Robin Rounaghi: A passion for Laguna Beach schools

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Robin Rounaghi, SchoolPower Executive Director

A family history in public education

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

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

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

An interest in education but a career in law 

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

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

A random act determines a home

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Materials used to increase SchoolPower’s outreach

Paid work resumes while the volunteer work continues

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

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

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

Adding to an already full plate 

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

A chance to make a change

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

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

Bringing people together through a common cause

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

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

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

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

And our schools are the better for it.


Art and soul flow through Karen Petty like a river 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Painter Karen Petty

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

HEART

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

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

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

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

 

Click on photos for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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

ART

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOUL

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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


The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut and Maggi

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Room 61, chemistry’s homeroom

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

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

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

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

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

The appeal of venom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted photo

 

Samantha Piskiewicz

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

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

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

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

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

Making choices

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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

The whole is greater than the parts.

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


Jean Paul’s Goodies:

Au Revoir to a true institution

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

A new take on customer service

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

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

From racecar driver to diplomat to…baker?

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

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

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

We have John Wayne to thank

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

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

George Allen makes a conversion

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

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

It’s all in the name of respect

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

Customers, friends and those who get asked to leave

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image


Cpl. Jason Farris: Working for something better

BY SAMANTHA WASHER
Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

The Top Cop Award and Corporal David McGill

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

The lesson of being mistaken for a homeless person

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

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

The challenges and rewards of something new

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

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

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

Balancing the many needs of the community

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for other cities to step up

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

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

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

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

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

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


Susan Hamil, a heart in Laguna Canyon for animals

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Susan Hamil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life and Love in Laguna

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Susan, at home with her pack of bloodhound pups

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

Blue Bell

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

The Blue Bell Foundation for Cats charming little “Cattage”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the happy kitties enjoying the life of leisure

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

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

Best in Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Barber: A master shares his passion for glass

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

Setting up shop in Laguna Beach

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

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

Mentoring and creating a community of artists

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

Private commissions present interesting challenges

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

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

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

The Montage isn’t a bad place to start

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

A live/work space that feels like paradise

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

John and Becky share their oasis with others

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

Click on photo for a larger image

A community turns into a family

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

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

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


Mary Kate Saunders; creating a balanced life

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Mary Kate Saunders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardships and blessings 

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

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

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

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

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

The doctor called her in tears with the results. 

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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

You’re a mother first!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sean McCracken: Helping to get people together

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

The basketball courts at Main Beach are a draw

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

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

A career change allows for more community involvement

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

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

From this, Transition Laguna was born.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Apple trees and strawberries at Bluebird Canyon Farms

 

Transition Laguna and the importance of wine

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Sean with Dr. Dave

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

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

Next up, Laguna Friends of Architecture

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

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

Stories, people and community are always front and center

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

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

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

Sean McCracken is on a mission to hear them all.

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


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

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Phew!

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

 

Bree Burgess Rosen, the life of the party!

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

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

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

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

Life is a cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she fell in love with a guy from Laguna.

Rhapsody in (the) blue (coast) 

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Bree at work at No Square Theater

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

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

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

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

The show must go on

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tom Klingenmeier keeps the Sawdust moving forward

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

Making his mark at Laguna Beach High School

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

LBHS Football Coach Klingenmeier

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

Stepping up and making changes at the Sawdust Art Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

A signature look is born

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

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

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

Does anyone have a 1963 Corvette?

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

Family, work, and community make for a full life

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

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

Now, if only he could find that Corvette.  


Larry Nokes, a Renaissance man in our time

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

Larry Nokes

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

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

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

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

Chamber man

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

A mover and shaker, with accolades to match

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

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

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

Looking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back 

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

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

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

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

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

Bake it, broil it, grow it and grill it

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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

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


Lisa Mansour: Jumping in all the way for community 

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Lisa Mansour, a giver to the community

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

And she has. 

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

Getting involved with her girls

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

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

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

Sometimes you just have to jump in

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

Marriage and kids came; roots were set down.

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

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

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

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

A family affair with the performing arts

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Lisa’s life is immersed in the arts

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

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

Turning loss into a dream realized

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

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

Back to the future - art school it is!

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

Giving back

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

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

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

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


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

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Nancy Csira keeps a sharp eye on design 

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

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

With a passion for design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is a go-getter

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

On the field too

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

If you’ve enjoyed a burger or two at Riddle Field’s snack bar anytime since its re-do, you’ll have Nancy Csira to thank. She donated her time and design to replacing the tilting, tired shack with the current iteration, complete with new foundation. She enjoyed the project. She said, “I saw it as playing and having fun; not as work.”

