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. 

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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. 

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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

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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.

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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!


Turning 70, Mick Donoff plans one heck of a ride

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Next week, Mick Donoff turns 70. 

“After last year’s birthday, I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my 70th, he says. “I didn’t want a big party, and I didn’t feel like sitting at a resort somewhere, and then I knew what it had to be …”

On April 6, just three days after his 70th, Mick is riding his bicycle from Laguna Beach to St. Augustine, Florida … because that’s what most men want to scratch off their bucket list at 70.

It’s not just his bucket list, though. After seeing many close friends and family members die or suffer from cancer, he’s raising funds with every mile he rides for the charity, Stand Up 2 Cancer. “I think it’s time I stepped up and did something significant with my life to help other people,” says Mick. 

In February, after making his decision for the 3,069-mile trek, Mick set a goal to raise $10,000 for the charity. Stand Up 2 Cancer was co-founded in 2008 by Katie Couric, and gives every penny raised to innovative research teams and scientists who are working on various cancer projects. Mick will be riding under the Ride America 4 Cancer (RAM4C) banner, which creates rides everywhere to help this charitable cause. 

When Mick first made his trans-continental tour announcement to friends, he expected some backlash. “First of all, I’ve never asked my friends for money. And, I figured they would be more interested in talking me off the ledge,” he says. 

“But this big circle of supportive people just keeps growing, and the generosity is really unbelievable.”

See Mick off on Sunday, April 6 at Heisler

At 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 6, anyone and everyone is invited to Mick’s “Send Off Birthday Breakfast” at the picnic tables in Heisler Park. He’s asking that people kindly RSVP to his email address or phone number so that enough food is provided for all. Beyond that, though, he’s just asking for money contributions, either by check or through the online Stand Up 2 Cancer “file” reserved in his name. (Find all the details at the end.)

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Tools for staying busy and alert while pedaling 100 miles a day

The April 6 Heisler fountainhead is actually part of a larger, organized tour through the Adventure Cycling organization. On that same day, hundreds of cyclists will be leaving San Diego to trek the Southern Tier Route, which meanders through Tempe and Las Cruces, beelines through El Paso and Austin, then trips to Baton Rouge, through Biloxi and the Florida Panhandle, and finally deadheads for St. Augustine. 

“It’s perfect that it ends in St. Augustine,” says Mick. “That’s where Ponce de Leon claimed he discovered the Fountain of Youth. I figure I’ll be needing it right about then.”

Pedaling Into the Heart of Americana

Riders can choose to stay in “packs” or take off on their own. No surprise here – Mick wants to do this on his own, even leaving his usual support crew – Sharon, his wife – in California.

“I figure I can cover about 100 miles a day, but I’m not in a hurry,” he says. For Mick, this is an opportunity to do what he loves to do most – meet people from all walks of life. He loves talking to people and learning about their lives. He says his wife considered driving a support crew van, but finally admitted that she didn’t want to be waiting seven hours at a pre-arranged stop, wondering if he’d been mushed on the road when, instead, he’d probably found a pump jockey to converse with at some “rickety gas station.”

“I can’t help it,” he says with a chuckle. “People are fascinating to me. This is my chance to go at my own pace, and stop and talk whenever I feel like it. I get to be a part of Americana, and that’s something I’m looking forward to.”      

For weeks, Mick has been laying out his packs for the ride, testing weight and balance with the bike’s custom saddlebags. Because this is a particularly demanding trek, Mick is leaving his lighter carbon bike behind. This time, for nearly three months, his steel frame bike will be keeping him company. The bike weighs about 36 pounds. Mick weighs about 168 pounds, so total weight should be about 230-240 pounds. 

Tucked, rolled and stuffed into the compact bags are his lightweight sleeping bag and tent, a couple changes of clothes, his bike’s toolkit, his GoPro camera, iPad and iPhone and – most important – his iPhone speaker, attached to the handlebars. 

“I listen to anything from classical to country … and electronica for the hills.”

