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Nadia Babayi is planning for our “older and wiser”

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Nadia Babayi had a moment of epiphany that lingered in her mind. Maybe she could turn the joy she found in volunteer work into a full-time career. Maybe there really was a way to work with passion. Since she’s the kind of person who accomplishes her goals, she went for it – packing up 23 years worth of her professional life as an engineer, and returning to school to start anew. 

At UCI Nadia pursued a certification program to begin the next chapter in her life’s story, specializing in non-profit management. 

“I always loved fundraising and working with people,” she says. “And here at the Susi Q we run a non-profit and a center too. It’s like a double reward for me!”

Laguna Beach Seniors, at the Susi Q, is where Nadia has found not only her profession but also her heart and soul.

Nadia Babayi

“I fell in love with the center the first time I came here,” she said. “It’s so gorgeous and welcoming. And I love talking to wise and knowledgible seniors.”

The term, “seniors” covers a huge number of people with different interests. The Laguna Beach Seniors Susi Q members range in age from 55 to quite a few in their 90’s. Nadia’s challenge and great reward as its Executive Director is finding opportunities to engage every age group. She has seen their membership grow to more than 400, and she’s helped to create 13 clubs both for fun and learning. 

“I’d like to have more!” she says enthusiastically. 

Starting Out

The last time she was with her family in Iran, Nadia remembers being at the airport as the Ayatollah was sending jets out against the Kurdish population. It was 1979, Khomeni had just taken over, and the future was not looking good for a bright, young, modern woman. Her mother said to her, “Don’t come back.” 

 “I had a five hour delay for my flight out,” she said. “I was lucky to be on the last plane taking off.”

She studied in the US to become an engineer. Once she had her career mapped out, and her legal citizenship in hand, Nadia was able to bring her mother to live here. Her sister, Nahid, lives nearby as well. Husband, Frank, and their son Kian round out Nadia’s family network. 

It was Nadia’s mom who introduced to her the world of a senior center. Mom didn’t live in Irvine, but she would regularly go to the Lakeview Senior Center there, because she loved their Persian club. She got Nadia to go, and Nadia was impressed with everything about it. 

“I could see the senior center making a big difference in people’s lives,” she said. She started volunteering there and, ultimately, became involved with the Persian Cultural Council, which she helped to turn into its own non-profit organization.

A Center for the Ages

Here are some of Nadia’s favorite numbers: 

40 – That’s how long Laguna Beach Seniors has been going strong, and serving the community. 

72 – That’s the average age at the Susi Q. 

75 – That’s the percentage that program attendance has increased by, in just the last two years. 

2014 – That’s when Laguna Beach Seniors at the Susi Q received the Spirit of Laguna’s Non-Profit of the Year Award.

The Spirit of Laguna’s Non-Profit of the Year Award

It’s life affirming and heart warming just to know that the senior center is there for you, as every single one of us marches down the road gaining a few wrinkles here and there, and perhaps thinking about what will happen next. The idea is to have a home away from home, where there are helpful resources and activities for the aging years.

“There’s a really big growth in our senior population,” Nadia says. “People are taking care of themselves, and living longer.” In fact, 37% of Laguna Beach’s population is more than 55 years old, and there are more than 3,000 households in Laguna Beach with residents aged 65-plus.

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Laguna Beach Community and Susi Q Senior Center 

A very important feature of the Susi Q is one that sets them apart from every other senior center in Orange County; they provide free one-on-one professional counseling for depression.

Case in point is Norman Powell, who Nadia tells us responded to their program called “Are You Feeling the Blues?” … “Well, yes I am,” he said. 

Norman is at a certain age when most of his friends have passed away. Then his wife died, and he was terribly lonely. He read about the program at the Susi Q and gave them a call. Able to avail himself of the counseling and activities at the center, he started developing a new social life. He now feels like it’s his second home, and has even included the Susi Q in his will.

“He enjoys his social life,” said Nadia. “The outcomes of this program are very measurable.”

Inclusive, Diverse, Creative and Fun!

The stated values at the senior center read like the oath for a kindness club:

We help one another meet the challenges of time. We define ourselves and defy stereotypes. We embrace our diversity. We are collaborative and respectful. We give back to our community. We advocate for a hometown where can live for the rest of our lives.” Part of the success of the senior programs is because they echo the spirit that is inherent in Laguna. “We will make the Susi Q an essential resource for ‘boomers and beyond’ and Laguna Beach the best possible place to age gracefully, meet the challenges of time, and live it up for the rest of our lives.”

And they are living it up in the club meeting rooms every day. There’s the super popular ukulele class, which has created quite a few ukulele fanatics. Did you see them march in the Patriot’s Day Parade, with Uncle Sam leading the way? And there’s a big, competitive group at the ping pong tables, beefing up for their tournament in August. But the biggest club is the LGBT.

“I wanted to bring them together, and thank them for all they do in this community,” said Nadia. “They have so much fun, they bring in food, and movies… The Christmas party had about sixty people.”

The Susi Q art gallery, known as Gallery Q, puts on five exhibits a year, and Nadia assures us that their receptions are the best. “We give good food,” she laughs. “And good wine!”

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Nadia Babayi, Christine Brewer, and Andrea Heavican of Laguna Beach Seniors, proud of 40 years successfully serving the community

Forever and ever

When Nadia Babayi is not at her home-away-from-home Susi Q, she might be seen hiking the trails around El Morro, or sailing in Newport bay, or playing volleyball, or camping. She’s always on the go! But her mind is mostly on the goings on with Laguna Beach Seniors. 

She has just completed a three-year strategic plan which includes care resources management and life counseling services, more clubs and classes, and something they’ve called “Lifelong Laguna”; like a Susi Q without walls, so that they can reach out to help seniors in their homes, with whatever resources they need.

“With Lifelong Laguna, we are joining a global ‘aging in place’ movement,” she says. “And we are deepening our commitment to those who have made Laguna Beach the town we love and never want to leave.”

The goal is to be able to live at home, not in a “facility”, and be an active part of the social community.

Nadia Babayi is helping Laguna be the hometown we always wanted – forever.


Marshall Ininns: Creating homes in Laguna

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Marshall Ininns has been an architect in Laguna Beach for 23 years.  He is also President of the Friendship Shelter Board of Directors.  In a way, this makes perfect sense.  Who knows better the importance people place on homes than a person responsible for designing them?  However, when asked why he is so passionate about ending homelessness in Laguna, Ininns’ answer is much simpler than that: “…but for the grace of God, go I, you know?  Looking back there were times in my life when I could have been there.”  

So, now, Ininns works two sides of a very different coin: helping people create their dream homes while working to make sure those with no home can find shelter.  

Building consensus is key

According to Ininns, being an architect is “…one third architect, one third lawyer and one third family counselor.”   He went to school for the first one.  The other two skills have certainly been honed through years of experience.  It’s not hard to imagine that getting a couple to agree on a particular design element could, at times, require a very high level of skill in consensus building.   This ability to wear different hats and listen to different perspectives is undoubtedly helpful in his role as President of the Friendship Shelter.  

“It has been an education,” he says of his tenure as president. “I have a tendency to want to just push things through, but in my role at the Friendship Shelter I try to let everyone speak and build consensus.  It seems to work better that way.”  

Marshall Ininns, owner of Marshall Ininns Design Group and President of the Board of Directors of Friendship Shelter

If you have a home then you’re not homeless

Ininns, though extremely personable when we met, was reluctant to do so.   “I don’t really like to talk about what I do, I just like to do it,” he explains.  And what his role for the Friendship Shelter requires him to do is, according to Ininns: “…to have the Friendship Shelter agenda promote discussion for the board members to come to a consensus as to the best way to make the Friendship Shelter successful.”  

A big part of the organization’s self-defined version of success is getting a permanent housing facility built for Laguna’s local homeless population.  “If we build it then 40 people wouldn’t be homeless anymore,” he says matter-of-factly.  And the building of that permanent facility is still a big “if” since agreement has not been reached among stakeholders on the proposed Laguna Canyon location. “There are a lot of things going on,” says Ininns about the permanent facility.  “It has been interesting.”   

Success in San Clemente

So while the permanent location has been in the works for four and a half years, the Friendship Shelter received $3.4 million to do a permanent housing facility in San Clemente.  The Friendship Shelter remodeled two 4-plex apartment buildings.  It will house disabled people in their late teens. Ininns also says the Friendship Shelter houses 18 people throughout different sites in the county.  

“After a year we have only had one person evicted,” he says with satisfaction.  

The cost of personal convictions

Ininns’ commitment to the Friendship Shelter has not been without professional cost.  People feel strongly about what to do with the homeless population, in general, and the canyon facility, in particular.  “I believe if you’re doing something that’s right you should do it.  If a client says, ‘I don’t want to work with you because you work with the homeless,’ then maybe I don’t want to work with them,” says Ininns.  

One gets the feeling this conversation is not simply rhetorical. On the flip side, however, other clients have been extremely supportive.  “Ivan Spiers (owner of Mozambique), Sam Goldstein, (owner of the Heisler Building), and Chris Keller (owner of The Marine Room, Ky’a, etc.) have all been big supporters of the Friendship Shelter,” says Ininns.

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Friendship Shelter, on S. Coast Highway in Laguna Beach

A family of architects

Whether clients (or potential clients) are supportive of the Friendship Shelter or not, Ininns’ commitment is unwavering.  Another area that has his unwavering commitment is Ininns’ family.  His two sons are following in their father’s footsteps as architects.  It is quite clear that despite Ininns’ understated manner, he is very proud of them.  One is working in Sweden as an architect.  “He applied for a visa, went to Sweden with no job, no house.  He found a job and a great house and is loving it!’ says Ininns.  His younger son is soon to graduate from college with a degree in architecture.  “I get a pay raise when my kid graduates from college,” says Ininns with a smile.

His sons, though in the same profession, have learned their trade much differently than Ininns did. “The computer changed everything.  I haven’t used my drafting table in years,” he says.  But Ininns adapted to the times.  “The computer has made communicating with clients a lot easier.  Revisions are easier.  But the art of doing it by hand has been lost.  I still have a box of 200 markers and 1000 pens,” he says without lament. 

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Marshall Ininns, architect, in his office in downtown Laguna Beach

Dinners Across Laguna

Ininns is also not lamenting the time the Friendship Shelter has worked on developing the permanent shelter in the Canyon.  It’s not his nature.  As with his profession, he simply adapts and keeps working.  

“The Friendship Shelter, as far as value, is excellent. The money isn’t going to administration or marketing.  It’s going to services,” he says.  One of the ways the Friendship Shelter raises money and builds awareness is through their “Dinners Across Laguna”.  Supporters of Friendship Shelter invite their friends to dinner for a fee that is then donated.  “This is how I was introduced to the Friendship Shelter,” explains Ininns.

If interested in hosting a dinner, people can contact the Friendship Shelter at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Laguna will do what’s right

When asked for his “vision of the future” Ininns did not hesitate: “We’d build a building that would house 40 once homeless people in a permanent home and have an alternate sleeping location that would house 30 people.  I feel optimistic because I believe the people of Laguna will do what’s right and take care of the weakest among us.  My long term goal is that we will not have homelessness in the backyard of Laguna.” 

Ininns’ term as president ends in January 2016.  Whether his vision will be realized by then remains to be seen, but it won’t be from lack of trying.


Artist Fitz Maurice is “out there”, heart and soul 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“It frees my soul to be out in nature. In order to do it right, you’ve got to head out,” says Fitz Maurice.  “Why wait for the mountain to come to you? Go to the mountain!”

I talked with the artist in her Laguna Canyon gallery, surrounded by impressions of forests, mountains, lakes and streams. Maurice’s art is a creation comprised of one part soul, one part passion, her God given talents along with classical training, and a whole lott’a inspiration from nature. 

“Don’t Fence Me In” ought to be her theme song.

Fitz Maurice

The works hanging on the studio walls these days represent the beginnings of her most recent and heartfelt endeavor: to paint live at all of America’s National Parks. 

“My soul as an artist gravitates toward pure nature.” 

This artist’s technique involves layering “veils” of color-saturated pigment on linen canvas, all painted in a natural setting. Her paintings require weeks and often months to complete. All the materials are archival – meant to last the ages just as the Great Master’s paintings that Maurice is fond of studying. Her images depict scenes from the years she’s spent in Europe, and the hills and valleys all over the US. 

Among the many awards and accomplishments, her “Tree Series” of paintings earned her the Jackson Pollock-Lee Krasner Award. She was also recently selected by Acadia National Park to be artist-in-residence alternate for the year 2016. 

Many of her works are currently exhibited at the Roberto Pellechia studio in the Laguna Design Center. “These are large and major paintings – almost a retrospective,” she says. “It really shows a good spectrum.” 

Maurice has created more than 1,000 paintings, and devotes five days a week to it. She happily admits to going strong, “A thousand so far, and I’m alive and kickin’!” The other two days she takes a break for fun and relaxation. “I play outside!” Of course.

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Maurice’s canyon art gallery

The ambitious mission to paint all the national parks, live, promises to be a long and adventurous journey. There are 59 national parks, and almost 400 under the park service jurisdiction when you include the national memorials and monuments. 

“I’m just really excited because I know how much truth and beauty I’ll encounter,” Maurice says. “These are the things that soothe your soul.”

The checklist in preparation for Fitz’s grand adventure reads like a gypsy tale. First, take your home with you. Check. She’s got the mobile trailer, and a truck to haul it. Next, reduce and simplify your “stuff”, so that you own just what you need. Check. Then go where the road leads you. Check.

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Truck. Check. Ready to get to the national parks!

Well, she will make some priorities on her calendar according to the best the parks have to give, like flower blossom time in Death Valley, or autumn foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She’s gotten as far as selecting the first two she’ll visit: Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah, followed by Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado.

“Then I’ll see what happens,” the gypsy says. “When you climb a mountain, it’s better not to focus on the top!”

Born an artist

Raised in Westchester County, NY, Fitz felt her calling early on. “I’ve known all my life,” she says. “I’m not a painter, I’m an artist. I have an artist’s soul.” 

Knowing who she was and what she wanted has certainly contributed to her success as an artist. Fitz Maurice pursued art in her education, from her BFA through training at major museums and art schools, and on to follow the Old Master’s footsteps in Europe, training at the International School of Art in Umbria, Italy. She paid her way all along as an artist, moved to Laguna Beach, and raised a child here, all with the income of an artist. No small accomplishment.

The inspiration she takes from nature was also bred in her bones. Her family introduced her to the national parks and the joys of camping out, from as long ago as she can remember. She passed that passion on to her son, Dylan, and even to her nieces, nephews and friends. 

“It doesn’t cost a lot… you have treasured memories, and it’s a blast!” she says. Her challenge to American families now is to get out and enjoy the national parks. “It’s every American’s birthright. Get your hands dirty! Get outside!”

She hopes to turn the next generation on to the wonders of our national parks, and to preserving the environment. 

“When you’re immersed in nature you lose interest in ‘things’. I no longer care about materialism. It’s freedom when you have passion, and put on your play clothes. You turn into a kid again.”  

The Spirit

Maurice found her way to a more spiritual life about ten years ago, by living alone in the middle of nowhere. 

“I lived in the Zuni Mountains for years,” she said. “All alone for four seasons – no cell phone, no TV, no computer… I learned to listen to God. The greatest gift he’s given us is nature. I listened to the birds, learned about the migrations of the seasons, the phases of the moon… I was painting, painting, painting, reading and studying the ebb and flow of nature. 

“It’s a spiritual journey to set your mind free and let your spirit have peace.”

The future is weighing more heavily on Fitz Maurice’s mind, as she considers the preservation of open spaces, particularly lakes and rivers. 

“Water – that’s what the next world war is going to be about,” she says. “Water is a priceless, irreplaceable necessity. People have got to take it personally.”

She has seen lakebeds reduced by half and giant trees left above the former water line simply fall down. 

“The planet running out of water starts in your family… it starts with you. Don’t let the shower run. Get in!”

These are the kinds of issues that Maurice will blog about during her national parks painting adventure. She’ll be sending Stu News updates about her experiences along the road too. She’s very excited to have gotten the website: nationalparkpaintings.com

What she hopes to accomplish with her national parks series is a growing concern for their conservation, and a growing appreciation for their beauty. Plus it’s fun.

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“I want to show the essence and wonders that are unique to each park,” she says. 

And she wants others to follow along. “I want every family to get out there! Learn how to use a compass… learn how to find water. These are the things that are important. It’s about building a generation that’s going to appreciate this heritage we have.”

“As far as I know, I’m the only one who has set out to paint all the parks,” she continued. “But when Fitz says she’s going to do something, she does it! No doubt about it!”


Diane Armitage: Sharing all the Best of Laguna

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“When you have vision and commitment, a path unfolds.” So says Diane Armitage, author of “The Best of Laguna Beach: The best places to dine, drink and play”. Upon meeting Armitage it becomes apparent very quickly that she has an abundance of both.

Her “path” looks more like a bustling highway of projects, but these day she’s motoring full steam towards her book launch, a complete update on her 2013 Laguna Beach’s Best

Expanded from 170 to 380 pages, Armitage lists her favorites of just about everything Laguna has to offer: Best margaritas? Check. Best breakfast burritos? Check. Best of what to do, when? Check. But her favorite of favorites is highlighting “the culinary mecca”, as she calls it, of Laguna Beach.  

To say Armitage is passionate about the artistry and commitment of some of our local chefs is an understatement. “It’s an insane job. It’s a marriage to their craft. They never stop!” Armitage is talking about the chefs she has gotten to know and admire, but she could just as easily be describing herself and her commitment to finding the best of Laguna.

