimes in Creighton. He lives along Coast Highway now, and has seen his fair share of dangers. “I see people cross the street - not at a crosswalk. And ambulances. I’m not going to drive here.”

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Brothers, Spencer and Creighton Wall

That’s a relatively easy trade-off for the life of independence he’s found at Glennwood House. 

Creighton moved here six months ago to make his home at Glennwood, within a caring and safe community, where the sun shines, and people say hello. “I love it here. I don’t have to shovel snow! I love the staff, I love the food,” he says. “But not chicken salad.” 

He’s not a fan of chicken salad. 

“My buddy Carter,” he continues, “we’re the ‘dynamic duo’ of Glennwood.” They share a love of movies.

It’s an independent life no one in his family might have imagined for Creighton. Now even his parents have been smitten with Laguna, and recently bought a home here. “It’s everything I ever dreamed of,” adds his brother, Spencer.

It started with a bang

Creighton loved the beach and when he’d come for visits, he’d swim out to the buoy off Main Beach. He would meet people, and make sure they’d smile. He’d make knotted bracelets and sell them on the sidewalk during Art Walk. And he always loved Disneyland. 

“California is my wonderland,” he says.

One day Creighton’s brother gave him a birthday dream come true. He took him to L.A., to a live taping of his favorite TV show, The Big Bang Theory. “It’s my addiction,” said Creighton. “I have a life-size cutout of Sheldon Cooper in my room!” 

They had cupcakes and he even got to meet the whole cast. “They love comics, and I’m getting into them,” he said. “Because I like superheroes!” 

Creighton is perfecting his superhero persona with different costumes, and appearances on Main Beach. He’s going to be Batman for Halloween. As he knows, “It’s fun. It makes people happy.”

Books and more books

While Creighton was growing up in Nebraska, he reached that particular age and point of realization that he couldn’t eat everything he wanted. It was a tough lesson, because he has a special fondness for Cheetos and other non-healthy snacks, but his weight was climbing and he didn’t feel good about it.

 As part of the plan, he documented his journey in fitness and weight-loss in his own book, I Used to be Down, but Now I Love My Life.

He wraps up the book, stating: “The reason why I wrote this book is to share the success story of my health. I like to tell people my new way of how to look at life and how precious it is. Live on my brothers and sisters. I wrote this book for you, too. …I love my life. I want you to love it too. A healthy body is a good body. Please take care of it people. God gives us one body, treat it well.”

Now he adheres to a one-bag-of-Cheetos-a-week plan.

“I want to get my book made into a movie!” Creighton offers up, hopefully.

 His love of writing and reading also includes a huge love of libraries. He spends all his free time hanging out at libraries. “I like the Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, and Dana Point libraries …it’s peaceful,” he says. “I don’t like negativity and stress. I’m a positive person.” 

Enthusiastically, next he plans to write a book about recycling.

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Heavy lifting and sorting: Creighton is passionate about recycling

Creighton looks at life in terms of what he can do, which is a lot, what he wants to do which is even more, and what is most important: spreading happiness. 

It’s fun at the YMCA

On the road to fitness, Creighton did a lot of swimming and working out at the YMCA, in Nebraska. He enjoyed it so much there, that he started volunteering. And he was so good at it, and so dedicated, that they hired him on for custodial work. He worked from 5:00 a.m. till noon every day. He’s proud to say that he was named “Employee of the Year”.

He’s hoping for a similar path since discovering the Laguna Niguel YMCA. 

“Jimmy works at the front desk at the Y, and gives tours,” said Creighton. “We’re buddies. I told him I’d mention him. He’s a great guy. Jimmy, like Jimmy Olsen with Superman!” 

Jimmy is happy for Creighton’s friendship, and for his volunteerism. He takes the bus there at least twice a week, and helps out at the facility, also with their custodial duties. “It’s my stress reliever. But I won’t do toilets,” Creighton said, laughing. 

He likes to swim and hopes to be in the Special Olympics again. “I’m big on competing a lot,” he says. “I got that from my dad.” 

We look forward to following his progress in the Special Olympics, in all the sports he likes: swimming, boxing, weight lifting, and bowling.

A worldwide family

The Wall family has joined with the National Down Syndrome Congress every summer, an event that brings them all over the country to raise awareness, and foster friendships. 

The annual convention attracts thousands of people from around the globe. As the NDSC website states, “For most, it’s to hear the latest information from world-renowned experts. For others, it’s a great vacation. But, for nearly all there’s that one-of-a-kind NDSC family reunion feeling that permeates the convention weekend.” 

Creighton’s family has been enjoying the event almost every year of his life.

“There are about 200 Down Syndrome kids in our hotel, the Congress refers to as ‘self advocates’,” Spencer explains. “They share their strengths and skills, and have fun. Every summer it’s like a reunion.” 

Creighton has become close with a girl from Atlanta through this event, and they continue their friendship via Facebook. “I want to get her to move here too,” he says.

Awareness Month

Spencer Wall has a tight bond with his brother and, by association, a special commitment to the Down Syndrome community. He brought Stu News together with Creighton, in honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, this month. We couldn’t have been happier to get to know this charming young man, and share his story at this special time. 

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Creighton Wall

Spencer started working in Laguna, and even met his future wife through a connection to the Down Syndrome community as well. When they met, she was a nanny for a family in Laguna with a Down Syndrome child.

 Spencer is not only Creighton’s brother, he’s his biggest fan - and the feeling is mutual. 

 “I want to be more like my brother,” says Creighton. “But I’m not getting married.”

Meanwhile, Spencer is married, and has a son he named for Creighton. It’s his middle name: Samuel.

Creighton is close to his brother and sister-in-law, and is the proud uncle of their son, Sam. Along with his sister’s children, Creighton has even more bragging rights. “I am an uncle to three beautiful kids,” he says, beaming.

Thanks to Spencer’s good friend, Chris Keller, himself a father to a Down Syndrome child, Creighton has also found a new purpose; he is downright passionate for recycling. 

He goes to Keller’s Rooftop restaurant often with other Glennwood residents every Thursday to sort their recyclables. Then on Fridays, they take them in to the recycling center in Dana Point.

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He’s a “regular” at The Rooftop restaurant. Regularly helping out!

Creighton has made new friends with his same high level of abilities at Glennwood, and has been embraced by Laguna as he gives back to the community.

And his brother appreciates him in ways he may not even know. “Creighton tells it like it is,” said Spencer. “If I have learned anything from my younger brother it is to be real with yourself and others.” 


Ricky Figueroa: Respecting the night shift

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Everyone should have the pleasure of meeting Ricky Figueroa.   Why? Because it never hurts to meet someone who genuinely cares about others.  It also never hurts to meet someone who can teach you something you didn’t think you needed to learn. So, while it may be a difficult prospect to schedule lunch with a man who works from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. (longer on weekends) six days a week, if the opportunity should present itself – jump on it.

For the last five years, Ricky Figueroa has worked the night shift at the Stop-N-Go in north Laguna.  Prior to that he worked at the Mobil station downtown for four years, also the night shift. So he’s certainly adapted to those long, late night and early morning hours.  “I like the night.  Everybody is happy to be off school or off work, plus after 10 it gets very quiet.  I feel safe,” he explains.

Ricky Figueroa 

Finding an after hours community

The fact that he prefers working at night is not what made such an impression on me (although, it does seem incredibly challenging for a non-night owl like myself).  What affected me so profoundly was the true enjoyment he derives from his job.  As he explains it, “When I’m working it’s when I feel like I’m home.  It’s more of a social life.  Friends come in and visit.  People come by after work.  I can help people if they need something.  I feel very blessed.”   The Mobil station did not provide quite the same experience.  It didn’t have the sense of community the Stop-n-Go does.  And after listening to Figueroa discuss the people, particularly the kids, who frequent the store it is obvious how important community is to him.

Getting his first job when he was about 12, Figueroa worked at a relative’s construction site in his hometown of Puebla, near Mexico City.  He decided he liked working, liked having money in his pocket to buy candy and things.  When he went to college he was still working, this time at a nightclub in Tijuana.  “I didn’t finish college.  I was working too much.  My job was from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and my first class was at 7.  I realized I’m not learning anything,” he says with a laugh.  A friend convinced him to move to Chicago.  Once he got to the States, however, they lost contact so he ended up living with his cousins in Laguna Hills.  A quick stay in St. George, Utah installing air conditioning units ended and “I was supposed to go back to Mexico with my 

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Ricky Figueroa with some of his North Laguna “peeps”

family, but my cousin asked me to stay.  I found a job so I did.”  His first job in Laguna was at the Inn at Laguna, then he moved right across Coast Hwy to the Mobil station.  “I love Laguna Beach. There is such a good spirit here.”  

When I ask him how many times he has actually been to the beach he laughs again, “Only about six times.”  It’s not surprising considering his hours, plus he works another job part-time buying and selling computer parts online.  That doesn’t leave a lot of time for beach going.

Paying it forward at Stop-n-Go

Figueroa’s boss, the owner of Stop-n-Go is “really nice,” according to Figueroa, allowing him and his co-workers to eat free of charge while on duty, for example.  It’s a little thing, but to Figueroa it’s a sign of respect and trust from his boss.  He says none of the guys who work there would dream of taking advantage of their boss’ generosity because they appreciate the gesture.  Plus it sets a kind of precedent.  The owner is generous, he allows his workers to be generous (short a few cents at the register? Not a problem), and frequently customers tell the guys who work there to “keep the change.” 

The store is its own tiny microcosm of paying it forward.  The idea of treating others how you would like to be treated is an important one to Figueroa and one he takes very seriously.

The Stop-n-Go in north Laguna, 1390 N. Coast Highway

Trust and respect build relationships

“My parents trusted me when I was a kid. When you trust a kid they feel it and give it back to you. I give my mom and dad a lot of thanks.  They let me do what I want because they trusted me,” he explains.  This philosophy is something Ricky puts into practice everyday at work.  He sees the people who come in as more than customers. And most of his regular customers see him as more than the guy who rings up their order.  It is with a fair amount of pride that Ricky tells me how customers he has seen grown up will come in to Stop-n-Go to buy their first beer on their 21st birthday, not because they really want a beer, but because they are so happy to show him their ID.  But the ID better be real.  

Figueroa has a pretty good idea of how old his customers really are, plus he very likely knows their parents, and will give the parents a head’s up if he thinks it’s necessary. After a few of his tales of thwarted teen purchases, I felt compelled to whip out my phone, show him a photo of my two teenagers (whom he recognized) and grill him as to their purchases and general behavior.  I must say I feel better knowing he’s there, keeping an eye on things.

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Ricky Figueroa behind the counter with a smile

A clerk becomes a hero

“I think he likes how I treat him with respect. It’s important to hear what kids say.  Being a child is not easy, for me either, “ says Figueroa with a laugh. “I had someone behind me showing me the way.  That is something all kids need.”  The “he” Ricky is referring to is a boy named Monty.  According to Figueroa, Monty was a frequent Stop-n-Go customer and the two built up a friendship.  When he was about 14 Monty told Figueroa that he needed to choose a hero for a class project.  He chose Figueroa. 

“The other day when I was a little down I remembered that and it picked me up.  That was nice.  I also had one of the kids ask me how much I make to work here. I just laughed and he told me that when ‘I get big I’m going to buy this store and give it to you.’ These are things that make you feel good.  I feel blessed.” And he really does.  

That’s why the chance to chat with Ricky Figueroa should not be squandered.  Gratitude. Trust. Respect. These words carry a lot of weight with him and when you talk to him it’s easy to feel like maybe they should carry a little more weight with you.  There’s feeling these things and there’s living by these things. I thought I was the former until I met Figueroa.  That’s where I learned my lesson.  If I use Figueroa as my standard, I’ve got some room for improvement.  So, if you’re driving by and you need a bag of ice or you’re craving some chips, stop in.  

I’m pretty sure you will get more than you thought you needed.


Siblings giving: Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Aaron and Shira had a plan about the money gifted to them at their B’nai Mitzvah.

They are brother and sister, and since they are so close in age they celebrated their coming-of-age in the Jewish faith jointly. 

Together, they were greater than the sum of the parts, as they both wanted to use the money, as well as their every available minute making a difference in the lives of Laguna’s most desperate and impoverished population. 

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Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

Aaron, now 17, is a senior at Laguna Beach High School, and Shira, 16, is a junior. What they started four years ago has now blossomed into a philanthropic club at the high school called “Friends in Need”.

Giving a hand up

They started with helping the homeless. Ambitiously, they got Panera Bread’s acceptance, and began regularly picking up day-old and other gifts from the Panera restaurant in Aliso Viejo. They thought it would be great to bring it to Main Beach for the homeless people there.

The City didn’t agree. 

There was already the Alternative Sleeping Location in place in the canyon, and the idea was to keep meal donations centered there. On one of his return trips from the ASL, Aaron was moved by the sight of countless day laborers anxiously waiting in the sun for a car to drive up and offer them a day of work and wages. 

The Day Laborer site is perhaps a scary unknown to many residents of Laguna Beach. For many others it is also a source of competent, ready, and willing workers for a day of difficult tasks at fair or below normal wages.  

How could he pass by without a care? Answer: he couldn’t.

A site for opportunity

Aaron and Shira started to visit the day laborers. 

“They are hungry, tired, and standing in the dirt all day,” said Aaron. “They’re here in our community, but they live way below the poverty line.”

At first the men there were wary, but slowly they built a relationship of trust with the teenagers. “We treat them with dignity,” explained Aaron. “They’ve opened up to us, they’ve lived some incredible lives. 

“I trust all of them. They’re just great human beings.”

Beyond food, Aaron and Shira have stepped in to fill needs where they might not even be evident.

“One day a guy was there and we’d brought bagels,” said Shira. “But he couldn’t eat because his teeth hurt.” They brought a dentist to the site, and a hygienist to help educate the workers with proper dental care. “One day there was a guy with an eye infection,” Aaron chimed in. “His eye was swollen completely shut.” They brought him to Sleepy Hollow Urgent Care and paid for his care with their own money.

The gratitude bestowed on these kids is heart-warming. 

We joined Aaron and Shira at the site, workmen clamoring to get to the car as we pulled in. Once they knew we were there to talk about what Aaron and Shira are doing they were all smiles and handshakes.

“They are so great,” one said of the teens. Another showed us the best thing that they did to improve the dry and dusty site, where sometimes a hundred men will be sweating in the heat: a water fountain.

“I asked the guys, ‘What else do you need?’” said Aaron. “They just said ‘water’.” 

Instead of bringing in cases of wasteful plastic bottles, Aaron and Shira decided on a better plan; they’d get them a water fountain. Using their B’nai Mitzvah money, and what friends would help with donations, they raised the $3,000 for a permanent water fountain.

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On installation day, four years ago, the kids went across the street to Ganahl and got some shovels and supplies, then the workers did the work. “The guys installed it,” said Shira. “Everyone put their name in the cement.”

Meanwhile the teens fund-raised for more projects. 

They called on friends and family, and started the club at the high school to broaden their reach.

Friends in Need

The Friends in Need club doubles as Santa during the holiday season. They do a winter coat drive, and their Christmas project is to get all the day laborer names, their spouses and kids, and where they live. Then they raise money, go to Target to purchase gifts, and host wrapping parties at the high school. On Christmas Eve they’ve gone out and delivered presents to every single family.

It was quite shocking at first, to see the conditions in which many of the day laborers live. 

“We went one house to the next,” said Aaron. “We saw people living four families in an apartment, and living in garages. But we’ve always found everybody.”

They have also just installed a retractable awning at the Day Laborer site, to provide shade, or relief from rain. “The guys who get the jobs are the least wet,” said Shira. 

Also the guy who can speak English.

The biggest effort for the club these days is to provide the tools for learning English. Two years ago, the students got 40 vocabulary textbooks donated. They are kept in the little trailer on-site, but the workers can use them during the day, or purchase them at a nominal cost to share at home. The teens help teach and practice English with the workers.

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“We come out to the site on Saturdays,” explains Shira. “We usually have three or four people to teach.”

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“This project is building relationships,” adds Aaron. “My mom had a contractor at the house, and he said, ‘I know your son. He taught me English!’”

There are now 65 students from the high school who have joined Friends in Need. Their long-term goals include a permanent bathroom at the site, a gutter for the trailer building so rain doesn’t come in, and one day to have a classroom building.

Besides that

And then there are the other things that lie in the hearts of these two caring and compassionate teens. They are both deeply committed to the arts.

Shira began dancing when she was a little girl, with Miss Linda’s Castle, and Kyne Dance Academy. She’s now in the LBHS varsity dance program daily, with a seventh period enrollment in a second dance class. 

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Aaron is musically gifted all around, playing piccolo, piano, guitar, and ukulele. But that’s all trumped by the trumpet. He’s earned All State, and All Southern auditions, and he plays the trumpet with the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra. His college plans include music, but he’d like to go for a pre-med major. He’d like to be an ER doc, like his dad. 

We doubt there’s any stopping these two heartfelt, high-achievers.


Faye Chapman: Making many people’s lives better

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

There is a passage in Faye Chapman’s book of photos, Faces of the Shadows: Life on the Street that says, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.”  To hear Chapman talk about the homeless, a cause that she is deeply committed to, is to understand how much she takes those words to heart -- and how much she wishes others would, as well.

Faye Chapman was homeless for a brief time, many years ago before she came to Laguna.  She didn’t think of herself as homeless, but technically she and her daughter were without a home of their own one summer and, therefore, “homeless.” Chapman sent her daughter to stay with her grandparents in Indiana while she slept on friends’ couches, worked two part time jobs, took photos for the local paper, sat on the Board of the American Heart Association and volunteered with the PTA. The volunteer work was required so she could get food from the local church.  

“That was a great program.  You felt like you earned your food instead of it just being a handout.”  Eventually, she saved the money she needed, her daughter returned for school and life resumed.  Her “homelessness” was over.

Talking to Chapman about this time in her life, one marvels at the stamina she needed to do what she did.  She says that when she thinks about it she’s a little surprised at what she was able to do, as well.  “How did I do all that?! Now I can’t seem to get anything done!” she says laughing. Hardly. While she may not be working three jobs anymore, Faye Chapman gets quite a lot done, especially for the projects she believes in.

A chance encounter’s surprising impact

It would be easy to assume her interest in homelessness was brought on by that summer so long ago. While that experience may have opened her up to the frailty of stability, it was not as significant as another event that happened years later.  She says that what started her down this path of working with the homeless was a chance encounter with a homeless woman who accidentally walked into a picture she was taking while at Venice Beach.  

At first, Chapman says she thought, “Oh shoot. She just ruined my shot.  But I took one picture.  And this woman was so drawn in, almost like she was hiding from the world.  Then she saw I was looking at her and her whole being changed.  It was like she was embarrassed…I got up and walked away.  But it started me thinking, ‘Why is this woman homeless?’ I started looking for her, but it was like she’d vanished. This is what started me on my journey.”

An interest turns into a cause

By then, Chapman and her daughter had moved to Laguna Beach and Chapman was working for the local paper, at the time run by Stu Saffer.  “I asked Stu if I could take pictures of the homeless.  He said, ‘OK.’  Every city I went to I wanted to find out about the people there. You can’t generalize.  Everyone has their own journey and story: medical bills, a divorce, mental illness, no family.  I found that most of the time these were good people who had bad things happen to them.”  She published her book of photos in 2007.  Getting to know their stories prompted Chapman to want to do something to help.

“It’s hard.  When you get to that level it’s really, really hard.  Your basic needs aren’t being met.  No shower.  No phone. How can you get a job? You need someone helping you and pulling you along.  If we don’t help them they will die on our streets.” 

So Chapman joined what was then the Laguna Beach Resource Center (now the Laguna Beach Food Pantry).  When Chapman joined the Resource Center they had three areas of focus: the homeless, the food pantry and disaster preparedness.  A few years ago, the group decided to focus solely on the food pantry so Chapman left to continue her focus on homelessness. 

The Hunger Bowl delivers necessities

“I was on the [city’s] Housing and Human Services Committee, still am, actually.  Six years ago I came up with the Hunger Bowl.  I get bowls donated from all over the world and they’re used as silent auction items.  I get restaurants to donate food; local kids make bowls that we give to every guest. It gives us the chance to go out and talk to the kids about homelessness, tell them to look them in the eye, be kind, don’t be afraid of them.  So it’s great that way, and it has turned into a very fun event,” explains Chapman.  

Last year the event raised $20,000 and she hopes to double that this year.  She’s still accepting bowls if anyone, artists in particular, would like to donate. Tickets are $45 for five tastes of soup, one dessert and a keepsake bowl made by students at LBHS, Woodbridge High School or Trabuco High School.  

“There is a Board that decides how to spend the money we raise.  Last year the money went to help paying for prescriptions, a huge need.”  She detailed how a new program, organized with the help of Dr. Tom Bent of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, provides $10 prescriptions at Laguna Drug.  “This is huge! I’m very excited about this program,” says Chapman.  The old process for getting prescriptions filled for homeless people, she explains, required them to navigate via public bus to Wal-Mart.  For a population already facing so many challenges, this extra complication meant that many did not get the medicine they needed.  Getting them access to medication close by is a small, but extremely meaningful improvement, for many of Laguna’s homeless.

National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week Month

A year prior to the Hunger Bowl Chapman says, “I asked the city to proclaim National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.  This year it’s for a month.”  There are several citywide projects to get involved in.  One is a food drive.  Last year’s food drive added 50,000 lbs. of food to the Food Pantry. 

“It brings in the whole community,” says Chapman.  There is also “Meal-less Monday” where we are all encouraged to go without lunch, buying someone in need lunch instead.  

With such dedication to improving the lives of others, it is not surprising that Chapman has recently created her own non-profit: Changing Souls.  She explains that the group’s mission is “to help the hungry, the homeless and the poor.  We are starting off slow, helping people on an individual basis.  We help get prescriptions filled, buy bus passes to help people see their families.  We are working with the Laguna Beach Networks Church and putting together a homeless work program where they can work for food gift cards. It will help give them a sense of pride and purpose.  It’s a little way of helping them have something to look forward to.  They love something to do.”

An original painting by a homeless person

 

“Treat homeless people as people.”

The same can be said of Faye Chapman.  She has a lot on her plate (or in her bowl), but it all seems to come back to the same starting point: compassion. Instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by the hugeness of an issue like homeless she focuses on what she can do to make people’s lives better -- here.  I asked her when we were done talking if she had anything she wanted to make sure got included in this piece.  What she said was not what I was expected, but I should have.  She thought for a moment and said, “Treat homeless people as people.  Be kind.”  These are words that Faye Chapman certainly lives by.


Scott Alan, living in the here and now

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Scott’s personality makes an impact without his even trying. Not surprisingly, people notice and often comment about his appearance, or his accouterments – basically his way of expressing himself. 

Recently he was back in his old hometown of pretty-much-nowhere, Oklahoma. As he was walking down the street a car came up slowly beside him. Scott thought, “Oh, no, here it comes…” Then a girl, a complete stranger, opened the window and shouted enthusiastically, “Keep on being who you are!”