She also served seven years as Registrar for AYSO. Dealing with parents and their griping was like negotiation 101 which she’s parlayed into her City work: negotiation 102. 

Playing sports and building things runs in the family. Csira’s son, Chip, is now a local building contractor. When he was little she called him MacGyver; he was always making things out of nothing. “He just loved building things,” she said. “And we both loved Legos.”

Nancy was playing and building with Legos at seven years old, when she mapped out her plan. “I knew I wanted to be an architect and a mom when I grew up. I kind of forgot about the husband part,” she jokes. 

She had an early start in the world of design/build, yet never gave up on her vision. It’s this committed passion to the pursuit of her dreams that keeps driving her vision forward. Doing what she enjoys, and enjoying what she does is what makes Nancy Csira the happy and delightful person she is.


The Ranch: The Grand Dame’s Final 

(and Most Spectacular) Legacy

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by Diane with a little help from The Ranch

 

In 1871, she welcomed the first home in Laguna Beach. 

Now – 142 years later – she will play host to Laguna’s last, great resort.

It’s a fitting honor for this grand dame, who’s so reticent of the spotlight that most people drive right past her without even looking in her direction. Those who have stopped to get to know her, though, come away with a memory that lasts a lifetime. 

For Mark Christy, it’s high time this beauty was introduced to a much larger audience of admirers. 

She is The Ranch at Laguna Beach, formerly a.k.a., The Thurston Homestead, Ben Brown’s and Aliso Creek Inn (Hey, every grand dame is allowed a few name changes over the course of a lifetime.).

From the entryway on Coast Highway, you wonder how a hotel and a 9-hole golf course can be tucked back in what seems like such a tiny space. Drive a few hundred yards into the interior, though, and The Ranch offers a stunning enclave that meanders beneath towering canyon walls. 

“Most people think they’ve taken a wrong turn when they first turn up our street,” says Director of Sales & Marketing Jim Tolbert. “But once they make that final turn and the entire canyon opens up in front of them, they’re just stunned. The Ranch is not what anyone expects.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Girl Scout Camp – circa mid-1950s

In 1927, The Ranch was host to the first Girl Scout camp in California, and in 1950 she was named the Laguna Beach Country Club. In 1960, she was sold to Ben Brown, who had plans for a 10-story hotel. 

While the towering blueprint was actually approved by the City in 1961, the local and national economy wasn’t stable enough to support Ben’s plan. So, Brown resorted to opening a rambling 64-unit apartment complex in 1963, instead. The lovely 9-hole golf course and a hexagonal home for the Browns followed suit.

Brown’s widow held on to the place for decades, finally selling to Aliso Creek Properties LLC in 2004. The Montage Resort managed the property and made upgrades through mid-2013 until the LLC entertained Mark Christy’s purchase requests. 

A Stunning Canyon Experience

When Aliso Creek Properties stepped out in November 2013, Christy and his team moved in like a military operation. 

Gilbert Briseno, “The Tree Whipserer”

While workers began dismantling the hotel roofing and walls, another crew tackled the overgrown golf course, led by none other than Gilbert Briseno. Gilbert began working on Ben Brown’s golf course in 1963 (50 years ago!) as the first Caddyshack “gopher getter,” and was subsequently hired by Fred Lang, the famed landscape architect in 1968. 

In the many years since, Gilbert has become known as the area’s “Tree Whisperer,” as he renovates and reinvigorates plant life everywhere. Since November, Gilbert has worked tirelessly with crews, clearing yards of poison oak lining the course, cutting down diseased pines that threatened healthy tree neighbors, filling 40 dumpsters with invasive weeds and fire-hazard overgrowth, and saving the lives of many trees and plants that others would have been uprooted. 

The result? An unbelievable “new” view that golfers didn’t even know existed. 

For starters, you can actually see the canyon walls and interesting caves on either side. Trees and bushes have sprung back to life. The once-clogged creek now chuckles happily along. And the overgrown site that initially served as the Girl Scout Camp is now a gorgeous, wide-open venue for special events (nicknamed “Scout Camp.”) Even better – erosion hazards throughout the course have been fortified with repurposed red cedar planking that once housed the hotel’s carports.  

The “Scout Camp” set up for a wedding event

Nostalgia Draped in Modern-Day Luxury

As Christy moves from the golf course tour to the hotel renovation explanation, he is positively gleeful. 

“If you want to enjoy your honeymoon in seclusion, you can have that. And, if you want your entire wedding party in a series of hotel rooms that converge onto one courtyard, you can have that, too. This is as individualized or as group-oriented an experience as you wish it to be,” he says.    