Photo by Mike Altishin

Diane Armitage and her “Best of Laguna” culinary greats: 

Many chefs and GMs of Laguna Beach join Armitage (center) 

for a “best of” celebration 

(First row from left, Lindsay Smith-Rosales of Nirvana Grille, Michael and Christine Avila of Avila›s El Ranchito, Jim Tolbert and Kurt Bjorkman of The Ranch, David Fune of Splashes and Surf & Sand Resort, Neil Skewes of Starfish Asian Cuisine, Camron Woods of The Ranch, George Poulos of Mozambique Steakhouse, Josh Severson of Selanne Steak Tavern, Debra Sims of Maro Wood Grill, Thomas Crijns of Brussels Bistro. Top row from left, John Nye of Driftwood Kitchen and The Deck, Chis Keller and Amy Amaradio of Juice & Shakes, K›ya, Rooftop and Marine Room, Demetri Catsouras of The White House, Armando Ortega of Lumberyard, Jonathan Pflueger of Sourced Cuisine, Cary Redfearn of Lumberyard, John Bodrero of Orange Inn, Maro Molteni of Maro Wood Grill, Rainer Schwarz of Driftwood Kitchen & The Deck) 

Making it happen

In 2000 Armitage took a job in Carlsbad, despite having her own successful marketing agency, Armitage, Inc., in Colorado. “I was early in the whole Internet marketing thing. They signed me to a three-year contract. It was a very corporate structure. After eight months, I said, ‘It’s fixed, new marketing strategy in place, it’s selling and I gotta get back to running my own company.’ So I called Bob Proctor (a client, mentor and friend) and said, ‘I’m done.’ He said, ‘Where do you want to be?’  I said, ‘Italy!’ He recommended I go some place where I knew they had Internet service,” she says laughing. “So I said, ‘I loveLaguna Beach, but it’s too expensive.’ And you just don’t say that kind of stuff to Bob. He told me ‘Drive up there right now and get a PO box. Make it happen.’ So I did. A week and a half later I got a random email about a rental. I moved in three weeks later.” 

And she has enthusiastically called Laguna Beach “home” ever since.

Submitted photo

“The Best of Laguna Beach: The best places to dine, drink and play

Stepping boldly forward

Securing a P.O. Box without first securing a place to live is not the way most people do things. However, for Armitage, her philosophy of “boldly stepping forward” is a textbook case for creating one’s opportunities. Another “bold step” was when Armitage decided to purchase paint, rugs and patio furniture for an apartment that wasn’t going to be available for two years. 

“I told the manager that I wanted to be the first name on the waiting list when that apartment became available. She told me the couple who lived there had just moved in, signed a two-year lease and were extremely happy. I said, ‘That’s great. Put my name on the list.’” 

Armitage went about selecting items for the apartment and putting them in a storage unit. Five months later, the couple moved out, deciding to buy a house in Dana Point. “I just went to my storage unit and unloaded all my stuff I’d bought and moved in. It was hysterical.” Armitage lived there for seven years.

Creating a “spotlight” on Laguna Beach

As Armitage’s marketing agency continued to grow, her niche expanded to include high-end restaurants and resorts. In 2008, she had an epiphany. “I realized as I was running my team all over the world to these amazing resorts, that I lived in an amazing resort. And there was no spotlight on the culinary world in Laguna Beach. That’s when I started my blog, “Laguna Beach’s Best.”  

With Armitage, Inc. clients that include Michelin-star restaurants in Las Vegas, Armitage had developed a true appreciation for the passion and dedication of great chefs. Getting to know the ones closer to home motivated her to create “a spotlight” on them. “Laguna has this crazy personality. Everyone who is here has chosen to be here.  Restaurateurs choose to be here. This is a magical place where they want to create their magic,” she says.  

It all starts with Mom

The blog had one very dedicated reader when it was in its infancy. 

“My only reader was my mother. Just like that book, Julie and Julia,” Armitage says, laughing. “But I kept going at a good pace. I know what to do to get blogs visible, so I kept working at it and the audience grew. Then I got busy and stepped away from it for a few months. When I checked back in someone had posted, ‘This blog sucks! Everything is old!’ So that got me fired up, and I jumped back into it. Now that I think of it, the person who posted that was probably my mother,” says Armitage, with a knowing smile. “She knows how to get me going.”

Now with an audience of 20,000 subscribers, Armitage no longer needs her mother’s motivation. 

Submitted photo

 

Starfish co-owners Archie McConnell (left) and Gretchen Andrews (right) have been regular and generous contributors to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center since the restaurant’s opening party three years ago. They’re working with Diane Armitage now on a third-year anniversary party at Starfish in June.  

Widget-izing a labor of love

With her blog such a success, turning it into a book seemed a natural progression.  “I talked about it for three years,” says Armitage. “I work with businesses all the time on this kind of thing, but I haven’t necessarily applied what I know to myself. The thing I tell them is, ‘We’ve got to widgetize’. Meaning, they need to create a repeatable something.  Well, I needed to create my own widget! The book was it. It was a lot harder than I expected, partly because my best friend, Lisa, said it had to have color photos,” says Armitage with mock exasperation.  

With her first edition a hit, Armitage decided to produce an updated version. “So much has changed. I needed to update it.  Now, just about every entry is in the book,” she says with pride.  

And while she has written about every nook and cranny of Laguna Beach, it all comes back to her interest in the culinary scene. “The chefs I know are so passionate and so amazing,” she says. 

And that is why she works so hard to highlight their work.  Her blog and her book are true labors of love. No one pays her to promote them; if you’re in her book or blog it is because she is truly excited about what you’re doing. This honest enthusiasm has helped her to become a culinary resource. Where it will lead to next remains to be seen, but Armitage isn’t lacking for ideas or people willing to follow her lead. 

Bringing chefs together, literally and figuratively

The day before we met she had organized a photo shoot with 22 local chefs. “A lot of them didn’t know each other.  They don’t collaborate.  Not because they’re competitors – they aren’t. They’re just too busy,” explains Armitage. And if she has her way, they’ll be even busier. Food truck wars, progressive dinners, beer tastings, and, the thing that is near and dear to her heart, a big dinner benefitting the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC). “They don’t know about that one yet,” she says slyly. However, I’m sure she will be able to convince them to support her cause.

She overflows with gratitude when she talks about the PMMC event that local restaurants, The Deck, and Driftwood Kitchen, put on last year. As she recounted their generosity, she literally got tears in her eyes. “It was such an amazing event!  What they did and how they did it…it was fabulous. They inspired other chefs to get involved.”  

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Diane Armitage with Kirsten Sedlick, 

Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s Senior Animal Care Supervisor, and also a previously featured person in Stu News’ Laguna Life & People

Those sea lions eat a lot of fish

Armitage’s friend, Ruben Flores, got her involved in the PMMC. “I don’t even know how I got to be friends with him!” she says about Flores, laughing. “He is the most amazing person.” She began working on the PMMC events and helping them with their visibility. Now, she’s on the Board. 

“I’m drawn to people with passion and commitment,” she says when talking about the people she works with there. “The cost to run that place is insane!” That’s why a portion of the proceeds from her book, Laguna Beach’s Best will go to the PMMC. “The amount of fish that get eaten every day is extraordinary!” she says. “Argh…not more tears,” she says smiling. “I get emotional when I talk about that place.” 

A full plate of clients, books, blogs and, of course, StuNews

However, there is nothing – not even sick sea lions – that ignites Armitage’s passion like exploring her adopted home town, especially the food scene here. She has embraced Laguna as only one who took a risk to live here can. 

While running a 20-person strong marketing agency, writing a blog that requires a lot of research (hey, finding the best margarita might be fun, but it’s still research!), writing and compiling a 380 page book, volunteering for the PMMC, and writing the “Laguna Dining” column for StuNews, she still has enough energy to plan for and dream of “what’s next.” So it’s almost laughable when Armitage comments, “I guess I’m never not busy.” Uh…I guess not! 

Book signing celebration at Laguna Beach Books

Next up is her book signing at Laguna Beach Books on Sunday, April 26 at 4 p.m.,  “I want to have a lot of people there! It’s a celebration of Laguna Beach.” 

Spend five minutes with Diane Armitage and you will see there is so much to celebrate. Whether you’re here for a weekend or you’ve lived here your whole life, Laguna Beach’s Best will undoubtedly inspire you to explore the best of what our town has to offer.  

Of course you can always check in to see what’s the latest on Diane’s plate at her website, www.LagunaBeachBest.com and in Stu News Laguna – for all her best.


The many facets of Molly Zurflueh

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

What a treat to meet Molly Zurflueh and her adorable one-month-old baby, Lana. Two beautiful people at once! While we talked, more than a few passers-by stopped to coo and shower the baby with attention. Who can resist? 

Certainly Molly can’t. For her whole life she wanted to be a mom. Happily, now Lana’s brother, Chase (“almost eight”), mom Molly and her fiancée, Greg Carpenter (“Oh, God, he’s just a wonderful farm boy from Indiana!”), are one big family and enjoying every moment. It is a conscious choice amidst a busy life for this lawyer, who is also El Morro’s Garden Club director, and the Girl’s Night Out event chair for the Boys & Girls Club. 

Somehow all these roles circle around the joy of children and community, and Molly Zurflueh (the eh is silent) accomplishes it all with grace and charm.

Molly Zurflueh

Whee!

Molly considers herself blessed to have arrived in Laguna. Her dad, a Swiss geophysicist, brought his family to California initially. He fell in love with the place, but, alas, his career took the family back east to reside in Washington DC for all of Molly’s growing up years. It was her grandma who immigrated to the US, and set out for the west coast. She convinced Molly to look into law schools in California. Molly, with her zest for life, had already gone part of the way westward, studying at the University of Texas for her undergrad degree. She moved onward to Whittier Law School.  

She loved it. “I was like, wow, why did we ever leave?” 

Life’s too short to spend it anywhere else but here. The rest of her family remains in the DC area, but Molly was cut of a different cloth in many respects. “I was the youngest of four, but the more adventurous,” as she explains it. “I was the one that was, ‘Whee!’”

Molly was able to spend time with her grandmother before she passed away. “I got two great years with her here,” she says fondly. And she brought to California a skill she had grown up with in DC, and sharpened in Texas: a keen interest in politics.

On the Campaign Trail

“That’s my thing,” she says. “I’m fascinated by the statistics, the political news. I like campaigns and strategy …I’d read all day if I could!”

As a college youngster, Molly Zurflueh jumped out of the gate in a fortuitous campaign for governor; she threw her cowboy hat in the ring for George W. Bush. 

“I campaigned for George Bush when he ran for governor. It was my start,” she said. “When I was in school in Texas I met him, and said, ‘I want to get on board’, and he gave me the [contact] card for his people.”

She campaigned for him for president too, and ultimately there was a place for Molly back in DC. 

She took a job with HUD advocating for elderly and disabled housing, and battling their discrimination. This was a rewarding experience, though she was none too thrilled to be back in DC. Things improved after a call from a colleague in the State Department. She was offered the chance to travel as the president’s press advance, where she would organize and plan strategic areas for the press corps. 

“I did G8 Summit work, then a summit in Mexico, and one in Ireland,” she said. She met the president of Japan and Tony Blair, and even got to ride on Air Force One. “They even give you a certificate for that!” 

She was impressed with how President Bush was with the press corps, she tells us. “He was all access. He knew them all by name, and he knew their families.”

But it was active and physical work, and one day Molly seriously twisted an ankle requiring surgery. If she did work in that arena again, she’d rather be on the policymaking end than on the physical running-around-with-the-press side of things.

Number one priority

After law school, Molly found her way to Laguna through a friend who worked for attorneys Tom Davis and Larry Nokes. She was overjoyed to join that office, and work of council. “I loved their personalities,” she says. “They’re real.” 

And there’s not much better than living and working in Laguna. “I thought, how much better could this be?” And then it was better. When she had a child, her priorities shifted.

It’s the quandary of the modern woman; how much can I take on, and what does “having it all” mean? There was a time when Molly thought she could do it all. But with her baby in the equation she found there was just not enough time to be a complete parent while at the office all day. It was a giant leap into the unknown, but every instinct inside her said, “you’ve got to try!” And so she left the law firm, and went home on her own terms.

“I just went home,” she said. “That’s the beauty of working for yourself.”

The at-home office

With a good sense of where her priorities were, she got to spend time with Chase, take him to his karate classes and to school events. 

“It’s almost selfish how much fun I have with him, we have a blast,” she says. “It’s a privilege and a blessing to raise your children.” 

Ultimately, most of Molly’s clients are friends, and they came knocking on her door. Now she has found the sweet spot between handling as much legal work as she can from home, while enjoying Chase, and now Lana.

Digging in the dirt

A big part of the joy in being a parent is becoming more childlike. When the parent sees the world through their child’s eyes, they can join with them in exploring the wonders of the world around them. For Molly, the happiest place to share that wonder is in the garden. 

She’s gone and gotten her hands dirty in the good earth by volunteering at El Morro’s popular garden club. It’s a two-way street of excitement about every little bud and vegetable they help create. “The kids are amazing! We have such a good time together, I really get more out of it than I give,” she says.

It was Molly’s grandma that introduced her to the joys of gardening when she was six years old. She laughs, “I used to pretend I had a gardening show!”

It’s tomato time

This year Molly took the reins as director of the El Morro Garden Club. Together they plant and harvest vegetables, grow a wildflower garden, and learn about butterflies. Next up she has big, exciting plans to start a worm box and that actually gets all the kids jumping for joy. “They’re so grateful,” she tells us. 

Just like they’re doing now at El Morro, Molly reminds us that now is the time to plant tomatoes. 

Girls Night Out

Even when she didn’t have free time, Molly made time to volunteer in the community. Her first stop of choice was at the Boys & Girls Club. 

Helping out at the club is great for the kids, and fun for Molly too. But to help the club into the future, she’s big into fundraising. There are a lot of expenses associated with the hundreds of children nurtured at the club every day, and the events committees are on top of that. 

“They don’t get discouraged about expenses,” Molly says. “They say, ‘it’s just another hurdle’.” Thankfully the club has a number of hurdlers.

There are two events that really boost the Boys & Girls Club coffers: the Gala, in the spring, and “Girls Night Out” in the fall. Molly is the “fun” part in “fundraising” with Girls Night Out, as this year she chaired the event.

“It’s all women, and everyone dresses to the nines for each other. It’s a night to have fun!” she says.

Behind the scenes, many hands make light(er) the work. There are volunteers out soliciting donations from businesses, others coordinating the food and drink, and more wrapping up baskets for the silent auction. The evening includes a DJ, Starfish catered food, cocktail bars, and a live auction. Oh, and jewelry.

It all begins with a walk down the red carpet into the home of Holly and David Wilson. Along the red carpet are models from the jewelry house of Lugano Diamonds, just dripping in gems. Guests are encouraged to drape the jewels on themselves, and drink fancy cocktails, and go deep in their purses for the success of the Boys & Girls Club. It’s for the kids!

“It’s really decadent fun,” Molly assures.

Keeping it real

Molly, Greg, and Lana

Let’s take a pause to admire the beautiful baby Lana. Ooh, I just can’t help but ooh and awww! 

There’s no one who feels more grateful than Molly. “I really wanted another child, and now I have my daughter,” she beams. The future goes from squiggly baby feet to taking giant steps, and life’s lessons along the way. “I want to teach my kids that we are privileged to be here, but that there are people in need,” she said. “You’re lucky – so get out there and help.”

As for Molly’s future, she’s a self-proclaimed “softie for kids and old people”, so it will involve work on their behalf. 

“I feel like I still haven’t done enough,” she said. “I need to make more time to give back more.”

Yes, invent that – more time!


Ben Simon:

Passion for architecture, design and Laguna

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

When Ben Simon was 10 years old, he and his family rented a vacation house in Emerald Bay.  “I remember the house had a triple-decker bed; there was a tunnel to the beach…we went to the Sawdust Festival and The Cottage, and I thought ‘I’m going to live here one day.’”  

At the time, he and his family lived in Washington, DC so this personal mission was by no means a slam-dunk. Nevertheless, true to his 10-year old self, Simon eventually made his way to Laguna Beach where he has become an important voice in residential design.

Ben Simon, of Acme Architecture and Interior Design Group

A childhood interest becomes a career

As a child, Simon says he sketched “impossible” houses, many of them set on the cliffs of Laguna.  With a mother and grandmother who were artists and a father who was trained as an aerospace engineer, architecture was “the perfect blending of right brain and left brain,” explains Simon.  His childhood interest continued and Simon ultimately graduated from the University of Maryland with a BS in Architecture.  Post-graduation, he took a job in Los Angeles with Albert C. Martin and Associates, a large architectural firm that “designs structures like City Hall and the Bank of America building” in downtown Los Angeles. 

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Ben Simon at his home/office. Partner, Linda Morgenlander, lives right next door

Coming to Laguna Beach – for good

A few years of Los Angeles was enough for Simon, so he relocated to Albert C. Martin’s Irvine office. Finally, he was close enough to realize his childhood goal of living in Laguna Beach.  “I was only there (at Albert C. Martin) a couple of years before I went out on my own.  I always wanted to be my own boss…doesn’t everybody?” asks Simon. 

“This was in the ’80’s so I got my real estate license - everybody got their real estate license in the ’80’s.  I worked for Coldwell Banker, with the office on Crescent Bay Drive and met so many great people.  Then I started staging houses and it just grew and grew.”  There was one detour before Simon jumped back into design wholeheartedly — modeling. “Mostly cheesy romance novel covers,” he says with a laugh.  After a few years, Simon decided he needed a “grown up” job. “Modeling was great for the ego,” laughs Simon, but it was time to get back to his true passion: design. 

Design Review nets a partner

In 1998 Simon was elected to the sit on the Design Review Board.  “I loved it!  It felt very natural for me to participate. It wasn’t always easy, but I really enjoyed it,” says Simon about his time on the Board.  During his last year, in 2004, the architect, Linda Morgenlander, also joined the Board.  The two hit it off immediately.  ‘We were born three days apart.  We’re both from New York.  We’re both Jewish.  We just have a lot of fun together,” says Simon enthusiastically.  A few years after meeting, they became business partners and Acme Architecture and Interior Design was born.  

“It just evolved.  It was meant be. The first house we designed together was my parents’ house.”  Bought with the idea that it would be a second home, the house turned out so nicely, Simon’s parents relocated from Rancho Santa Fe to live in it permanently.  It was an auspicious beginning for the new firm.  It also meant Simon could now just “walk to their house for Thanksgiving” – no more navigating the 405 to Rancho Santa Fe!

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Personal mementos, artfully displayed at Ben Simon’s home

While his parents are close, Morgenlander is even closer.  She lives right next door.  “We talk constantly, Monday through Friday, from 9 to 5.  We do not talk at all on the weekends,” explains Simon with a laugh.  

His house, formerly lived in by Timothy Leary, serves as the main office for Acme.  Spread out around his desk are samples of tile and fabrics to show clients.  “We do the architecture; we do interiors.  We prefer to do both, but will do either, depending on the clients’ needs.  We get very involved with them.  It’s important that the house reflects who they are, and doesn’t just look like the back page of a Restoration Hardware catalog,” says Simon emphatically.

A personal vision

Simon’s home-office is definitely not a re-working of anyone else’s aesthetic vision, rather a very personal statement of meaningful things collected to make a home.  “Right now, I’m having a love-affair with my house,” Simon tells me.  After a brief tour, his affection for the house and its history is obvious. He kept some original bathroom tile, for example, even though it isn’t really to his taste because, “It had to stay.  It’s just part of the house.”