Scott smiled and said, “I wouldn’t know who else to be!”

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Scott Alan

He is who he is, and he carries his big persona with good cheer. “Laughter is my coping mechanism,” he says. “Humor is everything.”

He’s come a long way from his childhood sense of self that was distinctly at odds with the ideology of small town Oklahoma 45 years ago, including a mean and alcoholic father. He knew he was gay, and it didn’t fit the paradigm. 

“I had this vision of me being dragged behind a truck with my pants around my ankles,” he said. “I had to get out.”

Scott left home at the age 19 to find a place where he didn’t feel like an outsider. He needed some salt water too. “After growing up in the Midwest, I knew I had to be near the ocean,” he said. “There are good graces the ocean does for us.”

After living in Seattle and the Bay Area in the height of the AIDS epidemic, Scott had to deal with that too. He tested positive for HIV in 1989, and was told that he had five to ten years at best. At the time he was in interior design school and it happened to be “Career Week”. The teacher told the students that when they’d start out working in the field, they’d “be doing s*** work for five to ten years.” Scott got over the shock of his diagnosis with a sense of humor. “I thought, five to ten years? Well, then I won’t have to pay off my student loans!”

Thankfully he’s survived and flourished, and managed to secure housing in one of the 25 apartments in Laguna’s Hagan Place. Scott is happy and upbeat, but he stresses the importance to not give up or forget the battle against AIDS. “You don’t see many red ribbons anymore,” he laments.

Laguna Bound 

Scott knew he would love to live in Laguna the first time he drove down Coast Highway by Main Beach. 

He had been living for a while in Huntington Beach, and one day the police came to his door and arrested him. They hauled him off to the station while they went through a series of charges. When they realized they had a case of mistaken identity, and that Scott was not the guy they were looking for, they simply told him, “Go home.” With no car, no money, and barely any clothes on his back he walked all the way back to his home with a bad taste in his mouth for the type of treatment he was shown.

By contrast, Scott discovered friendlier police while driving through Laguna.

“I saw two people run across the street right in front of a cop car,” Scott told us. “I thought they’d be arrested. But over the loudspeaker they said, ‘That’s not a very good idea girls!’ Then I knew it was a more friendly environment here.”

Scott lives here with his constant companion, Amber. “She’s my four-legged sedative,” he says. “She keeps my blood pressure in check.”

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Amber, Scott’s other half

Just about everyone in town has met Amber, whether it’s on their daily walks along Main Beach, or in Scott’s arms. She’s sweet and gentle like she’s trained that way, but really she just picks up on Scott’s cues. They are two gentle souls. “I’m calm. I don’t do stress,” says Scott. “It’s not good for me, so why should I buy into it?”

And Amber’s just fine with that too. They have a lot in common. 

“She’s Pisces, and I have Pisces rising. We have a Pisces thing going on,” explains Scott. “She completes me.”

Even before Scott moved here for good in 1999 he had some Laguna history. He lived in the canyon for several years in the 70’s and 80’s, and even got married. They were friends, she had a “cool little kid”, and Scott didn’t want to see them go on welfare. He helped her to get a job, and the son to stay in school. “I’m a catch, I guess,” he laughs.

“I got married to be a dad, not to be a husband,” he said. They are actually still married even though she moved a long time ago. And they have stayed friends. “We just can’t live together,” he says. “I’ve been married 30+ years. Works for us!”

It’s art, it’s a car – it’s an Art Car

The other thing that marks Scott around town, and anywhere else, is his mode of transportation. 

It all started in a small garage in LA in 1986.

Scott was the proud owner of a 34 year-old VW. It was a little beat up, with three different colors of primer, but ran like a champ. So he decided to let some friends on a graffiti crew go wild sprucing it up. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to know what you’re doing, just wow me.’” Work progressed in his driveway, and despite police cruisers passing back and forth making sure, it was all very legit - and artistic. 

Submitted photo

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The original Virgin of Guadalupe extra-terrestrial VW

“They painted it up space themed, and I’ve been on that ever since,” says Scott. 

The Virgin of Guadalupe as an extra-terrestrial caught the attention of another friend who said, “You gotta meet my friend…” And so it went until there were five or six cars worthy of attention.

Some of the other art cars were on their way to Stanford Children’s Hospital for a show. So Scott went along, and has been doing shows ever since. “The kids love it the best,” he says. “They don’t have adults filters. They just say, ‘That’s cool!’”

Scott has had three art cars now, including an Avatar themed VW (that, sadly, was demolished in an accident), and his current Star Wars Darth Maul themed “Galactic Please Patrol.”

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Scott and Amber with the Galactic Please Patrol car

“I’m constantly doing this one,” said Scott. “Trying to make it my old car again. Now I’m putting in a sunroof, and new pop-out windows.”

He’s been to art car festivals in Seattle several times, as well as San Francisco and Texas, but it’s expensive just to get there (especially Texas!). “They’ll usually house you, and feed you, and pay twice what your gas costs to get there.” Really, it’s for fun and community.

Being an outsider

Scott will often put on his kilt (“Once you wear a kilt, it’s hard to wear pants!”), get in his latest car, and go in search of art.

Not too long ago, he was on his way to Slab City, that place in the desert where squatters and RV’s camp “off the grid” amongst the concrete slabs left from abandoned World War II Marine barracks. It’s another form of community. Nearby, there’s a sculpture garden called “East Jesus”. Scott met a man there who cleaned up trash and arranged it, creating “art builds”, and a sculpture garden. It is something of beauty from some things of decay.

The man Scott met was one of those people impacted by Scott’s persona. “I impressed him,” Scott said. “He had this connection with me.” 

They talked about life, art, and feeling different from other people, like an outsider. The man listened as Scott told him about Burning Man (the living community of art, temporarily constructed and attended by more than 50,000 people for one week every summer in the Nevada desert), and how he wanted to go, but tickets were so expensive. 

When Scott got home, he received a package from the man. Inside were Burning Man tickets and five ounces of silver. Scott’s not sure about the silver, but the man told him that he related to him because he too felt outcast and uncomfortable when he was young. Until surgery, he was self-conscious and ashamed because he had a condition of gynecomastia. 

Scott had never been to Burning Man before this year, and it was a transformative experience. The connection with the other people there opened Scott’s heart. 

“They are my people,” he says. “They are my tribe.”

The man in East Jesus has promised Scott tickets to Burning Man for the rest of his life.

Forever is a long time, and Scott believes in living in the moment. “Live in the now,” he says. “Be more dog!”


Ruben Flores: Bringing new life to Laguna Nursery

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

To say that Ruben Flores, owner of Visionscape, Inc. and the reinvigorated Laguna Nursery, has a green thumb is stating the obvious.  With a BS and an MBA from Cal Poly Pomona in Ornamental Horticulture and Landscaping Design and Business, respectively, and a last name that literally translates to “flowers” it would be surprising if he didn’t. What is a surprise is the extensive reach of his “green thumb,” going well beyond just plants and flowers to basically anything he sets his sights on.  

If something needs new life, Ruben Flores is the man who can reinvigorate it.

An historic nursery needs saving

Take his Laguna Nursery, for example.  Flores purchased it seven years ago on a “whim”.  Having been a nursery for the past 52 years, Flores felt compelled to save it from its fate of becoming a storage space for a local hotel.  

“The nursery had been through several owners and gone down, down, down as far as it was serving the community,” he explains. Flores decided to fix that, in addition to running Visionscape, Inc., his landscaping design firm now in it’s 26th year.

“That,” however, was no easy task.  Lots of factors are working against the nursery business these days, according to Flores. “There are lots of reasons not to garden,” he says, listing things ranging from people’s aversion to too much sun exposure to the increased interest in drought resistant plants.  “It used to be everyone bought tomatoes and rose bushes.  Now it’s drought resistant plants and succulents.”  Flores is a fan of drought resistant plants and succulents, but since one of their selling points is their heartiness and longevity, they’re not replaced as often as rose bushes and tomatoes. This means less need for people to venture to the nursery.  So Flores had to create reasons for people to come.

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Social media, concerts and, of course, plants

“I brought socialization into the nursery,” says Flores.  “Everybody realizes the value of social media.  I’ve taken that on at the Nursery.  We expanded horizontally.  So we have plants, statues, fountains, but we also have a baby grand piano and do cabaret nights and concerts. 

“This brings in people who might have no idea of planting a petunia on a Saturday afternoon.  They have a glass of wine, listen to music and they see the space with a different brain.”  

Walking through the nursery there is a lot to see besides plants.  Art, from sculptures to paintings, from 32 countries are represented at the Nursery.  With jobs that take him all over the world, as well as the US, Flores has ample opportunity to collect beautiful and interesting objects.  “I want there to be the interest for the exterior that we have in the interior,” he explains.

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An interest leads to a fast start for his business

His interest in the “exterior” got off to a dynamic start.  Fresh out of school and lecturing on coastal plants he was hired to do the landscaping of Laguna’s “Villa Eden”.  As he worked on that job, he got another one down the street.  He tells me his first two jobs were for $25 million dollar properties, laughing, “I have an interest in coastal plants.  The most expensive homes tend to be on these coastal sights.  That was not my intention.”  But it turned out to be a very happy accident. 

“The second house was owned by Severin Wunderman.  “He changed my life,” says Flores.  “He had seven houses and I did all of them.”  Wunderman, who died in 2008, was a well-known art collector and philanthropist who made his fortune in the watch industry.

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Smart business leads to civic involvement

In his landscaping business Flores says he did “the isolation thing.  I’m my own man doing my own thing.” The purchase of the nursery, however, changed that.  “I realized the store can’t exist without support from the community.  I started to reach out, make alliances.” Now firmly entrenched in Laguna Beach civic life Flores’ reach extends to a surprising number of organizations.  

He’s involved with Laguna’s HIP District; he’s on the board of the South Laguna Community Garden and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, is president of the Laguna Beach Beautification Committee and the Laguna Beach Sister Cities Association.  With such an array of groups, his involvement may have originally been motivated by business considerations, but it has obviously evolved beyond that.  Listening to him speak about the people and projects he’s involved with it’s quite obvious his interest is personal.  

Take the Laguna Beach Beautification Committee, for example. The Committee, which, as Flores explains, had “been around for 65 years” and had done “some very important things for the city,” like preventing high-rises on the beach and getting a public park out of the development of the Montage. As was true with Laguna Nursery before he stepped in, however, it had lost some of its zest, or as Flores puts it, the organization, “Kind of went away.”  With his help, it has since been “brought back to life.”  

The Sister Cities Association is another organization that has caught Flores’ attention and is flourishing as a result. “We are creating three 15’ x 15’ plots at Heisler Park, with room to add two more, for gardens that represent our sister cities: Menton, France; St. Ives, England and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico,” he says.  When Flores gets involved, expect things to grow and get done - two good traits for someone whose life revolves around plants.

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A gift for revitalization

Flores has gotten to the point in his career where he can be selective regarding the jobs he wants to work on.  “I will do your place if it’s photographable, even if it’s just 200 square feet, but it has to have something.  We’ve done most of the notable houses in town so when you’re working on that caliber you want to do things that challenge you,” he explains.  

When asked about trends, Flores’ passion for what he does is palpable. “I’d say succulents and grasses.  We’re foregoing flowers for textures.  There is so much emotion in texture.  People forget about movement.  Even on a hot day we usually get a slight breeze; seeing the beauty in the movement may be enough to draw you out to take a walk through your garden.”  

Talking to Ruben makes you want to be outside.  The Laguna Nursery was created to entice you to do just that.

More than just a place to buy plants, Laguna Nursery represents possibilities - of what you can do to transform your home and what a business owner can do when they are committed to reinvigorating something in need. Revitalization is something Ruben Flores knows a lot about.  Whether it’s plants, an exterior space or a community group, he can’t seem to help but give things new life.


Chris Keller looks at life going forward in Laguna

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

We knew Chris Keller was a mover and shaker back when we wrote about him in a Stu News 2012 movers and shakers story. Guess what? He’s shown no signs of slowing down. Unless you add to his busy business life a new wife and new family. Then he slows down a bit to savor a home life with Amy, their daughter Alexis, and their nine-month old baby, Rocco. 

We caught up with Keller while he also had caring for his parents on his mind. He was back in the old hometown, New Jersey, and like many of us he was surprised how time has a way of sneaking up unexpectedly. The next thing you know, you’re helping out your parents instead of the other way around. 

“It’s the first time in 28 years I’ve spent more than a week there,” Keller said. “I just wanted to make sure they’re in a good place.”

Keller is a family man, though it may have taken having his own family to realize that.

Laguna’s business opportunities

In the meanwhile, this 40-something young man has enjoyed great successes in the commerce of Laguna, including the Casa del Camino and associated super popular Rooftop. After that came the successful restaurant The House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer which, unlike its name, enjoyed the spotlight with some brevity. Yes, Big Fish is closing and will be missed, but Keller had some tough business decisions to make. Big Fish is saying adios, while Keller’s partnership group, Casa Resorts, focuses on, well, resorts. 

Many of Laguna’s old-time locations have to thank Keller for a bit of an up-do. Big Fish came in where the Aegean Café sailed off. The Rooftop was the first of its kind to dominate Laguna sunsets since it poured its first mojito. And the Marine Room is underway with some fancy upticks, like the music stage area moved to the back room, and even some fine new bathrooms.

Amy says the Marine Room is “Chris’ other little baby.”

“It’s doing great, and looking great,” says Keller. “There’s a better layout, and we’re getting great feedback.” The Marine Room is poised to be “the best whiskey bar in town.”

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Many friends and regulars of the Marine Room wanted to talk with Keller – so they all jumped in to be photographed

Keller moves where the opportunities are, and where his passions take him. Lately, since he and Amy have been getting healthy with exercise and juicing, they have moved on to the next project; a juice bar.

“I’d been an on and off vegetarian/pescatarian for many years,” said Keller. “Then a year and a half ago I went on a vegan diet. Working out and juicing every day – I’ve never felt better in my whole life.”

Look for healthy fruits and veggies whipped up into shakes or extracts (always a good choice instead of the movie theatre fare!). “We’re going to have our top 10 or 15 juice recipes,” he said. “We’re really excited about it. That place has so much history and a cool vibe.”

Keller’s newest business, a juice bar, will open soon next to the movie theatre

In addition to working for success in his own businesses, Keller has been very active with the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, and with Visit Laguna Beach to promote Laguna as a thriving community, a destination, and a brand. He is an important spoke in the wheels of commerce, promoting business and the things that attract people to Laguna.

Between the two organizations, Keller sees strategic opportunities for the small businesses in town. “Having the trolleys run year-round (starting in March) – the City has been over the top with helping to make that happen,” he says. “That’ll be a game-changer.”

His Casa Resorts partnership is looking toward strategic growth as well. “We are re-focusing to obtain more boutique hotels,” he said. “Looking around Laguna is a priority.”

He also has a dream of one day having a hotel in Italy.

An ambitious paperboy

Keller comes by his drive for work and entrepreneurship the old-fashioned way – he started as a paperboy. Then when he was 15 his dad brought him home an application for the next step up the pre-corporate ladder: a pizza job.

The world of a pizza parlor was Keller’s intro to the hospitality industry. He worked there day and night, and found out he loved it.

That led to a career path via Johnson and Wales University where he earned a degree in hospitality. From there he was invited to help open the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. 

“Las Vegas was an amazing place to live, and I thought I wanted to be president of MGM Grand!” he said.  But one day his friend called him from California. His friend had a Hilton Hotels colleague who wanted Keller to give him a tour of Las Vegas. It must have been some tour because that guy made Keller an offer that got him to leave Las Vegas and find his future in Southern California. 

“I had no idea I would love it so much,” he recalls.

After working with Hilton in Anaheim, Keller joined with his friend and another partner to buy the Casa del Camino Hotel in Laguna. “Every time I came to visit Laguna I thought, I wish I lived there!” And so he did.

Keller moved into one of the smallest rooms in the hotel, and lived there for seven years, while growing the hotel and restaurant business. It doesn’t feel like work to him, though because he’s doing what he loves. “I’m always working, but it’s not like work,” says Keller. “It’s part of what I do. I enjoy doing what I’m passionate about.”

Up on the Roof

“There’s room enough for two – up on the roof…” so the song goes. Even Keller admits it’s been matchmaker heaven up on the roof of Casa del Camino, at The Rooftop. But for him, it’s personal.

One day while he was up on the roof, a cute girl came in. She was giggling and talking with a friend, and caught Keller’s eye. He came over to the table and met Amy Amaradio. That was it. They’ve both been over the moon since.

Life, learning, and family

While Amy handles marketing and PR for Casa Resorts, and is busy with the juice bar, she’s also been hands-on with their daughter, Alexis, who is an LBHS sophomore, and mom to Rocco, born nine months ago with Down Syndrome. 

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Alexis, Rocco, Chris, and Amy

Like only parents raising special needs children know, it’s definitely not easy but the rewards can also be life altering and blissful.

“It’s my best experience in 43 years of life,” Keller said. “It’s a whole other enlightening experience that I’d never thought about. 

“There are hard times, emotional times, but it is absolutely the best,” he says. “Rocco is doing great. He’s super happy. He’s got an amazing big sister and she makes him giggle. They have a special bond too.”

Keller is an integral part of the fabric of this community and a family man surrounded by love.

“I’m a simple guy, simple lifestyle,” he says. “I love my family, the beach, concerts in the park, the farmer’s market… I feel fortunate to live and work in Laguna Beach.”


Scott Brashier: Seeing Laguna’s beauty everywhere  

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I’m left-handed, right-brained and a Pisces.  I want to be passionate about what I do.  I’ve tried to live by that,” explains photographer, Scott Brashier.  

Those passions have created an interesting path, leading him away from Laguna and back again, even away from photography and back again, but he is and has been back for quite awhile now - more excited and more ambitious about those two things in particular than ever before. 

The accidental professional

The interest in photography goes way back.  “My dad was into photography.  He wasn’t a very good photographer, but he bought good equipment that he would pass down to my brother and me.  We were always the guys taking the pictures.” Then, by chance, the hobby turned into a profession.  

“Around 1988 I had a friend who worked at Surfer Magazine.  Snow boarding had just taken off.  My friend invited me to go with him and Bert Lamar who was world champion at the time.  He asked, would I take some pictures? I took three.  The first one I shot became the back cover for Sims snowboards.  And so I found myself a professional photographer overnight.”  The Sims shot led to a Coors beer poster, a Swatch poster and an Op poster.  Eventually, he was photographing AVP tour events, pro snowboarding, pro surfing and pro skiing events. And this was a second job.  His main job was working for a surf wear accessory company.  

A six-month vacation turns into mini-retirement

Then in 1991 it all went away.  “The recession hit.  It killed the accessory business.  Advertising money dried up.  No more photos,” remembers Scott.  Things were looking bleak until a friend and former mentor offered him a position at an ad agency he was starting – in six months.  So Scott decided he would indulge in another of his passions, skiing, while he waited. 

Heading to out to Vail, Colorado, six months turned into seven years.  “I like to call it my early retirement years.  The ski business in the winter, the golf business in the summer…everyone should get to do that.”  

He says he didn’t take one picture the entire time he was there.

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Photo by Scott Brashier

An invitation he could not refuse

Who knows how long his “retirement” would have lasted if Scott hadn’t received a compelling invitation from his brother, Craig, who was still in Laguna, married and about to have his first child.  Though the brothers were close in age, they were not, at that time, otherwise close – until Craig reached out and “invited me to be part of his life and his family’s life,” explains Scott.  With no kids of his own Scott saw this invitation to be an uncle as “an important gift in my life.  I decided it was time to go back to Laguna.”

He got a job doing Internet marketing for a surf company that made coming back a lot easier.  “Then the tech bubble burst.  My timing in my business life has been really good,” he says laughing.  “So scramble, scramble, scramble.  Next thing you know I’m in the car business.”  

In order to get in shape and let off steam, Scott took up jogging.  To make it interesting he set a goal to run every street in Laguna Beach.  He was amazed by what he saw.  “I grew up in this town.  I’ve driven, skateboarded all over it.  But running, everything slows down.  Everywhere I ran I saw something new, something beautiful.” 

The photographer’s eyes had been reawakened.

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Technology helps reignite a passion

“One of the reasons I stopped taking pictures was that it was so expensive.  I figured it was about a dollar a shot when you factored in the slides, the prints, etc.  I didn’t have the drive to shoot a bunch of stuff I wasn’t going to do anything with,” he explains.  Then came the Canon SD600.  “The game changed when I got my first digital camera.  It was the size of a deck of cards and you could just shoot and shoot and shoot.”  The very portable camera was perfect to take on his runs. If he saw something that moved him, he would take a picture.  Soon he started emailing his shots to family and friends who started forwarding them to their family and friends and the Brashier POD (Photo of the Day) was born.  

Scott explains, “The mantra of the POD is to celebrate the beauty that surrounds us that we lose sight of getting caught up in everyday life.”  His audience expanded when a friend, Tom Burns, asked if Scott would add Stu Saffer to his email list.  Shortly after that, StuNews and Scott began working together and Brashier, once again, found himself a professional photographer.

Still, photography was a side business.  When the last great recession hit, Scott left the car business to explore another one of his passions: tennis.  No one is more enthusiastic about the game of tennis than Brashier.  Deciding he needed to bring tennis to underprivileged kids in Costa Mesa, he got to work.  

“I really wanted to give back to my community and enhance the lives of young people through tennis.” However, even his abundant enthusiasm could not overcome a lack of facilities. “You don’t need a tennis court to teach tennis at first, but you do need one eventually,” he explains with a laugh. Without tennis courts for his program he realized “pretty quickly” he needed to come up with another plan. “I’d teach tennis for free if I could afford it,” he says.  Since that was not an option, “I went back to the car business, selling Shelby Cobras and classic replica race cars.  Selling really expensive cars is fun.  They’re cars every guy wants, nobody needs and fewer can afford.  That’s a fact,” he says smiling.

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Taking his craft to the next level

Another fact is that Scott has taken his commitment to photography to the next level.  “I’ve committed, after years of artistic insecurity, to commercialize my photography.  I’ve done family sittings, product photography…I’m even selling my first art piece.”  But he hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for Laguna and the bounty of images he sees as he goes about his day. 

The small pocket camera hasn’t been replaced, but a full professional set up has been added to the arsenal. “I carry a camera everywhere.  If I see a photo unfolding, I capture it.  I’m always prepared.”  

With a commitment to seeing – and sharing – the beauty he sees everywhere, he has to be.


The one and only Shaena Stabler: mind, music, and media

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

To meet Shaena is to be completely accepted and brought into the fold of her warm spirit. Besides being a big part in the success and growth of Stu News Laguna, Shaena has gathered the community around her as her musical self has blossomed.

The first-ever album of Shaena’s original music debuts this month, and as many who have seen the teaser videos know, there’s a lot of Laguna in there. Filmed at Aliso beach, and in Laguna Canyon you might likely see a few familiar faces in the videos too.

She is a multi-talented multi-tasker!