The Ranch’s original 64-rooms have been expanded to 97 approved hotel units, including 64 large hotel rooms, nine studios, three massive suites and 20 “cottages” that feature 1,125 square feet in an upstairs/downstairs layout. Lastly, the hexagonal Brown house (now named “The Treehouse”) will be included in the rental mix as a separate, two-story home that overlooks The Ranch’s green expanse. 

In keeping with the beachy, cottage nostalgic feel, the hotel is topped in rusted corrugated tin roofing and “every furniture and décor item you see in the hotel rooms will be ‘found’ items.

“We want a very relaxed, beach cottage feel. Even our air conditioning units will be stealth,” Christy says with a grin. 

Even as the giant, gleaming kitchen continues to cater to incoming, weekly weddings and events, the banquet hall, private dining rooms and primary restaurant are undergoing staged renovation, too.

Here, the ceilings will be popped for another 6 feet of height. Over here, the banquet room will be extended onto a 3,000-foot deck. Behind this bar here, floor-to-ceiling glass windows will slide effortlessly open and closed. Even the hotel lobby’s location is changing to create a greater “sense of arrival” for guests. 

A Magnetic Pull

As we chat, Camron Woods trots in from the same lobby we’re discussing. He is the new Director of Culinary Operations, having recently moved from his Executive Chef’s role at the Grand Del Mar’s Amaya restaurant. 

Assuredly, the Ranch has attracted a veritable “who’s who” in the hospitality industry.

“I was working at my 13th hotel, and it was a pretty amazing place, but I just knew I had to be here at The Ranch,” says GM Bjorkman. “For the most part, people in the hospitality industry consign themselves to a rather nomadic lifestyle – movement is normal. But I know my entire career has led to this project. I’m submerged completely, every day; there’s just nothing like it.”

Adds Tolbert, “Every day I drive up here, I feel folded into the family. There’s a sense of commitment here from everyone involved; it’s become a real labor of love. 

“It’s important that we give The Ranch her chance to really shine in front of the Laguna Beach community … and a global community as well. She is the unique culture of Laguna Beach,” says Tolbert. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Bjorkman sits back in his chair and thinks for a moment. “When you decide to make a career in hospitality, you make a commitment to serve others above yourself. 

“And when you think of this place – The Ranch – as a personality, it’s so fitting because she just has this great energy … this air of ‘service’ and graciousness and welcome.

“You just feel … held.” 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the popular book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best


Dave Dixon, Thurston’s primo language and cultural educator is preparing to say adios, au revoir, zai jian

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

A young girl brought her friend around the corner of the building and said, “It’s in here, come on.”  Her friend looked around furtively. “Don’t worry, he’s old school, but he’s nice,” the girl reassured her. She stepped inside the doorway and pointed straight ahead. Her friend laughed when she saw it and exclaimed, “It really is like a museum piece!”

Dave Dixon overheard the whole thing and chuckled, “Yes, it’s a chalkboard. I’m still 20th century!”

And there he is, Señor Dixon personified, pants covered in his usual chalk dust. 

He puts most kids immediately at ease with his breezy nature and Southern charm, so the two girls felt quite comfortable. And, like even the new young teachers at Thurston, they wanted to go over and touch the actual chalkboard. When Dixon retires this year after 25 years of service to the kids of Laguna Beach’s middle school, so too will the chalkboard. Alas, it will be replaced with that ubiquitous staple of the modern classroom, the White Board.

“I really like chalkboards,” Dixon says with his gracious smile, and then recounts the bemused cashier at Staples, where he buys his chalk. “I came up to the register with a box of chalk, and the guy looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I teach’,’ I told him. He just said, ‘You use a chalkboard?’”

Languages teacher Dave Dixon holds the Key to Thurston

Now, granted, chalk is not the only tool in Dixon’s educational arsenal. When it comes to 21st century technology, his classroom is a veritable treasure trove of gadgets. There are 15 iPads loaded with games and quizzes for Dixon’s Mandarin Chinese, Español, and English (second language) students. Those iPads can connect with the Google TV’s (three of them), so everyone is able to share content and keep up at the same pace.

But another of Dixon’s tried-and-true classroom techniques is decidedly old school. All the desks face forward. Seems like a simple concept, right? Part of the diabolical nature of Dixon’s charm is that he subtly teaches kids how to pay attention, be respectful, and listen to the teacher. That is true genius in the middle school years.

What will all the chalk do without Señor Dixon?

The classroom atmosphere reflects Dixon’s positive attitude in general.  He has Chinese dragon kites hanging on one side, and the Hispanic Wall of Fame on the other. The chalkboard, usually covered with Chinese characters, also props up the Riesgo board – that favorite game like Jeopardy, where student competitors represent different Spanish-speaking countries. And under the side tables are the sodas, juice, and snacks for afterschool pick-me-ups, and regular parties.