He’ll stop in Austin for a few days to meet his wife; she’s bringing his “warm weather” clothes to exchange. “Getting through West Texas will probably be the most challenging because there’s not a lot out there … except a lot of wind. So, I figured I’d reward myself after making it through that hurdle.”

An Addiction to Uber

Although he is 70, and though he’s never done a trans-continental trek before, Mick is no stranger to the world of “ultra racing.” 

Mick began running marathons at the age of 34 and, after 30 marathons, decided to boost the mileage count by taking on 50k runs (31 miles). Tiring of that, he upped it again, completing his first 100-mile run at the age of 44. At that point, he was hooked, and participated as an “ultra-runner” in many acclaimed 100-mile races across North America. 

“If you want to get better as a runner, road biking is the thing that gives you the stamina and strength,” says Mick. “So, since I was already doing 80 and 90-mile days on my bike to train for these things, I decided to try ‘ultra-mountain biking,’ too.”

(Sure. Why not? It’s something we all do, after all.)

Through his 50s and 60s, Mick participated in 12 ultra races, some five and six days in duration, covering 500 or more miles. “I had nine finishes of 12 races,” he says. “But I’m most proud of the record I still hold in the Leadville race. I made it five miles before my bike broke. They still have a plaque in my name for that amazing feat.”

On his off weeks, Mick has hiked Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) and Argentina’s Aconcagua (22,841 feet).

“I was fortunate to be a teacher for 38 years, so it gave me the freedom to train and go do” says Mick. “And you know, you always have to come back with a story on what you did for your summer vacation.”

Oddly, the man with endless wanderlust loves his roots. He and his wife have been Laguna Beach residents (in the same house) since 1976, and he demonstrated the same “roots” preference in his occupation, too. He taught computer science and history, and coached track and cross-country at Mission Viejo High School for 25 of his 38 years. He was voted “Teacher of the Year” before announcing his decision to retire. “You always want to go out when you’re on top,” he says with a wide grin.  

Not recognizing that he’s already made a difference in so many lives, he talks of his surprise at former students – some of them in their 40s now – who have seen his Facebook entries and have freely donated money and encouragement. 

“I think this is all going to work out,” he says. “And then I’m probably going to do a bigger trip. I’ve been thinking of Canada to the tip of South America …” 

To make a tax-deductible donation for Mick Donoff’s ride:

Make checks out to SU2C, please reference TEAM RAM4C. Bring the check to the April 6 breakfast, or mail it to Mick directly. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details. 

Or, go online to www.StandUp2Cancer.org - the search is so convoluted for your specific donation for Mick that we’re providing the shortened link directly to Mick’s page here: http://bit.ly/1hgKPYP

Follow Mick’s progress at the same StandUp link, above, or at his Facebook page, facebook.com/mick.donoff


Joanne Culverhouse, a leader among leaders

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Joanne Culverhouse arrived in Laguna 15 years ago like a breath of fresh air. Her light-hearted personality was immediately apparent when she spoke before the community, and her keen intellect has guided an educational upswing for three of Laguna’s four schools.

At her first presentation for PTA’s “Coffee Break” she put the crowd at ease with her assured style, evident knowledge and concern for our youth, and with her sense of humor. “How did you decide to come to Laguna?” was one of the questions asked. Culverhouse smiled and weighed in with her hands, “Hmm… Hemet or Laguna? That was an easy decision!”

She served as an elementary school principal in the Hemet School District (Whittier Elementary School), and before that she was a teacher and a principal in Reno, Nevada. The coastal life in Laguna Beach seemed a dream come true, and Culverhouse is still filled with the enthusiasm and joy of those first days.

Now the Laguna Beach High School principal, she has been there for hundreds of kids as they transitioned from elementary, to middle school, and on to high school. The current eighth graders represent the last batch of El Morro and Thurston kids that Culverhouse will have known as principal in all three schools. The pictures in her office tell the story: There she is bending down to the little tykes as she gives them graduation papers at El Morro, standing up beside them at Thurston, and then looking shoulders above her at their high school graduation. 