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Photo by Mike Altishin

Shaena Stabler

Shaena News Laguna 

Shaena’s first job in sales was with the Orange County Business Journal. She then worked for Firebrand Media for another year and a half. She was a natural at sales, and understood many aspects of the media business. But she sensed something was afoot in Laguna.

“I’d go to sell an ad and people would ask about Stu News. I felt it was the most read news in town,” she said. “Stu News was all they wanted to talk about!” And she sensed there was a way to capitalize on that. “I thought, ‘low overhead; this is a brilliant concept, no one else is doing this!’” She knew Stu was onto something, and more than that, she could tell he shared her same heart for Laguna Beach. 

She says, “Stu has the trust of the community.”

She met Stu Saffer at a fundraising event for victims of the Haiti earthquake, held at Mozambique. “I asked Stu to emcee, and he did. He publicized it and supported it,” she said. “He gives so much to non-profits, so much to this community.”

They got together for coffee and she told Stu she was looking around, and was interested in his business model. They had a good rapport, with the same ideas, and the same strategy. Pretty much then and there he offered her half of the business. 

“He put tremendous faith and trust in me, and we went on this ride together. I never thought I’d be doing this, but it just took off.”

One might think that a 20-something would not be as focused and directed at business, but trust me, Shaena is. She is the hard-driving, yet cheerful director of advertising revenue, and advertising layout. She’s the one keeping the books and writing the checks. She’s the one tuning in every Tuesday and Friday morning at five a.m. to review the headlines going to press. She’s the one driving the social media. And she’s Stu’s corporate right arm. 

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

At “the office” and always on-line

Theirs is a fine balancing act of maintaining two different sides of the business of putting out the news. Watching each other’s backs, Shaena keeps her eye on the bottom line, while Stu pursues politics, humor, baseball, and all those interesting stories in Laguna that show up on the editorial side of things. Together they keep this here publication moving forward.

Stu News Laguna is more than a day job, as Shaena’s on it most of the week, sun-up to sundown. But her world also rocks to another rhythm.

Stay

It wasn’t that long ago that we were enjoying Shaena and her musical partner, Denny, playing at the Royal Hawaiian. 

“I actually started by doing karaoke,” she laughs. “I thought singers only had two ways - either you’re a karaoke singer or you’re Lady Gaga. Then I realized you have to work really hard to be Lady Gaga!” 

If you happen to be one of her Facebook friends, you’ll have witnessed how hard Shaena has worked, and what a long and rewarding musical journey it’s been.  

She started moving on up to bigger venues and performing with all sorts of talented musicians. But when she started to write her own songs it became a musical and emotional catharsis. 

Photo by Mike Altishin

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Performing live at the Blue water Festival

With musical influences such as Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox, and her favorite, Stevie Nicks, Shaena Stabler’s music similarly evokes an earthy rock style with messages of love, healing and positivity.

She attracted the attention of the highly regarded record producer, Ken Caillat, and together they’ve been fine-tuning her own original songs, soon to be released in her debut album, Stay (pre-orders available on-line at shaenastabler.bandcamp.com, and hitting the shelves and iTunes on September 18).

 “I work better with having lots of discipline. With music and business, I have to be smart about my time,” she says. “Stu News is my German side; very exact and demanding. I also have a sensitive artist side. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be as effective in both sides. They go hand in hand.”

Music adds creative balance to her business life, and her lyrics, like poetry, speak from heartfelt experience. 

In her young life, Shaena has experienced hardships, heartbreak, and a fragile family network.

A difficult look back

One of Shaena’s earliest memories was living in the car with her mother and sister. Her mother was a free spirit, seeming to enjoy life on the road with her two toddlers, without a care in the world. They travelled across the country.

“My mom was a hippie before hippie was cool,” she remembers. “She was an artist and a poet.” Her mother’s poems were published in Hallmark cards when she was just twelve. But, shortly thereafter things started to go bad; she was beginning to inhabit another world of the mind. 

Already somewhat delusional, after the tragic death of her sister, she started hearing voices.

Shaena’s parents met, had the two girls, Shaena and her younger sister Stacia, along with Shaena’s older half-sister Ericka, before each of them spiraled into mental illness.

It would be 20 years before her father was competent to live in a group home. 

Her mother continues to live in a locked mental facility.

“My song, Angel, was inspired by my mother,” Shaena says. “It’s really a collaboration. It’s her poem about the death of her sister.” 

Shaena feels a special bond with her mother, especially after songwriting. She says simply, “I healed.”

Shaena will visit with her mother when she’s in the Portland area, and calls to talk with her a couple of times every week. “I think mental illness is so misunderstood,” she said. “My mom lives in a dimension I don’t understand… But we’ll put on music and dance together.”

Her dad recently moved to a group home in Southern California, so Shaena has re-established the long-missing ties that bind. She enjoys visiting with him, and going out to eat, or for picnics, hiking, and talks. It is a renewed relationship that has given Shaena the gift of bonding, and forgiveness.

Submitted photo

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Shaena with “Daddio”, at long last

“The amount of time we’ve spent together this year has been tremendous,” she says. “He’s a special cause to me.”

Since it was evident that neither her mom nor dad would be fitting parents to their children, Shaena’s grandmother took Stacia and Shaena in while they were still young girls. With plenty of love and devotion, Grammy clearly raised them to be fine young women.

Shaena’s songs bare her soul now, and are a means of releasing emotion. “I share them so that others might get something out of them too. There’s comfort in the words,” she says. For kids who grew up like her, there’s hope. 

“I want to tell kids, ‘your past doesn’t have to be your story. You’re not a victim. Do you want to tell a story of your past? Or write your own?’”

Smartypants

The Shaena that grew up with grandma and grandpa in a relatively small pond in Oregon was a pretty big fish.

She loved school and was, admittedly, the teacher’s pet. She loved basketball and baseball, and was the only girl to play on the boy’s baseball team until age 13. Then she went on to softball and became an Athletic Scholar, and All-State player. 

“High School was like stability and structure for me,” she says. “My grandma was great, but school was like a bigger network of support.” 

She needed to drive herself to improve. “I was always hard on myself. I thought, ‘If I’m really good, things will get better.’” And improve she did.

She was class valedictorian, and received 100% grant money for tuition during her college career at Colgate. There she majored in History, with a Minor in Film and Media Studies.

Now on tour, Shaena will take her band to the Pacific Northwest next month, for performances in Portland and Astoria. While there, she’ll visit the old alma mater and be inducted into her high school Hall of Fame.

Keeping heart and mind open through music

Shaena’s love of music was given a boost in Oregon too, as she played in the high school band (French horn), sang a cappella, and studied piano for six years.

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Now that’s all coming to fruition as she performs with her band all original music.

“I have an amazing band!” she says. “I saw Gabriel Gordon play (lead guitar) with Natalie Merchant, and I thought, ‘one day when I write music, he’s going to play with me’, and now he is!”

This week she’s in New York City, playing for the first time there. The band debuted at Pianos earlier this week, and will be at The Delancey this Friday. If you can’t catch Shaena Stabler in NYC, there’ll be a show coming up on September 20 in LA (The Hotel Café, Hollywood). Shaena loves to invite the community for bus trips to her shows. From first-hand experience, they are fun, and inclusive of all ages. 

“It’s all about inclusivity!” she says. “It’s great meeting new people, and coming together.”

Shaena epitomizes the concept of coming together. She integrates the many different facets of her busy life, while maintaining a collected persona, and endlessly gives of her warmth and talent to the world. 


Robin Rounaghi: A passion for Laguna Beach schools

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Waking up every morning to do something personally important to me is a gift,” explains SchoolPower Executive Director, Robin Rounaghi.  And if our meeting time was any indication, she wakes up very early these days. With school starting in a week, there is much to be done. 

Robin Rounaghi, SchoolPower Executive Director

A family history in public education

Anyone who knows Robin (and, in the name of full disclosure, I have known her and worked with her as a SchoolPower trustee for more than a few years) knows of her enthusiasm for SchoolPower and her commitment to bettering Laguna’s public schools.  Long before she was paid for her time, she was an active volunteer with PTA as well as SchoolPower.  And it makes sense.  

She is the product of twenty years of public education. Both her parents started out as public school teachers with her father going on to become the Chancellor of Community Colleges of California.  Public education, and all the things that go with it – policy, finance, lobbying—were regular topics of conversation around the dinner table. 

“I admire my parents very much and they instilled in me a great respect for the importance of education.” 

An interest in education but a career in law 

While interested in education, one obvious path, becoming a teacher, was never considered. “That takes a very special person and I know I’m not it,” she explains, laughing at the idea.  So after graduating from UC Berkeley, she went to Hastings College of the Law.  “Law came naturally to me and I loved the study of it.” 

After law school she took a job at a Los Angeles law firm, thinking she would stay there for a few years and then return to the Bay Area. Things did not turn out that way.  She got engaged to her now husband, Ali, whose printing business was already established in Orange County. So where to live became an active point of conversation.

A random act determines a home

“We came to Laguna where Ali’s parents lived and for the first time anywhere in Orange County, I thought ‘I could live here.’  I was drawn by the interesting people and, of course, the beautiful trails and beaches.” 

But nothing had been decided until, while on a hike with Ali, her Labrador decided to relieve himself on the front yard of a beach cottage in south Laguna.  Robin says she told Ali, “This is the kind of house that would be perfect for us.”  While she untangled the mandatory pick up bag, the owners came out of the house, offering the use of their pooper-scooper.  Robin complimented the couple on their home, a pleasant conversation ensued and the hike continued.

Days later, the couple tracked Robin and Ali down, explaining they had to move and offered the Rounaghis their home.  A deal was reached and they have lived there ever since.  She laughs, “It’s a true story.  We owe it all to … well, you know!” 

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Materials used to increase SchoolPower’s outreach

Paid work resumes while the volunteer work continues

Once her oldest son was born, Robin stopped working as a lawyer.  Being home with her boys (she now has three) provided the opportunity to get involved in their schools.  “I’m pretty much an all or nothing kind of person,” she explains.  “I jumped in and loved it.”

In 2008, with an uncertain economy and her youngest in Kindergarten, Robin went back to work part-time as a lawyer.  “For the first few weeks, it felt a little bit like an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode. It had been 13 years since I’d been in a law office or courtroom!  Thankfully, I had an excellent mentor and got back into the swing of it quickly.”  

Rather than park her increasingly significant SchoolPower duties (she was then SchoolPower president) she just added it to an already full plate.  The following year, SchoolPower trustees asked her to serve a second term, a rare but not unprecedented event.

Adding to an already full plate 

During those years, SchoolPower underwent some important changes, some visible to the community (i.e. a community event that eventually became the Dodgeball tournament), others not so much (like a thorough revision of the organization’s bylaws). 

“The weak economy gave our leadership team an opportunity to focus on areas that may not have been very sexy but were important for our growth, like board recruitment, donation stewardship, branding, donor participation and strategic planning.” 

With her two terms finally complete, Robin stayed on, taking the lead with SchoolPower Endowment to run the teacher grant program, as well as accepting a new position made just for her, the VP of Development Relations. For someone who likes to be “all in”, however, Robin’s roles were still divided into family, work and volunteering. 

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A chance to make a change

Then an opportunity arose. The SchoolPower trustees decided the organization was ready to take a big step and hire an Executive Director.  Seeing this as a chance to merge her professional life with her passion, Robin applied for the job. After an extensive selection process, she was hired. “It was a big shift for me career-wise but I was at a point in my life where I thought, ‘what am I waiting for?’ Being able to devote myself fully to a cause that I love outweighed other considerations.”

During her first year as Executive Director, the SchoolPower team, which Robin is quick to credit, transitioned beautifully. After being on the job less than a month, Robin recommended a new team approach to the organization’s Community Campaign where parent volunteers call every family in the school district and ask for donations for the schools. Donor participation increased by 27%.   As longtime SchoolPower trustee, Kristin Winter, explains, “Robin is the best kind of leader.  She sees the big picture which really inspires people to jump in and help.”

Bringing people together through a common cause

Other big picture ideas include SchoolPower forging new relationships, upgrading its communication efforts, adding a Real Estate Sponsorship program and initiating a revitalization of the Laguna Locals Card discount program.  That’s a lot for one year.  

What really gets her excited, though, is bringing people together.  

“One of the best things about my role is helping to create win/win opportunities for businesses, the community and the schools. The success of our schools is important to everyone, not just our students and their families. I’d love to see SchoolPower become a unifying force for the whole town; something that everyone can rally around and support.”

With the news of the beloved Dr. Joanne Culverhouse’s departure, I asked Robin her thoughts. “It’s a huge loss for our district. In the educator world, she’s as close to a rock star as you come. Dr. C’s contributions will continue to benefit us for some time, but finding the right successor will be incredibly important.” And with that, I could tell Robin’s thoughts were starting to drift to her long to do list. Having one’s passion as one’s job is a great thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not work. “I’m lucky I get to work with amazing people every day.  When I’ve reached my coffee quota (which these days is quite high), all I need is a conversation with a teacher or a volunteer or a generous supporter and I am inspired.”  

And our schools are the better for it.


Art and soul flow through Karen Petty like a river 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“There is no choice to create art,” says Karen Petty. “You do it or you would die.”

She would know. Art exists inside her, all through her, and is everything in her world. That sensibility drives the motto of her life, “A river runs through it!”

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Painter Karen Petty

After 25 years of showing at the Sawdust she has lost none of the passion for the artful life. 

HEART

Her cool and relatively spacious gallery on the hilly side of the arts grounds is like an other-wordly oasis. Stop in and she’ll get you thinking about the universe and love and freedom of expression. It’s a thought inducing, liberating space filled with Karen’s laughter.

Her joy and enthusiasm is infectious, and quite possibly inspiring. 

I witnessed a couple come by, drawn in by Karen’s voice, “It’s okay to be naked! It’s okay to bare our souls!” Yeah, they agreed, as they looked at the images on the walls; mostly naked figures embracing, reaching out, or closing in together. They stayed to talk about all kinds of things in the stream of consciousness fashion of Karen’s conversations. 

The gallery walls are filled to the brim with natural and human forms. There are solo figures, hand-drawn, painted on canvas, then layered thick with the glossy brilliance of resin. There are stacks of giclee prints in smaller format. They all reflect this year’s theme, Be Loved

 

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Works from the “Falling Stars” series (left), and “Be Loved” (right)

Every year the art that pours from her soul is an outward expression of her life experience, so that the body of work she brings to the Sawdust becomes the message. 

Last year’s theme was a tribute to her husband who had unexpectedly passed away. Her grief, combined with the joy of having known the kind of love they shared, helped her to create Falling Stars; canvases dotted with gold-leafed beach stones.

This year’s theme, Be Loved, carries the message of love forward through images of devotion.

ART

It all started when she was a little girl who liked to draw horses. Karen was eight years old, and living in Illinois when she sent a drawing of an Appaloosa in to the “Appaloosa News” magazine. That was her first published work of art. By the time she was 23, the Art Institute of Chicago represented her. 

As she says, “You either love my work or you hate it. There is no gray area with Karen Petty!”

She’s a summer and winter Sawdust artist, she sells on her website, karenpetty.com, and locally she’s represented at Laguna’s LGOCA gallery.  This year Karen is looking to branch out across the country as well. “Don’t you think it’s time I grew up?” she says with a wink. “I think I should see some of the country!” 

Well, time for travel would also mean time away from her other passion - the politics that are involved with selling art in one collective gallery. Karen is the Secretary for the by-laws at the Sawdust, and the Chairman of the Digital Guild Guidelines. She believes in fairness and equality, and works to assure those rights, likely in the same vein as Lady Godiva. “I have a bone of justice to pick,” she says. “I’m there naked on a horse to right the wrongs!”

Karen Petty, a champion for truth, justice, and art every day

Karen oversees the Sawdust by-laws to make sure that everybody plays by the same rules. “I want to keep the Sawdust fair to everyone, I want democracy to run through it,” she said. “I’m a crusader in art, and I’m a crusader in justice.”

She’s presently working on that message with a painting called Scales of Justice.

SOUL

While she once was a portraitist, the thoroughly modern Karen Petty remembers that was boring. “It’s so easy to paint something that’s in front of you,” she says. “The hardest, the challenge, is when you’re painting something that’s inside of you.”

Creating art is a cathartic experience, an emotional expression of one’s self, but it also speaks to other people in a language completely its own.

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Fellow Sawdust artists recognized Karen’s talent when she was voted Artist of the Year in 2012, by the jury of her peers. And judging by sales this summer, it looks like patrons of the arts relate to her work as well. Just yesterday someone came in and bought six pieces. 

“The show is good this year,” she says. “I think people are coming into a sense of being different.” She could be onto something: yes, it is okay to be naked!

With Karen Petty, the connection between the artist and the viewer is a magical alchemy of fine art and soulful insight. With inspiration, enthusiasm, and approachable repartee, Karen simply draws you into her colorful world.

What’s she going to do when the Sawdust closes in a couple of weeks? She laughs, “I hear there’s a beach in town! Someone told me that.”


The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut and Maggi

The team effort in Steve Sogo’s Advanced Chemical Research (ACR) class at Laguna Beach High School has produced remarkable, even published results.

The team-based research program has been around since 2007, when Sogo wanted to offer an enhanced version of the Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry class. “I wanted to teach a class that rewarded curiosity, experimentation, and the risk of failure,” he said. “The idea was to create a real research lab.”

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Room 61, chemistry’s homeroom

LBHS is pretty unique in its sciences classes. There are many chemistry classes throughout the country where the students never even work in a lab. 

With a grant that Sogo received from a local foundation, he developed the ACR  class as an inquiry-based program modeled after his own graduate experience at Caltech. It’s a tough class, to be sure, but the students have demonstrated passion enough to be selected, and many have gone on to pursue graduate work and careers in the sciences.

“ACR is about engaging the students in the scientific process,” Sogo said. “Nobody knows what the answer is. You’re trying to get to that point where you say, ‘I think I know the answer!’” Sogo is there to help steer the ship, but even he doesn’t know the solution until they work it out together.

Each year there are approximately 24 students in his ACR class. The class is an elective, made up of high school seniors who have completed Chemistry and Physics, and either they approach Sogo, or get recruited from his AP Chemistry class. In the fall, the class is divided into teams of four people to collaborate in chemical research. Then they switch up the teams two more times for a total of three research projects. In the spring semester they focus on one project as a whole.

In 2010 there was a particularly noteworthy project that became a published paper. It was the result of the work of two students, Samantha Piszkiewicz and Nicolai Doreng-Stearns, (both LBHS class of 2010). 

The appeal of venom

“I’ve always felt that snakes are misunderstood,” Piszkiewicz says. 

When she was a teenager she adopted a pet snake. While watching an episode on the channel, Animal Planet, she learned about cobra venom, and became hooked. “I was just so fascinated by the mechanics of how it worked. I wanted to know more. So on my application to chemistry class, I said, ‘I want to study snake venom.’” 

She was surprised by how quickly her teacher, Mr. Sogo, responded, and how intensely interested he was in the idea.

Sogo had a colleague at UCI doing some exciting work in synthetic chemistry, and the ACR class was then able, and today still does use UCI’s analytical facility.

Purchasing some real snake venom to work with was expensive enough for a high school lab (5 ml. cost $220), but access to the UCI equipment such as the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, and Mass Spectrometry machines is a veritable goldmine.

What they made was the first-ever synthetic snake anti-venom.

Sogo explained that until this research, the theoretical research at ACR had not produced that aha moment. Investigations into the unknown will usually produce unforeseen and even unwanted results. But this time they got it all right. 

Chemically speaking, the synthetic antibodies they produced snuffed out the destructive toxins.

“The first result we got was so beautiful and encouraging,” Piszkiewicz says. “We saw 85 percent to 95 percent inhibition of cell destruction.”

Piszkiewicz and Doreng-Stearns documented their work and submitted it to the Siemens Competition, one of the largest and most prestigious science competitions in the country. And then they made it to the regionals, held at Caltech.

“Here I was – just a kid – presenting to a dozen Caltech professors. It was intimidating,” she said. “But they spoke to us like peers.”

Submitted photo

 

Samantha Piskiewicz

The experience made such an impression on Piszkiewicz that she went on to enroll at Caltech, where she majored in chemistry. She graduated this year, and is already pursuing her PhD in biophysics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She plans to go into academia, and become a professor.

In the meantime, Sogo continued to work on the snake-venom project. 

Over four years, new classes of LBHS students carefully refined the procedures from the original experiments, documented their findings, and submitted them in to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal, Chem Comm. Last summer, Sogo received word that it had been accepted – a significant achievement for any lab and a rare honor for a team of high school researchers. Piszkiewicz was listed as lead author.

“It’s still hard to imagine that my first published project as lead author is for work I did when I was 16,” Piszkiewicz says. 

She confesses she owes it all to the ACR class. “I couldn’t be more proud. I wouldn’t be the researcher – or the person – that I am today without that class.” 

Making choices

You wouldn’t think that you’d find a chemistry class at Starbucks on a Friday evening in the middle of the summer. But that’s where we caught up with Sogo, working on his next project, along with five students. 

The team of in-coming high school seniors is embarking on a yearlong competition. They are part of a program called InvenTeams, which is something started by MIT and the Lemelson Foundation to inspire the next generation of inventors.

Sogo applied last March, and this summer he was selected as one of only 39 educators invited to the training program, “Eureka Fest”. The idea is to light the spark of discovery in young people by showing them how to make inventions and how to work in teams. Then they work for a year on their invention and present at next summer’ Eureka Fest.

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InvenTeam members (l to r), Aviva Meyers, Charlotte Andrews, Andrew Couse, Nolan Gunsolley, and Jeremy Sogo discuss with teacher Steve Sogo

The InvenTeam enjoying chemistry with their lattes included Aviva Meyers, Andrew Couse, Charlotte Andrews, Nolan Gunsolley, and Jeremy Sogo. Collectively, they are working on an invention to turn dirty river water used for drinking by the natives of the Masai Mara, in Kenya. They will be working on a system to purify the water with hydrogen peroxide made and activated with solar power. The “green” and sustainable invention could have wide-reaching results, applicable to many nations with unfit drinking water.

The students will be checking in with a teacher in Kenya that Aviva knew about through her teacher’s connection with the Model UN program. The Kenyan teacher will be their “feet on the ground’ in the Masai Mara. 

At this beginning stage of the invention, the students tend to be working in alignment with their individual desires. According to Sogo, Aviva is doing the writing, Nolan and Jeremy are designing the mechanical engineering parts, Andrew is working with the budget figuring what gadgets they’ll need, and Charlotte is researching in dialog with other scientists. “In the end, they’ll all work together,” he said. 

The whole is greater than the parts.

It’s all about change and the joy of discovery in the chemistry lab at the high school. And these bright students are actually looking forward to the first day of school.


Jean Paul’s Goodies:

Au Revoir to a true institution

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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When Jean Paul closes his doors to his self-named bakery and café on Saturday, August 9, it will truly be the end of an era.  To his loyal, in some cases fanatical, customers an integral part of their daily routine will be forever changed.  They will, as the farewell poster created by longtime customer, Carrie Reynolds, and hanging in the window laments, “…be forced to purchase coffee somewhere else and actually have to order it the way THEY like it.” 