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The upper terrace of Ben Simon’s home is a great place to relax

Hopes for the Planning Commission and something “spectacular”

When asked, “What’s next?” Simon replied that he would like to secure a position on the Planning Commission.  “I’m passionate about Laguna. I understand a lot of different aspects: preservation, real estate, business interests, the tourist economy.  I think a lot of my professional and life experiences could be an awesome addition,” he says.  And his future plans don’t end there. “I know that because I am so lucky and have been given so many gifts it’s important that I show my appreciation by trying to do something important.”  

He smiles slyly when pressed for more details. “I fantasize about doing something spectacular.  Time will tell.”  Regardless of whether or not his mystery plans materialize, Acme Architecture and Interior Design will continue to deliver “classic, timeless and appropriate design.”  

ForSimon’s clients, “spectacular” may have already been achieved.  


Sid Fanarof: a local trendsetter on a global scale

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If it’s Saturday morning, you’ll likely find him treasure hunting around Laguna’s garage sales. The rest of the week, he’s more apt to be found checking in on his zpizzas. Meet Sid Fanarof, the guy ahead of the curve. The guy who can sense a trend on the horizon, catch it and run with it.

Sid Fanarof

I met with Fanarof between his trip to the annual pizza convention in Las Vegas and a fun trip with Laguna friends to a wedding in San Francisco. He travels a lot, yet is very grounded in life in Laguna with family and loved ones nearby. Every Tuesday he and his wife of 30 years, Claire, host family dinners for anywhere from 10 – 20 people. And, no, it’s not pizza; they both love to cook.

The Fanarof family includes each of their children (“We were ‘The Brady Bunch’,” says Claire), three of the four living in town, and now six grandchildren. Getting ready for Tuesday night’s dinner includes lots of helping hands. 

“My favorite is a taco buffet,” Sid says. “I do it with grass-fed beef on the grill, I roast potatoes, and make burnt salsa and guacamole.” Sounds good, and knowing Fanarof’s big success with zpizza with its relaxed-yet-gourmet concept, I know the big Tuesday dinners must be unique, organic, and delicious.

The Z Concept 

Fanarof started zpizza in Laguna, and now it’s grown to an international scale. There are zpizzas in 15 US States, Korea, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai. It’s a concept restaurant that was ahead of its time when he founded it, with organic and gluten-free crust options, as well as carefully sourced and health-conscious ingredients. Sid tells us that the concept is catching on all over, even in places you wouldn’t think would be on the California wave of dietary trends. 

“In Korea they’re even more health conscious than we are,” he says.

Around the globe there’s a hankering for good pizza. Sid Fanarof has the last laugh, “I’m like the Colonel Sanders of pizza.” 

He’s been the man ahead of that trend for more than 30 years now, and he’s proud of the family that has been cultivated by this locally grown business. “I have wonderful employees who have worked for me for thirty years,” he said. “Now their children are working for me!”

Photo by Maggi

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One of the unique trends that Fanarof anticipated and rode with was the gluten-free diet. His own backstory is that he was gluten intolerant, and decided to make some of those options available at zpizza about six years ago. This year he noted at the pizza convention that about 20% of the exhibitors were promoting gluten-free products. 

zpizza is also a fun place. “We like doing build-your-own pizza events,” Fanarof tells us. “We’ll do team cooking, and make it a special place for birthday parties.” They’ve got a big, long red table (20 feet long) that’s the favorite party spot. Additionally, zpizza has been making Friendship Shelter residents happy for 10 years by providing pizza every first Sunday of the month.

The funny thing is, Sid Fanarof was never a fan of pizza. 

“I never loved pizza!” he says. “I really wanted to do Mexican food, and my partner wanted to do French.” But they found the right spot in South Laguna, and it was good to go for pizza. “It was already set up.” And the rest is history!

The path to the present

Fanarof came to the food business in a round about kind of way. He was a lifeguard. Maybe a hungry lifeguard. But after six years as a lifeguard, followed by a stint as a realtor, he bought the Spigot Liquor store. He converted it into a beach store with craft beers and wine. 

Sensing new trends as always, he introduced beach paddle racquets, which he had shipped in from Israel (thus the beginning of the paddle craze), and the very first Swatch watches (“We sold them like crazy in the liquor store”)… And then he had another brilliant idea – to bring in sandwiches. 

“I went to San Juan to meet a baker,” he said. “He sent me next door to a couple who would make sandwiches.” 

Fanarof worked with them, creating new taste sensations like ham and cream cheese, and turkey with cranberry sauce, to sell in the shop. Everybody loved those sandwiches that came in a brown bag. He declined the opportunity to partner with the couple as they expanded the business, but this was the beginning of the Brown Bag Sandwich Company. It’s now a successful giant of a company.

Being present

Perhaps the knack for seeking new trends in the marketplace is like a treasure hunt. Because treasure hunting is something Fanarof enjoys too, in the modern way: one garage sale at a time.

He happily showed me some of the favorite things he’s bought on Saturday mornings. Granted, garage sales in Laguna tend to be pretty high caliber stuff, but Fanarof has found some cool, trending pieces, like the Murano sculptural glass that he then had made into a chandelier. 

Garage sale treasure, turned into a beautiful chandelier

He told me of the time Claire said, “We could use a bench”, and he went on the hunt, finding a perfect bench that same day. “It’s fun,” he said. “I look for esthetics at garage sales.”

After a long day at garage sales, or shopping in the ethnic food markets he also loves, Fanarof has found a practice that relaxes him. “It’s like water shiatsu,” he explains of the gentle form of body therapy called Watsu. He swears by it for himself and is also a practitioner.

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Fanarof and his Watsu pool 

Sid Fanarof has travelled all over the world, but there’s nothing like returning home. It’s given him the perspective from a visitor’s point of view. 

“It’s always great to come home,” he says. He’ll walk the dog along Heisler Park, and just shout out ironically, “Wouldn’t it be great to live here?” 

Because of course, it is, and sometimes he just has to pinch himself.


Robin Fuld: Teaching the business of art at LCAD

BY: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

As Director of Career Services at the Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD), Robin Fuld is charged with “empowering our artists in the business of art,” as she describes it.  Her own career path, a brilliant example of resourcefulness, tenacity, serendipity and, above all else, a love of art, makes her ideally suited for the career she has now.

“I grew up on Cape Cod.  It’s an art town and we had an incredible art program in high school.  I didn’t have the passion or discipline to keep creating, but I developed a love of art,” Fuld explains.  However, she pursued a degree in education, not art, from the University of Massachusetts.  But before she could get too far away from her passion, fate stepped in.

Director of Career Service and Instructor of Professional Studies at LCAD

A lucky ticket launches a career

“My friends found out that Logan Airport was having a raffle.  If you bought a ticket (for $1.69) and won you had to get on a plane that day and go wherever you were going.  So we all went down there at 5 a.m.  My sister took me and bought a ticket to better my chances.  My sister won and gave me her ticket. It all happened so fast.  I went to Vail, CO because that’s the only place where I knew someone, and I wanted to go for the whole summer, not just a week somewhere,” explains Fuld.  

Not only did the $1.69 spent on that raffle ticket provide a change of scenery, it also launched her career, though she was unaware of that fact at the time.  “An art gallery had a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window.  I never thought…but I got that job because of my love of art – and because I’m a people person,” she says.  After just a few minutes with Fuld both of these qualities are very apparent. 

From Cape Cod to Vail to Rodeo Drive to…

“After four years, one of the artists said I should check out LA.  So I went. I was on Rodeo Drive and went into a gallery there and they hired me on the spot.  The woman who hired me said I was ‘refreshing’, and that she’d protect me from the ‘vultures’ – which she did,” says Fuld with a laugh.  “I learned so much.  I sawso much. Unfortunately, after a year, the gallery closed due to ‘questionable activity’ – like fraud and money laundering. But that’s another story,” she says with enthusiasm. 

From LA, Fuld used her networking skills and worked in galleries in Palm Desert, Brea and Irvine.  Always, it seems, people she had worked with along the way wanted the chance to work with her again.  Finally, however, after the owners closed the Irvine gallery, despite the fact that it was doing well financially, Fuld decided to work for herself, starting her own art consulting business.  This was during the recession of the early ’90’s. 

“So many galleries had closed.  I approached one, Starry Sheets, in Irvine.  They specialized in California Regionalism – historic work.  I asked if they had space.  I told them I’d bring my clients and introduce them to the work in the gallery while representing other artists. They thought that was a great idea.  I stayed there for a couple of years until they downsized.  It was great.”

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Laguna Beach is “where you should be living.”

Finally, a collector/friend from the Rodeo gallery days “took me to Laguna Beach and said ‘this is where you should be living.’  It was she who introduced me to Laguna.”  After deciding that working from a home/office was not right for her, Fuld “started approaching galleries in Laguna and seeing if they needed help,” she explains.  She met an artist who had a temporary space in Irvine and eventually helped him open a gallery in Laguna while still retaining her own consulting business.  

“That’s what got me back in Laguna full time,” she says.  In 1995, Fuld was visiting a gallery to show them one of her artists.  They told her that a woman had just stopped in and mentioned she wanted to open a gallery in the space next door.  Fuld says they commanded her to, “‘Run after her!’ so I did.”

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Painting by a former LCAD student and Russian Impressionism from J. Kamin

Russian Impressionism comes to the west coast

Her pursuit turned into J. Kamin Fine Art.  “Jackie” (the ‘J’ in ‘J. Kamin’) discovered Russian Impressionism at the International Film Expo,” explains Fuld.  We brought it to the west coast.  It was awesome! It is important work, hidden from the world until that time,” explains Fuld who has two large pieces hanging on the walls of her office at LCAD.

A fortuitous teaching position at LCAD

During that time Fuld joined the Art Walk Board and that introduced her to a lot of non-profits in town. “I realized my artistic matchmaking skills,” she says laughing.  Then, as happens with Fuld, her past reached out to her.  

“The woman I worked for in Vail and again in Irvine was teaching a class at LCAD called ‘Professional Studies for the Fine Artist’.  She was pregnant and asked me if I’d take over teaching her class.  I said, ‘yes’.  Around the same time, my clients had asked me to be on the Collector’s Choice Committee for the school, which is their big fundraiser.  That got me more involved with the College. Then the rent doubled on the gallery space so Jackie and I decided it was time for a change.  

“She went into teaching and I applied to LCAD.  I had that network because I was already teaching there.  They asked if I could do what I did for all majors.  And that’s how I got here.”  Fuld has been the Director of Career Services at LCAD for the last eight years, and has taught her course for 12.

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LCAD students are in demand in all majors

In demand students create welcome challenges

“Treat your art career as the business that it is. Have a plan.”  

That is Fuld’s mandate for her students.  And it seems to be working.  LCAD’s employment statistics are above the national average, according to Fuld.  “I don’t believe in the myth of the starving artist,” she says slyly. “Our students are in demand.  That’s a wonderful challenge to have,” she says. 

From Cape Cod to Laguna Beach, Fuld’s understanding of “the business of art” – as well as her ability to bring people together – is exemplified by the longevity of her own career.  “My B.A. is in Education.  I was running away from it and now that’s all I do!” she says with her signature good humor.  

And that is something her students are undoubtedly grateful for.


Doug Miller: from the other side of the lens

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He has a mind for facts and figures, and a library of journals to back it up. Doug Miller has kept count of every photo he’s ever taken: who, when, and where. The number of individuals hover around 40,000. I shouldn’t say hover, because the man knows the figures – the exact figures. Just ask him. He also has taken some 350,000 spontaneous photos from the streets of Laguna Beach.

He tracks the names and dates, and piles the journals in his filled-to-the-brim compact studio, in his own particular style of order. 

“Over there are my albums,” he points out. “And that stack is ordered by date.” I look around the stool I’m seated on and mentally take note, lest I knock over the perfectly chronological journals, which may require several days worth of re-cataloguing.

He Found his Vice

I remember the first time Doug Miller captured my children with his camera. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I’ve done a lot at Top of the World.” And Boo Blast, and Sawdust, and the Patriots Day Parade… and along his daily walks from his artist’s studio on South Coast Hwy into the downtown area.

Doug Miller

He is a walker. “I never got my license,” he explains, even though he drove his VW bus until it died. Since then he has opted for foot travel, and that has put him direct line of sight with just about everyone in Laguna. Everything fascinates him with his lens.

“Everyone else has vices,” he says. “Mine is film: I’m addicted.”

As his portfolio of slides and stacks of journals grew, Miller has become an incidental archivist. At many points he has documented moments, people and places of historic significance, like the morning just before the devastating fire in 1993. 

“I was down on the boardwalk that morning. When it started, I was out in the canyon,” he recalls. “The next day, I walked from our house down the beach to downtown. I got right on through. I walked up Park Avenue to Skyline, taking pictures as I went.”

He’s scanning and posting from his photo albums on Facebook these days to the tune of some 1,800 albums. At 30 – 40 photos per album, well, do the math. Suffice to say, there are a lot of photos to look at on Facebook for many a rainy day. “I’ll post it, and it’s fine,” he says. “I don’t copyright my pictures.”

It may be hard to get potential patrons to cross the busy coastal highway, but Miller welcomes many strollers-by every day into his studio, nonetheless. You’ll find him amongst his stacks, working on a painting, or looking through the magnifying lens at sheets of slides, or cataloging his many photo albums, but he’ll shout out, “Hi! Come on in!”

So, take the opportunity. Pull up a step stool, and allow his stories to unfold – of all the years and all the visual references this one-man history book has documented in and around Laguna.

The Early Days

Miller was a lanky teenager in Long Beach when he upped for the Navy. He served as a radarman. The best part of that experience was being away on leave, aka “liberty”, when he could visit his Aunt and Grandma in Laguna Beach. “My grandma had a house on Flora Street,” he said. “It was great here, much more fun than Long Beach.” 

Meanwhile he got hooked on photography with a Minolta he bought in Hong Kong. He started out doing photography for the Navy, including the ship’s crews. “I took to it like a duck to water,” he recalls. “I spent all my money on film.” 

After the Navy, he moved into the home of his friend Barbara Stuart in Laguna. He lived there for eight years during which time he met the love of his life, Becky. They were married in 1979, and briefly moved to her hometown of Jackson Hole, where they lived in a teepee. When Barbara passed away in 1998, Doug and Becky were able to purchase from her children the family property where the studio and home still reside. 

The two buildings were from the early 1930’s, and the one that is now his studio was pretty rickety. It took lots of mechanical ratcheting with a bunch of friends to keep the place from falling apart. Go visit the studio today and you’ll see where the roof-beams were created and the little shack that stood beside a two-lane dirt road has morphed into an art studio along Coast Highway. 

The Miller’s charming and authentic cottage is just behind the studio, and it’s where they raised their two sons, Jesse and Josiah.

The Sawdust Calling

Something just resonated between Miller’s brain and the lens. He took that passion post-Navy, and entered into his first years at the Sawdust Festival.

His initial works were photographic, and then he branched into painting.

“I did photography at the Sawdust, but that didn’t sell much. I had some dreadful oil paintings in 1971, but I managed to sell a few,” he admits. Selling improved, as did his painting technique.

In his Sawdust booth, Miller always has a train set running. “I pick the spot so I can have my HO train there,” he said. “Now all the kids come to see the train. A kid at heart, he also gives out toys. “People bring me bags of toys, or I get them from the thrift store. If I find something neat I put it in the window at the studio.”

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The paintings he did then have progressed into today’s exhibits: Laguna and its environs. For the most part, they are miniature, colorful, floral aspects of nature and coastlines. Miller has managed to follow the advice of a mentor who told him to do a painting every day.  And all the paintings are photographed and catalogued, of course.

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“I can look something up,” he explains as he peruses a photo journal. “I go through my phases.” His phase now is focused on scenes of Three Arch Bay.

And then there are some paintings that combine the almost mathematical cataloging that colors Miller’s mind. Of these, he has a series of large works that are his “birthday series”. Every year at his booth, Miller invites people to tell him their birthdays. The names and birthdays are interlocked into one painting. Since the 1980’s he’s done 14 birthday paintings, which include some 20,000 people.

Then there’s the calculation for the exact spot to post the birthday information with ink into one of four quadrants on the canvas. It goes something like this, if your birthday is October 4: Ten plus four equals fourteen, then that number is divided by four, because there are four corners in a painting. You with me so far? 

He has numbers associated with corners, so that the ten inches by four inches is divided by four, and the remainder is two… Voila! Somehow this works out as the number two corner, with ten inches over, and four inches down. My head hurts already!

“Somebody said it’s a Greek formula,” Miller says. “I don’t know. I’m not a mathematician. But I know where to find people’s names!” Very handy, because people will return to his booth, and ask the existential question – “Where am I?”

I particularly like his “Where they did it” paintings. Close your eyes if this is too much for your sensibilities, but it is as it says – Where did you “do it?” Yes, that “it”!

Miller asks people for their most intimate secret: where did you do it? He wants to know. “Not the house. Not the honeymoon,” he implores. He’s looking for something more exotic. “Surprisingly, it’s mostly females who tell me.” 

Upon the canvas he inscribes the itsy-bitsy calligraphy of names – and places. The most intriguing? (You had to ask!). The Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland! “The staff applauded, because it was on video,” Miller shared. “It was the last ride of the day.” Good stuff.

The Other Siren Call

The Sunday-side of Doug Miller is an accomplished violinist. He’s played regularly for church services at both Laguna Presbyterian and the Neighborhood Congregational Church for ten years now. He occasionally likes to improvise. “I’ll relax, and hit a high note, and make everyone’s hair stand up,” he jokes.

He’s been playing since he was nine years old. “My grandmother got me into the free music program in Long Beach,” he explains. “The choice was either flute or violin.” Violin won out. He continued, and found that he had a knack for remembering melodies and for finding a way to fit in amongst other instrumentalists. 

When he was in the Navy, he was pretty much forced into a talent show. “I found I could play with anyone off the top of my head,” he says. 

These days, Miller is really excited about his band, Moon Police, and their first CD, which is coming out in April. “It’s all original, and written by us,” he said. He describes the Moon Police sound as “not a bunch of rock and roll junk…some songs sound like they’re out of a cathedral, some are in French. It’s pretty.”

Taking the lead is their 17 year-old keyboardist and singer, Grace Freeman. “She’s going to make a mark on the music world,” Miller tells us. “She’s incredible. Impeccable.

“I’m of a different ilk,” he continued. “They’re a bunch of kids! I’m playing with the best in this band. The music will speak for itself …being appreciated is where it’s at.”