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Dr. Culverhouse assists Sarina Strickland in the LBHS Library

Confidence of a natural-born leader

Culverhouse is a powerful influence in the community, garnering such awards and distinctions as the Principal of Excellence Award (The Irvine Educational Excellence), Laguna’s 30 Most Influential People, Woman of the Year (American Association of University Women), and Coast Magazine Orange County’s Top 10 Influential People.

One of the reasons for her success is that she enjoys what she does. She was always interested in teaching, and had the confidence of a natural-born leader.

Raised in a military family, Culverhouse encountered the daunting experience of a new school every couple of years as they moved from town to town. But she had (and still has) a loving and supportive family, and the will to conquer her fears. Not that there were many fears because she is, admittedly, very competitive by nature. She embodies the “can-do” spirit. 

Her sister and her father now live in Nevada, but the Culverhouse family remains very close. Joanne calls her father every morning on the way to work. “He just sets my day,” she says. “He is such a positive person, always full of love. I’ll say, ‘How’s your day?’ and he always says, ‘It’s a great day!’”

Three sports star at Nevada

That may be where she got her zest for life. In addition to all the great work she does on behalf of education, Culverhouse is an avid outdoors person. She loves to hike, bike, run, ski, and play lots of sports. 

While she was on her own educational track she participated in three NCAA sports at the University of Nevada: volleyball, softball, and basketball. It was the early years of Title 9, and Culverhouse was a stellar athlete as well as student. She had one year out of softball season due to an injury, but managed to make that up with an extra year, all with full-ride scholarships. 

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An impromptu three-way Frisbee toss in the quad

She loved sports so much she never imagined a life without them. But, inevitably, along comes graduation and the team goes their separate ways. Thankfully Culverhouse fell in love with teaching, and that led her to pursue double master’s programs (Master of Science, and Education Specialist, both at U of N), and a PhD (Educational Leadership, UCLA).

She remains good friends with her athletic teammates from back-in-the day, and they go on annual trips together. This summer they will be hiking in Ireland, from coast to coast. It takes ten days, apparently, if you’re in good shape. That sounds relatively easy when you find out she has biked the entire United States. 

Back in 1986 Culverhouse and some friends wrote on the back of a napkin about things they would like to have done once they reached the ripe old age of 50. The funny, crazy coincidence is that one of her best friends wrote the exact same thing, even though they had never discussed it. Identically they had the same Big Dream written on the back of a napkin. They knew, then and there, they had to – ride a bike across America.

She made the journey with two friends, all the way from Anacortes, Washington to Boston, Massachusetts in 42 days. Yes, they crossed five mountain passes in four days. Yes, it rained a lot and camping gear was soaked. Yes it was often miserable. But how else would you ever encounter Small Town America, like the one with a population of 200 where the neighbors took them into their homes and their lives?

In her “Back of a Napkin” address to the LBHS graduating class of 2013, Dr. Culverhouse reflected on that trip with the wisdom of hindsight. 

These 27 years later she remarked, “What in the world were we thinking? How could we have thought this would be fun? Standing in the pouring rain at a pay phone (ask your parents what a pay phone is) in the middle of nowhere, I called home. When I heard my dad’s voice I lost it and started to cry. I told him I had bitten off more than I could chew and just wanted to come home. But as the years have passed the most meaningful aspect of our journey now is not so much the actual ride across America, but the memories of the overwhelming generosity of spirit of the people we met along the road, and the sustaining satisfaction of successfully accomplishing a very difficult goal.”

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It’s a treat for our community that Culverhouse will share these stories and, in fact, she gives a darn good speech. For some of us, public speaking is a whopping challenge, but Culverhouse speaks as if in a friendly salon with like-minded people. She engages, makes you think and usually makes you laugh too. She has that edge of confidence, bolstered by passion, and tempered by humility.

Recognizing how much influence a teacher holds

Participating and speaking at workshops and conferences has become a regular part of her life and she enjoys it. One of her favorite events was when she was invited by the Department of Defense, of all things, to speak in Germany at a conference of teachers. Her speech was titled “Mentor of Hope and Creator of Dreams.” 