But, of course, the closing of Jean Paul’s means more to his customers than finding a new place to get a cup of coffee.  The place that brought them together, day after day, to converse about all things, lofty and mundane, will no longer be.  And the man who really did kick out well-meaning, cash-holding customers for “insulting” him by ordering a non-fat latte, will finally be able to sleep past 4 a.m.

A new take on customer service

Much has been made of Jean Paul’s interesting spin on customer service.  Unlike an urban myth, something that happened once or twice and the legend grew; Jean Paul can be seen sending people away on a somewhat regular basis.  However, there is much more to the man than just that.  Although, trying to get it out of him is a task not for the faint of heart.

After finally accepting that I really wasn’t leaving without something he finally granted me some of his time.  Having frequented Jean Paul’s for at least 15 years, I took this as a major coup.  Since he has been at the same spot for over 30 (30!) years, my history with him was helpful, but certainly not impressive, especially when one considers he has been there so long he now has three generations of families as customers, something that he takes great pride in. How many places can say that?  

From racecar driver to diplomat to…baker?

The first time I went in to talk to him (and he realized I was not going to be deterred), he was ultimately engaging, funny and sincere.  To say, however, that he was reluctant would be an understatement.  He wasn’t trying to be difficult.  He just kept saying over and over “Why is anyone interested in this?”  He truly did not understand why anyone would care about his story. 

If, like me, you assumed Jean Paul had been a lifelong student of French pastry, you would be totally wrong.  I found out that in his youth, he studied medicine.  His studies ended when he broke 22 bones in his body in a car racing accident. After marrying his doctor, and eventually divorcing (“We were not a match,” he explained simply.), he went to work on the negotiations between the North and South Vietnamese after the war.  He excelled in this and was sent to Quantico, VA for further training in things such as telecommunications.  Now a State Department employee, his French passport was considered an asset for this line of work, allowing him to enter countries much more feely than with an American one.  During all this, he was approached by three men he’d met from the CIA who decided they wanted to open a bakery.  Since Jean Paul was French and an incredibly fast learner, they asked him if he would get it going.  He accepted, calling “his” baker from France and getting him set up, purchasing all the equipment and while doing so, getting very well paid for it all. “Money was no object.  I even negotiated my own contract,” he explained.  

They called it Vie de France, a name Jean Paul was not a big fan of (“It doesn’t mean anything…life of France?”). One bakery turned into a chain of 3,000.  He eventually left his work with Vie de France for a State Department mission in South America. He stayed there on and off for three years. 

We have John Wayne to thank

When he returned to the US, his travels between coasts brought him in contact with John Wayne.  In conversations about what Jean Paul’s plans were, Wayne suggested he look into Newport Beach to open his business.  Liking the climate in southern California, Jean Paul took his advice. Wayne also told Jean Paul if he moved to Newport, to look up his ex-wife, Pilar.  She became an important business associate who, with her own restaurant in Corona del Mar at the time, sent customers his way, helping him get established.  

He became familiar with some of Newport’s more familiar families, saying he was friends with the Nelsons (of Ozzie and Harriet fame), and even mentioning that he got in a fight with Ricky Nelson when “Ricky was drunk.” He then brought out a large tin of caviar to show me.  “I used to sell four cans of this a week to a Saudi Arabian prince.  Eventually he got kicked out of the country for living on caviar and coke,” he explained, rolling his eyes.  (I understood that we were not talking soda. This was back in the ‘80’s, after all.)  When the building in Corona del Mar sold he relocated to Laguna where he has been for the past 30 years.

George Allen makes a conversion

As if all of this wasn’t surprising enough, I found out that Jean Paul is a Redskins fan.  Who’d have guessed that?  Apparently, while at a bar in Washington DC, Jean Paul was introduced to the Redskins coach, George Allen.  When he asked Jean Paul what he thought of American football, Jean Paul replied, “Not much.”  Two weeks later a limo arrived for Jean Paul with tickets for the game, sideline passes and two assistant coaches assigned to educate him on the nuances of American football.  

After that, a fan was born. “I just didn’t understand the game,” he said smiling. 

It’s all in the name of respect

What is understood, particularly of late, is how much Jean Paul means to his regular customers.  “I wanted to respect the people who are so nice.  So many people here have been so, so nice to me…The people who are a son of a bitch, well, for me they have been the best advertising,” he tells me with a Gallic shrug. 

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The devotion to Jean Paul goes well beyond his coffee and croissants. One of his regulars gave him a round trip ticket to France as a farewell gift. Another had just given him $2,000 “to buy something nice.”  These are not your everyday day gifts of appreciation.  They speak to a deep relationship built on mutual respect.  But even his favorites can’t escape his frustration and disdain.

I received countless emails from Jean Paul regulars who were delighted to share amusing anecdotes about their run-ins with him. Story after story of his crotchety behavior, told with delight and affection.   Also included were stories of his generosity, his devotion to his friends and his incredible work ethic.  A long time customer, Jay Rubin, summed it up when he said, “So even though he appears tough on the outside, those of us who really know him know otherwise.” 

Customers, friends and those who get asked to leave

I witnessed this “otherwise” firsthand.  As Jean Paul and I chatted, a man came in to say goodbye.  He reached over the counter and shook Jean Paul’s hand.  “I just wanted to come in and say good-bye.  You will be missed.”  It was brief and to the point, but after he left Jean Paul had tears in his eyes.  I was caught off guard by this show of emotion.  But I felt his deep appreciation for his customers, some true friends, as he packed up 30 years of memories.  He’s still kicking people out of his shop, to be sure, but he’s more focused on the people he will miss.  But even they can’t escape a parting rant.

Carrie Reynolds, who has so many Jean Paul stories she could fill a book, relayed how recently when she went to put her son’s Orangina bottle in the croissant bag Jean Paul began to “fume, ‘You are going to make the warm pain chocolat cold…ugh…why don’t you just eat FROZEN FOOD!’” No one is immune.  

Another long time customer, Mari Barton, told me “Laguna will miss Jean Paul, the caustic curmudgeon who really wasn’t either.” 

I’m not sure what Jean Paul would think of that description.  Sadly, we’ll probably never know.  Once his doors close on August 9th, he will be taking an incredibly well-deserved vacation while the rest of us will have to get used to ordering half-caff, non-fat, no foam lattes – and be relegated to receiving them with a smile.

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Cpl. Jason Farris: Working for something better

BY SAMANTHA WASHER
Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When I called Community Outreach Officer, Corporal Jason Farris, of the Laguna Beach Police Department, my intent was to write about him receiving the OC Top Cop award from the Angels Baseball organization.  He is the officer in charge of working with Laguna’s homeless population.  Having never met him before, I figured the story surrounding the award would give us a lot to talk about.  After about five minutes, I realized that while we had lot to discuss, the award was not going to be the focus of our conversation. 

The Top Cop Award and Corporal David McGill

Corporal Farris, while appreciative of the award, very candidly and matter-of- factly explained that, “a lot of guys could have gotten it.”  At first, I thought this was just standard modesty, but he continued, “Corporal David McGill was supposed to get the award, but he was on vacation and couldn’t make the ceremony so I was next in line.”  This candor sums up Corporal Farris.  He may not tell you what you want to hear, but he will tell it to you straight. One of the more unnerving things Corporal Farris’ frankness taught me was that the face of homelessness can look a lot like…me. 

The lesson of being mistaken for a homeless person

Back from a week’s vacation with his family, Corporal Farris was all business when we met at the police station.  As he ushered me outside to a bench in front of the station, I could tell he was searching his memory for who I was and why I was there.   He was very business-like.  When I reminded him of the reason for my visit, he changed gears, easing up a bit.  

And then he off-handedly provided me with a very effective lesson on homelessness, explaining,  “One of the people I’ve been working with looks a lot like you.”  I’m sure my face said it all at this point.  Did he just mistake me for a homeless person?  He continued without any embarrassment, “You’d be surprised how many people look like you and are homeless. They fall on hard times, been homeless for a week and need help. So I’ll take them to the ASL (Alternative Sleeping Location) and tell them ‘Come back tomorrow.  Let’s talk and start new’.”  

The challenges and rewards of something new

Starting new is a key component to Corporal Farris’ work.  Whether it’s the person who recently finds themselves on hard times or a veteran of the streets, homeless people come in all packages, even, as I learned, packages resembling my own.  Regardless, Corporal Farris’ job is to help find a new start for those who want it.  However, between limited resources, options and a frequently unwilling population, a new start is very tough to achieve.

Hired by the Laguna Beach Police Department 13 years ago, first as a dispatcher before becoming an officer, Corporal Farris became the Community Outreach Officer five years ago.  Citing the need for a full time officer dedicated solely to the homeless population, and one of 14 recommendations proposed by a task force on homelessness that resulted from an ACLU lawsuit against the city, Farris was urged to apply for the position.   When asked if this was a good career choice, Farris responded, “In all sincerity, none of us went to the Academy to become an Outreach Officer.  But, now I have to say, it’s the best thing I ever did in my career.”  

He continued, “It’s hard to measure success in law enforcement. In law enforcement, we tend to fix problems quickly and move on to the next one.  Outreach takes time.  The victories are built over time. To get someone who doesn’t trust law enforcement to trust me; to get someone reunited with their family; to get them into a detox program; just help them to move on to something better takes time, but when it happens it’s very rewarding.”

Balancing the many needs of the community

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Corporal Jason Farris and longtime Laguna Beach homeless man, Douglas Du Maurier. Du Maurier stopped Cpl. Farris to show him some recent drawings.

Something better.  If only it was that easy. The job is complex. “When I started I had this idea of how this job was going to work. I tried forcing people into getting help.  I eventually learned that if they weren’t ready, it didn’t work.  I had to recalibrate, had to start focusing on little victories.  It wears me down sometimes, but I have learned not to take it personally when they don’t succeed like I want them to.”   

 Tasked with balancing the needs of several groups with often opposing needs, it’s important to understand that Corporal Farris is a police officer, not a social worker.  

“I try and use the laws as an incentive to get the homeless in the city to do something different, if that’s what needs to be done.  I have to strike a balance between law enforcement, what the public wants, what business owners want and what the city wants.” 

All of these different agendas must be managed on a daily basis.  He cites an example: “Panhandling is not illegal.  Business owners don’t like it when it’s in front of their door, which is understandable.  But it’s not illegal.  All I can do is try to work with the person doing it and try to convince them to do something different.  If I succeed, great.  If I don’t, and they’re not breaking the law, there isn’t much I can do,” he explains.  And therein lies one of his many daily challenges.

Waiting for other cities to step up

Another challenge is the lack of accommodations outside the city of Laguna Beach. Because the Alternative Sleeping Location on Laguna Canyon Road is the only non-weather related emergency shelter in Orange County, there is simply not enough room for the many people who show up on a nightly basis.  Designed to cater to the “local homeless” with room for others decided by a lottery, Corporal Farris’ option for someone who doesn’t get in for the night is to offer them a bus ticket somewhere else.  The problem is there’s nowhere “else” for them to go.

As we talked about the surprising lack of facilities elsewhere, Corporal Farris excused himself for “getting fired up.”  “I would like to see other cities stepping up.  We are doing more than our share.  There is always more to be done, of course, but Laguna Beach does a lot.  We live in this wealthy county and their flagship program is a 45 bed facility for the mentally ill.  I mean, that’s great, but 45 beds?  Every other county has something to offer.  I don’t understand it.”

Honestly, I could have happily talked to Corporal Farris for much longer.  The issue of homelessness and what to do about it is so complex one question led to another, which led to another.  However, duty called.  

As we sat on the bench, a man rode up on his bike.  Clearly, he and Corporal Farris were well acquainted.  And the man was mad.  Corporal Farris calmly convinced the man to wait for him and not bust into the station, all riled up.  I took this as my cue to wrap things up.  Clearly, Corporal Farris had work to do. 

As I walked to my car I saw the two men talking.  The man was no longer as agitated.  

Corporal Farris might not have convinced him to try something new, but he was definitely working on something different.


Susan Hamil, a heart in Laguna Canyon for animals

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Susan Hamil holds a special place in her heart for four-legged creatures. Many people know her as the Blue Bell cat lady, but she has devoted almost her whole life to the study, care, and enjoyment of all kinds of animals.

Susan Hamil

She grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where many of her neighbors and friends had horses, and the space to enjoy them. Susan had four American Quarter Horses, and two bloodhound dogs.

Not yet realizing then that her life’s mission would be about animals, she went to college to earn a Master’s Degree in Library Science. The idea was to land one of those coveted librarian jobs in a California school, so she could be near the beach. Then the economy tanked, schools had cutbacks, and librarians were some of the first educators to be let go from the system.

“Coaches were being brought in as librarians, because they sure weren’t going to let sports go,” Susan remembered.

That was a pivotal moment, and so was the time she saw the movie, Cool Hand Luke.

“My uncle was a physician at a prison in Louisiana, just like the one in Cool Hand Luke,” she said. “I was fascinated with the bloodhounds.” Like in the movie, the prisons in her part of the south raised bloodhounds for chasing escaped prisoners. 

While she couldn’t afford to move her horses, she did move with her two bloodhounds to a teeny tiny apartment in Corona del Mar in 1972 while she sought the elusive librarian job. Pretty soon she realized she’d better get a job in something else she knew well: the care of animals.

Life and Love in Laguna

She started working at the Canyon Animal Hospital, in Laguna Canyon, for about $2.50 an hour. It wasn’t much money, but it was something she loved.

 And then she fell in love with the vet who bought the practice while she was working there.

Susan and John Hamil were married, and these thirty-some years later they jointly have a brood of three sons, four grandchildren, three dogs, and six new puppies.

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Susan, at home with her pack of bloodhound pups

Oh, and there are the 47 cats she looks after, at the Blue Bell Foundation. 

Blue Bell

Bertha Yergat was the eccentric Laguna Canyon lady with 205 cats. She was quirky and often cantankerous, but she had the very good idea of planning for her pets’ futures after her death. She laid the groundwork with a tidy sum, and the help of her CPA (who, incidentally, is 100 years old now and still serves on the Board at Blue Bell). 

Her small cottage in the canyon became the retirement home for her cats, and the subsequent home for hundreds of others in their golden years. In her deed restriction, Bertha stated there were to be only cats living there, “No dogs, and no goats!”

The Blue Bell Foundation for Cats has provided loving care for more than thirty years now.

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The Blue Bell Foundation for Cats charming little “Cattage”

Bertha’s vet was John Hamil. With 205 cats, and her own particular methodologies in cat rearing, Bertha, John and Susan at Canyon Animal Hospital got to know one another quite well. They’d argue over vaccines and nutrition and other stuff, but the animal hospital would never turn her down when she needed help. Ultimately it was a relationship of mutual respect.

“In the South we specialize in eccentrics,” Susan says. “We’re not ashamed!”

Susan serves as Chairman of the Blue Bell Foundation for Cats, which is home for up to 75 cats. 

The cats come from situations where the owner has died, or is unable to provide the physical care of their elderly cat. Most of the animals have health issues, a common problem as their immune systems fail in old age. But, whereas the average cat in California lives to be 13 years old, Bluebell cats live to 19 or 20.

The lush and tranquil canyon setting promotes calm and peacefulness, like a deep breath of fresh air. “People don’t know it when they drive through,” Susan says. “There is something spiritual in this canyon. You just feel the spirit.”

Blue Bell provides the services and care that the cat owners have chosen for their treasured pet. “We tell people, ‘This is where the quality of life is maintained’,” Susan said. Of course, first they must make a plan for that.

The Blue Bell cats are funded by donations. Every owner wishing their cat to have a home there makes a donation, and makes sure there are legal documents in place so that their final wishes will be carried out. That’s something that Susan can’t stress enough. People need to remember estate planning for their pets so they’ll be assured of their pet’s ongoing care.

“The worst is when someone gets under court fiduciary,” she says. “People assume someone else will take care of their pets.” Sadly, that is not always the case. Blue Bell exists so that cats are able to outlive their humans with the same care and attention they have enjoyed in their homes.

“Our mission is sanctuary, retirement, and the highest level of care,” Susan says. “Bertha had a vision and legacy. We’re so happy we’ve been able to keep this going.”

One of the happy kitties enjoying the life of leisure

Professional animal care is a passion that requires 24/7 monitoring. Both Susan and John Hamil have made the trek to Blue Bell to from their own canyon home to provide insulin shots, or other meds that are required with time sensitive, round-the-clock maintenance.  

But Susan manages to balance her time with another passion: those fascinating bloodhounds.

Best in Show

Susan Hamil has been rearing and training bloodhound pups since the day Cool Hand Luke got her hooked. One of her pet hounds regularly competes in agility training, and two of the others are on the show circuit.

Ever seen the hilarious Christopher Guest movie, Best in Show? Yep, that was Susan’s bloodhound in one of the funniest lead roles, as Harlan Pepper’s show hound, “Hubert”.

Bloodhounds are extremely interesting because of their intense olfactory system. Every fold on their faces and those two long ears, help to bring scents in to their amazing noses. They were bred to hunt dangerous game such as wild boars, but in America these days, bloodhounds are mostly used in law enforcement. They can track a scent, for example, of a missing child or a dangerous criminal, even if that scent was picked up on a hankie and put in a plastic bag for ten years.

“They are only limited by our ability to understand them,” said Susan. “They have a personality to focus intently.”

The highlight of Susan’s dog training expertise was in the real life Westminster Dog Show, where her hounds have won Best in Breed (Bloodhound), and Best in Group (Hunting Hounds). 

What is it like to be the actual show winner? “You just want to pinch yourself!” she said. “It’s like all the stars have to align. It was so incredible!”  

Perhaps because of their skills and need to exercise them, bloodhounds are also difficult to train. Susan formed an organization to rescue the hounds given up to shelters. Her charity, Bloodhounds West Rescue, rescues 50 – 100 bloodhounds every year from shelters and finds proper homes for them.

With such good care for the four-legged, would Susan like to come back in another life as an animal? Maybe a bloodhound? 

She laughs, “No way. I’d like to come back as a Russian Wolfhound, or a Saluki…something elegant!” The lady knows her breeds! 

In this life you are more than elegant, Susan. You’re the leader of the pack.


John Barber: A master shares his passion for glass

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you’ve ever been to the Sawdust Festival you’ve probably seen John Barber at work.  Follow the densely packed crowd standing elbow to elbow around the glass blowing studio on the Festival grounds.  If you see a man creating delicate shapes and colors at the end of a flaming rod, there’s a good chance you’re watching John work his magic. Since 1977 he has sold his glass creations at the Festival, as well as entertained all who stop by to witness how this ancient art form is made.

As these things frequently happen, John came to glass blowing by accident.  After a semester in college, the direction he was looking for had yet to materialize.  With a high lottery number for the Vietnam draft, John decided to take some time off and go visit his sister who lived in Munich with her German husband.  It was a fortuitous decision.

The village where John’s brother in law was from had three glass factories.   One of the owner’s was a friend of the family’s.  He gave John a tour, and a life’s work was found.  “It was just one of those things.  I saw it done and I thought ‘I could do that and have a lot of fun’.  I begged to stay and develop my skills.  The owner agreed and said ‘There’s a bench.’ I stayed for three years.”  Returning to California in 1973, John was now clear on his future, “I made up my mind.  This is what I want to do.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it.”

Setting up shop in Laguna Beach

Settling in Inglewood, John built his own equipment and set to work.  “Back then, glass blowing was kind of a lost art.  People didn’t know the worth or value of it so a lot of what I did was educate the public.”  After a few years in Inglewood, John decided to change locales.  His mother was a live-in cook for a local family so John was familiar with Laguna and knew there was an arts community, as well as venues to sell art. 

“There was no social life in Inglewood.  People seemed almost afraid to look you in the eye.  It was kind of depressing.  When I decided ‘I’m coming to Laguna’ I knew it would put me more in a community of people where I could develop.”  He had no idea at the time how true this would be.”

Mentoring and creating a community of artists

“I used to be very secretive about what I did.  If you had anything to do with glass my attitude was ‘get out’.  Then I kind of realized that someone was going to have to work for 20 years, learn their own dictionary of techniques, like I did, and I was no longer intimidated.”  So for the last 20 years, just up until a year and half ago, John apprenticed glass blowers.  

“They reminded me of myself.  I decided I was going to offer them what was offered to me.”  When asked if that meant he was training his own competition he smiles.  “I ended up training five artists, now there are nine in the show.  I feel like we’ve reached a tipping point of how many artists the Festival can handle.  I did my part.”

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Private commissions present interesting challenges

With such a long history at the Sawdust Festival, I asked how it had changed over the years.  

“I’ll say this: when I started there was no book of rules.  Now there are.  This has taken some of the fun and spirit out of the show, but it’s still a great place to exhibit and spend time.” According to John, he sells “50 percent of his work at the Sawdust”.  

Some of the other 50 percent is through private commissions.  He explains, “A chandelier, for example, is such a challenge.  There’s the design and then all the engineering. I enjoy that.”  

The Montage isn’t a bad place to start

His work can also be seen in public spaces.  The entrance to Montage Laguna Beach is one of his first public art creations.  “I’ll never forget the meeting with Kim Richards, the president of the Athens Group that developed the Montage.  I had just shown them my proposal for using cast glass and I could hear his people saying that using glass ‘was risky’, and all this stuff.  I had to interrupt them. ‘Let me just say something.  In 5,000 years they will be giving snorkeling tours past this sign.  The longevity is not an issue.’  

Cast glass, different from blown glass, is an area John has become very interested in.  “I’m fascinated by the history of glass.  This technique predates glass blowing by 2,000 years.”  And while the work preparing the molds is quite extensive, it is not as physically demanding as blowing glass.  

“Blowing glass is very physical.  You burn a lot of calories, plus it’s’ a very expensive proposition.  I feel good about developing cast glass.  Once you get everything prepped you put it in and you get four days off.  It’s a more relaxed atmosphere.”  

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A live/work space that feels like paradise

It’s hard to envision John not in a relaxed atmosphere.  We met at his home/studio on Laguna Canyon Road where he has lived and worked since 1985.  Sitting under a huge pepper tree surrounded by his glass creations, it didn’t seem like hyperbole when he said getting the property was “the happiest day of my life.”  

John and Becky share their oasis with others

John and his wife, Becky, are happy to have visitors to the studio – after the Sawdust ends in August. They have hosted groups of 50-60 kids on their property as well as corporate events and private tours.  “We had 40 people from Merrill Lynch come and I did a demonstration with dinner outside here.  They come here and can’t believe this lifestyle.  Here I am living and working in the same property.  I live the life they dream of.”  Another perk is when John gets recognized by his young fans. “These seven and eight year olds will come up to me when my wife and I are walking down the beach and say, ‘You’re totally rad.’ That’s pretty cool,” he says smiling.