The band gets together to practice once a week, and they also have a concert coming up at the Neighborhood Congregational Church on April 18.

The Whole of the Parts

For Miller, there is a connection and order to the arts for which he holds so much passion. Whether it’s from behind his lens, with paintbrush atop his canvas, with chin on the violin, or within his analytical system of organization. All of his senses play a part in the composition. 

“I can taste colors in my head,” he says poetically. “I can taste music too. What doesn’t work doesn’t taste good. I see greens in relation to blues. Too much purple is too sweet.”

Music inspires other sensations. “Music is a feeling of life, from a place that’s inspiring,” he says. “It’s like someone visits you when you play well.”

Putting all the pieces together, Miller expresses the feeling of completion.

“It’s all composition. It’s a strange perfection – music and art. It’s all the same,” he says. “And every so often there’s a breakthrough.”

Here’s to those moments. 

Thank you for the perspective from your life’s lens Doug Miller!


Mark Dressler: Saying “Bye Bye” with a bang

Story by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

 “I am a teacher of an incredible art form.”  This is the biggest reason LBHS and Thurston drama teacher, Mark Dressler, gives for the success of the drama programs at both schools.  

“Everybody loves the theater.  It’s part of the human character, this need to tell stories.”  And while that may be true, it is also true that in the 25 years that Dressler has been working for LBUSD, he transformed a drama program that had deteriorated to extinction into a local treasure that is now nationally known and respected.  

Dressler is retiring at the end of this school year, but he’s not going quietly.  His spring production of “Bye Bye Birdie” is going to be the largest production he has ever produced.  And that’s saying something.

Mark Dressler, LBHS and Thurston Middle School Drama Teacher

A coalescing of forces

Hired as an English and history teacher, the school district held a teachers meeting in the Artist’s Theatre.  “I was there thinking, ‘This could be a great theater.’  But there were no drama classes.  This got me thinking.  I had experience teaching drama so I went to the school board and said, ‘It’s a shame. We could make our arts program something that defines us, like our water polo programs.” he remembers.  And while the LBHS water polo teams are still great, it is undeniable that Dressler’s goal of making the LBUSD arts program another point of pride for LBUSD has been achieved.

In talking with Dressler, however, he is quick to share the success of the drama program with others.  Several factors, according to Dressler, have played a huge role in the programs’ success.  For one, having a place to perform is, as he sees it, critical. “We could not do what we do without the Artists Theatre.  Cindy Prewitt organized a community campaign that helped raise $1.5 million to enhance the theater at just about the same time I was hired as a teacher. She was a really important voice of the theater.  In the 1950’s they had done a really bad remodel.  Before the campaign restored it, the ceiling had been lowered, the seats were ripped, there were rodents running around, and mold on the walls,” says Dressler.  

Looking at the theater now in all its glory, it’s hard to believe.

Getting them while they’re young

Another factor Dressler says has been key to the program’s success, is the continuity he gets from working at Thurston and LBHS. “I’m able to grab a kid by the shoulders in 6th grade and say, ‘You are so good!’ That’s what other school districts don’t have. We’re a little, tiny school district. I know all the teachers.  I have my feet in both worlds.  I know them from the time they are little kids to the time they are adults.  They know me.  They trust me.  This intimacy has a lot to do with the success of the program.”  

It also provides Dressler and his cast with what he says is their favorite part of the production: the elementary school previews. “It’s such a great thing for these kids to go back and see their teachers and let their teachers see them.  You know, sometimes the teachers wonder ‘What’s going to happen to that kid?’ and then they see that everything turned out,” he says laughing.

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Some of the cast from “Bye Bye Birdie” doing a preview of the show at El Morro 

All kids deserve a supportive community

So while Dressler celebrates the things intrinsic to Laguna schools that aid in the program’s success, he laments that other districts aren’t as fortunate. “The kids – and I mean all kids – just need a community that supports them. It sounds corny, but programs like ours make this country better. It makes better Americans.  All kids can benefit; they just need the chance.  I was an athlete in school. It’s the same kind of structure as a team. The director is like the coach, and everyone works together toward a singular vision.  Wherever you are in the show, it’s a vehicle for collaboration.  These are skills these kids will take with them throughout their life. It kills me that other schools don’t have the ability to do what we do here.”

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Mark Dressler with senior cast members of  “Bye Bye Birdie”

A supportive school district still means he has to sell tickets

Dressler says another reason he is able to do what he does here is because he has the support of the school district.  “Fortunately, the school board has been behind me 100%.”  When he started, however, there were skeptics.  

“My first production was ‘Grease’.  No one came to the audition. This really unpleasant history teacher came up to me and said, ‘How dare you take a section!’  He was upset because I was given oneclass for drama,” laughs Dressler.  

Undeterred, Dressler hustled and cajoled to get a cast. “‘Grease’ ran for three nights.  “There was a line down Park Ave. to Short St.  We didn’t do pre-sales back then.  People were starving for this.  We made $10,000 and it started to build,” he says. With shows that regularly have $30,000-$50,000 budgets, the building process has definitely been successful.  And, while the school district is supportive, “I’ve got to sell tickets. The superintendent never says, ‘How much money do you need?’” says Dressler with a smile.  Pretty soon, however, selling tickets will be someone else’s concern. 

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Cast members run through a number from LBHS presentation of “Bye Bye Birdie”

Leaping into retirement with characteristic enthusiasm

“I have to retire,” says Dressler with his trademark enthusiasm. “I’m really excited – it’s a brand new adventure.” One that he will undoubtedly embrace with the same passion he brings – and has brought – to his job for all these years.  And passion is what he says his replacement (or replacements) will need.  

“Whoever takes this job has to inspire people to do great things.  Once people have faith in you, there’s nothing they (and we) can’t do.”  Which is why choosing “Bye Bye Birdie” as his final musical is a fitting send off.  “There are 100 kids involved in this show!  It’s the biggest show we’ve ever done!” he says energetically. His final production will be the appropriately titled: “You Can’t Take it With You.”  He may be retiring, but he’s definitely not coasting to the finish line.  And for those who can’t imagine the drama program without him, the only thing Dressler is worried about is finding a new stage manager.  “Mine is graduating,” he says with a sigh.

Mark Dressler enthusiastically sets the stage for his El Morro audience

Leaving but hoping to stay close

 “I will not consider myself successful if the program doesn’t flourish after I’m gone,” he says.  And while he may officially be “gone” he won’t be far away. “I’m just going to be in San Juan Capistrano.  I’m hoping I can continue having that relationship.  I’d love to be able to help out,” he says.  

Plus, he feels there’s room for improvement. “There are a lot of things we can do better; a lot of areas where we can improve,” says Dressler.  I suppose there’s always room for improvement, but to an outside observer, it’s hard to see where. “Bye Bye Birdie” opens Friday, March 13th so buy your tickets. 

It will be a great show, plus there aren’t many opportunities left to give Mark Dressler the standing ovation he deserves.


Sandi Werthe: 

The woman who’s launched a thousand floats

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Sandi Werthe started volunteering for the Patriots Day Parade in 1975. The lady has seen all the red, white, and blue you can imagine – and she’s not had her fill yet.

The Patriots Day Parade has kept Laguna swelling with pride for 49 years now thanks to volunteers such as Sandi, who serves as its treasurer. She’s seen the parade from every angle, but she’s only been in it twice: in 1993 when she and her husband were “Citizens of the Year”, and once with the Exchange Club. She defies the axiom: the whole town is in the parade. 

In fact, she’s a big part of the hidden mechanics making it all happen. 

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Submitted photo

Hal and Sandi Werthe in 1977

“Everything Hal did, I joined him,” Sandi explains of her civic volunteerism. Sandi’s husband, Hal, passed away two and a half years ago, but in his time he not only repaired just about all of the appliances in Laguna, he was an active with, among other things, the Exchange Club, the Police Department and its Citizen Academy, the American Legion, and the Parade Association. 

He was even Santa Claus, on Forest Avenue for several years.

She’s a leader too

While Sandi bypassed the role of Mrs. Claus, she has been an inveterate champion for civic causes just like Hal. “If he quit doing something, I took over,” she said. Let’s see now – that amounts to various jobs with the Parade Association, the Exchange Club, the Citizen Academy, the American Legion, the Laguna Presbyterian Church Foundation, and working at election poll stations.

Sandi Werthe

But this week the hoopla is all about the parade. Sandi has actually been preparing for it almost all year. The parade committee begins planning in August. That’s when the permits are issued. Then by September they come up with a theme, and the special Laguna honorees. Following that, all the back office stuff begins, like organizing the participants, judges and ribbons, getting advertisers, printing the programs, doing the bookkeeping, and generally putting the word out.

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Not that the Patriots Day Parade needs much of a shout-out in Laguna. It’s pretty much carved in stone on the City calendar. The first Saturday of each March is a day highly anticipated by thousands and thousands of people. 

By February, the Adventure Guides have pulled out their best tribal outfits and started preparing for the big day. The school marching bands have been practicing for weeks in anticipation. The antique cars are spit and polished. The batons are twirling. It seems everyone in town is ready and willing to participate in Laguna’s historic parade, which will be this Saturday.

A well-loved tradition, the parade does not just happen on its own. As they say, many hands make light the work. Well, Sandi Werthe possesses at least several of those hands. “I don’t really get to see the parade,” she says. “I’m running around doing things.” 

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The day before, she gets the trophies over to Tivoli Too! where they’ll be ready come show time. Early on the morning of the parade she’s off with boxes of programs to distribution sites, setting up the check-in desk on Short St., sorting bins of rosettes and arm bands and ribbons, giving out car assignment numbers, and trying to remember every niggling little detail that will make all the difference in a smooth parade.

A can-do spirit

Sandi is just that sort of organized person. She’s got facts and figures in her head like you would expect of the Treasurer, plus her hair is neatly combed. She’s got meetings, and emails, and work-shifts, plus her house is clean. It seems fitting that her way to relax – when she has the time – is to needlepoint; a very careful and exacting art form. 

There are neat and colorful needlepoint and embroidery works framed all around her house. One piece that’s near and dear to her heart is the needlepoint cushioned chest she made for her wedding day in 1977. It has lovebirds around the sides, and she and Hal knelt upon it at the Tivoli Wedding Chapel.

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Sandi and Hal were adventurous. They loved to go motor homing, and they took that little big home over all the rough roads of Alaska. When they married, Hal was still a volunteer with the junior firefighters club, “Fire Explorers”. Sandi jokes that their first honeymoon was with the Exchange Club, and the second was with the Fire Explorers. Hiking, and camping no less, “In the rain!” she laughs. 

Sandi is not afraid to rough it, and she knows how to follow-through on her many volunteer jobs. That’s something that is hard to find nowadays. People seem to be “too busy” in this technology-driven era, and hands-on volunteers are ever harder to come by.  “Everyone’s getting older,” Sandi said. “Like at Legion Hall, but we just keep going at it.”

According to Sandi, for example, the Parade Committee consists of eight or nine volunteers, but the day of the parade dozens more are required.

Her stick-to-itiveness is evident in another of Sandi’s pastimes; she has had pen pals over the years, from all over the world. Started as a schoolchild project, Sandi made friends via hand-written letters with other children in England, New Zealand, and Austria. And they’re still in touch! She’s met several of them, and has been communicating with one pen pal since 1947.

Sandi Werthe is a kind of captain that has steered many of Laguna’s civic and philanthropic organizations. It’s been smooth sailing only because of the untold hours, persistent drive, and community loyalty she possesses. 

We salute you Sandi!


Sharael Kolberg: Making the most out of everything

BY: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Sharael Kolberg is someone who makes the most out of things.  A telling example of this is when she, just out of high school, worked as a bank teller in her hometown of Eureka, CA.  A customer at the bank mentioned the trouble her family was having finding good employees to run the family frozen yogurt business in Hawaii. Kolberg knew just the person to help them run their shop, and, not surprisingly, her customers agreed with her. So it wasn’t long before the girl from Eureka was off on her first big adventure to run a yogurt shop on Maui (with a condo and car provided, to boot).  Opportunity seen; opportunity taken.

Sharael Kolberg:

Writer, Director of SEEDS, Master Gardener, community volunteer

Embracing opportunities

Kolberg is a long way from the frozen yogurt shop, both literally and figuratively, as she now resides in Laguna Beach and works as a writer and as the Director of SEEDS Art and Education.  However, her willingness to embrace opportunities and make the most of them traveled back with her across the Pacific.

Kolberg left Hawaii after 10 years with a degree in journalism from the University of Hawaii.  She wasn’t anxious to return stateside, but…

“After I graduated from college I realized that all the jobs that paid a decent salary in Hawaii…those people weren’t going to leave.  My best friend was in San Francisco and she told me the apartment upstairs was open so that’s where I went.”  And it was a fortuitous choice because that is where she met her husband, Jeff.  

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Photo courtesy the Kolbergs

From left: Sharael Kolberg, her daughter, Katelyn, husband Jeff and Charlie

 

A chance to return to small town living

After 15 years in the Bay Area, a business opportunity provided a way for the Kolbergs to relocate to southern California. Choosing Laguna was easy. Jeff is a native Lagunan (even his mother went to Thurston Middle School).  

“He cherished growing up here.  We both grew up in small towns and we missed that,” explains Kolberg.  Plus, their daughter, Katelyn, is an only child. “We wanted her to grow up with her cousins who are all within 30 minutes of us. Jeff’s parents are still in the same house on Bluebird Canyon,” she says.  So for the last five years, the Kolbergs have called Laguna home and Kolberg, in typical fashion, has made the most of the opportunities she has found here – so much so that it’s hard to imagine how she manages to do it all.

“Workwise, I write for Firebrand Media. I write for Riviera Magazine, Orange Coast, and the St. Regis and some others.” Then she tells me laughing, “I actually have a job as the Director of SEEDS, a non-profit that provides educational enrichment programs for kids and families with a focus on the arts, the environment and wellness.”  

She’s also a Master Gardener who has worked on the El Morro Elementary School garden, the Thurston Middle School Garden and just helped complete a $50,000 renovation of Anneliese’s Willowbrook campus garden that was destroyed in the storms of 2010.  “This was a really fun project. We just got a grant from the water district to get irrigation installed.  It is really cool,” she says enthusiastically. 

Next up is the Laguna Presbyterian Preschool garden.  “I have seen how learning can be taken to the next level with a hands-on experience, which is why I love helping with these gardens.”

Then there’s the non-profit groups she does PR for: the Laguna Beach Garden Club, TMS PTA and the Interscholastic Mountain Bike Team.  She is also president of the PTA’s Coffee Break parent education program and a SchoolPower trustee. Oh, yes, and her third book is just about to be released.  As I said, she jumped into living and working in Laguna with both feet -- so much so it’s hard to know how she stays afloat! 

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Some of the tools of one of Sharael Kolberg’s many trades

Writing is a passion

“I love writing.  That’s my passion. That’s what I love doing the most,” Kolberg tells me emphatically.  And while she tends to focus on “family travel and green living” in her articles, she has three books to her credit on topics as far ranging as a marriage guide, a year she and Jeff spent in Australia and, her latest, a memoir of the year she and her family “unplugged” prior to moving to Laguna. 

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Sharael Kolberg with her dog, Charlie, a frequent companion at Zinc Cafe

“A Year Unplugged” leads to many things

This year without technology was what led her to gardening. “Because we didn’t have technology I decided to volunteer at Katelyn’s school and the local farm. I read every book on school gardening, took classes and became an expert.  When we moved, I got my Master Gardener degree from the UC Davis extension program in Costa Mesa.  It’s a four-month, intensive program where you learn snippets of everything from irrigation, grafting, seedlings.  The quality is really good, really interesting,” she tells me.

But back to the book.  “Three months ago I was asked to be on the panel of the AAUW (American Association of University Woman) Literary Luncheon (March 14),” says Kolberg.  “They told me to come ‘with my book.’ Only it wasn’t a book yet.  I had just kept a daily journal about what our lives were like without any technology; it was just a bunch of notes in a binder!  So I had to get busy,” she says laughing. Using her three month window, Kolberg compiled her notes into a book she proudly describes as “the best one yet.”

Just another 26 mile run

So when I jokingly ask her what she does in her spare time, I’m not the least bit surprised when she tells me she is training for a marathon.  She wasn’t keen to mention it because a lot can happen between the training for a marathon and the actual running of one (like injuries, for one), but that would be, in my opinion, the only way her marathon doesn’t get run.  

Anyone who writes a book in three months while holding down a job, volunteering all over the place while still being a devoted wife and mother understands commitment and dedication (and is made of different stuff than I, that’s for sure).  

For Sharael Kolberg, running 26.2 miles is just another run – that she’s going to make the most of, whether she makes it to the starting line or not.


Elizabeth Pearson: who is this Elizabeth person?

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

You’ve known her for many years as our City Council person, and as Mayor of this fair city. But now she’s relatively footloose and fancy free.

Elizabeth Pearson served her last day in Council Chambers on December 2nd. Then she walked across the street to The Lumberyard for a farewell party – and her new life.

“It was very stressful,” she says of her time as a public servant. “But I made the commitment, and I stick to my word.”

That she did. During her 12 years serving on the council, including three terms as mayor, Pearson worked tirelessly during Laguna’s good times and bad. Amongst her many achievements, she was there to help the city recover from landslides and mudslides, and she was there as a strong advocate for business and for the arts.

Elizabeth Pearson

The next chapter features her emphasis on arts; currently she is chief executive and president of Pacific Chorale, the resident choir of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Additionally she lends support to the Laguna Playhouse, serves on the board of Laguna Beach Live and the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, and she’s been appointed to the boards of California Arts Advocates, California for the Arts, and Arts OC. That’s a lot of boards! So, this being Laguna, I asked her if she surfs – that would give her another kind of “board”.

“No, but I like going to the beach for picnics,” she says. “And I love early evening picnics at the Festival of Arts for their summer jazz.” Of course she does! She actually attended 18 jazz concerts last summer.

A self-made woman

How did all this art appreciation begin? Pearson puts the blame squarely on Cleveland, another city of importance in her life. 

Her roots go back to North Carolina, where most of her family still resides, but in between coasts, she lived and worked in Cleveland. And the arts are big in Cleveland. “All the arts,” Pearson said. “It was the thing to do.” 

Her best friend was Chairman of the Board of the Cleveland Orchestra, so she went to a lot of concerts, and became a big fan of opera as well.

While in Cleveland, Pearson went back to school to finish her degree. Her major was in marketing, but her minor was in another art – British Literature. “I’ve read almost all of Shakespeare. I started with Henry IV, Part One, and fell in love with it,” she says. “And I love poetry. Wordsworth is my favorite.”