That speech highlights the overlying theme in her approach to education; how educators have the power to influence the life of a child. “As a teacher, you have so much power to influence them,” she says. “Teachers need to be reminded of that. Every one of us can think of a teacher who has impacted our lives.”

Culverhouse’s influence is certainly remembered by her students. One example was her experience as a new fifth grade teacher. She taught her class about voting, and the importance of registering to vote when they turn 18. “If you do,” she told them, “contact me and I’ll take you out to lunch.” Sure enough, five of those kids stayed in touch, registered to vote and their former teacher took them out for lunch. “It’s so rewarding when that happens.” she says. That’s what it’s all about.

Her influence is also evident by the appreciation of the teachers she leads.

In the back corner office of LBHS, where Culverhouse quietly conducts business there is a framed sheet of music. Most people, and certainly not the naughty pupil sent in will look at it closely, but Culverhouse shared the story when we talked the other day. 

It was in her first job as principal in 1995, and she really didn’t know how much influence she wielded. But, when she was leaving to move on to another school, the teachers gathered for a farewell party in the gymnasium. Unbeknownst to her, the music teacher had been secretly practicing the orchestra with a piece of music he wrote just for her. It is titled “No Words Can Say” and the lyrics include, “You’re a leader in the best sense of the word. The driving wheel that makes others turn.” That treasured sheet of music is a moving and touching testament that indeed no words can say. It’s an expressive thank you from the heart.

Joanne Culverhouse, pillar of the community, champion for education, and fun to hang around with!


By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Kirsten Sedlick

 

Saving seals and sea lions is just another day in the office

If it hadn’t been for her knee injury, she wouldn’t have discovered the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Canyon. Kirsten Sedlick began as a PMMC volunteer and now, 18 years later, she is a PMMC Supervisor with an extraordinarily unique life experience under her belt. After all, how many people on this planet get to nurse sick and injured marine mammals back to health? 

At 18, Kirsten Sedlick was a volleyball player on scholarship, bound for college. When her knee took her out of the game, she fell back on what she loved most: animals and the ocean. 

Growing up in Newport Beach, Kirsten was the rescuer of every stray to come her way. She would agree to Mom’s rules - keeping the rescued stray in the garage - but somehow that stray would find its way into the family living room. She also remembers reading a Jacques Cousteau book on sharks and their primary prey, the Elephant Seal. At that point, she decided she’d be a Protector of the Elephant Seals. 

And now … she is. And they know it.  

Kirsten roams the large red barn hospital in Laguna Canyon, checking in on her sick seals and sea lions. She whips up Herring Smoothies and works with team members to herd recovering seals into the “small pool” for feeding. 

Throughout, no matter what her activity, the seals pad after her and gaze up at her. She is oblivious; they are not. Inherently, these injured creatures seem to recognize what Kirsten is here for. 

Kirsten heard of the PMMC when she was working at the Long Beach Aquarium, teaching kids about the universe that exists underwater. On further research she learned that the PMMC was responsible for the entire Orange County coastline in the rescue of Elephant Seals, California Sea Lions, Pacific Harbor Seals and some Northern Fur Seals. The PMMC rescues beached whales and dolphins, sea turtles and sea otters, too. 

“What drew me here aside from the obvious … all these critters … was meeting John Cunningham,” says Kirsten “As soon as I started as a volunteer, he found me and chatted with me. He was so welcoming and so committed to the purpose here, and that’s what I try to emulate with all our staff and volunteers.”

 

Each Patient a Unique Personality

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Averaging 180 patients a year; dealing with an alarming and exhausting onslaught of 373 patients last year; and enduring fire, flood, swarms of bees, famine, disease, poisoning, coyotes and more, you’d think Kirsten and her mighty PMMC crew are participating in an “End of Times” Hollywood movie. 

“It’s never a dull moment here,” Kirsten says with a hearty chuckle. “Every day is different, and every patient’s story is definitely unique.”