“I have been so happy here,” he says. “The district has been really supportive of my ideas, and different programs. And the parents! They send their kids ready to learn here. It makes teaching ten times easier.”

The adults they will become

No doubt, the middle school years are fraught with doubt, peer pressure, and other anxieties. These are the most impressionable years to grasp the concepts of self-respect and kindness toward others, including adults and society as a whole.

Dave Dixon may understand that more than most parents, having been around this age group for so long. He gives sagely advice to the parents on “Back to School” night by emphasizing the influence parents have in the choice of their children’s friends. “I tell them, ‘Encourage your children to choose friends who value succeeding and learning. They will be better off if they make friends with others who value their family relationships.’”

Thurston’s principal, Jenny Salberg, has been witness to the many accomplishments of this fine teacher. “Dave Dixon is able to teach the love of language, appreciation of culture, and provide an outstanding example for students to be global citizens,” she said. “He teaches by example the dignity of humanity, and he’s an inspiration to us all.”

A date with destiny

Dixon started teaching 40 years ago, when he was a proper Southern gentleman in Virginia and North Carolina. He departed briefly for six years to become a flight attendant in order to satisfy some of his wanderlust. That was when he fell in love with California. A two-week airline training session was unexpectedly postponed and Dixon found himself grounded in Santa Monica for the duration.

When he felt the tug on his heartstrings at the return of school buses in autumn, he knew it was time to get back into teaching. He signed on to teach in Manhattan Beach before joining Thurston in 1989. 

He’s always been a talented Spanish teacher, but along the way he learned German, a little Japanese and French, and continues the herculean task of conquering Mandarin Chinese.

“Now I look like I got off the Ark,” he jokes. Then, as now, his enthusiasm knows no bounds. 

He started the “Language Wheel” program, where students immersed in Spanish, French, German, and Japanese for six-week sessions each, including language instruction, cultural investigation, and Dixon’s famous field trips. 

“I loved going to Olvera Street,” former student Erik Henrikson said. “I loved Medieval Times!” Nick Henrikson said. Those two favorite trips are still part of the program today, even though the wheel has been changed.

For the last several years, Dixon’s “other half” has been Randi Beckley. Beckley teaches French and Linguistics, while Dixon teaches Mandarin and Spanish. Every nine weeks they switch kids over to each other’s class. Beckley expressed what so many colleagues feel about Dave Dixon’s retirement, “I’m just so sad for me, and for the kids. But I’m also happy for him.” 

This week he was presented the “Key to Thurston” in honor of his stewardship and tenure at the school.

It’s been a fun ride for 25 years and the future looks bright too

Why leave? You’d never know it by his boyish looks, but Dixon is practically ancient! Kidding. “I am!” he insists. “I’m probably the oldest in the district.” At 63, that seems unlikely, but it’s the timing that’s right for Dixon to begin a new chapter.

Chapter two

“I still have the energy, and I want to do something different, and enjoyable,” he says. “My retired friends who are the happiest are the ones who re-invent themselves.” He’s following their cue, and putting a plan in place that ties together all the things he has enjoyed in his career: language, culture, learning, and travel.

Next up – back to being a student. He’ll be attending the International Guide Academy this summer, hoping to launch his own tourism travel service in the next year. His focus is on international travel, most likely to start with a guided tour to Spain, and also travelling by train as a specialty. “I like helping people have fun outside of their every day life,” he said.

This man has been an unbelievably patient, considerate, and devoted educator with a footprint huge in the sands of Laguna Beach. Filling them again will definitely require different zapatos because Dave Dixon is one of a kind.


Jane Hanauer:

Laguna’s reigning queen of “The Ripple Effect

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It’s interesting how one small event can create a ripple that affects hundreds, even thousands of lives. In many cases, when that event happens in your own life, you don’t ever recognize its significance.

Jane Hanauer, the owner of Laguna Beach Books, probably doesn’t.

Years ago, when she accepted a lunch date with a friend who lived in Laguna Beach, it created a chained series of events that have, quite frankly, led to the complete revitalization of a 4-block commercial district now nicknamed The H.I.P. District. And, at the hub of the District’s many successful commercial spokes is Laguna Beach Books – a significant ripple all its own. 

Now, if you were to present this “ripple” theory to Jane, she would gracefully chortle and flap a dismissive hand at you. She and her husband, Joe, would never take credit or expect accolades for such a gargantuan achievement in these few short years; the couple is as Midwest friendly and unpresuming as they come. 

The fact, though, remains: It all started with lunch. 