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From small town, North Carolina, Elizabeth Pearson has grabbed ahold of all the knowledge and learning she can, and run with it. She’s even studying music herself now, with piano lessons and music theory. “It’s something I can do for myself – post Council,” she says.

Her family all enjoy music. A few even perform at the Grand Old Opry. Back at the cattle ranch in North Carolina, they get together at holidays and all join in playing bluegrass, in a boisterous big family way. Pearson contributes her voice too, but she mostly feeds the family with her time-honored recipes for good Southern comfort foods like chicken and dumplings, turnip greens, biscuits and gravy, and her favorite, Southern banana pudding pie.

Pearson’s dad was a DJ for the Armed Services network. He instilled in his daughter his big love of jazz, and gave her the confidence to cook for 30 people at Thanksgiving. No big deal. “We’re used to cooking for armies,” she laughs.

What’s new

Meanwhile the Pacific Chorale is benefitting from Pearson’s passion for music, and marketing. She’s enthusiastic about the origins, “Classical choral music is an art form from Ancient Greece. The first documented music originated with the Catholic Church in Rome”, the sounds, “Absolutely beautiful!”, and their programming, “We have a concert coming up in March called ‘Let’s Dance’ that includes Norwegian choral, Navajo dance, jazz pianists, and the music of Aaron Copland. We’re trying fun, new things.”

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The Pacific Chorale tours internationally every couple of years. Pearson will be traveling to Budapest and Vienna with them this year, thus combining two of her favorite things: music and travel.

“I love to travel,” she says. “I’d like to spend more time in Southern Europe. I love the history, and the art. I usually go to concerts.” Of course she does!

She is one busy woman, though she feels a little less so without the City Council on her agenda. “One great thing about being off the Council is I only go out three nights a week now, not six,” she says. And then she has her special day that’s off limits to anyone else.

“I call it Sacred Sundays,” she says. “Or Sacred Pajama Day when it rains.”

Everyone needs some “me” time, but all the more so when you are a public person, and one with a full calendar such as Elizabeth Pearson. She takes Sundays to read, take walks… a day not to be “on”, not get dressed up, …don’t go to events. Her friends know not to call her on a Sunday, “Unless it’s for fun!”

Yes, she’s a busy, active, and very socially committed person who has done more than her share in service to the community. 

And she does like to have some fun the rest of the week too!


Jeff LaTendresse: our Laguna Beach Fire Chief

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Wanting to be a fireman is a pretty ubiquitous idea for young boys. For Laguna Beach Fire Chief, Jeff LaTendresse, it was obviously more than a childish musing.  

As a 17-year-old North High in Torrance student, “I was coming home from a football game with my neighbor. He told me about his job as a firefighter.  After that, I started taking EMT classes while still in high school; I was a Fire Explorer; I did a year of fire science classes in college. My post advisor was a fire fighter in the Air Force so I enlisted with a guaranteed job as a firefighter.  I knew I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” explains LaTendresse.  

As he says this, he smiles because as we’re talking he is, indeed, sitting behind a very big, very full desk. “Although, obviously that’s what I’m doing right now,” he says in his mildly ironic way. 

Jeff LaTendresse, Laguna Beach Fire Chief

From Cathedral City to Laguna Beach

If LaTendresse finds himself sitting behind a desk more often these days, it is because being Chief is much more administrative than being a firefighter, or even a Battalion Chief.  When we met he was in the midst of compiling the budget for the Fire Department, which can only be, I’m assuming, a very time-consuming task.  Yet, becoming Chief was a goal of his when he started.  

“I remember writing out what I wanted to be, my goals, and I checked that box,” he says.  So it made sense when, in 1997, while in Cathedral City in Riverside County, he decided to apply for the job as Laguna Beach Captain when the position became available.  When he got the job, “I had to make the very difficult decision on whether to transplant here or not.  It was a difficult decision, but a good decision,” he says, again with his gentle irony.

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Chief LaTendresse watches one of his engines at stationone

 

In Laguna Beach, there’s always something

Arriving in 1997 means LaTendresse missed Laguna’s epic fire of 1993, but he has dealt with his share of disasters, nevertheless – this is Laguna, after all – from floods to the Bluebird Canyon landslide.  

“In 2005, the Bluebird Canyon landslide is something I’ll never forget,” says LaTendresse.  “I was one of the first on the scene and it was like a disaster movie out of Hollywood: no street, houses teetering, broken water lines.  We ended up saving two people that day.”  He says this in his matter-of-fact way, but it’s obvious that despite his desk duties, saving people is still part of his job that he relishes.  

“This job is everything I thought it would be. It becomes more administrative the higher up you go, but it still has the same attraction for me as it did when I was 17,” he said.

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His LBFD fire helmets lined up 

Like father, like son

The attraction is, apparently, genetic.  LaTendresse’s son is also on the path to becoming a firefighter.  “My son is in the Army, about to graduate from medic school.  He hopes to get more experience in that area because more of what we do is actually medic related than fire related,” says LaTendresse.  Despite LaTendresse’s understated manner, one could not ignore his pride in his son’s choice.  LaTendresse also has a 24 year-old daughter who lives and works close by to his wife and him.  Both children grew up in Laguna and went through the schools here.

“We need more rain.”

For LaTendresse, leaving Cathedral City wasn’t a very tough choice.  One reason is that he got the job he’d wanted.  A second is pretty obvious: Laguna is a great place to live.  But there is a third reason he lives close to his work:  “The city wants the Fire Chief and the Police Chief to live in town due to the geographic isolation of Laguna.  With only three ways in and out, if something were to happen there would at least be some emergency leadership here,” he explains.  

Despite the many safety measures enacted since the ’93 fire, LaTendresse says the fire department is always on alert.  “We still have the potential of a catastrophic fire,” he says.  I thought perhaps the recent rains might have eased his worries, a bit.  When I ask him that he replies simply, “We need more rain.”  

When you’re Fire Chief of Laguna Beach, it seems you’re never not worrying about something.

 

Fuel Modification Zones are no simple task

To combat some of these worries, the fire department has been developing fuel modification zones.  At Nyes Place and Oro Canyon, for example, the goal is to take a 100-foot section of brush and reduce it by 50% so there is less fuel in case of fire.  From a fire safety perspective it’s a no-brainer. 

However, according to LaTendresse, it’s a very tricky process because other things besides fire safety must be taken into account.  “We have to do a lot of different studies: biology studies, environmental studies, etc., that are an expensive and labor intensive process so that we do this properly.  There is an impact on the environment and we want to make sure we are doing it right.  I think we will ultimately be successful, but it has been an incredible process to get this moving,” he explains.

A more visible fire abatement strategy is the use of goats to clear hillsides of potential fire-feeding brush.  “Hand crews are extremely expensive.  Goats are the most cost-effective method, but they eat everything.  We have to watch that for a few reasons, like erosion.” When it comes to fire management nothing, it seems, is easy.

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Fire Station One, 501 Forest Avenue

Have you checked your smoke detectors?

Like being fire chief.  It’s just not the kind of job you leave at work.  LaTendresse always has his radio with him – always, unless he is away on vacation.  But even then he’s prepared.  “When I fly I always wear a long sleeved shirt and sturdy shoes so I can take care of myself and others in case of an emergency.  I try to instill the safety precautions we preach in myself,” he says.  

Which leads to his suggestions as to what we can all do to better prepare ourselves and our homes in case of fire. “Make sure your smoke detectors are working, if they are battery operated make sure the batteries are fresh; check your landscaping, make sure it’s cleared away from the house and there is nothing overhanging.  If there is a disaster and we ask for you to evacuate, please evacuate so we aren’t putting our firefighters at unnecessary risk.”   

We’ve all heard these suggestions before, but when you hear them from the Chief…let’s just say I went home and double-checked my smoke detectors.


Arnold Hano and his infectious zest for life

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He’s just about to celebrate his 93rd birthday. His step may not be as lively as it once was, but his mind is sharp as a tack, and he manages a perfect twinkle in his eyes. That’s Arnold Hano, a Laguna Beach mover and shaker still.

We met over a nice healthy salad, and later in his comfortable home library and talked about old times, his passion for politics (and love of Michele Obama), changes in Laguna, and baseball. Those subjects may not be ranked in order but they are each a deep a part of his persona.

Arnold Hano

Born in New York, he was a kid raised across the street from the Polo Grounds, where he lived and breathed baseball. He managed a day job as a copy boy at the New York Daily News, and then served in the Army during World War II. After the war he returned to New York, and pursued a career in publishing. 

While editor-in-chief with Lion Books, Hano edited novelists including his favorite author, Jim Thompson. One day he was presented a rare opportunity: a novel (science fiction) written by Leonardo da Vinci. A colleague offered it to him for publishing, “But it’s not very good,” the guy told him. Hano laughed, “That’s like saying, ‘I have a talking dog, but he doesn’t have a good French accent’.”

Covering all the bases

A Giants fan since the age of four, Hano launched his own writing career on one of the most eventful days in his life: Game One of the 1954 World Series; the New York Giants vs. the Cleveland Indians. His record of the day Willie Mays made ‘The Catch’ (and throw) became his highly acclaimed book, A Day in the Bleachers. 

“I was just bantering with a woman in a red hat in the stands; a Dodger fan,” Hano said. The resulting popularity of the book, which is still for sale online, Hano attributes to timing. Until then, stories about baseball were like comics for kids. “I think it’s a nice little book,” Hano says modestly. “It’s a book about fans, and fan-hood. It was just the right time to do an adult baseball book.”

Meanwhile Hano experienced what he refers to as the aftermath of “the Eisenhower economy”. Rather than endure a pay reduction in expensive New York, Hano and his wife Bonnie packed up their one and a half year-old daughter, Laurel, a beagle puppy, eight valises, and headed west.

When they arrived at Bonnie’s mother’s house in Iowa, Hano learned of the hoopla back in New York about his book. Good times and more writing commenced.

Westward they went, “The baby and the dog taking turns throwing up,” Hano laughs.

As they explored the great stretches of the west, Hano surprised himself by writing a western-themed novel. “I didn’t know anything west of the Hudson River,” he said with his happy twinkle.

By the time they got to Laguna, they’d found home. And home in those days amounted to $85 a month for a cottage on Goff Street.

It Takes a Villager 

It didn’t take Hano long to get involved with local politics, and generally living his beliefs by supporting those less fortunate. 

“In 1955 the Ocean Avenue cottages and Roosevelt Drive were enclaves for black families. And black men could not get a haircut in Laguna Beach,” he said. When Hano inquired, the barbers told him they’d lose all their white customers if they cut a black person’s hair. So Bonnie and Arnold set out to do what they could. “We found an accommodation law from 1905 and said to the barbers they had to cut their hair.” 

The Hanos notified the press and the police, and marched, blacks with whites, into all the barbershops in town followed by full press coverage. 

In 1970 it was women’s rights that lit the activist’s fire. The City Council was looking for 16 commissioners, and Hano attended the meeting. “There were sixteen men there, and I stood up and said, ‘Aren’t there any women who could do this?’ A woman showed up the next day.”

Today Hano is concerned for the homeless. “Those people deserve to have a toilet. They deserve supportive housing,” he says. “If I was on the Council, I’d say to [City Manager John] Pietig, ‘Find us a place!’” Hano has served on the board of the Laguna Relief and Resource Center, assisting the homeless community.

His personal interest in politics resulted in one run for City Council. Alas, as he says, “The other guy got more votes.”

Hano’s voice has been heard throughout town since those early days. In addition to writing more than 30 books, including biographies of Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente, he has authored hundreds of newspaper articles. The collection of articles he wrote for the Laguna Beach Post has been compiled into a book, titled It Takes a Villager.

He is Mr. Villager, if ever there was one. Hano adores the human scale and village atmosphere of small-town Laguna. Both Hanos have been named Villagers of the Year by the community organization, Village Laguna.

Design Review 

It all started with a shock in the Canyon.

One day as he was driving through Laguna Canyon Hano was stunned to see giant billboards advertising Leisure World. “It staggered me,” he said. “There were two – forty feet long and ten feet wide.” He called a councilwoman who told him there was nothing to be done about it. It was even zoned for cemetery use. “So I wrote a column about it, and the next day they came down,” he said. “I realized, oh wow, there’s power in this!”

He was also instrumental in preserving a couple of buildings that have become Laguna icons. One is what is now the orthodontist’s building on Glenneyre (Dr. DiGiovanni), and the other is what is now Royal Thai. Both buildings had been behind the Wells Fargo building on Ocean Avenue. At the time, the Federal Savings and Loans had permits to destroy them. It was thought that they were falling down. Hano went inside and discovered just the opposite, so he searched for a way to save them.

“I went to the Coastal Commission and argued that they should be saved,” he said. “They said to move them, so I found people who would take them for free, and pay the $5,000 to move them. There were a couple of lots available. It was easy to move them!”

Preservation and village atmosphere fall under the grander scheme of Design Review, that all important commission that Hano supports in full force. Along with architect Chris Abel, and realtor Milt Hanson, Hano took on the giant task of keeping the “giant” out of Laguna. Their main issue was building height restrictions. “From Broadway to Bluebird, there would have been ten-story buildings,” he said. The successful result came about with partnering help from Village Laguna and the 3700 residents who voted in favor of the citywide height limit. Buildings in Laguna are now restricted to a 36 foot height maximum.

Hano believes in Design Review, regardless of contentious project issues. “I think it’s wonderful no matter how much animosity. You always make a friend and an enemy,” he said. “But Laguna Beach is best served when it’s kept to a modest, human scale.”

The next pesky issue for Hano is the undergrounding of utility lines citywide. Trees in danger of falling on electric lines, power outages resulting from damaged poles – all discussion would be moot, if Hano had his way. “Chop that tree down? No. Bury the pole!”

Who likes adventure?

Bonnie and Arnold Hano jumped in with both feet when they signed up for the Peace Corps at a time when most people are thinking about retiring to a hammock somewhere. They love to travel, but the Peace Corps is a whole different travel animal.

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Bonnie and Arnold Hano

It was 1991, and they had taken a trip to Costa Rica where they got to spend some time talking with the Peace Corps director there. Sure enough, they signed up and were selected for Costa Rica. They spent two years plus three months for training; a time that forever changed their lives. 

“We were in a town of 800 people,” says Hano. “There was one car in the whole town. There was a grade school that was falling apart. It was thirty years of neglect and earthquake damage.” 

The Hanos begged and borrowed to raise money from friends, and set about to fix everything they could with the help of the villagers. It was a joyful community. “They turn everything into a good time,” said Hano. 

It was such a rewarding experience, and a sense of belonging that the Hanos built themselves a house in the same village once their Peace Corps stint was done. They returned to Laguna but continued to visit their Costa Rica home away from home, off and on, for another five years.

Hano’s favorite places they’ve visited around the globe include Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, China, Alaska, and Rhine and Mosel River cruises. Part of that has to do with beer.

“I discovered all the beers of the world, “ says Hano. “I miss that.” He’s not “allowed” to drink anymore, but has fond memories. “I think beer is a very noble drink.” Twinkle in eye again!

Arnold Hano may not partake of the noble beer any longer, but he’s still high on life. I’m sure he’ll be walking circles around most of us as he carries his zest for life, and nurturing care for Laguna forward into the future.


Jenny Salberg: Energy, balance and middle school

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I couldn’t ask for anything more. I wouldn’t change anything. I’m still challenged.  I get up early and can’t wait to get to work.”  

When you can say this about your job after over 20 years, you know you are in the right line of work.  The fact that your work is dealing with the trickiest of all age groups – middle schoolers – means you aren’t wired like the rest of us.  Jenny Salberg, Thurston Middle School’s principal, really believes she has the greatest job in the world.  She’s so passionate about it; in fact, she had me thinking she had the greatest job in the world.  That’s some serious conviction.

Balance as life’s “white whale”

However, despite her dedication and commitment to her job of running one of the top rated middle school’s in the OC (Voted Best Middle School by the OC Register in 2013), Salberg has her “other” life, away from Thurston, that she shares with her husband and three children who she is even more devoted to than her job (which is saying something).  However, the demands of both work and family create a constant dilemma familiar to all working parents: the struggle to find balance.  

“It’s the white whale I can never seem to achieve,” explains Salberg.  “It’s the only time I really get in my own head, when I start thinking about if I’m doing enough everywhere, but I’m married to an amazing man who has supported me the whole way.”

Jenny Salberg, Principal, Thurston Middle School, Laguna Beach

Trying – and failing – to fight her calling

 When Salberg started out, education is not where she thought she would have landed.  The daughter of two educators, Salberg told herself, “No way.  I’m not going to do it.”  But as luck would have it, a teaching job became available at Covina High School so she took it.  “I taught three periods and would go home and take a nap. My husband, who was a sheriff at the time, would come home and say, ‘What are you doing?!’  So he got his certificate to substitute teach, and went into the classroom for one day. He came home and said, ‘Never again!’ It was the best thing that ever happened!” laughs Salberg. “Education probably was my calling.  I just tried to fight it.  I used to spend so much time in my classrooms. I loved it!” 

Salberg taught at Covina High for six years before she interviewed for an assistant principal position at Laguna Beach High School.  “I did that for four years and I knew I loved it.  You never know what the day will bring,” she says.  Then she moved to Thurston Middle School (TMS) where she has been for the past 11 years, first as assistant principal then finally getting the top job in 2011.  “I still remember my first year at Thurston.  The kids are so different than at the high school.  I thought I was only (interested in) high school, but there’s an innocence at the middle school level.  They’re not as independent, and I love that.”

Salberg with TMS students, Left to Right: Matt Blunk, Quinn Winter, Fernando Barrazza, Salberg and Taylor Kaye

Finding her passion at Thurston Middle School

If middle schoolers aren’t quite as self-reliant as high schoolers, Salberg says one of the benefits of her working full time is that her kids have learned to become very independent.  Her oldest daughter, a senior at an Irvine High School, applied to college all on her own, for example.  “Because I’ve always worked my kids are all very independent,” she says.  

But wait, Irvine schools? Why not Laguna schools? “I wanted them to have their own identity.  I think that’s very important, although my youngest still asks to come here,” explains Salberg.

The symbiotic relationship of home and work

She feels confident about that decision, but Salberg, like all parents, often wonders what the “right” thing to do is with her own kids. 

“It’s hard as a parent to know that what you’re doing is right.  How do you know when your kid turns out OK?  When they graduate from high school? College? When they get a job?  Is there ever that validation?”  But there is a symbiosis between parenting three kids and being a principal. “I can use lessons from school at home.  I am current on every topic and a little piece of everything here comes home with me.”