The staff is trained to maintain an emotional distance from its patients, even while each patient hangs out for an average of two to four months. The goal, after all, is to release these wild animals back to the seas. While the staff purposely does not interact or make eye contact, they still name each of their incoming patients based on a personality feature, or an issue the poor thing is enduring. 

“Big Bruce,” a recent Sea Lion patient with a Great White Shark bite, was named after the “Jaws” creature (nicknamed Bruce), and the “recovering” Great White in “Finding Nemo.” 

Today, Kirsten and her crew are nursing eight patients, among them “Sir Edmund” (“we found him at the top of a cliff, which Elephant Seals really don’t do”), “Abalone” (who arrived on Kirsten’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and was discovered on a bed of abalone), and “Otter Pop,” (simply “slick on wheels”).

As she thinks back to her favorites, Kirsten mentions Bismarck (a Sea Lion missing both rear flippers), Fiddler (rescued from the top of a roof in Newport Beach), and Captain Hook, a Sea Lion who arrived with more than 70 hooks and lines imbedded in his skin and flippers. He was rehabilitated and eventually released, only to be rescued seven days later toting more hooks and wire. 

“He was like some kind of magnet, the poor guy,” Kirsten commiserates. On Captain Hook’s second release, a Coast Guard ship did the honors of depositing Sir Hook on the far side of the Channel Islands, and he’s been hook-free since.

Fire, Flood and Pestilence

Kirsten stands in the PMMC hospital wing’s kitchen, whipping up Herring Smoothies for her critical care patients who must be tube fed. She points to individual doctors’ charts, each denoting the name of the patient, a series of progressive photos, its weight gains, and its own unique recipe concoction of said smoothie (some parts Karo Syrup, some parts Milk Matrix, some parts Pedialyte, all parts Herring). 

“We’re not an assembly line here,” she says. “Each patient has its own unique Smoothie requirements,” says Kirsten. 

Has she ever tried a Herring Smoothie? “Uhmm, purely by accident,” she laughs, admitting that she’s never been a fish eater to begin with.

Accidentally ingesting a Herring smoothie is not the first surprise Kirsten has encountered in her 18 years. When raging fires swept down Laguna Canyon in October 1993, all hell broke loose. “We have rescue and removal plans,” says Kirsten. “It was so fast and so sudden, though, that we were moving patients into the back seats of our own cars to evacuate.”

In the Christmas flood of 2010, PMMC thought it was ready for the worst. No one, however, expected the hill behind the facility to break loose and tumble down onto the PMMC. 

“I got a call at dawn, and my people were telling me it was complete devastation,” says Kirsten. “When I finally managed to get here, I could hardly recognize our hospital.” 

Fortunately, amidst all the mud and rising waters, every patient survived. The PMMC shipped its patients to Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro and got to work. They spent the next long month digging out the pools, replacing the entire laboratory, and receiving loads of supplies and calls from locals who thought the whale bones that had washed downstream might belong to them. (Indeed, the whalebone display had gone missing.)

“Most of us worked night and day because we missed our patients so much,” says Kirsten. “It was an eerie place without them.”

Saving 373 Critters in a Single Year

The memory of that silent hospital reversed on a dime when early 2013 saw an epidemic of sick seals and sea lions begin to arrive. “We had our usual 7 patients in December, and then had 17 in January and 30 in February,” says Kirsten. “Then in March, we had 112 new patients. It was … daunting.”

Far beyond the fires and floods, the 2013 epidemic that sent hordes of sick marine mammals to the PMMC was the greatest challenge Kirsten has dealt with yet. “At one point, we had 167 patients here, and it was endless 20-hour days just to keep up on each of their feedings four times a day.”

The PMMC hospital became something more like a MASH triage unit. Kirsten was in charge of organizing the volunteers and staff around the clock, and helped with tiered triage decisions for each patient as it arrived. She, herself, tube fed 60 and 70 malnourished seals a day while singing lullabies over the phone to her toddler who wondered where Mommy had gone. 