Here’s how it all went down:

The Ripple began in Three Arch Bay

After selling his Chicago-based real estate business to Coldwell Banker in 1983, Joe Hanauer took on CEO responsibilities, which brought him to Newport Beach’s Coldwell Banker headquarters. In 1986, with most of their brood tucked away in college, the couple moved to Newport with their youngest daughter, Elizabeth.

Shortly thereafter, Jane was invited to Laguna’s Three Arch Bay for lunch. She was so enamored with the lovely neighborhood that she was quick to introduce Joe to Laguna Beach, and they both fell in love with the town. 

“Newport Beach was fine, but Laguna Beach is a real town,” says Jane. “We’d spend our weekends walking everywhere and we loved it – it had this warm, village feel that we knew we wanted to be a part of.”  

In short order, they gave up their rental digs in Newport and purchased a home in Three Arch Bay.

Ripple #2

After enjoying more than a decade in their new “village,” another ripple occurred: In 2002, the old Pottery Shack property went on the market. 

In no time at all, the couple’s dinner conversations began to mull the potential of the property, and they wandered over (more than a few times) to ramble the iconic grounds. 

“At the core of this property was this little adobe cottage, maybe built around 1910 or 1920, that had been absorbed by the commercial activity around it,” says Jane. “We were looking at all sorts of ways to save it before we even purchased the property, and that was the telltale sign – we were really interested.”

Although the Pottery Shack property was not a registered historical landmark, the Hanauers worked tirelessly to save and maintain as much of the historic building as possible, even restoring the Shack’s front façade as they voluntarily dug underground to create a parking structure for expected shoppers. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Yep. The forest animals on top of the existing building had to be saved, too. “We never figured out why they were there in the first place, but Joe had them all restored and put back exactly as we’d found them. Some day we’ll get to the bottom of that mystery,” says Jane. 

Ripple #3: A step away from indie extinction

As the couple discussed commercial possibilities for the new Pottery Place, Jane told her husband that she was ready to start a bookstore. “When we were beginning to build in 2003, the independent bookstores were struggling to stay alive,” says Jane. 

“Bookstores are so important. I think we all have a responsibility to keep them from disappearing; they are a necessary footprint in our lives. Now, I can’t really go around telling people this if I don’t do something about it myself … so Laguna Beach Books was born.”

Having not been in bookstore retail before, Jane approached the project with the same “structured development” theme that she applies to her various board positions around town. Most of the time it worked. Some of the time it didn’t, which causes Jane and Manager Lisa Childers to crack up as they share some of their “learning experiences.”

“For the initial opening, we had a book buyer who convinced us that we needed to buy 7,000 calendars,” says Jane. “So, we’re thinking, ‘What’s a few calendars? They’re flat; they don’t take up much room’ … and then hundreds of boxes began to arrive, stuffed with calendars. There were so many of them, we couldn’t even walk through the store. And then … we missed the date to return them all. So … sometimes structured development can take a bit of a detour.”

When Laguna Beach Books opened in 2006, only 1,500 independent bookstores remained in the entire country. Shortly after the store’s opening, Laguna Beach’s other bookstore, Latitude 33, closed its doors. 

Jane remained undaunted. “When we heard bad news, we just made ourselves get busier.”

A local store with its own international Ripple Effect

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Today, with 7,000 book titles and a special order system that usually sees books arrive for customers within 48 hours, the little indie certainly equals large chain bookstores in the area.

Jane was quick to set up thriving relationships with the large resorts in town, and the store rolled out an assertive series of author signing events that has since mushroomed into nearly 150 events a year. The store also introduced a now-thriving monthly Book Club, and has recently instigated poetry-reading events for local poets. 

“We’re exploring ways to get more involved with young adult readers,” says Jane. “That reading market is tremendous and definitely on the rise, and that’s the kind of statistic I love to see. 

“We just need to find a way to sync with their schedules and support them in an engaging way,” she continues. 

Right energy creates exponential right energy

As Laguna Beach Books has thrived, so have its counterparts at the Pottery Place, from the lovely “anchor” of Sapphire Restaurant to various offerings of chocolates, home décor, food pantry and deli items, clothing and more.

More significant, however, is how the revitalization of the Pottery Place further revitalized business and traffic flow in a much larger, expansive circle. On any day of the week, the bustle is in play to the north with the three-story edifice housing The Heidelberg Café, Gina’s Pizza and numerous other restaurants and salons … to the Place’s southern retail neighbors and Ruben Flores’ Laguna Nursery a block further down … and even across the street where Casa del Camino’s Chris Keller joined forces with the Hanauers to further brand the H.I.P. District’s hipness. 