Bringing her work home with her has its benefits and, of course, a few drawbacks. “It becomes a certain kind of energy – fast paced, need to be in the know -- that you get addicted to.  It’s a hard thing to let go of; it’s hard to turn off.  Sometimes my husband will say, ‘OK…you’re not at school.” I try to go to the gym on my way home. That saves me.  Not everything is a level 10 fire,” laughs Salberg.

Principal Salberg in her office with staff members, Brad Rush and Jennifer Rush

Working to improve the educational experience for all students

When she is at school, this energy serves her well.  There is a lot going on at the middle school.  From implementing what the district has termed 4CLE classrooms that seek to create a “classroom environment centered on collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity” to revamping academic support classes, Salberg says she is always looking to improve the educational experience of her students. 

“I’ve got incredible teachers pushing themselves.  Things look completely different today, and that’s not easy.  It can be uncomfortable, but it’s inspiring,” she says.

The entrance at Thurston Middle School

Uncomfortable and inspiring could also be used to describe the middle school years.  The kids aren’t “little kids” anymore, but they’re not quite ready for the responsibility that comes with high school.  That transition can be tricky, but also exciting. “I want everybody to have good memories from Thurston,” explains Salberg.  “It’s such a make or break time.”  

Striving to not only achieve, but also to improve upon that experience, is a task not for the faint of heart – which is why Jenny Salberg is such a great fit. Listening to her enthusiastically detail the many things going on at Thurston almost – almost – made me want to go back to middle school (and who ever thinks that?!). 

“I love this community.  You can have an idea here and actually make it happen,” says Salberg. 

Lucky for us, Salberg has a lot of ideas – which means a lot is happening at Thurston Middle School.


Hallie Jones: home is where the path leads

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Hallie Jones loves to read. In fact, she was an English literature major at UCLA, with a minor in creative writing. Knowing this, I mentally stage her life as a drama, set in a bucolic green meadow, long auburn curls flying in the wind as she rides an impatient mare up to the top of the ridge.

It was kind of like that.

When Hallie grew up in Laguna Beach, it was a different sort of place than it is today. It was a rural scene, and she did ride her horse through Laguna Canyon, perhaps singing the words, “Don’t fence me in…”

“We rode horses on Castle Rock Road,” she said. “It was my first experience of open space.” That was before the term “open space” needed to be clarified, for the undeveloped greenbelt around Laguna. Back then she even once saw a mountain lion in the Canyon.

Today, Hallie Jones is the champion for keeping the Canyon as pristine as possible. She has been the Executive Director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation (LCF) for a year now, and that makes her one happy camper. “Being able to take that passion and turn it into a career is a huge gift for me,” she said. 

One part is her knowledge and love of Laguna’s wild spaces, and the other part is the sense of community. Interviewing for the LCF position was truly a homecoming.

“I know a lot of these people. Coming into a community so dedicated to doing good, it was the best coming home,” she said. “I walked into that office, and I thought, ‘this is it. I’m never going to leave!’”

East Coast / West Coast

The intervening years took Hallie from bucolic Laguna Canyon, to finishing high school in Washington, DC, then to UCLA, followed by her first career move; the beginnings of a life dedicated to the environment – working with Heal the Bay. 

As far as leaving Laguna for Washington, Hallie was a bit of a fish out of water. “We moved the summer before senior year of high school,” she remembers. “I showed up with crazy hair and Birkenstocks.” 

It was an important experience because she had the chance to encounter ‘urban sophistication’. “But it was also isolating,” she continued. “After Laguna and knowing other kids my whole life, I had to stand on my own two feet.”

Those Birkenstock clad feet returned to the sunshine shores for college, and then she prepared for a career in the world of advertising. It was not to be. She was 22 and not so much interested in that type of corporate world. 

“I was into conservation,” she said. “Working with like-minded people toward a thing we could all agree on… I loved it.” That was at Heal the Bay, where Hallie and other like-minds collaborated, raised awareness, and took action to protect the health of the Santa Monica Bay.

Arriving Home

Hallie worked at Heal the Bay for 15 years. She lived in Mar Vista, got married and had a child. But Laguna was still in her blood, and her daughter, Emmie, now nine, was also enthralled with fun in Laguna. There’s a whole family here, including Hallie’s parents: her mom, artist Kathy Jones, and her dad, Mike, who teaches woodworking at Cerritos College. Hallie’s sister is raising her kids, and lives in Woods Cove. Hallie’s second child, a son, was born here in Laguna.

Her grandparents started it all when they came to live in Woods Cove.

Now that Hallie is a single mom, it’s very supportive having her family around. Emmie and her brother Kai, a kindergartner, have their cousins and grandparents, and thanks to their mom, they have the nature of the Canyon to play in. Emmie is a nut for horses too.

“My whole family is here. And my kids are going to the same school I went to [Top of the World],” she said. “One of the many things that is so satisfying about living here is really being a part of a community, and giving back.”

It seems like destiny, or the climax of her life’s novel that Hallie would be reunited with family and friends at home, while earning her dream job.

Laguna Canyon Foundation

“I have a deep connection to the land,” Hallie says in somewhat of an understatement. “I try to get out in the open space every day. It reminds me of what’s important, why we’re so lucky to live here.”

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The first year’s learning curve at Laguna Canyon Foundation included getting to know who is working on what. “I made sure to know all the players,” Hallie says. “Now I can stop and think, ‘this is the direction we want to go’.”

It’s leadership and communication that keep the organization working and thriving. And it’s staff and volunteers who keep the 40 miles of Laguna Coast Wilderness trails cleared and healthy.

“I’m a communicator,” says Hallie. “A people person. I like connecting people to the land.” The LCF office is in the Legion Hall, but Hallie is often at the Nix Nature Center, or out on the trails. 

One of the important things she is busy with is educational outreach, and there are two groups vital to that message: those that use the trails, and those who never have.

Hikers and mountain bikers are very connected to the beauty of the trail system, but often are not aware what impact their activities have on the natural habitat, or how they can help. LCF sponsors “Trail Work Days” so that these types can get in there and lend a volunteer hand. LCF volunteers help with trail restoration and removal of invasive species of plants. 

“It’s great for mountain bikers to see the work that goes into maintaining the trails, and the threats to it,” Hallie says. 

Unauthorized trails are a huge problem, and require frequent and extensive repairs.

The other groups LCF helps to educate are young people, especially those from Title One schools, such as the Santa Ana district. They provide a free educational program, and LCF pays for all the bussing. Schools of second, third, and fourth-graders come for the morning for field trips, games, and lunch. The purpose is to establish familiarity and also a sense of stewardship for open spaces. 

“It’s a wonderful program,” said Hallie. “Some of these kids have never been hiking, never known environmental ethic. They’ll say, ‘Are there bears here?’ It’s a new experience for them. It’s this incredible resource.”

Restoring passion, restoring nature

Hallie Jones is a creature of the earth. When she’s not walking on the trails, or at LCF raising much-needed funds to save them, she’s camping with her family in the Sierras or down to Baja to see the whales. She is at home in the wild places.

 Here in the Canyon there will soon be another trail opened, the “Lizard Trail”, a great point to look for Hallie’s favorite Canyon animal – the tarantula. We may not be lucky enough to see one, but they leave a distinctive footprint to look for. And though there have been no mountain lion sightings for many years, our gem of wilderness is home to many species, including bobcat, coyotes, fox, bats, and, especially this time of year, lots of nice, cool green.

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“When I was a kid, Laguna was artists and hippies, and that has changed to a certain extent,” said Hallie. “I think this town runs the risk of losing sight of its environmental heritage. 

“I like inspiring people to feel as passionate about this land as they did in 1990 to save and preserve it. I want my generation to feel that sense of ownership. They don’t know how hard we fought to save the Canyon then. It’s still under threat today. People need to understand and be aware of that.”

Her love of nature, born as a child in Laguna Canyon, and nurtured in the bays and by-ways is being passed on to the next generation. It’s a cycle of appreciation and remembrance from whence we came.


Chip McDermott: Doing more than just showing up

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

There is a long way between seeing a problem and deciding to do something about it.  Many of us see things we don’t like, problems waiting for solutions, but we sigh, shake our heads and wait for someone else to fix it. Lucky for us, Chip McDermott, founder of Zero Trash, is not one of those people. Dismayed by the abundance of trash he saw on Laguna’s streets, he decided he might as well be the guy to do something about it.  So he did – and still does on the first Saturday of every month. 

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Chip McDermott, founder of Zero trash, in front of El Ranchito

The power of just showing up

For the past seven years McDermott has shown up at El Ranchito on S. Coast Hwy handing out T-shirts, bags and pickers to all who want to help him make Laguna a cleaner place.  Married with two young kids, it’s not like McDermott doesn’t have a million other things he could be doing on a Saturday, but he knew when he started Zero Trash that if he didn’t show up on every first Saturday of the month, it would be impossible to build any momentum.  

“You know how they say that most of success ‘is just showing up’?  Well, that’s true.  So I made a point to show up every week, rain or shine.”

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Zero Trash has a lot of local company support

From intern to entertainment executive

Showing up may be part of his success, but it certainly isn’t all of it.  That’s why this former voice major who studied to become a conductor, parlayed an unpaid internship into a five-year dream job at E! Entertainment TV. Of course, going from intern to executive was no easy feat, but neither was getting the internship to begin with. 

“I decided I wanted to work in the entertainment industry in either music or film.  Somebody told me you could get an internship to get started. I was working at Nordstrom and a lot of entertainment people came into that store and so I just started asking every customer.” So, yes, “showing up” is critical, but a lot of people showed up to work every day at Nordstrom; only one became E’s first music talent executive.

Leaving LA for Seattle and landing in Laguna

After those five years, McDermott began to tire of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry lifestyle.  “A buddy from high school was collecting data for film studios and asked me if I wanted to join him.  Eventually, I said yes.  I went to Seattle, we opened one office with, like, eight people, and now we’re in 23 states with 400 employees. I’ve been with my business partner longer than my wife.  He’s just an amazing partner. ” 

After 10 years in Seattle, McDermott decided he needed some sun so he and his wife started looking for places to live in southern California.  “I grew up in Orange.  We always came to Laguna Beach.  I felt then that if I was ever fortunate enough to pick where I could raise my family it would be at the beach.”  They first looked at Topanga, but ultimately chose Laguna.  And we are all lucky they made that choice or our streets and beaches would be a lot less clean.  

“I couldn’t believe Laguna had become this tourist town with trash,” he remembers thinking with dismay.

Chip McDermott at a Zero Trash assembly at El Morro School

Perseverance nets results

He started small. “I organized my street in 2007 to do a clean up.  Then I spent a lot of time talking to businesses and asking them to be a ‘street front supporter.’“  Then he did what many thought could not be done – he got the city and Waste Management on board.  “Without Toni (Iseman) I wouldn’t have gotten this done.”  The “this” he is referring to is additional trashcans and ashtrays all over town.  Iseman also introduced him to Michele Clark at Waste Management who helped him get sponsored allowing him to buy things like banners to promote Zero Trash. 

Building a sense of community through trash

“If it weren’t for a few great people, Elyse and Julie Shahan, Katie Ford and Robert Wolfshagen who owns Screenworks and gives me my shirts at a reduced rate – he’s huge! – I couldn’t do it,” says McDermott.  “A lot of this, for me, is about community.  I get to hang out with my neighbors and help out.  We don’t really get the chance to do that anymore.  I needed that.”  

Other communities have embraced his idea, as well. There are currently Zero Trash chapters in Aliso Viejo, Dana Point and Rancho Santa Margarita. Many other chapters have opened – and closed, a testament to how hard something like this is to sustain and McDermott’s fierce determination to the cause. “There are a lot of good intentions, but it’s hard to maintain,” explains McDermott sympathetically.

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Cigarette butts account for a lot of the trash on our streets

Retailers offer supplies and discounts

So if you’re finding yourself wanting to experience a sense of community or just want to do a job that needs to be done, you can show up on the first Saturday of every month (the next one is Saturday, Feb 7), grab a picker and get to work. Most people are familiar with the El Ranchito location because that’s the one where McDermott sets up and hands out the t-shirts.  However, there are four other locations: Hobie, Thalia Surf Shop, Laguna Beach High School (it’s an on-campus club founded by his niece back in 2009, but still going strong) and United Studios of Self- Defense.  The retailers, in addition to handing out pickers and other trash pick-up supplies, offer discounts on merchandise if you pick up from their stores.  “If you go to a location and need supplies let me know,” says McDermott. 

The best way to reach him is via email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Seven years, 52 Saturdays…and counting

 “I have a huge passion for this.  I don’t really know why.  When I started it my kids were five and four.  My wife has been awesome.  She understands its importance to me so I can be there most Saturdays, even now,” he says thoughtfully.  “The biggest misnomer is that it’s a beach clean up,” he explains.  The idea is to get the trash off the streets before it hits the beach. “People tell me they’ve seen an improvement, big time, around town,” he says hopefully.  Seeing the difference his efforts make undoubtedly makes it easier for McDermott to keep showing up, but seven years, 52 Saturdays…that’s almost a year’s worth of days given to the cause.  

Chip McDermott has definitely showed up.  Let’s make sure he’s not alone.


Kathy Conway has numbers and heart for art

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

And a one, and a two… Somehow, Kathy Conway must have that rhythm in her brain. She’s the other half of a dynamic accounting duo, and a huge part of the Laguna Dance Festival to boot.

Kathy Conway

What once might have been the isolated life of a number cruncher blossomed and multiplied two-fold when Kathy connected with her husband, Mike. And what once was a small, yet talented dance community has flourished into a world-class destination for dancers of every stripe to perform in Laguna Beach before a world-class audience of aficionados.

The Duo

Kathy and Mike have their own love story – and it involves numbers.

They first met back in the hippie 60’s. They became good friends, albeit with different spouses. Fast-forward a couple of decades, each was post-divorce, when one sunny Laguna day a friend said to Kathy, “Hey! Mike’s in town.”

That was in 1983. July 21, 1983, to be exact. “And we haven’t been apart since,” said Conway. In fact, they just celebrated their 35th anniversary on Christmas, just a few weeks ago.

Not only have they not been apart socially, they’ve also been connected professionally since then. Mike is a CPA, and Kathy a full-time accountant. For 30 years now, the accountants are known as Conway Financial Services, providing property management and financial consultation.

“We’re a 24/7 couple, and we do it very well, if I do say so,” said Kathy. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be with.” 

Aww, another number - 100% togetherness.

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Kathy and Mike, in their living room, where they meet with clients

Jointly, Kathy and Mike have four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Their CPA firm includes many friends, local businesses and charitable organizations. The Conways enjoy living and working in their creatively remodeled historic cottage, which is filled with artworks by Laguna artists.

Yes, she’s a nut for the arts, and thankfully so. Laguna would not be a visionary art community without the time, attention, and assistance of people like Kathy Conway. Especially with regards to budget and finance, artists can use a little guidance. “Artists have a real need to have someone take care of that,” she says, knowingly.

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Amongst her many volunteer activities, Conway serves on committees at the Laguna Art Museum, the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, and the Woman’s Club, as well as other non-profits, and as Treasurer for Music Matters, the Laguna Canyon Foundation, and the Laguna Dance Festival.

The Dance

Conway first saw Jodie Gates perform with the Joffrey Ballet in the 1990’s. She had the great good fortune of meeting her, and when she retired, guess where Gates wanted to come? That’s right, Laguna Beach. 

Conway was there at the beginning with her friend, (former president of the Laguna Dance Festival) Janet Eggers. They were part of the think tank, hatching ideas for starting a dance festival with Gates.

The Laguna Dance Festival is near and dear to Kathy’s heart. It has been a success since the beginning in 2006, when performances were at the high school and other venues around town. It is now housed at the Laguna Playhouse with performances in September, and Master Classes offered at the LBHS Dance Studio.

The Festival draws the likes of dancers and dance companies from all over the world. One of their esteemed dancers, Desmond Richardson (“He’s just a glorious dancer – and specimen,” said Conway), did a Master Class last year that was sold out in ten minutes. 

It’s art and it’s also numbers. 

“It’s figuring out how to reach people. How to get more people to understand, and come,” Conway said. “I’m really excited with how well we’ve been received.”

The Days Off

When Conway is in normal form, she can often be found on the tennis court. Alas, she is still recovering after surgery following a nasty fall. But she and her new hip are just about to get back out there and call 40-Love.

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In addition to tennis, Kathy and Mike like to get away on two special occasions: birthdays and Valentine’s Day. For all their years together, they’ve escaped up the coast on those special dates to a secret hideaway in Big Sur. “Deetjen’s has been the best thing for us, for 30 years,” said Conway. 

Now we know! It looks nice too; one part European glamour and one part bohemian lifestyle amongst the redwoods. But the Conway secret will be safe – we won’t visit Deetjen’s Inn on those dates. 

Another Kathy Conway secret is that she loves to cook. Once that word gets out, people will be knocking on the door for her Louisiana Chicken recipe. Stay tuned, because she promised she’ll to give it to Stu News. Can’t wait!



Maggi Henrikson: Bringing her enthusiasm to StuNews

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

An auspicious start in journalism

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

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

Maggi Henrikson, Associate Editor of StuNewsLaguna

Curiosity leads to StuNews

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

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

A plane ticket and a dozen roses

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

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

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

From art consultant to stay at home mom

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

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

Immersed in family life

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

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Maggi Henrikson at home working her magic

Becoming an important asset to StuNews

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

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

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

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

It works out,” she says.

Making time for travel, tennis and other endeavors

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

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

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Maggi and her dog, Banshee, on her lovely deck

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

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



Ivan Spiers: The man behind peri-peri and apparel

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing a business

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music for the soul

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

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

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

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

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

“I try to help everybody,” he says.

And he does. It’s just in his nature.


Carrie Reynolds: Finding ways to do it all

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Carrie Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Design Group

Going all the way to the coast

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

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

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

Taking advantage of new technology

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

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

A challenging baseball season offers an opportunity

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

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

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

10 Boys Who Care helping others

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

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

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

 

Conquering fears and finding a family in Lagunatics

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

Nollaig Na Mna hits Laguna

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

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

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

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

Maybe we should all be so crazy.