“We had Laguna animal control officers, park rangers and lifeguards helping us with as many as 13 rescues a day,” says Kirsten. “Our administrative staff upstairs was down here in the trenches. It was an awesome community commitment. 

“When you see support in such a huge way, it gives you the strength to keep going. We had a record number of seals come in, and we had a record number of releases of rehabilitated seals. I can’t imagine a success greater than that. 

“Every day I know this – but it’s the worst times that remind me that I’m really making a difference. How lucky am I to call this my job?” 

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is a non-profit organization at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Visiting hours are 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and donations are happily accepted.


By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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Ron Reno – 32 years – 1,636 weeks – 10,000 days

As his regulars cross the Andree’s Patisserie threshold, he is already bagging their favorite item.

He greets each customer with a happy grin, and gestures with the bakery bag in hand, filled with flaky goodness. This person always wants a Bear Claw. That one prefers the plain croissant. This one is in for his turkey sandwich (no cheese).

As I step up to the worn counter, it is only my third visit in as many months. Ron eyes me momentarily and says, “You’re the decaf Au Lait with not so much milk, right?” I grin and feel important. Heavens, I think … I drop into a large chain coffee shop in Dana Point at least three times a week, and they still look at me as if I’m a newcomer from Kansas. 

For Ron Reno, sole proprietor of Andree’s Patisserie, this is what running a small town bakery is all about. “I have an appreciation for the people who choose me,” he says. “It’s important that every person who walks in my door knows that.”

For 32 years …1,636 weeks … and nearly 10,000 days, Ron Reno has been mixing, baking and serving his famed pastries and coffee in this Laguna Beach historic location. 

He is, quite literally, chief, cook and bottle washer. On the rare occasions that he’s chosen to take a weeklong vacation or been forced into a 4-week leave for ACL surgery, he simply closes his blue door and attaches a note to its front with the date of his return. 

Ron Reno is, otherwise, the one and only person you will see at Andree’s Patisserie, from 7:35 a.m. to about 2 p.m., every day of the week but Sunday. On Sunday, Ron rests. 

The Bakery With the Robin-Blue Door

Andree’s, with its blue awning in the tiny alley behind what is now Selanne Steak Tavern, has seen thousands of people cross its threshold. Initially, the small bakery was put in place in the 1940s as an auxiliary baking kitchen for the first restaurant that stood in Selanne’s location, Andree’s. Its namesake – the independently minded woman, Andree Davis – believed that every restaurant’s foundation stood upon the quality of its baked goods. While she had an executive pastry chef and staff in place, she was often seen in the bakery’s kitchen herself, mixing up her famed steamed pudding. In 1962, she introduced her bakery to Laguna Beach by officially opening to the public. 

When Ron Reno first heard of Andree’s Patisserie, he was a new graduate in 1979 with a 2-year baking school certification under his arm. Where most people would not wish to engage in an occupation whose workday begins at 4:45 a.m., Ron had quite the opposite opinion.  

“I decided about halfway through college that I wanted to transfer to baking school,” says Ron. “Baking just seemed like a fun thing to do. People are always happy when they come into a bakery. It’s a happy place to be. Who wouldn’t want that job every day?”

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At that time in 1979, one of Ron’s teachers had been moonlighting at the then-downtown Laguna Beach bakery, Renaissance, and hired Ron to take his place at the all-night job. For two years, Ron worked the graveyard shift, endlessly rolling, twisting, pouring and baking every delectable item from donut holes to towering wedding cakes. 

In 1981, Ron heard that the owner of Andree’s Patisserie was looking to retire. He hot-footed it over to the blue awning storefront and agreed, as a term of sale, to learn how to bake the man’s “family recipe” Lemon Squares and Copenhagen Squares. To this day, the lemon squares are offered daily, and the Copenhagen – a puff pastry bottom with rich custard and Danish pastry on top – makes its appearance every Saturday. 