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A community turns into a family

John Barber not only found the community he was looking for when he came to Laguna almost 30 years ago; he found an extended family.  He tells the story about his daughter, now an Intensive Care nurse at Scripps.  She “rejected her wild, hippie father’s ways”, he says good-naturedly.  “But she was raised in a bassinet under the counter at the Sawdust. She knows everybody.  Since I could never go on a summer vacation because I was working, she’d go off with her Sawdust friends.  They all took care of each other. That’s her family.” 

And John has no intention of leaving that “family” anytime soon.  “It’s hard to think about retirement from something you love so much,” he says.  

So when you go to the Sawdust and visit the glass blowing booth, look for John.  If he’s not there, his legacy certainly is.


Mary Kate Saunders; creating a balanced life

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Some people have a quiet gift of enriching other people’s lives without grandstanding, and with utter humility. Mary Kate Saunders is one of those people.

Mary Kate Saunders

There are the hundreds of patients she works with through physical therapy. There are the countless patients with limited means that she helps by serving on the Board at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. And there is her own close family; husband Kirk, and sons Kian and Rory.  They look out for one another while nurturing 24/7 care for Kian, who is severely disabled.

Caring for one another would have been the modus operandi growing up in a large and boisterous Irish family. With seven siblings, Mary Kate learned all the domestic requirements to keep up with family chores, and the nuanced ways to keep the peace within the large brood. Today the siblings are spread all across the US but they still remain close at heart.

“We made a pact to always attend family weddings together,” said Mary Kate. Her parents tallied 23 grandchildren, so that’s a lot of weddings. 

Mary Kate and Kirk met in Hawaii while they each were visiting relatives over the Christmas holiday 26 years ago.  It turned out the relatives knew each other, as both were Navy doctors. It was meant to be that the family would be expanding. 

Two years later Mary Kate and Kirk were honeymooning in France, a place they would return to again and again. (Stu News guest roving reporter, Nick Henrikson, had the great pleasure of looking out onto Burgundy from the Saunders’ charming and historic home in the medieval town of Flavigny, which he shared on these pages in the last couple of weeks).

“I saw Camille Claudel at the Port Theater, and that did it. I said, ‘I’ve got to go see the Rodin museum in Paris,’” said Mary Kate. Kirk surprised her with the Parisian honeymoon. A home in Flavigny was the result of her friend in Laguna, Sukeshi O’Neill. Once the Saunders visited there with her, they were hooked. When the O’Neill family offered to sell, the Saunders family said “Oui!”

Being able to get away to France takes a lot of preparation.

Hardships and blessings 

It’s taken 22 years of preparation; in the case of Kian who requires around the clock care. He cannot make the journey to France, and he relies on live-in hired home care anytime mom and dad are away.

Kian suffers from a rare genetic disorder: inverse duplication of chromosome 15. He also has an additional mitochondrial condition that creates toxins out of many of the medicinal therapies he has been prescribed. It’s been a rollercoaster of trying a new therapy, and then either enjoying its success, or suffering through deleterious side effects.

As a new parent, Mary Kate explained that she couldn’t tell there was a problem with Kian at first. “He appeared a normal baby in every way, except that it was hard for him to nurse,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started to notice what my friend’s baby was doing.” Kian still wasn’t reaching those telltale markers: sitting up, crawling, and holding a bottle.

Mary Kate searched for answers but it took three years to get a diagnosis. She’d take Kian to doctor after doctor, and got everything from “He’s just slow” to laying the blame on her. “One doctor told me, ‘It’s something that happened in utero, and you know what it is’!” Such arrogance and ignorance is hard to comprehend in this day of medical breakthroughs. 

During Kian’s physical therapy sessions, Mary Kate would pore through the therapist’s papers, each week reading a syllabus of studies for those kids who don’t have diagnoses. She requested of her doctor to do a genetic testing. Even then, the doctor said, “Well alright, but you have to agree when it comes back negative not to be surprised.”

The doctor called her in tears with the results. 

“We went through years trying to find out,” Mary Kate says. “Now UCI is thrilled because his condition is so rare, and they can do research.”

At age 12, Kian started having seizures. Last year a seizure caused him to fall forward and knocked out his front teeth. It can happen any time, day or night, so home care workers and Kirk trade off nights sleeping beside him.

His language is limited, but with a mother’s love and patience, Mary Kate can understand what Kian feels. She understands the comfort he finds in reading the same book over and over. With the patience of a saint, she recalls the time she drove back from San Francisco with him, and for seven hours he wanted the same song played again and again. She smiles, “He’d just fall asleep, and I’d sneak to change the tape, then he’d wake right up and say, ‘Again!’”

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Kirk and Mary Kate read Kian’s favorite book with him

There are hardships and obstacles, but also small blessings. This past weekend they took Kian out to his uncle’s house in the desert, where he was able to play in the pool and be out of his wheelchair for two whole days. “He loved it,” Mary Kate said. “He was free in the water, and it made him so hungry, he said the word sandwich!” He had never said the word nor eaten a sandwich before then.

Kian will miss his brother Rory soon, as he heads off to college. 

Rory was this year’s LBHS valedictorian. He gave an inspiring commencement address, with the authority and delivery of a much older person. It’s not surprising that his brother’s condition has given him a unique perspective on life contributing to a sense of maturity. At Dartmouth, Rory plans to study bio-medical engineering.

You’re a mother first!

Mary Kate got her degree in physical therapy when she was 24. But she soon found that the part where you work for someone else, it’s nine to five, and you maybe get two weeks off a year was not the sort of life she had in mind. Kirk, an architect, was like-minded. Maybe not conventional, and maybe not financially a sound bet, they both became self-employed, and started their own businesses in Laguna.

Mary Kate Saunders Physical Therapy has been saving athletes from themselves, the injured, the chronic, and the plain old “that just don’t feel right” bound back to health for 12 years now. Like many in the health care profession, she confronts the current state of affairs, “I love what I do. I just hate all the paperwork.”

Her little office, adjacent to Kirk’s architectural office, on Glenneyre, sees a steady stream of patients and is manned by a talented crew of women. “The staff is like family,” says Mary Kate. “The whole group of us has been together for years.”

Mary Kate Saunders Physical Therapy offers hands-on treatments with regimens including all the tools and the latest gadgets for putting a body back in good form

In addition to being talented therapists, and all women, they are also all moms. They understand the need to be available to their kids at times and they work together to make that happen, like a well-oiled machine. The office hours allow for free afternoons to be with family. “My mantra with all the staff is, ‘You’re a mother first!’” Mary Kate says. “It works for all of us.”

But as a firm believer in guaranteed health care for all, she finds it frustrating that some health insurance covers all of a patient’s physical therapy while others will only cover part or none at all. Balancing that unfair percentage, Mary Kate works with the Board of Directors at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. The clinic offers the opportunity for a huge segment of our local population otherwise not able to afford medical care.

Finding balance in one’s life is essential. With demands of work and family, it is refreshing to know someone who is able to handle that, and so much more. 

Mary Kate Saunders is a gift for her family and for the community.


Sean McCracken: Helping to get people together

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have any interest in architecture, or you are simply looking for a group to mingle with, realtor Sean McCracken has one for you: Laguna Friends of Architecture.  In two years the group McCracken started has grown to over 1,000 members.  With meetings twice monthly that have anywhere from 60 to 120 people in attendance, it’s clear this was an idea whose time had come.  

“The original members of the group were really dedicated to architecture.  Now people are coming for the community and learning about architecture,” explains Sean.

The basketball courts at Main Beach are a draw

An east coast transplant, Sean received his MBA from USC.  Finding Los Angeles to be “too smoggy”, he looked up and down the coast, from San Diego to Santa Barbara, for a place to settle.  The year was 1978 and he chose Laguna Beach.  The 6’5” McCracken remembers, “Laguna was the best place I’d seen.  I saw those basketball courts and I really like to play basketball…”  Having chosen his home he now had to find a way to make a living. 

 “Coming from the east coast, prep-school world, I didn’t understand the real estate economy.  At ‘SC everyone’s father seemed to be involved in real estate, but I went into software technology, real estate software.  It was a lot of planes, trains and automobiles.  Then 9/11 happened.  And the software business isn’t really much of a relationship business.  I liked hanging in town so in 2006 I went into residential real estate. It allowed me to do more of the kind of projects that I like to do,” he explains.

A career change allows for more community involvement

With his business travel over, Sean unleashed his civic involvement with a vengeance.  Tapping into his environmental interests he organized the first toxic waste pick up, then the first city-wide “green” shopping bag (the “Laguna bag”) and followed that with the first water-wise expo.  

Finding these events to be “all one shot deals” (although the toxic clean up and the water expo are still going in different formats), Sean came to realize that “what gets people excited is being introduced to people with the same passions.  People feel disconnected.  As a realtor, when I talk to people about why they’re moving they say they have trouble making friends here.  You drive up your hill, shut your garage and you’re shut out from what’s going on.  I came up with this concept of getting people out of the cyber-world and bringing them together for a common interest.”  

From this, Transition Laguna was born.

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Apple trees and strawberries at Bluebird Canyon Farms

 

Transition Laguna and the importance of wine

Transition Laguna merged three things of importance to Sean: food, water and energy use with the idea of local sustainability.  Incorporating the idea from World War II “victory gardens” along with cooking classes and potluck dinners, the group grew to 1,400 members and 60 back yard gardens.  McCracken has a secret for good meetings, calling food and wine  “the back bone”. 

“There’s a reason Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine,” he says with a laugh.  

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Sean with Dr. Dave

Dr. Dave retired from practicing medicine to focus on healing with food and to work with the Tenneys at Bluebird Canyon Farms

With Transition Laguna thriving, Sean took some time to really pinpoint what he wanted to do next.  He decided on a concept: “Friends of…” -  a group of like-minded people who come together for a common purpose.  When an architect-friend mentioned he had just put together a presentation on another architect, John Lautner, the format was set and Laguna Friends of Architecture was born. 

Next up, Laguna Friends of Architecture

Two years in from the start, the group meets at LCAD, in people’s homes (July 19     there is a tour of the famous compound at Rockledge) and takes tours to places like Los Angeles (“that’s where true friendships are made, on the bus over a beer”).  There’s something happening every two weeks, in addition to a newsletter.  

If this seems like a lot, it is.  Luckily, Sean has a lot of help.  In the beginning he did the bulk of the organizing himself, but now there is a core leadership group of 12 people who “are all about building friendships - and there’s something magical about that,” Sean says emphatically.

Stories, people and community are always front and center

True to his Irish heritage, Sean is a storyteller whose enthusiasm is infectious. “I’m an Irish guy who loves people and history”, he says.  He can weave stories about the Smithcliffs socialite, Pancho Barnes, with a tale of the Halliburton House in South Laguna in between an anecdote about his attempt to visit every beach in Laguna, from El Morro to Three Arch Bay after work.  If not a realtor, one could easily envision McCracken as an owner of a local pub, reveling in his patrons and their stories.

When asked what his next “Friends of…” venture would be if there were to be one, he doesn’t hesitate, “I’d like to do one on international real estate or living internationally; how people share houses and things like that.  I don’t know if there’s a group in that, but it’s a big interest for me,” he says.  A member of the Laguna Beach Business Club who participates in a lot of city planning groups, McCracken is a very busy guy.  He says it is “important to give back to the community, plus building trust and putting people together is part of what I do as a realtor.” 

He just can’t help it. “I have a tendency to meet people, say at Dizz’s.  We start talking. Then it’s ‘Hey, let’s hold some local events and have a good time’.  There are so many great stories out there.” 

Sean McCracken is on a mission to hear them all.

Ed. Note: Special thanks to Scott Tenney and wife Mariella Simon for photos taken at their Bluebird Canyon Farms 


Bree Burgess Rosen: she’s a woman for all seasons

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The Pacific Symphony elementary school-year program, Class Act, has just finished, but the Writer and Director managed to squeeze in a Laguna Tots production, while going straight into Lagunatics rehearsals, and opening the newest No Square Theater production just this past week. In July the ever-busy Artistic Director of the No Square Theater is getting the next show up, while the Symphony youth programs start up again in August. And, don’t forget, Lagunatics opens later this year, poking fun at all things Laguna.

Phew!

If you think that sounds like a lot, then you don’t know Bree Burgess Rosen, the epitome of energy, whose hearty laugh, and hilarious stories would keep you up way past your bedtime.

 

Bree Burgess Rosen, the life of the party!

“I’ve always been someone who had a lot of balls in the air,” she told us.

Bree is a trained, yet natural entertainer. “My dad said I popped a high C when I was born,” she said. “I was sort of a little musical freak. I stood on a lot of table tops and just belted them out!”

From then on she’s been singing and dancing, and carrying on much to the delight of audiences from Okinawa to Laguna Beach. Full of can-do drive and youthful spirit, is it any surprise that she did a stint on The Young and the Restless?

Growing up in Okinawa, the child of a military family, Bree learned to speak Japanese and she learned that music is another common language. Though she originally wanted to be an astrophysicist, she decided to pursue that as a hobby, while music and the theater has become her life.

Life is a cabaret

Bree was in college in San Diego doing summer stock, and dinner theaters when she was offered a part in Godspell. She followed that with an audition, and subsequent contract with MGM in Las Vegas (now Bally’s). She was signed as the lead singer in their big show for eight years.

While singing and dancing in Las Vegas she became like family with the other performers, and friends with some of the top billing Vegas acts.  

“The big heavy-weights in the industry”, she said, such as Sammy Davis Jr. “He was just a peanut of a guy, but unbelievable live on stage.” 

It was like a close-knit family with the corps of dancers and performers she worked with seven days a week. But in the early 80’s many of them started to become sick; there was no diagnosis yet for AIDS. 

Bree watched as friend after friend withered with illness, and were unable to continue the show. “It was the height of the AIDS crisis,” she said. “Reagan never even said the word AIDS, and I’d already buried 100 friends.”

It was heartbreaking to watch her extraordinarily talented co-performers fall apart, with nowhere to turn. “People didn’t know. They were scared of AIDS,” she remembered. “But where would these people go?”

At first the cast started passing the hat to help their friends out. Then they set up note boards for requests – donations for everything from fixing someone’s car, to a warm coat. Finally they put on a huge benefit show. “The first big show I did,” she said. “There were 250 people in the cast.” 

The show and the money raised launched the Golden Rainbow, a charity program that still today provides support and shelter for victims of AIDS. Golden Rainbow has changed forever the way the entertainment industry in Las Vegas cares for its own.

Then she fell in love with a guy from Laguna.

Rhapsody in (the) blue (coast) 

Some of Bree’s contracted performances are corporate and conference gigs. She loves a good roast and toast! While performing for Isuzu she met Leon Rosen, an executive with the corporation, and she soon added marriage to her repertoire.

She and Leon moved to the coast and landed in Laguna Beach, along the way adding another member to their corps; their son Noah.

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Bree at work at No Square Theater

Laguna lent a whole new perspective on a theatrical life. Bree’s outlook has always been playful so her attitude is, why not just roll with the traffic problems and poke fun at the wacky things that happen in Laguna? 

Don’t let them make you crazy. Be a Lagunatic!

Lagunatics is the brainchild of the zany brain of Bree Burgess Rosen. For 22 years, Lagunatics have been parodying the quirky adventures of life and governance in Laguna Beach, set to show tunes and dance numbers: “schmedlies and schmacting”. Even the City Council participates. “It’s a good palate cleanser,” says Bree. “We are an equal opportunity offender!”

After all, what is humor but hilarity with a tweak of truth packaged inside?

The show must go on

Ms. Burgess-Rosen played out the role of her lifetime when she was diagnosed with cancer last year. A role co-starring the smoke-filled casinos of years past, the diagnosis was smoke related lung cancer. This singer and dancer has never been a smoker, but she breathed lungsful in the bad old days of Las Vegas air. 

“Of course as a singer I thought, ‘What!!? My lungs?’” Thankfully she had a cadre of good friends to accompany her to the doctors appointments, because that was the hardest part, “It was constant bad news,” she said.

This role threw her for a doozy. She had a tumor the size of an orange. 

“I had chemo seven hours weekly, and multiple transfusions,” she said. “But my friends were there for 10 hours at a stretch. They fed my family and took care of my kid.”

Act two will not be a tragedy for Bree. She has passed the major chemo hurdles and the doctor she calls a “wizard” finally gave her the good news that the PET scans show no further cancer. 

He has given her her cue to continue with the show, and additional good news that her voice has not been hurt.

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It has been several months of readjustment as she tries to accustom herself to the wretched regimen of recovery. Still not quite back to full-throttle, Bree has learned to pace herself and limit some of the rehearsal hours while she gains strength. Some scripts are written to ease up on her energy level. 

“I’ve reduced some rehearsal hours at night,” she laughs. “One of my Lagunatics said, ‘Hey this cancer thing is working for me!’”

Bree never let the cancer inflict her funny bone. But, still, cancer gave her a rare glimpse into the eyes of fear. 

Frighteningly, and with a clarity she had never known, Bree experienced stage fright for the first and only time in her life - just after her treatments. She was on stage at the Symphony and in front of 1,000 people. She believes she gained empathy through that experience, “Maybe it was God’s way of showing me what other people go through, because I’ve never had stage fright.” 

Any way you look at life, illness provides another lens. Bree Burgess Rosen is a stronger spirit because of her cancer, and a larger spirit in empathy. 

Laguna is a richer community for the shining light she sheds on our antics and our individuality through the stage, and that’s a symbiotic relationship. 

“I’m never more happy and more confidant than I am on the stage,” she said. “And I love an audience that feels comfortable saying, Whoo-Hoo!



Tom Klingenmeier keeps the Sawdust moving forward

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Many things call people to Laguna Beach.  For Tom Klingenmeier, General Manager of the Sawdust Festival, it was his son’s request to go fishing.    

“In 1978 we were firmly entrenched in Chicago. We had two bars, an ad agency and two retail stores.  Needless to say, we had our hands full.  One day my six year-old son, Michael, asked me, ‘How come you never take me fishing?’ Pretty much right after that, my wife, Patty, and I packed up the kids and took a year traveling around.  We came to Laguna and settled in Top of the World”, he explains matter-of-factly. 

“When my boys took their first look at the hills they said they couldn’t wait to sled down them,” he adds, chuckling.

36 years later, Tom still gets a little emotional when he relays his son’s lament.  The fact that he took the question to heart and did what he felt needed to be done says a lot about the man who runs one of Laguna Beach’s most famous attractions. 

Making his mark at Laguna Beach High School

After getting settled in Top of the World, Tom went back to what he knew, working in retail; then he went to write for the “Tides and Times” newspaper where he covered the School Board.  When a position opened up at Laguna Beach High School for a journalism teacher he was encouraged to apply for the job, which he got.  Tom kept his plate full at LBHS by teaching journalism, auto shop and, eventually, becoming the Athletic Director, a position he held for nine years.  

LBHS Football Coach Klingenmeier

During his time there Tom says he “coached almost every sport they had.”  When asked if he had a favorite, there’s no hesitation in his reply, “Baseball. I got to coach with Skipper (Carrillo) and that cemented the deal. I didn’t care if I got paid or not as long as I could work with him.”

Stepping up and making changes at the Sawdust Art Festival

After 24 years, Tom retired from the school district. Apparently not one who likes to sit back and relax, Tom applied for and got the job as the Sawdust Art Festival’s General Manager. 

He explains, “My wife, Patty of Patty’s People, has been a long time exhibitor at the Festival so I was selfishly motivated. I wanted my wife to succeed.” And while there is undoubtedly truth to that, when a friend told him that taking the job was “going to be like stepping into a buzz saw” one can’t help but assume there was more than self-interest as a motivating factor. 

So for the last ten years, Tom has climbed the stairs to his office on the Festival grounds and managed the many pieces that need to be in place to welcome the over 200,000 visitors who come each year to experience the Sawdust Festival from around the world.   

When asked how the Festival has changed during his tenure, Tom explains, “We’ve gotten away from the old ways, basically.  The Sawdust Festival had a reputation of being a bunch of fun loving hippies and that changed...People in the art community realized how important they are and they started taking what they do seriously.”  

And while acknowledging this new “professionalism” doesn’t sit well with some, Tom feels strongly that “there are reasons for the rules we have.  We have building requirements from the city.  We have requirements from the fire department.  Safety has to be a main concern, especially after (the fires) in 1993.  That was a big wake up for the community.”

Other changes have been less contentious. In the past ten years, the Sawdust Festival, under Tom’s leadership, has greatly enhanced its community outreach through art education geared towards children, as well as adults.  There is one month out of the year that’s entirely devoted to glass blowing, for example, one of the most popular attractions at the Sawdust Festival. Continuing this expansion is at the top of Tom’s wish list for the Festival’s future.

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A signature look is born

Another popular attraction is Tom’s rather extravagant mustache. When asked about its origins, it’s not surprising that his answer centers around family. 

“When my grandson was very young (he’s now 15), he started calling me ‘dude’, for some reason.  It kind of stuck, so now they all call me ‘dude’.  Well, one day my other grandson was watching a Yosemite Sam cartoon and he points at Sam’s mustache and says to me, ‘Bet you can’t do that, dude.’  So, of course, I had to, and have worn it ever since.”  

No big deal; as if everyone would accept a child’s innocent challenge and grow an enormous moustache – and then keep it.  

Does anyone have a 1963 Corvette?

In addition to the mustache, Tom is known for having a penchant for classic cars.  As a former auto shop teacher this isn’t too surprising.  When asked to list some of the cars he has built, it’s an impressive list, featuring mostly Corvettes and MG Midgets.

“I’m working on a ’62 Midget right now.” His last project was a 1957 Chevy, carefully restored to perfection.  On a road trip to Las Vegas a friend of his son’s asked if Tom wanted to sell it.  He didn’t.  When the friend explained that his father was dying of cancer and he wanted to give it to him as a gift, Tom changed his mind. “So I sold it,” he explains.  Again, no big deal.  

“But,” he adds, always onto the next challenge, “I’m really looking for a 1963 Split Window Corvette.” 

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Family, work, and community make for a full life

There is no question Tom Klingenmeier is passionate about his job as General Manager of the Sawdust Festival.  2016 is the Festival’s 50th Anniversary and all one needs to do is ask about the plans for that to see his excitement.  He loves working with the artists and their “creativity, ‘orneriness,’ cooperation and volunteerism” even though, he jokes, that “sometimes I’ve been kidded that it’s a bit like trying to keep cats happy in a sandbox. There are always a lot of different ideas, creative ideas.  I love it all.”  

And that’s not hyperbole. However, Tom’s passion doesn’t begin or end with his work.  Sitting down with him, his love for his family was obvious in the first five minutes of our conversation, all conveyed in his engaging “just the facts” style.  His is a life, and like the mechanic he is, everything seems to be working just fine. 

Now, if only he could find that Corvette.  


Larry Nokes, a Renaissance man in our time

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Larry Nokes, esquire, is a problem solver. Larry Nokes, Chamber of Commerce president, is a man with a finger on the pulse of business Laguna. And Larry Nokes, family man, grows his own veggies, puts them together as an amazing cook, and tops it off with a guitar serenade.