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A Reynolds Family Christmas Card


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

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos By MARY HURLBUT

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

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

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

Tom Davis

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

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

Recalling his own very serious awakening  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there’s the lighter side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next Tom?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marian Keegan and Fernanda Rocha

The Art of Fitness: The evolution of a partnership

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

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

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

Partners with different backgrounds, but similar values

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

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

The Art of Fitness, Laguna Beach

An adventure turns into US citizenship

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

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

Fernanda Rocha, co-owner of The Art of Fitness

Laguna Beach means volleyball all year round

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

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

Marian Keegan, co-owner of The Art of Fitness

From business partners to “family”

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

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

Fernanda Rocha teaches a class at The Art of Fitness

Change is good, in life and business

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

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

The Art of Juicing takes it to another level

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

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

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

Marian Keegan runs a spin class for her clients

A community, a family, a place to feel better

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

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


Karen Polek: a medicine woman for the new age

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Karen Polek

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

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

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

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

Past and present

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

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

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The healing office

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

The Cranium and the Sacrum

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

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

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

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

The body and the mind 

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

That can lead to an emotional release. 

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

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

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

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

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

Illness and Health

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

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

Dolphins and Therapy

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

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

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

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

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


Mary Hurlbut: Finding an outdoor joy in pictures

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Scott Brashier

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

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

A self-declared “ocean fanatic”

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

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

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Mary Hurlbut with her ever-present camera and smile

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

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

The Sawdust Festival and 27 years of dual booths

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

New technology leads to a new medium

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

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

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

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Mary Hurlbut in her home-office

Finding her style and the hazards of the camera phone

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

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

Social media helps refine her craft

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

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Mary Hurlbut in work-mode

A post-workout chat with Stu provides a new opportunity

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

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

Living as an artist: a dream fulfilled

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

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

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


Boris Piskun: a Laguna global citizen with a big heart

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Boris Piskun

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

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

Submitted photo

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

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

An immigrant’s story

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

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

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

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

On the other side of the border

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

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

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

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

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

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

A global life puts things in perspective 

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

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

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

Little Piskun’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoken like a true forward.


Lynn Epstein: Maximizing potential with humor

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

Therapist by day, comic by night

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

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

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Lynn Epstein shows some of her tricks of the trade

A hiatus from stand-up leads to other things

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

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

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

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

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Books and toys are everywhere in Epstein’s office

A little bit of science and a little bit of magic

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

Add App creator to the list of accomplishments

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

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

Bringing parents into the process

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

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

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

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

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


Creighton Wall knows, it’s character that counts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Arriving on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brothers, Spencer and Creighton Wall

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

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

He’s not a fan of chicken salad. 

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

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

It started with a bang

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

“California is my wonderland,” he says.

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

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

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

Books and more books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heavy lifting and sorting: Creighton is passionate about recycling

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

It’s fun at the YMCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

A worldwide family

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

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

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

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

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

Awareness Month

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

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Creighton Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ricky Figueroa: Respecting the night shift

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Ricky Figueroa 

Finding an after hours community

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

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

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Ricky Figueroa with some of his North Laguna “peeps”

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

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

Paying it forward at Stop-n-Go

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

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

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

Trust and respect build relationships

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

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

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Ricky Figueroa behind the counter with a smile

A clerk becomes a hero

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

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

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

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


Siblings giving: Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

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

Giving a hand up

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

The City didn’t agree. 

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

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

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

A site for opportunity

Aaron and Shira started to visit the day laborers. 

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

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

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

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

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

The gratitude bestowed on these kids is heart-warming. 

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile the teens fund-raised for more projects. 

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

Friends in Need

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

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

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

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

Also the guy who can speak English.

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

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

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

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

Besides that

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

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

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

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


Faye Chapman: Making many people’s lives better

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

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

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

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

A chance encounter’s surprising impact

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

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

An interest turns into a cause

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

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

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

The Hunger Bowl delivers necessities

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

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

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

National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week Month

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

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

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

An original painting by a homeless person

 

“Treat homeless people as people.”

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


Scott Alan, living in the here and now

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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Scott Alan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laguna Bound 

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

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

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

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

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

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Amber, Scott’s other half

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted photo

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The original Virgin of Guadalupe extra-terrestrial VW

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

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

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

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

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Scott and Amber with the Galactic Please Patrol car

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

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

Being an outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ruben Flores: Bringing new life to Laguna Nursery

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

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

An historic nursery needs saving

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

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

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

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Social media, concerts and, of course, plants

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

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

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

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An interest leads to a fast start for his business

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

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

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Smart business leads to civic involvement

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

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

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

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

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A gift for revitalization

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

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

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

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


Chris Keller looks at life going forward in Laguna

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

Laguna’s business opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An ambitious paperboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up on the Roof

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

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

Life, learning, and family

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

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Alexis, Rocco, Chris, and Amy

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

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

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

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

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


Scott Brashier: Seeing Laguna’s beauty everywhere  

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

The accidental professional

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

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

A six-month vacation turns into mini-retirement

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

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

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

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Photo by Scott Brashier

An invitation he could not refuse

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

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

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

The photographer’s eyes had been reawakened.

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Technology helps reignite a passion

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

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

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

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

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Taking his craft to the next level

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

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

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


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

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

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

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

She is a multi-talented multi-tasker!

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Photo by Mike Altishin

Shaena Stabler

Shaena News Laguna 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

At “the office” and always on-line

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

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

Stay

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mike Altishin

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Performing live at the Blue water Festival

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

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

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

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

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

A difficult look back

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

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

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

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

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

Her mother continues to live in a locked mental facility.

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

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

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

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

Submitted photo

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Shaena with “Daddio”, at long last

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

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

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

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

Smartypants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping heart and mind open through music

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

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

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


Robin Rounaghi: A passion for Laguna Beach schools

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Robin Rounaghi, SchoolPower Executive Director

A family history in public education

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

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

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

An interest in education but a career in law 

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

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

A random act determines a home

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

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

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

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Materials used to increase SchoolPower’s outreach

Paid work resumes while the volunteer work continues

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

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

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

Adding to an already full plate 

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

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

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

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A chance to make a change

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

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

Bringing people together through a common cause

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

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

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

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

And our schools are the better for it.


Art and soul flow through Karen Petty like a river 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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Painter Karen Petty

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

HEART

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

ART

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOUL

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

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

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

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

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

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


The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut and Maggi

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

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

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Room 61, chemistry’s homeroom

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

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

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

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

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

The appeal of venom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted photo

 

Samantha Piskiewicz

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

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

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

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

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

Making choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole is greater than the parts.

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


Jean Paul’s Goodies:

Au Revoir to a true institution

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

A new take on customer service

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

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

From racecar driver to diplomat to…baker?

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

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

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

We have John Wayne to thank

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

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

George Allen makes a conversion

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

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

It’s all in the name of respect

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

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

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

Customers, friends and those who get asked to leave

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

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

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

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

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Cpl. Jason Farris: Working for something better

BY SAMANTHA WASHER
Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

The Top Cop Award and Corporal David McGill

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

The lesson of being mistaken for a homeless person

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

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

The challenges and rewards of something new

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

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

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

Balancing the many needs of the community

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for other cities to step up

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

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

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

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

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

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


Susan Hamil, a heart in Laguna Canyon for animals

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Susan Hamil

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life and Love in Laguna

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

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

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

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Susan, at home with her pack of bloodhound pups

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

Blue Bell

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

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

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

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The Blue Bell Foundation for Cats charming little “Cattage”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the happy kitties enjoying the life of leisure

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

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

Best in Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Barber: A master shares his passion for glass

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

Setting up shop in Laguna Beach

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

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

Mentoring and creating a community of artists

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

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

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Private commissions present interesting challenges

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

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

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

The Montage isn’t a bad place to start

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

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

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

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A live/work space that feels like paradise

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

John and Becky share their oasis with others

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

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A community turns into a family

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

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

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


Mary Kate Saunders; creating a balanced life

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Mary Kate Saunders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardships and blessings 

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

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

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

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

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

The doctor called her in tears with the results. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re a mother first!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sean McCracken: Helping to get people together

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

The basketball courts at Main Beach are a draw

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

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

A career change allows for more community involvement

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

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

From this, Transition Laguna was born.

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Apple trees and strawberries at Bluebird Canyon Farms

 

Transition Laguna and the importance of wine

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

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

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Sean with Dr. Dave

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

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

Next up, Laguna Friends of Architecture

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

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

Stories, people and community are always front and center

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

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

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

Sean McCracken is on a mission to hear them all.

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


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

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Phew!

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

 

Bree Burgess Rosen, the life of the party!

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

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

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

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

Life is a cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she fell in love with a guy from Laguna.

Rhapsody in (the) blue (coast) 

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

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

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Bree at work at No Square Theater

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

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

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

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

The show must go on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Tom Klingenmeier keeps the Sawdust moving forward

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

Making his mark at Laguna Beach High School

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

LBHS Football Coach Klingenmeier

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

Stepping up and making changes at the Sawdust Art Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A signature look is born

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

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

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

Does anyone have a 1963 Corvette?

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

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

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

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Family, work, and community make for a full life

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

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

Now, if only he could find that Corvette.  


Larry Nokes, a Renaissance man in our time

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

Larry Nokes

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

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

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

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

Chamber man

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

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

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A mover and shaker, with accolades to match

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

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

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

Looking out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back 

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

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

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

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

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

Bake it, broil it, grow it and grill it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lisa Mansour: Jumping in all the way for community 

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Lisa Mansour, a giver to the community

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

And she has. 

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

Getting involved with her girls

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

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

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

Sometimes you just have to jump in

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

Marriage and kids came; roots were set down.

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

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

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

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

A family affair with the performing arts

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

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

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Lisa’s life is immersed in the arts

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

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

Turning loss into a dream realized

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

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

Back to the future - art school it is!

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

Giving back

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

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

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

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


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

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Nancy Csira keeps a sharp eye on design 

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

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

With a passion for design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She is a go-getter

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

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

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

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

On the field too

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

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

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

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

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

If you’ve enjoyed a burger or two at Riddle Field’s snack bar anytime since its re-do, you’ll have Nancy Csira to thank. She donated her time and design to replacing the tilting, tired shack with the current iteration, complete with new foundation. She enjoyed the project. She said, “I saw it as playing and having fun; not as work.”

She also served seven years as Registrar for AYSO. Dealing with parents and their griping was like negotiation 101 which she’s parlayed into her City work: negotiation 102. 

Playing sports and building things runs in the family. Csira’s son, Chip, is now a local building contractor. When he was little she called him MacGyver; he was always making things out of nothing. “He just loved building things,” she said. “And we both loved Legos.”

Nancy was playing and building with Legos at seven years old, when she mapped out her plan. “I knew I wanted to be an architect and a mom when I grew up. I kind of forgot about the husband part,” she jokes. 

She had an early start in the world of design/build, yet never gave up on her vision. It’s this committed passion to the pursuit of her dreams that keeps driving her vision forward. Doing what she enjoys, and enjoying what she does is what makes Nancy Csira the happy and delightful person she is.


The Ranch: The Grand Dame’s Final 

(and Most Spectacular) Legacy

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by Diane with a little help from The Ranch

 

In 1871, she welcomed the first home in Laguna Beach. 

Now – 142 years later – she will play host to Laguna’s last, great resort.

It’s a fitting honor for this grand dame, who’s so reticent of the spotlight that most people drive right past her without even looking in her direction. Those who have stopped to get to know her, though, come away with a memory that lasts a lifetime. 

For Mark Christy, it’s high time this beauty was introduced to a much larger audience of admirers. 

She is The Ranch at Laguna Beach, formerly a.k.a., The Thurston Homestead, Ben Brown’s and Aliso Creek Inn (Hey, every grand dame is allowed a few name changes over the course of a lifetime.).

From the entryway on Coast Highway, you wonder how a hotel and a 9-hole golf course can be tucked back in what seems like such a tiny space. Drive a few hundred yards into the interior, though, and The Ranch offers a stunning enclave that meanders beneath towering canyon walls. 

“Most people think they’ve taken a wrong turn when they first turn up our street,” says Director of Sales & Marketing Jim Tolbert. “But once they make that final turn and the entire canyon opens up in front of them, they’re just stunned. The Ranch is not what anyone expects.”

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The golf course - today

 

The Ranch is the “yin” to the rest of Laguna Beach’s “yang”

Not even a quarter mile away, the Pacific pounds its way onto the beaches and rocks, and thousands of visitors create their own riotous color palette of beach blankets and umbrellas. There is a constant thrum of energy and activity in Laguna Beach. 

In contrast, The Ranch is sublime serenity. 

“We have people tell us that as soon as they get beyond the first hole of the golf course, everything changes for them,” says General Manager Kurt Bjorkman. “She just has that kind of way about her.”

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Since Mark Christy and his team took over as The Ranch’s new “caretakers” in late 2013, they commonly refer to the property as “her.”  

“This girl has plenty of personality and – I suspect – many stories to tell,” says Christy. “She’s just so darned charming that it’s made all of us that much more committed to giving her the spotlight she deserves.” 

While daily golfing, family events and catered special events continue through the summer at The Ranch, late September and early October will see the actual spotlight switched to “ON” when renovations are completed for the hotel and banquet hall/restaurant. 

“Renovations” Meaning Building Back Up from the Foundation

Most folks around town think Mark Christy is merely sweeping out the dust on the old hotel room floors and changing a bit of wallpaper here and there.

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Oh no no no. What’s happening here is big … very big. But when all the new is completed, it will look as if she’s been settled here for decades. 

The Ranch is returning to her roots, evolving in a lovely, turn-back-the-clock sort of way as a classic, beachy cottage resort. 

“In all my years growing up, I spent just about every weekend at Crystal Cove in my grandmother’s Cottage #9,” says Christy. “That relaxed, nostalgic kind of feel is what The Ranch imbibes, but it’s also going to be very chic and very cool. We call it ‘unpretentious luxury meets coastal ranch chic.” 

Her Story Till Now

Naming her officially as “The Ranch” came just as easily to the new owners. “We never really sat down and had a brainstorming session on what we were going to call her,” says Bjorkman. “From Day One, this was “The Ranch.” She just had that old-school, relaxed vibe about her.”

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Thurston Homestead

Indeed, “The Ranch” was her first name when the Thurston Homestead was established here in 1871. Remnants of the first cottage were recently found at the golf course’s third hole. Cattle guards still remain in primary roads. And almond and walnut trees are still producing their wares, having been planted more than a century ago as part of the working ranch.

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Girl Scout Camp – circa mid-1950s

In 1927, The Ranch was host to the first Girl Scout camp in California, and in 1950 she was named the Laguna Beach Country Club. In 1960, she was sold to Ben Brown, who had plans for a 10-story hotel. 

While the towering blueprint was actually approved by the City in 1961, the local and national economy wasn’t stable enough to support Ben’s plan. So, Brown resorted to opening a rambling 64-unit apartment complex in 1963, instead. The lovely 9-hole golf course and a hexagonal home for the Browns followed suit.

Brown’s widow held on to the place for decades, finally selling to Aliso Creek Properties LLC in 2004. The Montage Resort managed the property and made upgrades through mid-2013 until the LLC entertained Mark Christy’s purchase requests. 

A Stunning Canyon Experience

When Aliso Creek Properties stepped out in November 2013, Christy and his team moved in like a military operation. 

Gilbert Briseno, “The Tree Whipserer”

While workers began dismantling the hotel roofing and walls, another crew tackled the overgrown golf course, led by none other than Gilbert Briseno. Gilbert began working on Ben Brown’s golf course in 1963 (50 years ago!) as the first Caddyshack “gopher getter,” and was subsequently hired by Fred Lang, the famed landscape architect in 1968. 

In the many years since, Gilbert has become known as the area’s “Tree Whisperer,” as he renovates and reinvigorates plant life everywhere. Since November, Gilbert has worked tirelessly with crews, clearing yards of poison oak lining the course, cutting down diseased pines that threatened healthy tree neighbors, filling 40 dumpsters with invasive weeds and fire-hazard overgrowth, and saving the lives of many trees and plants that others would have been uprooted. 

The result? An unbelievable “new” view that golfers didn’t even know existed. 

For starters, you can actually see the canyon walls and interesting caves on either side. Trees and bushes have sprung back to life. The once-clogged creek now chuckles happily along. And the overgrown site that initially served as the Girl Scout Camp is now a gorgeous, wide-open venue for special events (nicknamed “Scout Camp.”) Even better – erosion hazards throughout the course have been fortified with repurposed red cedar planking that once housed the hotel’s carports.  

The “Scout Camp” set up for a wedding event

Nostalgia Draped in Modern-Day Luxury

As Christy moves from the golf course tour to the hotel renovation explanation, he is positively gleeful. 

“If you want to enjoy your honeymoon in seclusion, you can have that. And, if you want your entire wedding party in a series of hotel rooms that converge onto one courtyard, you can have that, too. This is as individualized or as group-oriented an experience as you wish it to be,” he says.    

The Ranch’s original 64-rooms have been expanded to 97 approved hotel units, including 64 large hotel rooms, nine studios, three massive suites and 20 “cottages” that feature 1,125 square feet in an upstairs/downstairs layout. Lastly, the hexagonal Brown house (now named “The Treehouse”) will be included in the rental mix as a separate, two-story home that overlooks The Ranch’s green expanse. 

In keeping with the beachy, cottage nostalgic feel, the hotel is topped in rusted corrugated tin roofing and “every furniture and décor item you see in the hotel rooms will be ‘found’ items.

“We want a very relaxed, beach cottage feel. Even our air conditioning units will be stealth,” Christy says with a grin. 

Even as the giant, gleaming kitchen continues to cater to incoming, weekly weddings and events, the banquet hall, private dining rooms and primary restaurant are undergoing staged renovation, too.

Here, the ceilings will be popped for another 6 feet of height. Over here, the banquet room will be extended onto a 3,000-foot deck. Behind this bar here, floor-to-ceiling glass windows will slide effortlessly open and closed. Even the hotel lobby’s location is changing to create a greater “sense of arrival” for guests. 

A Magnetic Pull

As we chat, Camron Woods trots in from the same lobby we’re discussing. He is the new Director of Culinary Operations, having recently moved from his Executive Chef’s role at the Grand Del Mar’s Amaya restaurant. 

Assuredly, the Ranch has attracted a veritable “who’s who” in the hospitality industry.

“I was working at my 13th hotel, and it was a pretty amazing place, but I just knew I had to be here at The Ranch,” says GM Bjorkman. “For the most part, people in the hospitality industry consign themselves to a rather nomadic lifestyle – movement is normal. But I know my entire career has led to this project. I’m submerged completely, every day; there’s just nothing like it.”

Adds Tolbert, “Every day I drive up here, I feel folded into the family. There’s a sense of commitment here from everyone involved; it’s become a real labor of love. 