“It’s important to pay respect to a baker’s lineage,” says Ron. “At that point, though, I had developed several of my own favorite recipes so, for the most part, I rolled my program into play. 

“The former owner’s muffins were good,” Ron notes as an example, “But I use buttermilk and honey in my muffins for more moisture and texture. So, it was a combination of carrying the tradition along, and improving on pastry favorites to create my own signature.” 

271 Decadent Pastries & Breads Baked Daily

Every pre-dawn morning, Monday through Saturday, Ron bakes “271 items” for weekdays, and doubles the amount for Saturdays… A variety of muffins. Three kinds of croissants. Three kinds of cookies (Almond Biscotti counts as one). A crowd of Danishes. The inimitable Bear Claw. Elephant Ears. Three kinds of sandwiches, their ingredients piled high inside freshly baked slices of Ron’s secret recipe potato bread. The baked riches neatly stack themselves, shelf upon shelf, readied for another day of happy buyers.   

Longtime fans will call from L.A. to have Ron set their favorite pastry aside. A woman from Brea drives into Laguna Beach to pick up a Bear Claw, and then beelines back to Brea – it is her only stop. Once a week, another woman stops in for a loaf of his potato bread. Ron learns his clients’ schedules and timetables, welcoming clients who troop in for their annual visit from Europe, and prepping 16 sandwiches each workday morning so that they’re ready for his usual crews. 

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Not even recognizing that his thoughtful sandwich prep has now crossed the line into what moms do for their kids on school day mornings, Ron talks about the motherly advice he dispenses (“usually to women”) as they stand before his pastry bins, half-giddy and half-guilt ridden. 

“Sometimes, you just have to walk people through it,” he says with a grin. “This is non-serious food; it’s an indulgence. But sometimes, you just have to assure them that occasional indulgences are good for the soul. 

“There’s nothing like eating a pastry or cookie that was just baked that morning,” he continues. You just owe it to yourself … it’s part of what makes life great.”

“Old Friends” at the Holidays

At the holidays, Ron’s faithful followers spread the love by buying up hundreds of his fabled holiday cookies and pies to share with family, coworkers and friends. 

Freshly baked cutout cookies with thick frosting shoulder their way into the store’s pastry bins at all the major holidays, even the Fourth of July. He creates cookie stacks in cellophane wrap, and they disappear as quickly as they’re bagged and gift-tied.

Even when it’s pie-making season, Ron never resorts to electric appliances or mixers to mix his dough. “The key to great dough is to never over mix,” he says. “I might start with a mixer to create a crumble, but then I work the dough by hand. You have to feel the dough in your hands to get a sense of it. You have to know how “too wet” or “too dry” feels like, and then know how to scale your ingredients in each batch to create that perfect consistency. There’s just no way you can do that with a big commercial mixer,” he says, adding a tiny shrug.

The Always-Changing Movie

Where many Laguna Beach bakeries have been vanquished by larger commercial organizations, and where bakeries everywhere have come to rely on third-party sourcing to fill their daily pastry bins, Ron Reno will continue to wake at 4:00 a.m. and roll his doughs by hand until he’s simply not able to perform the work any longer. 

“I can’t imagine retiring,” he says. “Last year, when I had ACL surgery, I spent four long weeks sitting on my couch, watching each day go by. I’d watch the light change by degrees as it made its way across my backyard until it was dark. I’d go to bed, and I’d get up again to go sit on the couch. It was my own personal Groundhog Day movie.”

“This place …” he gestures to his pastry bins, the window counter with its sentry stools, “This place here in Laguna Beach is the movie I want to see every day of my life.” 

“Laguna Beach offers this unique niche of people who are doing things in a different way,” he continues. “So many people here approach life from a different angle and they’re doing it successfully. They’re interesting …they’re engaged in life … they have great stories to share,” he says. “That’s the movie I get to be a part of every day. I wouldn’t be anywhere else, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

Lynette Brasfield is our Editor.

The Webmaster is Michael Sterling.

Katie Ford is our in-house ad designer.

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.

We all love Laguna and we love what we do.

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