“You bring the right people in with the right kind of energy and positive aspiration and you’ll see other people with the same energy flock to be around them,” says Flores. “This is what Joe and Jane Hanauer are responsible for. 

“The moment you meet them, you know that they are the kind of people you want to do business next to! Their energy and positive enthusiasm is absolutely rallying”

Ripples #4-6

True “villagers” in every sense of the word, Joe and Jane have stepped into board roles for a number of non-profit interests in and around Laguna Beach, too. 

In the 1950s, Jane’s mother trod across every line imaginable to take her place as a leader in Planned Parenthood. In a nod of respect to her mom and the enduring organization, Jane is now in her third term as a board member for the Orange & San Bernardino Planned Parenthood organization.

In 2006, she also joined the Friendship Shelter’s board, and has recently finished serving two consecutive terms there. Then, in 2011, Jane stepped into a board position at the Laguna Art Museum, and is happily enthusiastic about supporting its many new developments.   

“My Mother used to quote someone who said, ‘You’re always entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.’ So many times, people interpret change and development around them into their own set of facts, and those facts may not necessarily be correct or conducive to creating the best win-win for everyone,” she says.

“That’s why I get involved in these organizations. When you can help innovate positive change and disseminate the facts about these changes in a way that everyone can understand, you’re making a real difference.

“Really, it all comes down to making a difference in people’s lives,” she continues. “Take, for example, the Friendship Shelter. It may be a small organization, but if they can make a difference in even 100 people’s lives, that’s really something.”

Indeed, Jane Hanauer. What you’ve done is really something. 

(Hey, thanks for accepting that lunch date.) 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the popular book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best


Holly Morrell has a truly heart-warming tale to tell

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Holly Morrell has a loving and compassionate heart. But it’s defective.

In all the good ways a heart can work; in caring for others, by giving back to the community, and enriching the world with her healthy spirit, Holly’s on top of the world. But in all the bad ways a heart can be broken, literally, that’s in her chest too.

Before she was born, people considered it a shame that her father’s mother had died so young. Even when her father’s sister died at the age of three, it was just one of those tragic things that happen. Thirty years ago the medical world considered cardiac arrest as a relationship to lifestyle, activity, or medication. 

But when Holly’s father, Chuck Morrell, was 57 years old he required a heart transplant, and then two of Chuck’s twin brother’s children died. One survived a full cardiac arrest at the age of 14. 

Finally, cardiologists at the National Institute of Health identified the genetic component doing its dirty work.

The Morrrell’s have suffered the loss of six of their 11 family members due to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). Today, two live with devices implanted in their chests to prevent sudden cardiac arrest, and one received a heart transplant in 2010, as Holly’s father did in 1995.

Holly Morrell, champion of the heart

Holly was diagnosed with the condition herself in 2002. She endures and lives to fight on, after multiple surgeries to correct her implanted heart devices, and a full open-heart surgery two years ago.

Caring for others

“When my cousins died, it had a major impact on me,” Holly said. “I still had not been diagnosed, but I knew I wanted to start a screening program in memory of my loved ones lost, and save young people. More often than not, this is a preventable tragedy.”

Holly set out to learn more about early detection of heart problems. Genetic abnormalities of the heart are rare, but there are many other types of abnormalities as well that can be detected before an unthinkable tragedy strikes. 

“Even seemingly normal, healthy young people – athletes – die from sudden cardiac arrest every three days,” is one of the sobering statistics that Holly is trying to defy. The youngest person she has identified with a heart defect so far was a 9 year-old, and the oldest is a 60 year-old. It can happen to anyone.

Fifteen years ago she begged and borrowed the necessary mobile equipment and set out to perform screenings at high school athletic physicals. The Heartfelt Cardiac Projects started with little more than Holly’s compassion and determined spirit. Heartfelt screenings are her raison d’etre.

Giving back

“I didn’t choose this. This chose me,” Holly says, “Maybe it’s the reason I’ve survived. I feel incredibly blessed, even privileged to find my purpose in life.” 

Putting aside the grief her family has endured, Holly accentuates the positive. “I’m serving my mission, and it is unbelievably rewarding to know that you’ve saved a life.”

To date, Heartfelt Cardiac Projects have performed more than 30,000 screenings. About 10% of all screenings find some anomaly, and 2% are potentially life-threatening. And every life matters.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Holly (right) with some of the kids whose hearts were saved

 thanks to Heartfelt screenings (left to right): Zack Berens, Ryan O’Hare, 

Cheyne Jernigan, and Dillon Gustafson

Enriching the world

One of the hardest things for non-profits and the big-hearted people who drive that engine of passion, is that there’s a business side required to make all the wheels move forward.