Larry Nokes

Back in 1982, Larry was a young hotshot lawyer, and he had just started with a big-name law firm in Newport Beach. Pretty soon he was handling cases all over the country, commuting airport to airport. He managed to anchor a home in Laguna Beach in 1986, but when he and his wife, Cathy, had a child he knew something had to change. “I was all over the place,” he explained. “And then I knew, I’ve got to make a choice. You’ve got to enjoy your kid growing up!”

McKenna Nokes is no doubt happy with that choice too, as dad has been present at her birthday parties, coached her soccer team, and plays guitar and records music with her. 

Since opening his own firm, Nokes & Quinn, in 1993, Larry has been active in the legal world, his community, and savored the experience of his daughter’s growing up. “I love it. I could be involved, I could coach soccer,” Larry says. “I could even stop and see a play on the way to court!” 

It’s a charmed life being able to balance work and family.

Chamber man

One day Michael Kinsman, then president of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, called and said, “Why aren’t you a member of the Chamber?” Larry had no good answer for that other than timing is everything. He was familiar with the Chamber business even while growing up in Holladay, Utah, where both his parents were active in the Junior Chamber.

Since that call in 2009, Larry has been an active member. He’s served on the Board since 2010, and is currently the president. His goals for the Chamber of Commerce are like everything he’s passionate about: be effective, communicative, and responsive.

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A mover and shaker, with accolades to match

In lawyer-speak, Larry comments on the Chamber business: “We’ve made a conscious effort to be responsive to the City government, and economic trends. We do everything we can between commercial and residential areas to improve and promote floundering areas.” 

They’ve been very successful at that, with events such as the Pearl Street commercial district “ribbon-cutting”, and the Taste Of Laguna, which started out with around 200 attendees and is now closer to 1,000.

The Chamber has improved communication, getting the word out there via their website and e-mail blasts. This has directly related to a jump in membership, from 100-175 to now more than 400 paying members. “The open-rate response has been very high,” said Larry. “So we feel we’re doing a better job staying in touch.”

Looking out

The biggest community kerfuffle Larry Nokes has deftly handled lately has to be the View Ordinance. 

On January 15, 2013 the City Council voted to form a View Equity Committee headed by Mayor Kelly Boyd. The goal of the Committee was to recommend modifications to the City’s View Preservation program, a highly contentious issue in Laguna, as it is in a lot of coastal communities.

At the first hearing 18 months ago, the committee, including Nokes, Boyd, and seven other people Larry Nokes considers “a really good group – passionate and well organized”, presented a lot of research. They compared other city ordinances for reference; places such as Tiburon, Malibu, and Palos Verdes. Then they analyzed what the restrictions were within Laguna, what was the layout and intent of specific neighborhoods, and what can be done to honor that.

“Interest in the community was huge,” Larry said. “But ultimately three groups congealed: people for maximum tree trimming, people for preserving vegetation, and people for the right trees in the right places.” The key was to get them all in the same room, and be heard. 

Toward that end, the committee has held eight public meetings, taking in the City staff’s points of view as well. The ordinance passed its first reading on May 29.

“We came pretty close to threading the needle on that ordinance. It took a lot of time,” Nokes said. “It may be amended and changed, but it’s a good place to start.” 

The ordinance still has to be passed by a second reading, but there’s enthusiasm for trying it out. “Some believe it’s gone too far, some think it’s not enough, and some are in the middle,” he said. “It’s a nuanced issue.”

Thankfully there are people like Larry Nokes willing to thread that needle.

A guitar is always on hand to balance the left-brain thinking

Looking back 

If you think growing up in the Salt Lake Valley sounds like an inauspicious beginning, then you don’t know Larry’s mom. “She’s still a fireball!” Larry tells us. 

Jackie Nokes retired in the mid 1990’s, but was well known in the Salt Lake area, first as the “Romper Room” lady (only those born before 1965 will be smiling now), and then as a local television interviewer and, finally, as Director of the Utah State Fair.

Larry’s dad seasoned his legal chops: he was a lawyer too.

Speaking of seasoning, his parents also fostered Larry’s love of cooking. Sprinkle in a mission trip he took to Italy for two years, and you have the makings of a serious foodie (who reads and speaks fluent Italian).

With his busy life including fingers in many pies, Larry Nokes finds sanctuary in his favorite de-stressing activity: baking. Cathy got him the gift of baking sessions at Pain Quotidien, and since then he’s been off and running. “I like the precision of baking,” he says. “It’s chemistry, really.”

Bake it, broil it, grow it and grill it

Just about every Saturday he dons a long apron and pulls out a sack of flour, some yeast, water and salt. That’s all he says is needed for a good baguette. His little secret is to add a bit of honey to the yeast, “Just to get it really going.” And then it’s the perfect baguette.

McKenna grew up making another favorite – pizzas  – with dad. Now she’s grown up and graduated college (from Charleston, SC, another foodie town. Coincidence?). She’s out of the nest and making her own pizzas, and now Larry’s two little nieces are the students learning from the maestro.

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Ava, left, and Lila, right, learn the best pizza technique from Uncle Larry

First, start with garden produce, which, of course the Nokes’ grow fresh in their Top of the World backyard. “Right now there’s gardening work I’ve got to do,” Larry said. “I started with fruit trees and a couple of beds, and all of a sudden we’re growing our own basil for pesto, lettuce, potatoes… It’s an irresistible force you have to take advantage of!”

Growing your own and cooking outside are just two of the reasons this is such a great place to live.

For outdoor cooking, Larry likes to use the grill for slow-cooking meats, ribs, and…macaroons?  “We’ve tackled some bizarre things on the grill,” he tells us. For pizzas, he’s put a special oven attachment onto one of the grills. His recipe for success is to invite 10 or 12 friends and they all have a good time designing custom pizzas.

Larry Nokes is a well-rounded man - in the good way! He’s truly a giver to the community, in all those things that really matter: commitment, citizenship, family, and the joys of simple things.


Lisa Mansour: Jumping in all the way for community 

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Making the move fourteen years ago with her husband and three daughters, “aged four, two, and new,” Lisa Mansour wasn’t sure Laguna Beach was going to be the place they’d ultimately call home. She and her husband, John, had already had adventurous lives in Chicago and Hawaii, and had had a pause in their hometown of Phoenix.

While in Laguna for John’s job, developing Montage Laguna Beach, the plan was simply to enjoy the beach and sunshine, and more than likely be on to the next project in a few years time. Fourteen years later, Lisa and her family are still here. And while the sunshine is pretty great, it’s the family’s community involvement, spearheaded by Lisa that has played the biggest part in making Laguna their home.

Lisa Mansour, a giver to the community

“I started with just getting involved, but that ended up enriching my life, and the more people I met in Laguna the more passionate I became about this community,” said Lisa. “I want to fill my days doing meaningful things for this town that I love so much.”

And she has. 

Embracing her father’s advice of “leap and the net will appear”, Lisa’s passion for her community and the arts has made an indelible mark for the new hometown she treasures.

Getting involved with her girls

With three young daughters, “meaningful things” started with Lisa’s community involvement circling around them and their interests. First, there was MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers), at Coast Hills Church, where she ended up on the Steering Committee as an art coordinator. “Creating a craft project for about 100 moms to do every week – I honestly think I’m still cleaning up glitter!” she laughs.

Then, as daughter Chloe entered elementary school, Lisa soon became co-director of the annual El Morro Talent Show. “One year led to two which led to eight,” she says. 

From these humble yet meaningful steps a dynamic, civic-minded leader in the arts was, if not born, at least certainly awakened.

Sometimes you just have to jump in

Growing up “in art” and always enrolled in some kind of art class, Lisa’s college dream was to further study art, but college reality favored practicality. “I chose the most creative avenue within a business degree; advertising and marketing,” she said. With degree in hand from the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, she went off to Chicago to work for a well-known ad agency (remember Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike”?).

Marriage and kids came; roots were set down.

In 2009 a position came on her radar for the Laguna Beach Arts Commission. Lisa thought, why not? “You can wait a long time to feel qualified enough,” she explains. Five years, and three terms later Lisa is more than qualified “enough”. 

Her business background combined with her love of art, have found a perfect balance in her role as Arts Commissioner.

Besides the prominent Art in Public Places program, Lisa knows a lot of behind-the-scenes work, such as budgeting, planning, and forecasting. It all goes along with being a commissioner. 

“We also have a strong and growing performing arts component, including Sunset Serenades, Music in the Park, Friday Flicks at the Forum, and Shakespeare in the Park,” she said. “My whole life I’ve been involved in creative things, but being in Laguna is like creative Utopia. The artistic culture has seeped into all of us.”

A family affair with the performing arts

All three Mansour girls have a passion for the arts too. Chloe, now a freshman at Boston College started out in the community theater. She now travels and performs with the a cappella group, The Bostonians. Tessa, LBHS sophomore, is a classically trained soprano who more than held her own, singing “The Prayer” with Andrea Bocelli last December. She recently portrayed Amy, in “Little Women” at the high school. The youngest, Isabel, exudes creative talent too, and will attend the Orange County High School of the Arts this fall, as a 9th grader.

“John and I are truly in awe of our three daughters and their fearlessness and creativity and passion,” said Lisa. “I think these traits were fostered by the culture here in Laguna.”

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Lisa’s life is immersed in the arts

Fearlessness does not end with the Mansour children, as Lisa stepped out of her comfort zone and joined the local theater troupe, Lagunatics, five years ago. She remembers, “Bree Burgess told me, ‘Adults need a playground too!’ Boy, was she right. I have found my tribe amongst my cast mates.”

Having her passion for the theater ignited, Lisa branched out to No Square Theater’s summer musical, “Ruthless”, and last year she joined the Laguna Tunes Community Chorus. With her contagious enthusiasm, she wanted to be sure it was known that Laguna Tunes is a no-audition chorus and anyone from the community is invited to join.

Turning loss into a dream realized

Lisa’s father, her “best friend”, passed away from pancreatic cancer two years ago at the age of 70. It was heart wrenching and a terrible reminder of how fleeting time can be. “I thought my dad would have had 20 more years at least,” she said. “With my grief came middle-aged musings: have I done everything I wish I had done?” For she still had a dream unfulfilled.

Her dream had been easy to put aside for other obligations for nearly 30 years, but now the timing was right.

Back to the future - art school it is!

Lisa enrolled in the Laguna College of Art and Design, and is pursuing that elusive Bachelor of Fine Arts. “I can’t go to school in my flannel pajamas like the other kids!” Lisa laughs. She has jumped in whole-heartedly. “The students are incredibly talented. It’s daunting, but I’m trusting the process, and enjoying every minute of it.”

Giving back

With their incredibly full lives, both Lisa and John manage to find volunteer opportunities that they can do together. Five years ago they joined the Friendship Shelter, as 20th anniversary Trustees.

“My dad instilled in me the need to help those less fortunate,” Lisa said. “He fought in Vietnam, and was actually there when I was born. I remember a day when we ran into a homeless vet on the street. He and my dad started up a conversation and ended in a bear hug, both with tears in their eyes. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’ my dad would often say.”

With that motto always in mind, and a desire to give back to the community they feel has given them so much, John and Lisa recently joined the Board of Trustees of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation. “LBCF is at a point where it is really being energized by the new executive director. We are very excited about the future growth of the organization and its desire to encourage philanthropy,” Lisa said. “This community embraces anyone willing to step out and get involved.”

While others may “step”, it is very clear that Lisa Mansour chooses to leap.


In the city or on the field, she’s a top team player 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Anyone who has been through the laborious task of home building or renovation in Laguna knows just how many hoops need to be jumped. Hitching up to the zoning and building desk at City Hall is enough to give most of us the heebie-jeebies. That’s when Nancy Csira shines in her best golden light. 

Nancy Csira keeps a sharp eye on design 

The acting Zoning Administrator has a smile bright enough to light that daunting desk. Part of the reason is because she’s clear on the rules of the City, part is her own experience as an architect, and another part is her sunny personality. Put it all together and maybe building in this town is not so bad after all.

“I believe the process does not have to be contentious,” she says. “My goal is that people will want to live to live in their house after!”

With a passion for design

When Csira moved here 23 years ago she had just left her own architecture firm in New Jersey. She and her then-husband moved west to Laguna to raise a family because they loved this town. New Jersey’s great and all, but… you know.

When she started her architectural design here, she saw first-hand just how long the process was through the building plan-check. So, when she started actually working for the City, she knew what needed to be done to streamline the process. “Knowing the design end helps,” she says.

Since being the full-time, go-to Zoning Administrator she’s not permitted to design within the city, but having an eye for design helps to mitigate those often-pesky issues that come up with folks in the process. 

“I’ll say, ‘Have you considered… such and such’, and work toward compromises so that everyone’s happy,” Csira explained. “I love my job. They can throw anything at me and I’ll make it work!”

Got a building plan? Enter City Hall and step right up to the counter 

Long time resident, lawyer and realtor, Phyllis Snyder has been at the zoning desk across from Nancy Csira many times. She smiled when she shared her side of the story, “If you look up cooperation in the dictionary, you’ll see Nancy’s face!” 

But community development, including the planning, zoning, and design review boards, means more than the sum of its parts for Csira. “My life at the City is a family,” she says. There’s a big group of friends from City Hall, some other single people (“Most of this town is married,” she laments), and they enjoy spending time outside of work too, playing cards, games, having birthday parties and barbecues. Oh yeah, happy birthday to Nancy this past Sunday!

She is a go-getter

Csira is a natural at making friends, with her east-coast brand of reaching out. “I told my neighbors when I moved here, ‘Sometimes I’ll just pop over! You have to get used to that.’ That’s what I do.” She is, as she says, “embedded in a lot of groups.” 

One group that has been with her from the east coast to the west coast, are her sports compadres. 

Every member of her large family still is active in one sport or another as adults, so it might be that it’s bred in the bone. But there’s no stopping this Csira in the soccer domain. Put any other plans on hold if there’s a league night or games day!

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She likes the design of a soccer ball too - ready for free time 

On the field too

She plays with a holiday soccer league in San Clemente, with a Friday night co-ed league in Newport, a women’s team on Sundays, and Wednesday summer night’s pick-up games at LBHS. “I like to do what I like to do!” she says.

All three of her children played soccer as well, and daughter, Jackie, now plays with her on the women’s team. That’s fun, but the coed teams are more challenging. “I really like playing co-ed because there’s no slouching,” she said. 

If Nancy Csira were to slouch it would probably be in a seat watching soccer. She has license to do just that when she goes to the World Cup this month in Brazil. No sloucher on scoring tickets, though, because she’s going to the finals! How do you say soccer nirvana in Portuguese?

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Jackie Csira enjoys spending a little time on the field with her mom 

Raising her three kids meant Csira got to know every field in Laguna very well. Jackie’s the soccer player, son Chip was baseball and soccer, and Brock was soccer and football. She was on the board of the Little League for three years, and remains number two on their all-time volunteer trophy. 

If you’ve enjoyed a burger or two at Riddle Field’s snack bar anytime since its re-do, you’ll have Nancy Csira to thank. She donated her time and design to replacing the tilting, tired shack with the current iteration, complete with new foundation. She enjoyed the project. She said, “I saw it as playing and having fun; not as work.”

She also served seven years as Registrar for AYSO. Dealing with parents and their griping was like negotiation 101 which she’s parlayed into her City work: negotiation 102. 

Playing sports and building things runs in the family. Csira’s son, Chip, is now a local building contractor. When he was little she called him MacGyver; he was always making things out of nothing. “He just loved building things,” she said. “And we both loved Legos.”

Nancy was playing and building with Legos at seven years old, when she mapped out her plan. “I knew I wanted to be an architect and a mom when I grew up. I kind of forgot about the husband part,” she jokes. 

She had an early start in the world of design/build, yet never gave up on her vision. It’s this committed passion to the pursuit of her dreams that keeps driving her vision forward. Doing what she enjoys, and enjoying what she does is what makes Nancy Csira the happy and delightful person she is.


The Ranch: The Grand Dame’s Final 

(and Most Spectacular) Legacy

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by Diane with a little help from The Ranch

 

In 1871, she welcomed the first home in Laguna Beach. 

Now – 142 years later – she will play host to Laguna’s last, great resort.

It’s a fitting honor for this grand dame, who’s so reticent of the spotlight that most people drive right past her without even looking in her direction. Those who have stopped to get to know her, though, come away with a memory that lasts a lifetime. 

For Mark Christy, it’s high time this beauty was introduced to a much larger audience of admirers. 

She is The Ranch at Laguna Beach, formerly a.k.a., The Thurston Homestead, Ben Brown’s and Aliso Creek Inn (Hey, every grand dame is allowed a few name changes over the course of a lifetime.).

From the entryway on Coast Highway, you wonder how a hotel and a 9-hole golf course can be tucked back in what seems like such a tiny space. Drive a few hundred yards into the interior, though, and The Ranch offers a stunning enclave that meanders beneath towering canyon walls. 

“Most people think they’ve taken a wrong turn when they first turn up our street,” says Director of Sales & Marketing Jim Tolbert. “But once they make that final turn and the entire canyon opens up in front of them, they’re just stunned. The Ranch is not what anyone expects.”

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The golf course - today

 

The Ranch is the “yin” to the rest of Laguna Beach’s “yang”

Not even a quarter mile away, the Pacific pounds its way onto the beaches and rocks, and thousands of visitors create their own riotous color palette of beach blankets and umbrellas. There is a constant thrum of energy and activity in Laguna Beach. 

In contrast, The Ranch is sublime serenity. 

“We have people tell us that as soon as they get beyond the first hole of the golf course, everything changes for them,” says General Manager Kurt Bjorkman. “She just has that kind of way about her.”

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Since Mark Christy and his team took over as The Ranch’s new “caretakers” in late 2013, they commonly refer to the property as “her.”  

“This girl has plenty of personality and – I suspect – many stories to tell,” says Christy. “She’s just so darned charming that it’s made all of us that much more committed to giving her the spotlight she deserves.” 

While daily golfing, family events and catered special events continue through the summer at The Ranch, late September and early October will see the actual spotlight switched to “ON” when renovations are completed for the hotel and banquet hall/restaurant. 

“Renovations” Meaning Building Back Up from the Foundation

Most folks around town think Mark Christy is merely sweeping out the dust on the old hotel room floors and changing a bit of wallpaper here and there.

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Oh no no no. What’s happening here is big … very big. But when all the new is completed, it will look as if she’s been settled here for decades. 

The Ranch is returning to her roots, evolving in a lovely, turn-back-the-clock sort of way as a classic, beachy cottage resort. 

“In all my years growing up, I spent just about every weekend at Crystal Cove in my grandmother’s Cottage #9,” says Christy. “That relaxed, nostalgic kind of feel is what The Ranch imbibes, but it’s also going to be very chic and very cool. We call it ‘unpretentious luxury meets coastal ranch chic.” 

Her Story Till Now

Naming her officially as “The Ranch” came just as easily to the new owners. “We never really sat down and had a brainstorming session on what we were going to call her,” says Bjorkman. “From Day One, this was “The Ranch.” She just had that old-school, relaxed vibe about her.”

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Thurston Homestead

Indeed, “The Ranch” was her first name when the Thurston Homestead was established here in 1871. Remnants of the first cottage were recently found at the golf course’s third hole. Cattle guards still remain in primary roads. And almond and walnut trees are still producing their wares, having been planted more than a century ago as part of the working ranch.

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Girl Scout Camp – circa mid-1950s

In 1927, The Ranch was host to the first Girl Scout camp in California, and in 1950 she was named the Laguna Beach Country Club. In 1960, she was sold to Ben Brown, who had plans for a 10-story hotel. 

While the towering blueprint was actually approved by the City in 1961, the local and national economy wasn’t stable enough to support Ben’s plan. So, Brown resorted to opening a rambling 64-unit apartment complex in 1963, instead. The lovely 9-hole golf course and a hexagonal home for the Browns followed suit.

Brown’s widow held on to the place for decades, finally selling to Aliso Creek Properties LLC in 2004. The Montage Resort managed the property and made upgrades through mid-2013 until the LLC entertained Mark Christy’s purchase requests. 

A Stunning Canyon Experience

When Aliso Creek Properties stepped out in November 2013, Christy and his team moved in like a military operation. 

Gilbert Briseno, “The Tree Whipserer”

While workers began dismantling the hotel roofing and walls, another crew tackled the overgrown golf course, led by none other than Gilbert Briseno. Gilbert began working on Ben Brown’s golf course in 1963 (50 years ago!) as the first Caddyshack “gopher getter,” and was subsequently hired by Fred Lang, the famed landscape architect in 1968. 

In the many years since, Gilbert has become known as the area’s “Tree Whisperer,” as he renovates and reinvigorates plant life everywhere. Since November, Gilbert has worked tirelessly with crews, clearing yards of poison oak lining the course, cutting down diseased pines that threatened healthy tree neighbors, filling 40 dumpsters with invasive weeds and fire-hazard overgrowth, and saving the lives of many trees and plants that others would have been uprooted. 

The result? An unbelievable “new” view that golfers didn’t even know existed. 

For starters, you can actually see the canyon walls and interesting caves on either side. Trees and bushes have sprung back to life. The once-clogged creek now chuckles happily along. And the overgrown site that initially served as the Girl Scout Camp is now a gorgeous, wide-open venue for special events (nicknamed “Scout Camp.”) Even better – erosion hazards throughout the course have been fortified with repurposed red cedar planking that once housed the hotel’s carports.  

The “Scout Camp” set up for a wedding event

Nostalgia Draped in Modern-Day Luxury

As Christy moves from the golf course tour to the hotel renovation explanation, he is positively gleeful. 

“If you want to enjoy your honeymoon in seclusion, you can have that. And, if you want your entire wedding party in a series of hotel rooms that converge onto one courtyard, you can have that, too. This is as individualized or as group-oriented an experience as you wish it to be,” he says.    

The Ranch’s original 64-rooms have been expanded to 97 approved hotel units, including 64 large hotel rooms, nine studios, three massive suites and 20 “cottages” that feature 1,125 square feet in an upstairs/downstairs layout. Lastly, the hexagonal Brown house (now named “The Treehouse”) will be included in the rental mix as a separate, two-story home that overlooks The Ranch’s green expanse. 

In keeping with the beachy, cottage nostalgic feel, the hotel is topped in rusted corrugated tin roofing and “every furniture and décor item you see in the hotel rooms will be ‘found’ items.

“We want a very relaxed, beach cottage feel. Even our air conditioning units will be stealth,” Christy says with a grin. 

Even as the giant, gleaming kitchen continues to cater to incoming, weekly weddings and events, the banquet hall, private dining rooms and primary restaurant are undergoing staged renovation, too.

Here, the ceilings will be popped for another 6 feet of height. Over here, the banquet room will be extended onto a 3,000-foot deck. Behind this bar here, floor-to-ceiling glass windows will slide effortlessly open and closed. Even the hotel lobby’s location is changing to create a greater “sense of arrival” for guests. 

A Magnetic Pull

As we chat, Camron Woods trots in from the same lobby we’re discussing. He is the new Director of Culinary Operations, having recently moved from his Executive Chef’s role at the Grand Del Mar’s Amaya restaurant. 