Heartfelt Cardiac Projects require screeners, all of whom have been volunteers so far, and expensive mobile equipment able to travel to the school sites they serve all over Southern California. To take this community-based service into the future, Heartfelt Projects would like some heartfelt partners. 

Donations are hugely important, as this small operation handles massive amounts of data, and utilizes precise equipment. A top of the line mobile screening machine, for example, runs in the vicinity of $80,000. “I’m not a fundraiser,” Holly says. “I was naïve and wanted to save lives and spare grief for others. Now I’m realizing I need help for growth.” To keep the non-profit screenings going forward, she has started a GoFundMe campaign with a modest fundraising goal of $25,000. 

She jokes, “I’m holding myself hostage! Send $1,000 ransom!”

In all seriousness, Holly hopes to raise enough money to buy a new portable echo-cardiogram. The Stu News Laguna community is invited to donate in any amount: http://www.gofundme.com/HeartfeltCardiacProjects

Strong-willed as she is, Holly could use extra hands on deck. One day she envisions having actual paid help. “I have great volunteers,” she said. “But I really need to be able to pay people to help me. I can’t do it alone.”

Heartfelt Cardiac Projects will be screening more than 1,000 students in the next couple of months including many at Laguna Beach High School.

The Laguna Beach School District through the Athletic Boosters will be making Heartfelt screenings available during the next athletics’ physicals on June 3 and 4. The screenings are $85. The same tests normally cost as much as $1500 and are usually not covered by insurance.

Journey to the top of the world

“I believe my life was spared in order for me to continue my life’s work,” said Holly. “Often the gift of purpose is found through great adversity.”

Holly has time on her side now, but she also knows that every minute is precious.

Sudden cardiac death occurs every 90 seconds in the U.S. That is an ironic fact for Holly as she notes that is the exact time she was given to live when her heart failed two years ago.

The surgeon who performed the open-heart surgery that saved her life appreciated the full impact of those 90 seconds. The problem area of Holly’s heart resided under her left collarbone, a difficult area to find and repair. “He told me months after the surgery that it had been a touch and go situation,” she said. “He really didn’t know if I’d make it. My blood pressure was plummeting, and I was bleeding out. He had 90 seconds to fix my heart. That’s all that separated me from life and death.”

Holly only remembers waking up briefly after the surgery. “He kissed me on my forehead, and said, ‘I’m glad you made it’.”

These days Holly is good as gold. She checks in with the doctor every three months, and does home monitoring where the device in her heart actually sends a signal through a system to the doctor’s phone. 

“Even though I tried to put on a brave face I truly had a hard time imagining any quality of life ever again. I was wrong!” she says. “I am beyond grateful. My life is both a miracle and a blessing and I wish to cherish every 90 seconds of it!”

She’s not sure the doctor would approve, but she’s feeling good enough to get back into tennis, and her former partners are thrilled. And her beautiful dog, Sophie, is happy to get back to long walks together.

Sophie loves a nice walk once again with her pal Holly

There is no reason to doubt this optimist and activist. Last year alone she saved eight people’s lives with early detection. Her Heartfelt project has detected thousands of young people with heart defects, and provides the service at an affordable price - a fraction of the cost it would be in hospital, and the outpouring of love and gratitude from the families of loved-ones she has helped to save is palpable. 

May Heartfelt Cardiac Projects grow and flourish just as Holly Morrell’s heart does.

Anyone, of any age, can schedule a screening at the website: www.heartfeltcardiacprojects.org


Nick Henrikson:

A Tale of Travel from the Dark to the Light

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Nick Henrikson spies me from across the street and grins, waving grandly. He has only met me once before. 

I watch him make his way across the street, and he stops briefly to chat with random people he knows. Even as he makes his way to my table here at Zinc, two women see him from the sidewalk and stop to say “hello” to Nick. He introduces me with something close to a reverential bow, and tells the women that he’s being interviewed. They are delighted, and assure me there’s no one better. 

In my 30 years of interviewing rock stars, celebrities and global entrepreneurs, I’ve not met anyone so immediately endearing. My best friend, Lisa, told me months ago that I should interview the iconic Nick Henrikson of Ralph’s grocery store fame and, while I never question her judgment, I wondered a little bit about the recommendation until now, this moment. Now, it’s all clear. 

Nick Henrikson, a 22-year-old Laguna Beach resident, is sunny. He is simply sunny and bright. I feel bathed in a glow as I sit across from him, and it is his person, his persona, that creates this immediate warmth. 

He has traveled a long way to reach this warmth himself. With help from his parents and a set of talented and committed educators in Laguna Beach, Nick found his way from the dark to the light. And now, everything is sunny. 