Assuredly, the Ranch has attracted a veritable “who’s who” in the hospitality industry.

“I was working at my 13th hotel, and it was a pretty amazing place, but I just knew I had to be here at The Ranch,” says GM Bjorkman. “For the most part, people in the hospitality industry consign themselves to a rather nomadic lifestyle – movement is normal. But I know my entire career has led to this project. I’m submerged completely, every day; there’s just nothing like it.”

Adds Tolbert, “Every day I drive up here, I feel folded into the family. There’s a sense of commitment here from everyone involved; it’s become a real labor of love. 

“It’s important that we give The Ranch her chance to really shine in front of the Laguna Beach community … and a global community as well. She is the unique culture of Laguna Beach,” says Tolbert. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Bjorkman sits back in his chair and thinks for a moment. “When you decide to make a career in hospitality, you make a commitment to serve others above yourself. 

“And when you think of this place – The Ranch – as a personality, it’s so fitting because she just has this great energy … this air of ‘service’ and graciousness and welcome.

“You just feel … held.” 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the popular book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best


Dave Dixon, Thurston’s primo language and cultural educator is preparing to say adios, au revoir, zai jian

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

A young girl brought her friend around the corner of the building and said, “It’s in here, come on.”  Her friend looked around furtively. “Don’t worry, he’s old school, but he’s nice,” the girl reassured her. She stepped inside the doorway and pointed straight ahead. Her friend laughed when she saw it and exclaimed, “It really is like a museum piece!”

Dave Dixon overheard the whole thing and chuckled, “Yes, it’s a chalkboard. I’m still 20th century!”

And there he is, Señor Dixon personified, pants covered in his usual chalk dust. 

He puts most kids immediately at ease with his breezy nature and Southern charm, so the two girls felt quite comfortable. And, like even the new young teachers at Thurston, they wanted to go over and touch the actual chalkboard. When Dixon retires this year after 25 years of service to the kids of Laguna Beach’s middle school, so too will the chalkboard. Alas, it will be replaced with that ubiquitous staple of the modern classroom, the White Board.

“I really like chalkboards,” Dixon says with his gracious smile, and then recounts the bemused cashier at Staples, where he buys his chalk. “I came up to the register with a box of chalk, and the guy looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I teach’,’ I told him. He just said, ‘You use a chalkboard?’”

Languages teacher Dave Dixon holds the Key to Thurston

Now, granted, chalk is not the only tool in Dixon’s educational arsenal. When it comes to 21st century technology, his classroom is a veritable treasure trove of gadgets. There are 15 iPads loaded with games and quizzes for Dixon’s Mandarin Chinese, Español, and English (second language) students. Those iPads can connect with the Google TV’s (three of them), so everyone is able to share content and keep up at the same pace.

But another of Dixon’s tried-and-true classroom techniques is decidedly old school. All the desks face forward. Seems like a simple concept, right? Part of the diabolical nature of Dixon’s charm is that he subtly teaches kids how to pay attention, be respectful, and listen to the teacher. That is true genius in the middle school years.

What will all the chalk do without Señor Dixon?

The classroom atmosphere reflects Dixon’s positive attitude in general.  He has Chinese dragon kites hanging on one side, and the Hispanic Wall of Fame on the other. The chalkboard, usually covered with Chinese characters, also props up the Riesgo board – that favorite game like Jeopardy, where student competitors represent different Spanish-speaking countries. And under the side tables are the sodas, juice, and snacks for afterschool pick-me-ups, and regular parties.

“I have been so happy here,” he says. “The district has been really supportive of my ideas, and different programs. And the parents! They send their kids ready to learn here. It makes teaching ten times easier.”

The adults they will become

No doubt, the middle school years are fraught with doubt, peer pressure, and other anxieties. These are the most impressionable years to grasp the concepts of self-respect and kindness toward others, including adults and society as a whole.

Dave Dixon may understand that more than most parents, having been around this age group for so long. He gives sagely advice to the parents on “Back to School” night by emphasizing the influence parents have in the choice of their children’s friends. “I tell them, ‘Encourage your children to choose friends who value succeeding and learning. They will be better off if they make friends with others who value their family relationships.’”

Thurston’s principal, Jenny Salberg, has been witness to the many accomplishments of this fine teacher. “Dave Dixon is able to teach the love of language, appreciation of culture, and provide an outstanding example for students to be global citizens,” she said. “He teaches by example the dignity of humanity, and he’s an inspiration to us all.”

A date with destiny

Dixon started teaching 40 years ago, when he was a proper Southern gentleman in Virginia and North Carolina. He departed briefly for six years to become a flight attendant in order to satisfy some of his wanderlust. That was when he fell in love with California. A two-week airline training session was unexpectedly postponed and Dixon found himself grounded in Santa Monica for the duration.

When he felt the tug on his heartstrings at the return of school buses in autumn, he knew it was time to get back into teaching. He signed on to teach in Manhattan Beach before joining Thurston in 1989. 

He’s always been a talented Spanish teacher, but along the way he learned German, a little Japanese and French, and continues the herculean task of conquering Mandarin Chinese.

“Now I look like I got off the Ark,” he jokes. Then, as now, his enthusiasm knows no bounds. 

He started the “Language Wheel” program, where students immersed in Spanish, French, German, and Japanese for six-week sessions each, including language instruction, cultural investigation, and Dixon’s famous field trips. 

“I loved going to Olvera Street,” former student Erik Henrikson said. “I loved Medieval Times!” Nick Henrikson said. Those two favorite trips are still part of the program today, even though the wheel has been changed.

For the last several years, Dixon’s “other half” has been Randi Beckley. Beckley teaches French and Linguistics, while Dixon teaches Mandarin and Spanish. Every nine weeks they switch kids over to each other’s class. Beckley expressed what so many colleagues feel about Dave Dixon’s retirement, “I’m just so sad for me, and for the kids. But I’m also happy for him.” 

This week he was presented the “Key to Thurston” in honor of his stewardship and tenure at the school.

It’s been a fun ride for 25 years and the future looks bright too

Why leave? You’d never know it by his boyish looks, but Dixon is practically ancient! Kidding. “I am!” he insists. “I’m probably the oldest in the district.” At 63, that seems unlikely, but it’s the timing that’s right for Dixon to begin a new chapter.

Chapter two

“I still have the energy, and I want to do something different, and enjoyable,” he says. “My retired friends who are the happiest are the ones who re-invent themselves.” He’s following their cue, and putting a plan in place that ties together all the things he has enjoyed in his career: language, culture, learning, and travel.

Next up – back to being a student. He’ll be attending the International Guide Academy this summer, hoping to launch his own tourism travel service in the next year. His focus is on international travel, most likely to start with a guided tour to Spain, and also travelling by train as a specialty. “I like helping people have fun outside of their every day life,” he said.

This man has been an unbelievably patient, considerate, and devoted educator with a footprint huge in the sands of Laguna Beach. Filling them again will definitely require different zapatos because Dave Dixon is one of a kind.


Jane Hanauer:

Laguna’s reigning queen of “The Ripple Effect

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It’s interesting how one small event can create a ripple that affects hundreds, even thousands of lives. In many cases, when that event happens in your own life, you don’t ever recognize its significance.

Jane Hanauer, the owner of Laguna Beach Books, probably doesn’t.

Years ago, when she accepted a lunch date with a friend who lived in Laguna Beach, it created a chained series of events that have, quite frankly, led to the complete revitalization of a 4-block commercial district now nicknamed The H.I.P. District. And, at the hub of the District’s many successful commercial spokes is Laguna Beach Books – a significant ripple all its own. 

Now, if you were to present this “ripple” theory to Jane, she would gracefully chortle and flap a dismissive hand at you. She and her husband, Joe, would never take credit or expect accolades for such a gargantuan achievement in these few short years; the couple is as Midwest friendly and unpresuming as they come. 

The fact, though, remains: It all started with lunch. 

Here’s how it all went down:

The Ripple began in Three Arch Bay

After selling his Chicago-based real estate business to Coldwell Banker in 1983, Joe Hanauer took on CEO responsibilities, which brought him to Newport Beach’s Coldwell Banker headquarters. In 1986, with most of their brood tucked away in college, the couple moved to Newport with their youngest daughter, Elizabeth.

Shortly thereafter, Jane was invited to Laguna’s Three Arch Bay for lunch. She was so enamored with the lovely neighborhood that she was quick to introduce Joe to Laguna Beach, and they both fell in love with the town. 

“Newport Beach was fine, but Laguna Beach is a real town,” says Jane. “We’d spend our weekends walking everywhere and we loved it – it had this warm, village feel that we knew we wanted to be a part of.”  

In short order, they gave up their rental digs in Newport and purchased a home in Three Arch Bay.

Ripple #2

After enjoying more than a decade in their new “village,” another ripple occurred: In 2002, the old Pottery Shack property went on the market. 

In no time at all, the couple’s dinner conversations began to mull the potential of the property, and they wandered over (more than a few times) to ramble the iconic grounds. 

“At the core of this property was this little adobe cottage, maybe built around 1910 or 1920, that had been absorbed by the commercial activity around it,” says Jane. “We were looking at all sorts of ways to save it before we even purchased the property, and that was the telltale sign – we were really interested.”

Although the Pottery Shack property was not a registered historical landmark, the Hanauers worked tirelessly to save and maintain as much of the historic building as possible, even restoring the Shack’s front façade as they voluntarily dug underground to create a parking structure for expected shoppers. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Yep. The forest animals on top of the existing building had to be saved, too. “We never figured out why they were there in the first place, but Joe had them all restored and put back exactly as we’d found them. Some day we’ll get to the bottom of that mystery,” says Jane. 

Ripple #3: A step away from indie extinction

As the couple discussed commercial possibilities for the new Pottery Place, Jane told her husband that she was ready to start a bookstore. “When we were beginning to build in 2003, the independent bookstores were struggling to stay alive,” says Jane. 

“Bookstores are so important. I think we all have a responsibility to keep them from disappearing; they are a necessary footprint in our lives. Now, I can’t really go around telling people this if I don’t do something about it myself … so Laguna Beach Books was born.”

Having not been in bookstore retail before, Jane approached the project with the same “structured development” theme that she applies to her various board positions around town. Most of the time it worked. Some of the time it didn’t, which causes Jane and Manager Lisa Childers to crack up as they share some of their “learning experiences.”

“For the initial opening, we had a book buyer who convinced us that we needed to buy 7,000 calendars,” says Jane. “So, we’re thinking, ‘What’s a few calendars? They’re flat; they don’t take up much room’ … and then hundreds of boxes began to arrive, stuffed with calendars. There were so many of them, we couldn’t even walk through the store. And then … we missed the date to return them all. So … sometimes structured development can take a bit of a detour.”

When Laguna Beach Books opened in 2006, only 1,500 independent bookstores remained in the entire country. Shortly after the store’s opening, Laguna Beach’s other bookstore, Latitude 33, closed its doors. 

Jane remained undaunted. “When we heard bad news, we just made ourselves get busier.”

A local store with its own international Ripple Effect

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Today, with 7,000 book titles and a special order system that usually sees books arrive for customers within 48 hours, the little indie certainly equals large chain bookstores in the area.

Jane was quick to set up thriving relationships with the large resorts in town, and the store rolled out an assertive series of author signing events that has since mushroomed into nearly 150 events a year. The store also introduced a now-thriving monthly Book Club, and has recently instigated poetry-reading events for local poets. 

“We’re exploring ways to get more involved with young adult readers,” says Jane. “That reading market is tremendous and definitely on the rise, and that’s the kind of statistic I love to see. 

“We just need to find a way to sync with their schedules and support them in an engaging way,” she continues. 

Right energy creates exponential right energy

As Laguna Beach Books has thrived, so have its counterparts at the Pottery Place, from the lovely “anchor” of Sapphire Restaurant to various offerings of chocolates, home décor, food pantry and deli items, clothing and more.

More significant, however, is how the revitalization of the Pottery Place further revitalized business and traffic flow in a much larger, expansive circle. On any day of the week, the bustle is in play to the north with the three-story edifice housing The Heidelberg Café, Gina’s Pizza and numerous other restaurants and salons … to the Place’s southern retail neighbors and Ruben Flores’ Laguna Nursery a block further down … and even across the street where Casa del Camino’s Chris Keller joined forces with the Hanauers to further brand the H.I.P. District’s hipness. 

“You bring the right people in with the right kind of energy and positive aspiration and you’ll see other people with the same energy flock to be around them,” says Flores. “This is what Joe and Jane Hanauer are responsible for. 

“The moment you meet them, you know that they are the kind of people you want to do business next to! Their energy and positive enthusiasm is absolutely rallying”

Ripples #4-6

True “villagers” in every sense of the word, Joe and Jane have stepped into board roles for a number of non-profit interests in and around Laguna Beach, too. 

In the 1950s, Jane’s mother trod across every line imaginable to take her place as a leader in Planned Parenthood. In a nod of respect to her mom and the enduring organization, Jane is now in her third term as a board member for the Orange & San Bernardino Planned Parenthood organization.

In 2006, she also joined the Friendship Shelter’s board, and has recently finished serving two consecutive terms there. Then, in 2011, Jane stepped into a board position at the Laguna Art Museum, and is happily enthusiastic about supporting its many new developments.   

“My Mother used to quote someone who said, ‘You’re always entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.’ So many times, people interpret change and development around them into their own set of facts, and those facts may not necessarily be correct or conducive to creating the best win-win for everyone,” she says.

“That’s why I get involved in these organizations. When you can help innovate positive change and disseminate the facts about these changes in a way that everyone can understand, you’re making a real difference.

“Really, it all comes down to making a difference in people’s lives,” she continues. “Take, for example, the Friendship Shelter. It may be a small organization, but if they can make a difference in even 100 people’s lives, that’s really something.”

Indeed, Jane Hanauer. What you’ve done is really something. 

(Hey, thanks for accepting that lunch date.) 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the popular book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best


Holly Morrell has a truly heart-warming tale to tell

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Holly Morrell has a loving and compassionate heart. But it’s defective.

In all the good ways a heart can work; in caring for others, by giving back to the community, and enriching the world with her healthy spirit, Holly’s on top of the world. But in all the bad ways a heart can be broken, literally, that’s in her chest too.

Before she was born, people considered it a shame that her father’s mother had died so young. Even when her father’s sister died at the age of three, it was just one of those tragic things that happen. Thirty years ago the medical world considered cardiac arrest as a relationship to lifestyle, activity, or medication. 

But when Holly’s father, Chuck Morrell, was 57 years old he required a heart transplant, and then two of Chuck’s twin brother’s children died. One survived a full cardiac arrest at the age of 14. 

Finally, cardiologists at the National Institute of Health identified the genetic component doing its dirty work.

The Morrrell’s have suffered the loss of six of their 11 family members due to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). Today, two live with devices implanted in their chests to prevent sudden cardiac arrest, and one received a heart transplant in 2010, as Holly’s father did in 1995.

Holly Morrell, champion of the heart

Holly was diagnosed with the condition herself in 2002. She endures and lives to fight on, after multiple surgeries to correct her implanted heart devices, and a full open-heart surgery two years ago.

Caring for others

“When my cousins died, it had a major impact on me,” Holly said. “I still had not been diagnosed, but I knew I wanted to start a screening program in memory of my loved ones lost, and save young people. More often than not, this is a preventable tragedy.”

Holly set out to learn more about early detection of heart problems. Genetic abnormalities of the heart are rare, but there are many other types of abnormalities as well that can be detected before an unthinkable tragedy strikes. 

“Even seemingly normal, healthy young people – athletes – die from sudden cardiac arrest every three days,” is one of the sobering statistics that Holly is trying to defy. The youngest person she has identified with a heart defect so far was a 9 year-old, and the oldest is a 60 year-old. It can happen to anyone.

Fifteen years ago she begged and borrowed the necessary mobile equipment and set out to perform screenings at high school athletic physicals. The Heartfelt Cardiac Projects started with little more than Holly’s compassion and determined spirit. Heartfelt screenings are her raison d’etre.

Giving back

“I didn’t choose this. This chose me,” Holly says, “Maybe it’s the reason I’ve survived. I feel incredibly blessed, even privileged to find my purpose in life.” 

Putting aside the grief her family has endured, Holly accentuates the positive. “I’m serving my mission, and it is unbelievably rewarding to know that you’ve saved a life.”

To date, Heartfelt Cardiac Projects have performed more than 30,000 screenings. About 10% of all screenings find some anomaly, and 2% are potentially life-threatening. And every life matters.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Holly (right) with some of the kids whose hearts were saved

 thanks to Heartfelt screenings (left to right): Zack Berens, Ryan O’Hare, 

Cheyne Jernigan, and Dillon Gustafson

Enriching the world

One of the hardest things for non-profits and the big-hearted people who drive that engine of passion, is that there’s a business side required to make all the wheels move forward.

Heartfelt Cardiac Projects require screeners, all of whom have been volunteers so far, and expensive mobile equipment able to travel to the school sites they serve all over Southern California. To take this community-based service into the future, Heartfelt Projects would like some heartfelt partners. 

Donations are hugely important, as this small operation handles massive amounts of data, and utilizes precise equipment. A top of the line mobile screening machine, for example, runs in the vicinity of $80,000. “I’m not a fundraiser,” Holly says. “I was naïve and wanted to save lives and spare grief for others. Now I’m realizing I need help for growth.” To keep the non-profit screenings going forward, she has started a GoFundMe campaign with a modest fundraising goal of $25,000. 

She jokes, “I’m holding myself hostage! Send $1,000 ransom!”

In all seriousness, Holly hopes to raise enough money to buy a new portable echo-cardiogram. The Stu News Laguna community is invited to donate in any amount: http://www.gofundme.com/HeartfeltCardiacProjects

Strong-willed as she is, Holly could use extra hands on deck. One day she envisions having actual paid help. “I have great volunteers,” she said. “But I really need to be able to pay people to help me. I can’t do it alone.”

Heartfelt Cardiac Projects will be screening more than 1,000 students in the next couple of months including many at Laguna Beach High School.

The Laguna Beach School District through the Athletic Boosters will be making Heartfelt screenings available during the next athletics’ physicals on June 3 and 4. The screenings are $85. The same tests normally cost as much as $1500 and are usually not covered by insurance.

Journey to the top of the world

“I believe my life was spared in order for me to continue my life’s work,” said Holly. “Often the gift of purpose is found through great adversity.”

Holly has time on her side now, but she also knows that every minute is precious.

Sudden cardiac death occurs every 90 seconds in the U.S. That is an ironic fact for Holly as she notes that is the exact time she was given to live when her heart failed two years ago.

The surgeon who performed the open-heart surgery that saved her life appreciated the full impact of those 90 seconds. The problem area of Holly’s heart resided under her left collarbone, a difficult area to find and repair. “He told me months after the surgery that it had been a touch and go situation,” she said. “He really didn’t know if I’d make it. My blood pressure was plummeting, and I was bleeding out. He had 90 seconds to fix my heart. That’s all that separated me from life and death.”

Holly only remembers waking up briefly after the surgery. “He kissed me on my forehead, and said, ‘I’m glad you made it’.”

These days Holly is good as gold. She checks in with the doctor every three months, and does home monitoring where the device in her heart actually sends a signal through a system to the doctor’s phone. 

“Even though I tried to put on a brave face I truly had a hard time imagining any quality of life ever again. I was wrong!” she says. “I am beyond grateful. My life is both a miracle and a blessing and I wish to cherish every 90 seconds of it!”

She’s not sure the doctor would approve, but she’s feeling good enough to get back into tennis, and her former partners are thrilled. And her beautiful dog, Sophie, is happy to get back to long walks together.

Sophie loves a nice walk once again with her pal Holly

There is no reason to doubt this optimist and activist. Last year alone she saved eight people’s lives with early detection. Her Heartfelt project has detected thousands of young people with heart defects, and provides the service at an affordable price - a fraction of the cost it would be in hospital, and the outpouring of love and gratitude from the families of loved-ones she has helped to save is palpable. 

May Heartfelt Cardiac Projects grow and flourish just as Holly Morrell’s heart does.

Anyone, of any age, can schedule a screening at the website: www.heartfeltcardiacprojects.org


Nick Henrikson:

A Tale of Travel from the Dark to the Light

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Nick Henrikson spies me from across the street and grins, waving grandly. He has only met me once before. 

I watch him make his way across the street, and he stops briefly to chat with random people he knows. Even as he makes his way to my table here at Zinc, two women see him from the sidewalk and stop to say “hello” to Nick. He introduces me with something close to a reverential bow, and tells the women that he’s being interviewed. They are delighted, and assure me there’s no one better. 

In my 30 years of interviewing rock stars, celebrities and global entrepreneurs, I’ve not met anyone so immediately endearing. My best friend, Lisa, told me months ago that I should interview the iconic Nick Henrikson of Ralph’s grocery store fame and, while I never question her judgment, I wondered a little bit about the recommendation until now, this moment. Now, it’s all clear. 

Nick Henrikson, a 22-year-old Laguna Beach resident, is sunny. He is simply sunny and bright. I feel bathed in a glow as I sit across from him, and it is his person, his persona, that creates this immediate warmth. 

He has traveled a long way to reach this warmth himself. With help from his parents and a set of talented and committed educators in Laguna Beach, Nick found his way from the dark to the light. And now, everything is sunny. 

Nick’s First Three Years: Not a Sound

It’s hard to believe that Nick never smiled as a baby, or even uttered a sound until the age of three. While he never presented overt symptoms of autism such as “stemming” (repetitive patterns such as rocking or spinning), head-banging or dissociative behavioral issues, his mom, Maggi, felt something was amiss and enrolled him in special education and speech evaluation as a preschooler.

As he learned sign language and communicative gestures, it wasn’t until his baby brother, Erik, came along that Nick connected the communication dots. He would lie next to and even on top of Erik to try to get sounds out of his baby brother; he was fascinated and completely focused on the research project. When Erik was about 18 months old, and Nick was 4 years of age, they spoke – for the very first time – together. Nick’s vocabulary went from one word to more than 30 in just a few days’ time. It’s as if his brother showed him the way … and, then, Nick was off and gabbling. 

From that point forward, Nick never stopped talking. An enormous dam had simply crumbled and, just as he intuitively emulated his brother’s first attempts at communication, Nick began to emulate the peers around him. He leapfrogged forward in educative and social skills, wrapped in the protective and encouraging arms of the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

For Nick, It’s All in the Details … Every Detail

“I have high-functioning autism,” Nick tells me. “It makes it hard to learn, and it was hard to listen to teachers, but I remember facts really well, so that probably has helped get me through.”

That’s a serious understatement. When Nick was at Thurston Middle School, he worked one period every day in the front office and knew where every single kid was at that time. Harried parents would come in with a forgotten lunch, and Nick would say, “He’s in Room 212!” 

Still to this day, he can easily recite every friend and neighbor’s license plate. He began playing tennis at the age of 7, and did very well in the high school’s tennis team because he “watched Rafael Nadal a lot” because Rafa was his favorite. He also ran up records in cross-country, participating on the team the entire four years he was in high school.