Nick’s First Three Years: Not a Sound

It’s hard to believe that Nick never smiled as a baby, or even uttered a sound until the age of three. While he never presented overt symptoms of autism such as “stemming” (repetitive patterns such as rocking or spinning), head-banging or dissociative behavioral issues, his mom, Maggi, felt something was amiss and enrolled him in special education and speech evaluation as a preschooler.

As he learned sign language and communicative gestures, it wasn’t until his baby brother, Erik, came along that Nick connected the communication dots. He would lie next to and even on top of Erik to try to get sounds out of his baby brother; he was fascinated and completely focused on the research project. When Erik was about 18 months old, and Nick was 4 years of age, they spoke – for the very first time – together. Nick’s vocabulary went from one word to more than 30 in just a few days’ time. It’s as if his brother showed him the way … and, then, Nick was off and gabbling. 

From that point forward, Nick never stopped talking. An enormous dam had simply crumbled and, just as he intuitively emulated his brother’s first attempts at communication, Nick began to emulate the peers around him. He leapfrogged forward in educative and social skills, wrapped in the protective and encouraging arms of the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

For Nick, It’s All in the Details … Every Detail

“I have high-functioning autism,” Nick tells me. “It makes it hard to learn, and it was hard to listen to teachers, but I remember facts really well, so that probably has helped get me through.”

That’s a serious understatement. When Nick was at Thurston Middle School, he worked one period every day in the front office and knew where every single kid was at that time. Harried parents would come in with a forgotten lunch, and Nick would say, “He’s in Room 212!” 

Still to this day, he can easily recite every friend and neighbor’s license plate. He began playing tennis at the age of 7, and did very well in the high school’s tennis team because he “watched Rafael Nadal a lot” because Rafa was his favorite. He also ran up records in cross-country, participating on the team the entire four years he was in high school.

Nick has worked at Laguna’s Ralphs on Cleo Street since the age of 16. He came on board as a bagger, and then began to help with inventory. Now, seven years later, Nick knows where every item is shelved in the store, and knows the price code for any item the store stocks. 

A few years ago, he was promoted to the check stand because he’s so incredibly fast with check out. He knows the product code before it’s even scanned against the laser-infused glass, often pausing briefly to correct the system if a code number is askew. 

“I like it when people ask me where things are, because I can tell them what shelf it’s on,” says Nick. “But most of the time, they just ask me where the bathrooms are.” 

“I’ve worked with Nick about five years, and he’s just got a gift at putting a smile on people’s faces,” says Kevin Tate. “You may walk in feeling a little bristly but, before you know it, you’re feeling warm and cozy because Nick’s done something or said something to make your day right.”

A Big Step Toward Independence: The Glennwood House

Over the seven years at Ralphs, Nick has gotten to know a vast amount of Laguna Beach residents, and remembers each by name. 

Through his childhood, Nick struggled with shying away from people and making eye contact, both traits found in people with autism. Today, as long as he knows you and likes you, he’s happy to give you a hug. He also works consciously to maintain eye contact with people he meets – again, this is an easier task for him when it’s someone in his known circle, and it’s always easier when they’re the first to reach out and engage with Nick. In that nanosecond, he brightens noticeably and a happy smile flits across his features. 

“I love to travel, but right now, I really like Laguna and the people here, so I’m going to stay in Laguna,” he says matter-of-factly. 

Last year in August, Nick took yet another huge step for himself by moving to his own place in the Glennwood House at 2130 S. Coast Highway. “Glennwood is for young adults with developmental disabilities who want to have more independence,” says Nick, again in a scholarly tone. “I thought I’d be different than most of the kids there, but I have a few friends now, and I love that I can come and go, just as long as I let them know where I’m going.” 

He says the step was a big one, “Even though my parents live right up the hill,” he admits. “It’s way different living on your own. At first, I thought about having a roommate, but sometimes I’m working late, and I didn’t want to bother someone or, you know, worry about bothering someone. So, I have my own cool pad to myself.”

Fortunately the meals are “fantastic,” thanks to resident cook Shelia, and Nick does his best to hit all three offerings in the day. “I wish dinner was a little later, but I know that if I ask to bend it for me, they have to bend it for everyone.”

Life is a Highway …

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.” 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

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.

Click on photo for a larger image

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.”

Click on photo for larger image

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. 

Click on photo for a larger image

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.)

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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?”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

The Webmaster is Michael Sterling.

Katie Ford is our in-house ad designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Cameron Gillepsie  Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, 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.

Email: Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com for questions about advertising

949.315.0259

Email: Lynette@StuNewsLaguna.com with news releases, letters, etc

949.715.1736