Nick has worked at Laguna’s Ralphs on Cleo Street since the age of 16. He came on board as a bagger, and then began to help with inventory. Now, seven years later, Nick knows where every item is shelved in the store, and knows the price code for any item the store stocks. 

A few years ago, he was promoted to the check stand because he’s so incredibly fast with check out. He knows the product code before it’s even scanned against the laser-infused glass, often pausing briefly to correct the system if a code number is askew. 

“I like it when people ask me where things are, because I can tell them what shelf it’s on,” says Nick. “But most of the time, they just ask me where the bathrooms are.” 

“I’ve worked with Nick about five years, and he’s just got a gift at putting a smile on people’s faces,” says Kevin Tate. “You may walk in feeling a little bristly but, before you know it, you’re feeling warm and cozy because Nick’s done something or said something to make your day right.”

A Big Step Toward Independence: The Glennwood House

Over the seven years at Ralphs, Nick has gotten to know a vast amount of Laguna Beach residents, and remembers each by name. 

Through his childhood, Nick struggled with shying away from people and making eye contact, both traits found in people with autism. Today, as long as he knows you and likes you, he’s happy to give you a hug. He also works consciously to maintain eye contact with people he meets – again, this is an easier task for him when it’s someone in his known circle, and it’s always easier when they’re the first to reach out and engage with Nick. In that nanosecond, he brightens noticeably and a happy smile flits across his features. 

“I love to travel, but right now, I really like Laguna and the people here, so I’m going to stay in Laguna,” he says matter-of-factly. 

Last year in August, Nick took yet another huge step for himself by moving to his own place in the Glennwood House at 2130 S. Coast Highway. “Glennwood is for young adults with developmental disabilities who want to have more independence,” says Nick, again in a scholarly tone. “I thought I’d be different than most of the kids there, but I have a few friends now, and I love that I can come and go, just as long as I let them know where I’m going.” 

He says the step was a big one, “Even though my parents live right up the hill,” he admits. “It’s way different living on your own. At first, I thought about having a roommate, but sometimes I’m working late, and I didn’t want to bother someone or, you know, worry about bothering someone. So, I have my own cool pad to myself.”

Fortunately the meals are “fantastic,” thanks to resident cook Shelia, and Nick does his best to hit all three offerings in the day. “I wish dinner was a little later, but I know that if I ask to bend it for me, they have to bend it for everyone.”

Life is a Highway …

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It’s incongruous, really, this child born into the closed world of autism who is now so genuinely magnanimous in his outlook and approach. 

His mother, Maggi, assures me that it’s taken a village to help and support this child-now-young-man, and she can’t say enough gratitudes to the people who have stepped up and stepped into Nick’s life. 

A couple years ago, friends and family members began asking Nick for rides to the Orange County or LAX airports. He owns a beautiful Nissan truck “With plenty of suitcase room,” and he adores the side job. He’s never had a car accident or even a speeding ticket, and several people will ask Nick to drive them to the airport in their own car, and bring it back home for safe keeping while they’re traveling. 

He has since expanded his driving role to dropping off and picking up people who go out on the town. “When I turned 21, my parents took me to Las Vegas,” he says. “I tried a scotch, and I tried a beer, and then I decided alcohol was just not going to be for me.” 

As a designated driver, he’s absolutely punctual, is happy to travel up and down the coast, and only asks for two or three days’ advance notice so as not to interfere with his Ralph’s schedule. “I love it,” says Nick enthusiastically. “I like helping people and I like driving, so it’s the perfect combination for me.”

With the expanding “Drive time,” the new living digs, travel adventures on the horizon, and the full-time job he loves at Ralph’s, Nick says he’s not sure he could be much happier. “I think as long as you’re good to people, they’ll be good to you. ‘Mean’ is not in my nature … so I know it’s all going to be OK for me.” 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best.


Miguel Contreras guides teens down the right path

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Miguel Contreras is the much-loved and appreciated assistant teen director at the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach.

The Club offers special programs every day for some 30 to 35 rambunctious teens, and Contreras, or “Miggy”, as they like to call him, has got their backs. 

“Miguel is just an incredible role model and confidant,” said Executive Director, Pam Estes. “The kids trust him, and he’s very stable in their lives.”

Contreras is not one to shout out about himself. In fact, his favorite pronoun is “we”. “We have a great program here,” he says. “Everyone gets along well and does their best to keep the kids healthy and safe. It’s a team effort.” 

Miguel Contreras

But he is a person with a backstory of his own, one that has made him a perfect mentor for many of the at-risk teens he encounters. 

He grew up in a LA/San Fernando Valley area that he describes as “a questionable neighborhood.” The area was rife with gangs and drug deals. His father taught him very early on to lie on the floor when they’d hear gunshot. “You don’t want to get hit by a stray bullet,” his father told him.

“Gang life was the biggest danger for me,” Contreras said. “I was the oldest kid, and didn’t really have anybody to hang around with at home. So, I hung around with the gangs.” He saw and heard about the things they did, but he had the temerity to stand up against it. “I made my share of mistakes,” he humbly says. “But I just didn’t agree with hurting people.” 

One important event helped him put things in perspective; he became a father at the age of 17.

Once you know Miguel Contreras, it doesn’t surprise you that he is still married to the same wife, and that they have two other children as well. He’s got a big heart and enjoys spending time with their kids, especially the youngest (at 14) and only daughter. “While she still wants to be with me!” he laughs. He worries for her like most dads do for their daughters once boys enter the equation, though. “She’s giving me gray hairs!”

A kid at heart

What launched Contreras into his future with the Boys & Girls Club was his own children’s joy in Head Start when they were preschoolers. At the time, the program was at El Morro School. Contreras took them there and was so impressed with the program he started volunteering in his free time. That program burgeoned into the pre-school program at the Boys & Girls Club, now called “Even Start”.

Contreras is admittedly like a kid at heart, and the executive director saw how much his presence would add to the Boys & Girls Club. So, Contreras seized the opportunity when a part-time position became available, and began working with the Club’s “Kinder Buddies”. 

For the last six years he has been full-time, working with the slightly more challenging Teen group. 

“High School kids need us even more,” he said. “They can get into trouble with drugs and all that kind of stuff.” He gets it, and the kids know he gets it.

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Books are part of “College Bound”

The Director of Teen Services, Dalene Hamer, has been working with Contreras these past six years. “It’s such a pleasure to work alongside Miguel,” she says. “The passion and dedication he brings to the Club is inspiring and encouraging. The teens feed off of his energy, and his leadership and guidance motivate us all to be better and do great things.”

Every day at the Club, Contreras is involved with a planned activity, from “Triple Play” sports, to homework, cooking, arts, and leadership training. “We prepare teens for the future,” he says. “One of our biggest visions is to keep them healthy and active.”

The Triple Play sports are big fun too. Right now it’s girls basketball season, plus everyone joins in for lightning (basketball in teams of two), and bunker ball, which is like dodge ball and capture the flag combined. Two teams build bunkers out of gym mats on either side, and then try to attack the other team with balls as they go for the prize in the middle. Contreras enjoys it. “I’m a teenager trapped in a 40 year-old body!”

But it’s not all play. “I want to make sure these kids have the tools to get it right; that they don’t fall prey to gangs and drugs,” Contreras says with conviction. He knows from where he speaks.

He mentors and guides early training in college prep, with programs such as “College Bound”, which introduces kids to college mock admissions tests, SAT tests, and other practice drills early on, so they can prepare. 

“We even have middle schoolers, just giving them a little jump start. We get them started early so they don’t get so stressed out.”

Rock solid in many ways

Most importantly, Miguel Contreras is there like a solid rock to lean on, someone to get support from, and often confide in. 

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OC Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year Austin Willhoft chats with “Miggy”

Austin Willhoft is one of those kids. He is the first of Laguna Beach Boys & Girls Club members to be named Orange County Youth of the Year, by the national Club organization. The Youth of the Year recognition is awarded to a club member promoting service to Club, community and family, proving academic success, strong moral character, life goals, poise, and public speaking ability.

Willhoft has been very frank and open about the hardships and violence he faced in his own home growing up, and what a difference the Club has made for him. He has been accepted to the University of Oregon, and is now eligible to participate in state Club competitions to receive a scholarship. If he goes on to win state, then there are regionals, and finally nationals where the scholarship bounty increases to $50,000 and is installed by the President of the United States. 

Contreras is proud of Willhoft’s accomplishments in the face of adversity. Additionally, as he beams, “He’s our ‘Iron Chef’ in the Teen Cuisine program!”

Teen Cuisine is one of Contreras’ favorite programs. It’s all about healthy eating, good cooking, and proper food prep. Once a month the kids pick a spot on the globe, and investigate recipes from that country. Thankfully, so far they haven’t picked Mauritius, because who knows what they eat there, but they have found plenty of interesting and tasty places. They even learn some things about the culture and history as they explore.

Contreras stocks up for the big cooking fest, and focuses on alternatives like turkey instead of red meat, and low-sodium versions of sauces. “The thing the kids love is that they get to eat what they make,” he said. “And you can’t believe how much they can eat!”

Probably the biggest part of mentoring and encouraging youth to cope with the many anxieties of the teen-aged years is to simply be a good listener. With no judgment, and no anger, good listeners provide a safe zone for kids to express themselves however they need to. It’s not a skill taught in school but one that will get you places in life that you might never have thought possible. 

Miguel Contreras is clearly there, as he’s surrounded by the many teens that know they can count on him.


For Lan Zentil, “Complacency” is not a word in her Idea Notebook

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Back in 2011 at a real estate conference, Lan Zentil thought she was sitting in a crooked chair. When the chair swap didn’t change how her back was feeling against its rungs, she decided there might be another issue. 

Sure enough, she had a lump the size of a Ping-Pong ball in her shoulder blade. Two weeks later, she was undergoing every test imaginable with doctors thinking some kind of cancerous tumor was going on. On the day before Christmas Eve, her doctor confirmed that she had bone cancer (sarcoma) in her shoulder blade.

At that point, Lan and her husband, Tony, had already accepted that some kind of surgery was going to be in her future, so they had already been “partying” for several weeks … their type of party being rock climbing, tennis, backpacking and road tripping with their two kids, Tasha and Hendrix. 

“Our big thing is being active,” says Lan. “So, with this unknown coming up, we decided to make sure we got out and did all the activities we most loved to do.”

And this is how Lan tackles life, it seems. A constant flurry of activity and bubbly energy, Lan only increases the pace when something deigns to block her path.

In March 2012, Lan had surgery to remove the shoulder blade. Now, exactly two years later, she’s still completely cancer-free and the thought of that ordeal really isn’t even in her head anymore … except this one reminder:

“When I found out I had cancer, I had this sense of urgency … ‘Get out there!’ … ‘Stop stalling!’ There’s no assurance that next year is going to be there for any of us,” she says. 

“The key now for me is to not get complacent. I’m healthy again and the cancer thing is already a distant memory … but I won’t allow myself to get complacent.”

Mothers and Daughters Unite!

In the six weeks between surgery and physical therapy, Lan’s “Idea Notebook” expanded significantly. Once PT was underway and she was assured much greater range of motion than her doctors first said, she put the last of her personal worries behind her and got busy “on everyone else who needed help,” she says. 

That spring, she and three friends organized the LagunaLoves.org organization, inviting Laguna Beach-based moms and daughters to get involved in fundraising activities of all natures. 

“Laguna Beach is such an awesome giving town – from families that really don’t have much money all the way to the top,” says Lan. “It still surprised me, though, when so many moms and daughters each committed to at least 10 hours of fundraising time that summer in Laguna Beach.”

As the plan went, moms and daughters would choose their organization of choice, and then work together or in other mom/daughter teams to reach their goals. Whatever their choice of donation, 100% of the proceeds went in that direction.

Lemonade stands popped up all over the streets and sidewalks of Laguna Beach. Makeshift sandwich and cookie stands greeted beachgoers, and neighborhood hot dog barbecues reigned supreme. Moms and daughters flooded into community garden projects, led Zero Trash days to clean up the beaches, and cooked and cleaned at the Friendship Shelter. Lan’s own daughter, Tasha (then 8 years old), scavenged all summer for recyclables, earning more than $300 to purchase three bikes for children in Uganda. 

At the official “end” of the project in August, the entire group got together for a high tea party and discovered they’d raised $4,000 in just three months. 

“I think people want to give,” says Lan. “Sometimes, hey just don’t know how to get started.”

40 Lakes in 4 Weekends

Heady with the success she was seeing in her grass roots idea, Lan decided that same summer to raise her own funds by stand up paddling (SUP) 40 lakes in four weekends, and named it “40 Within 4.” (Granted, most of us wouldn’t paddle 40 lakes in a lifetime, nor would we necessarily take on paddling at all were we missing a shoulder blade, but we’re not talking about us, we’re talking about Lan, the whirling dervish.) 

“I was just so excited that I still had this great range of motion in my arm,” says Lan. “I had only taken a lesson at a women’s clinic, and paddled once or twice beyond that, but it seemed like the perfect thing to do to continue my physical therapy in the outdoors where I wanted to be.”

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Her SUP is a big part of her lifestyle

Because her husband, Tony, was planning a 100-mile bike ride in Lake Tahoe at the end of July, the couple meticulously planned from there. With kids tucked into the “fifth family member – their Euro Van – the family devoted four weekends to skipping from lake to lake in Lake Tahoe, Mammoth, Yosemite and everything in between.

She completed the 40-lake voyage and raised $4,500 for her efforts.  

The organization that Lan wanted to donate her funds to didn’t exist. So, with help from her social worker at UC Irvine, she created it. 

“I know that a lot of cancer patients really struggle financially, and I wanted to get help right to them, in their hands – just little amounts of money here or there that would make a difference in a day or a week,” she says. Lan made it clear that 100% of her funds would go directly to the patients, so UC Irvine created a fund “depot” just for Lan. 

In that depot, Lan began depositing gift cards as the fundraising came in - $50 and $100 increments – for gas, Target and Wal-Mart, initially. She expanded from there, even including gift certificates to the advanced physical therapy clinic that had given her athletic lifestyle back. Social workers who work daily with cancer patients meet regularly to choose the recipients.  

“The patients know that another cancer patient gave these gift cards to them, and I like that. 

“If I can help relieve a little stress or take the load off, even in some small way, I like being a part of that healing.” 

“The Complacency Barometer”

Recently, after dropping off the last of her “SUP earnings,” Lan realized it was time to “re-fund raise … time to get back out there!” 

Thankfully, a new project idea was readily available in the same Idea Notebook. Lan calls this project “40 Children in 4 Days,” with a plan to pack herself off to India this fall. 

“I turn 40 this year. It’s just time to widen my scope,” she says simply. 

The India trip is one-part help at orphanages she’ll be visiting (4 days) and one-part research (3 days). She’s already planned a couple tea plantation tours, which will further launch her next business, an organic tea company she’s named A Cup of Humanitea.  

“The cancer thing gets you thinking about where you’re spending your time,” she says. “Being a real estate broker in this town is great and I love my clients, but it’s very demanding and time-consuming. I want more time with my husband and kids, and I want a job that actually combines art, creativity and travel. So, that’s why I’m getting into the tea business.” 

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Tea Service for humanitarian causes

Lan has already started blending teas and packaging for distribution. Proceeds, of course, primarily go to humanitarian causes, with countries like India at the top of her list.

“In the end, it’s all about that complacency barometer, you know?” she queries. “You plan to do this with your life, or plan to do this for your fun and, before you know it, the years are just gone. 

“My biggest key to success is anxiety,” she says and pauses to laugh at the surprise statement that just came out of her mouth. 

“All I’m thinking is, ‘You gotta do this! Hurry up!’ There are so many people to help out there! Hurry up!”

 

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the 4-color book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best.


Ethan Damato; a water polo recipe for success

He will be honored Saturday by the national Water Polo Hall of Fame 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

What do you get if you combine two atoms of Hydrogen with one atom of Oxygen, add a little Chlorine, a bunch of Adrenaline, and seven Carbon-based humans? If you’re Croatian or Hungarian, or almost any European, you are not allowed to answer this. 

No, it’s not a science experiment. It is a recipe for the fast-paced, heart-thumping, nearly death-defying sport of water polo. 

In many parts of the USA you’d get a quizzical look and maybe that tired retort about how do you keep the horses from drowning. But not in California. And especially not in Southern California. 

Now if you add a huge heart, a lot of passion, and a focus on every nuance of strategy thrown into the mix, you get Ethan Damato. In this personification you won’t find quizzical looks, but rather recognition, admiration, and respect. Even in Europe, where they think they own the sport.

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Photo by MARY HURLBUT

Coach Ethan Damato

Laguna Beach takes pride in having nurtured, and witnessed the success this hometown boy has achieved. 

Back when Damato was a lad at Laguna Beach High School his then coach, Rick Scott, saw his future in coaching. “It was after losing a game,” Damato remembers. “We were on the bus on the way back to Laguna and I was so upset. Rick came over to talk with me, and he asked, ‘What do you think we did wrong?’” As Damato has been doing since the day he met the sport in high school, he was replaying every quarter of the game in his mind. Scott valued his feedback. 

“He told me, ‘One day you’re going to be a coach.’”

“I coached him all four years of high school,” Scott told us. “His passion and love for the game was clearly evident. He gave everything the moment he hit the pool deck.” Damato was team captain, and demonstrated early on his leadership capabilities. “He was always talking from the pool, always coaching the players in a very positive manner,” Scott said. “I’ve watched him be a leader outside the pool too. He’s been such a positive role model.”

Damato went on to play at Cuesta College, where his college coach dubbed him “Little Big Man”. “He didn’t think much of me athletically,” said Damato. “But, intellectually; he appreciated my mind.” He, too, saw coaching in the young athlete’s future.

Since Damato took the head coach position at the high school in 2008 he has guided the fall season boys team, and the spring season girls team, training them in-between seasons, and working every other waking hour as a club coach. His assistant is former high school teammate, Trevor Lyle. To date, they have led both the LBHS girl’s team and boy’s team each to CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) championships twice, taken the club team, SET, to the National Junior Olympics for one gold, two silvers, and three bronze medals, and racked up countless tournament wins.

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Photo by DAVID NASH

LBHS girls win 2013 CIF SS Division I Championship

Additionally Damato works with the Youth National Team, as Assistant Coach, where they will be traveling to Madrid to compete in the championships this summer, and he has been selected as Head Coach for the girls UANA Junior World Championships competition between North and South America.

This young man is deservedly being honored April 5 at the Water Polo Hall of Fame awards ceremony, with the Doc Hunkler Distinguished Coaching Award, a national award given to only one coach nationally who has demonstrated excellence in working with female athletes.

Water polo is a rigorous sport that requires individual talent mixed with team coordination, guided by an able coach. But when it’s the high school years, you have to deal with grousing complaints and pushback. 

Damato believes girls are easier to coach because they listen. “I joke with the boys, when they finally learn to trust me, they graduate.”

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Photo by MARY HURLBUT

Coach Damato’s office

Most fans will bemoan the fact that water polo gets so little attention in the world of sports given that so much hard work goes into it.   

ESPN.go dives into the debate of the toughest sports in the world. With choices based on four factors, endurance, strength, agility, and nerve, this is what ESPN sports columnist Eric Neel says: “We’re supposed to believe (boxing), football, basketball, and tennis are harder than water polo? Please. Endurance? A water polo player swims 1.5 miles a game, with another player dragging and climbing all over him, pushing his head under the water and saying unkind things about his mamma when he comes up for air. Strength? These guys egg-beater their legs for 32 minutes in nine feet of water, muscle each other for position and rise up into the air like they’re jumping off a trampoline to shoot and block shots. Agility? They work back-cuts and spin moves like Kobe and Marvin Harrison. Nerve? They take 50-mph shots in the face and breathe in lungs-full of water. And they keep coming back for more.

“Boxing is the No. 1 sport in our rankings, and boxing is brutal. But you know what water polo is? It’s boxing plus sprinting plus basketball plus wrestling. With no floor beneath your feet. Show me the boxer who levitates and shoots a ball with a defender in his face while he’s bobbing and weaving. Until then, show me love for water polo and the amazing athletes who play it.”

That sounds like the mindset of Ethan Damato.

The small world of water polo can seem a confusing mix of rules and regulations peopled by near cultic fans. Laguna kids start as young as the 10 and under age group in Chad Beeler’s program at the community pool (a boys and girls mixed team), and learn very early on to either love the sport or leave it. It is physically demanding and requires intensive training and time. Those who stay with it get to know every teammate and even many of those they oppose, like one big family.

Shining stars in the Laguna water polo family include Damato’s past and current athletes. Annika Dries (LBHS 2009) plays on the Women’s National Team and won the gold medal with the United States in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Nolan McConnell (LBHS 2012) plays on the Men’s National Team, and current LBHS students, sisters Aria and Makenzie Fischer, each play on national teams. 

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Photo by MAGGI

Aria and Makenzie Fischer

Aria Fischer, only a freshman, has made a huge impact on the team already. “I can wholeheartedly say she’s one of the best players in the country,” Damato said. The Fischers are a water polo family in every sense. Dad, Erich, and mom, Leslie, played water polo when they were at Stanford, and Erich also played for the USA in the 1992 Olympics. 

Leslie says that one of the amazing things about Coach Damato is that he makes the team a family. “He’s so able to make them love and care for each other,” she said. “And so quickly. It takes a special person to do that.” 

Makenzie, a junior, plays on the Women’s National Team, and will continue with competitions overseas. She can attest to the level of her coach’s dedication. “On New Year’s Eve he sent me a video upload of our game! He wanted to analyze it.” 

It’s a good bet we’ll be seeing these young stars playing in the Olympics in the future.

Many of Damato’s high school athletes have gone on to play water polo for some of the biggest names in academia as well; Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Johns Hopkins among them.

How in the world would Ethan Damato find time for anything besides water polo? Cupid must have felt the light bulb go off over his head when he thought of sending love to the pool deck. 

Kari Johnson started at LBHS at the same time as Damato. She was to be the swim coach, and he was to be the water polo coach. Things did not go swimmingly at first, as each maneuvered to gain new territory in the same space.

“We were both laying a foundation, and trying to set a precedent,” said Damato. “It wasn’t easy at first, but we had a lot of respect for each other.” Before long they had more than that, as they fell in love. Aww! Last summer they got married, and you know that somewhere the water gods were smiling. 

It was an action-packed year for Ethan Damato as his club team won the Junior Olympics gold, the high school girls won CIF, he took a national team to Italy, got married, had a honeymoon, and got the distinguished coaching award too.

Go Ethan!

 

Shaena Stabler and Stu Saffer are the co-owners. Shaena is the Publisher and Stu is the Editor-in-Chief.

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The Webmaster is Michael Sterling.

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Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, Dianne Russell, Laura Buckle, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers.

Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle and Suzie Harrison are columnists.

Mary Hurlbut, Scott Brashier, and Aga Stuchlik are the staff photographers.

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