“It’s important that we give The Ranch her chance to really shine in front of the Laguna Beach community … and a global community as well. She is the unique culture of Laguna Beach,” says Tolbert. 

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Bjorkman sits back in his chair and thinks for a moment. “When you decide to make a career in hospitality, you make a commitment to serve others above yourself. 

“And when you think of this place – The Ranch – as a personality, it’s so fitting because she just has this great energy … this air of ‘service’ and graciousness and welcome.

“You just feel … held.” 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the popular book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best


Dave Dixon, Thurston’s primo language and cultural educator is preparing to say adios, au revoir, zai jian

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

A young girl brought her friend around the corner of the building and said, “It’s in here, come on.”  Her friend looked around furtively. “Don’t worry, he’s old school, but he’s nice,” the girl reassured her. She stepped inside the doorway and pointed straight ahead. Her friend laughed when she saw it and exclaimed, “It really is like a museum piece!”

Dave Dixon overheard the whole thing and chuckled, “Yes, it’s a chalkboard. I’m still 20th century!”

And there he is, Señor Dixon personified, pants covered in his usual chalk dust. 

He puts most kids immediately at ease with his breezy nature and Southern charm, so the two girls felt quite comfortable. And, like even the new young teachers at Thurston, they wanted to go over and touch the actual chalkboard. When Dixon retires this year after 25 years of service to the kids of Laguna Beach’s middle school, so too will the chalkboard. Alas, it will be replaced with that ubiquitous staple of the modern classroom, the White Board.

“I really like chalkboards,” Dixon says with his gracious smile, and then recounts the bemused cashier at Staples, where he buys his chalk. “I came up to the register with a box of chalk, and the guy looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I teach’,’ I told him. He just said, ‘You use a chalkboard?’”

Languages teacher Dave Dixon holds the Key to Thurston

Now, granted, chalk is not the only tool in Dixon’s educational arsenal. When it comes to 21st century technology, his classroom is a veritable treasure trove of gadgets. There are 15 iPads loaded with games and quizzes for Dixon’s Mandarin Chinese, Español, and English (second language) students. Those iPads can connect with the Google TV’s (three of them), so everyone is able to share content and keep up at the same pace.

But another of Dixon’s tried-and-true classroom techniques is decidedly old school. All the desks face forward. Seems like a simple concept, right? Part of the diabolical nature of Dixon’s charm is that he subtly teaches kids how to pay attention, be respectful, and listen to the teacher. That is true genius in the middle school years.

What will all the chalk do without Señor Dixon?

The classroom atmosphere reflects Dixon’s positive attitude in general.  He has Chinese dragon kites hanging on one side, and the Hispanic Wall of Fame on the other. The chalkboard, usually covered with Chinese characters, also props up the Riesgo board – that favorite game like Jeopardy, where student competitors represent different Spanish-speaking countries. And under the side tables are the sodas, juice, and snacks for afterschool pick-me-ups, and regular parties.

“I have been so happy here,” he says. “The district has been really supportive of my ideas, and different programs. And the parents! They send their kids ready to learn here. It makes teaching ten times easier.”

The adults they will become

No doubt, the middle school years are fraught with doubt, peer pressure, and other anxieties. These are the most impressionable years to grasp the concepts of self-respect and kindness toward others, including adults and society as a whole.

Dave Dixon may understand that more than most parents, having been around this age group for so long. He gives sagely advice to the parents on “Back to School” night by emphasizing the influence parents have in the choice of their children’s friends. “I tell them, ‘Encourage your children to choose friends who value succeeding and learning. They will be better off if they make friends with others who value their family relationships.’”

Thurston’s principal, Jenny Salberg, has been witness to the many accomplishments of this fine teacher. “Dave Dixon is able to teach the love of language, appreciation of culture, and provide an outstanding example for students to be global citizens,” she said. “He teaches by example the dignity of humanity, and he’s an inspiration to us all.”

A date with destiny

Dixon started teaching 40 years ago, when he was a proper Southern gentleman in Virginia and North Carolina. He departed briefly for six years to become a flight attendant in order to satisfy some of his wanderlust. That was when he fell in love with California. A two-week airline training session was unexpectedly postponed and Dixon found himself grounded in Santa Monica for the duration.

When he felt the tug on his heartstrings at the return of school buses in autumn, he knew it was time to get back into teaching. He signed on to teach in Manhattan Beach before joining Thurston in 1989. 

He’s always been a talented Spanish teacher, but along the way he learned German, a little Japanese and French, and continues the herculean task of conquering Mandarin Chinese.

“Now I look like I got off the Ark,” he jokes. Then, as now, his enthusiasm knows no bounds. 

He started the “Language Wheel” program, where students immersed in Spanish, French, German, and Japanese for six-week sessions each, including language instruction, cultural investigation, and Dixon’s famous field trips. 

“I loved going to Olvera Street,” former student Erik Henrikson said. “I loved Medieval Times!” Nick Henrikson said. Those two favorite trips are still part of the program today, even though the wheel has been changed.

For the last several years, Dixon’s “other half” has been Randi Beckley. Beckley teaches French and Linguistics, while Dixon teaches Mandarin and Spanish. Every nine weeks they switch kids over to each other’s class. Beckley expressed what so many colleagues feel about Dave Dixon’s retirement, “I’m just so sad for me, and for the kids. But I’m also happy for him.” 

This week he was presented the “Key to Thurston” in honor of his stewardship and tenure at the school.

It’s been a fun ride for 25 years and the future looks bright too

Why leave? You’d never know it by his boyish looks, but Dixon is practically ancient! Kidding. “I am!” he insists. “I’m probably the oldest in the district.” At 63, that seems unlikely, but it’s the timing that’s right for Dixon to begin a new chapter.

Chapter two

“I still have the energy, and I want to do something different, and enjoyable,” he says. “My retired friends who are the happiest are the ones who re-invent themselves.” He’s following their cue, and putting a plan in place that ties together all the things he has enjoyed in his career: language, culture, learning, and travel.

Next up – back to being a student. He’ll be attending the International Guide Academy this summer, hoping to launch his own tourism travel service in the next year. His focus is on international travel, most likely to start with a guided tour to Spain, and also travelling by train as a specialty. “I like helping people have fun outside of their every day life,” he said.

This man has been an unbelievably patient, considerate, and devoted educator with a footprint huge in the sands of Laguna Beach. Filling them again will definitely require different zapatos because Dave Dixon is one of a kind.


Jane Hanauer:

Laguna’s reigning queen of “The Ripple Effect

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It’s interesting how one small event can create a ripple that affects hundreds, even thousands of lives. In many cases, when that event happens in your own life, you don’t ever recognize its significance.

Jane Hanauer, the owner of Laguna Beach Books, probably doesn’t.

Years ago, when she accepted a lunch date with a friend who lived in Laguna Beach, it created a chained series of events that have, quite frankly, led to the complete revitalization of a 4-block commercial district now nicknamed The H.I.P. District. And, at the hub of the District’s many successful commercial spokes is Laguna Beach Books – a significant ripple all its own. 

Now, if you were to present this “ripple” theory to Jane, she would gracefully chortle and flap a dismissive hand at you. She and her husband, Joe, would never take credit or expect accolades for such a gargantuan achievement in these few short years; the couple is as Midwest friendly and unpresuming as they come. 

The fact, though, remains: It all started with lunch. 

Here’s how it all went down:

The Ripple began in Three Arch Bay

After selling his Chicago-based real estate business to Coldwell Banker in 1983, Joe Hanauer took on CEO responsibilities, which brought him to Newport Beach’s Coldwell Banker headquarters. In 1986, with most of their brood tucked away in college, the couple moved to Newport with their youngest daughter, Elizabeth.

Shortly thereafter, Jane was invited to Laguna’s Three Arch Bay for lunch. She was so enamored with the lovely neighborhood that she was quick to introduce Joe to Laguna Beach, and they both fell in love with the town. 

“Newport Beach was fine, but Laguna Beach is a real town,” says Jane. “We’d spend our weekends walking everywhere and we loved it – it had this warm, village feel that we knew we wanted to be a part of.”  

In short order, they gave up their rental digs in Newport and purchased a home in Three Arch Bay.

Ripple #2

After enjoying more than a decade in their new “village,” another ripple occurred: In 2002, the old Pottery Shack property went on the market. 

In no time at all, the couple’s dinner conversations began to mull the potential of the property, and they wandered over (more than a few times) to ramble the iconic grounds. 

“At the core of this property was this little adobe cottage, maybe built around 1910 or 1920, that had been absorbed by the commercial activity around it,” says Jane. “We were looking at all sorts of ways to save it before we even purchased the property, and that was the telltale sign – we were really interested.”

Although the Pottery Shack property was not a registered historical landmark, the Hanauers worked tirelessly to save and maintain as much of the historic building as possible, even restoring the Shack’s front façade as they voluntarily dug underground to create a parking structure for expected shoppers. 

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Yep. The forest animals on top of the existing building had to be saved, too. “We never figured out why they were there in the first place, but Joe had them all restored and put back exactly as we’d found them. Some day we’ll get to the bottom of that mystery,” says Jane. 

Ripple #3: A step away from indie extinction

As the couple discussed commercial possibilities for the new Pottery Place, Jane told her husband that she was ready to start a bookstore. “When we were beginning to build in 2003, the independent bookstores were struggling to stay alive,” says Jane. 

“Bookstores are so important. I think we all have a responsibility to keep them from disappearing; they are a necessary footprint in our lives. Now, I can’t really go around telling people this if I don’t do something about it myself … so Laguna Beach Books was born.”

Having not been in bookstore retail before, Jane approached the project with the same “structured development” theme that she applies to her various board positions around town. Most of the time it worked. Some of the time it didn’t, which causes Jane and Manager Lisa Childers to crack up as they share some of their “learning experiences.”

“For the initial opening, we had a book buyer who convinced us that we needed to buy 7,000 calendars,” says Jane. “So, we’re thinking, ‘What’s a few calendars? They’re flat; they don’t take up much room’ … and then hundreds of boxes began to arrive, stuffed with calendars. There were so many of them, we couldn’t even walk through the store. And then … we missed the date to return them all. So … sometimes structured development can take a bit of a detour.”

When Laguna Beach Books opened in 2006, only 1,500 independent bookstores remained in the entire country. Shortly after the store’s opening, Laguna Beach’s other bookstore, Latitude 33, closed its doors. 

Jane remained undaunted. “When we heard bad news, we just made ourselves get busier.”

A local store with its own international Ripple Effect

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Today, with 7,000 book titles and a special order system that usually sees books arrive for customers within 48 hours, the little indie certainly equals large chain bookstores in the area.

Jane was quick to set up thriving relationships with the large resorts in town, and the store rolled out an assertive series of author signing events that has since mushroomed into nearly 150 events a year. The store also introduced a now-thriving monthly Book Club, and has recently instigated poetry-reading events for local poets. 

“We’re exploring ways to get more involved with young adult readers,” says Jane. “That reading market is tremendous and definitely on the rise, and that’s the kind of statistic I love to see. 

“We just need to find a way to sync with their schedules and support them in an engaging way,” she continues. 

Right energy creates exponential right energy

As Laguna Beach Books has thrived, so have its counterparts at the Pottery Place, from the lovely “anchor” of Sapphire Restaurant to various offerings of chocolates, home décor, food pantry and deli items, clothing and more.

More significant, however, is how the revitalization of the Pottery Place further revitalized business and traffic flow in a much larger, expansive circle. On any day of the week, the bustle is in play to the north with the three-story edifice housing The Heidelberg Café, Gina’s Pizza and numerous other restaurants and salons … to the Place’s southern retail neighbors and Ruben Flores’ Laguna Nursery a block further down … and even across the street where Casa del Camino’s Chris Keller joined forces with the Hanauers to further brand the H.I.P. District’s hipness. 

“You bring the right people in with the right kind of energy and positive aspiration and you’ll see other people with the same energy flock to be around them,” says Flores. “This is what Joe and Jane Hanauer are responsible for. 

“The moment you meet them, you know that they are the kind of people you want to do business next to! Their energy and positive enthusiasm is absolutely rallying”

Ripples #4-6

True “villagers” in every sense of the word, Joe and Jane have stepped into board roles for a number of non-profit interests in and around Laguna Beach, too. 

In the 1950s, Jane’s mother trod across every line imaginable to take her place as a leader in Planned Parenthood. In a nod of respect to her mom and the enduring organization, Jane is now in her third term as a board member for the Orange & San Bernardino Planned Parenthood organization.

In 2006, she also joined the Friendship Shelter’s board, and has recently finished serving two consecutive terms there. Then, in 2011, Jane stepped into a board position at the Laguna Art Museum, and is happily enthusiastic about supporting its many new developments.   

“My Mother used to quote someone who said, ‘You’re always entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.’ So many times, people interpret change and development around them into their own set of facts, and those facts may not necessarily be correct or conducive to creating the best win-win for everyone,” she says.

“That’s why I get involved in these organizations. When you can help innovate positive change and disseminate the facts about these changes in a way that everyone can understand, you’re making a real difference.

“Really, it all comes down to making a difference in people’s lives,” she continues. “Take, for example, the Friendship Shelter. It may be a small organization, but if they can make a difference in even 100 people’s lives, that’s really something.”

Indeed, Jane Hanauer. What you’ve done is really something. 

(Hey, thanks for accepting that lunch date.) 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the popular book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best


Holly Morrell has a truly heart-warming tale to tell

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Holly Morrell has a loving and compassionate heart. But it’s defective.

In all the good ways a heart can work; in caring for others, by giving back to the community, and enriching the world with her healthy spirit, Holly’s on top of the world. But in all the bad ways a heart can be broken, literally, that’s in her chest too.

Before she was born, people considered it a shame that her father’s mother had died so young. Even when her father’s sister died at the age of three, it was just one of those tragic things that happen. Thirty years ago the medical world considered cardiac arrest as a relationship to lifestyle, activity, or medication. 

But when Holly’s father, Chuck Morrell, was 57 years old he required a heart transplant, and then two of Chuck’s twin brother’s children died. One survived a full cardiac arrest at the age of 14. 

Finally, cardiologists at the National Institute of Health identified the genetic component doing its dirty work.

The Morrrell’s have suffered the loss of six of their 11 family members due to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). Today, two live with devices implanted in their chests to prevent sudden cardiac arrest, and one received a heart transplant in 2010, as Holly’s father did in 1995.

Holly Morrell, champion of the heart

Holly was diagnosed with the condition herself in 2002. She endures and lives to fight on, after multiple surgeries to correct her implanted heart devices, and a full open-heart surgery two years ago.

Caring for others

“When my cousins died, it had a major impact on me,” Holly said. “I still had not been diagnosed, but I knew I wanted to start a screening program in memory of my loved ones lost, and save young people. More often than not, this is a preventable tragedy.”

Holly set out to learn more about early detection of heart problems. Genetic abnormalities of the heart are rare, but there are many other types of abnormalities as well that can be detected before an unthinkable tragedy strikes. 

“Even seemingly normal, healthy young people – athletes – die from sudden cardiac arrest every three days,” is one of the sobering statistics that Holly is trying to defy. The youngest person she has identified with a heart defect so far was a 9 year-old, and the oldest is a 60 year-old. It can happen to anyone.

Fifteen years ago she begged and borrowed the necessary mobile equipment and set out to perform screenings at high school athletic physicals. The Heartfelt Cardiac Projects started with little more than Holly’s compassion and determined spirit. Heartfelt screenings are her raison d’etre.

Giving back

“I didn’t choose this. This chose me,” Holly says, “Maybe it’s the reason I’ve survived. I feel incredibly blessed, even privileged to find my purpose in life.” 

Putting aside the grief her family has endured, Holly accentuates the positive. “I’m serving my mission, and it is unbelievably rewarding to know that you’ve saved a life.”

To date, Heartfelt Cardiac Projects have performed more than 30,000 screenings. About 10% of all screenings find some anomaly, and 2% are potentially life-threatening. And every life matters.

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Holly (right) with some of the kids whose hearts were saved

 thanks to Heartfelt screenings (left to right): Zack Berens, Ryan O’Hare, 

Cheyne Jernigan, and Dillon Gustafson

Enriching the world

One of the hardest things for non-profits and the big-hearted people who drive that engine of passion, is that there’s a business side required to make all the wheels move forward.

Heartfelt Cardiac Projects require screeners, all of whom have been volunteers so far, and expensive mobile equipment able to travel to the school sites they serve all over Southern California. To take this community-based service into the future, Heartfelt Projects would like some heartfelt partners. 

Donations are hugely important, as this small operation handles massive amounts of data, and utilizes precise equipment. A top of the line mobile screening machine, for example, runs in the vicinity of $80,000. “I’m not a fundraiser,” Holly says. “I was naïve and wanted to save lives and spare grief for others. Now I’m realizing I need help for growth.” To keep the non-profit screenings going forward, she has started a GoFundMe campaign with a modest fundraising goal of $25,000. 

She jokes, “I’m holding myself hostage! Send $1,000 ransom!”

In all seriousness, Holly hopes to raise enough money to buy a new portable echo-cardiogram. The Stu News Laguna community is invited to donate in any amount: http://www.gofundme.com/HeartfeltCardiacProjects

Strong-willed as she is, Holly could use extra hands on deck. One day she envisions having actual paid help. “I have great volunteers,” she said. “But I really need to be able to pay people to help me. I can’t do it alone.”

Heartfelt Cardiac Projects will be screening more than 1,000 students in the next couple of months including many at Laguna Beach High School.

The Laguna Beach School District through the Athletic Boosters will be making Heartfelt screenings available during the next athletics’ physicals on June 3 and 4. The screenings are $85. The same tests normally cost as much as $1500 and are usually not covered by insurance.

Journey to the top of the world

“I believe my life was spared in order for me to continue my life’s work,” said Holly. “Often the gift of purpose is found through great adversity.”

Holly has time on her side now, but she also knows that every minute is precious.

Sudden cardiac death occurs every 90 seconds in the U.S. That is an ironic fact for Holly as she notes that is the exact time she was given to live when her heart failed two years ago.

The surgeon who performed the open-heart surgery that saved her life appreciated the full impact of those 90 seconds. The problem area of Holly’s heart resided under her left collarbone, a difficult area to find and repair. “He told me months after the surgery that it had been a touch and go situation,” she said. “He really didn’t know if I’d make it. My blood pressure was plummeting, and I was bleeding out. He had 90 seconds to fix my heart. That’s all that separated me from life and death.”

Holly only remembers waking up briefly after the surgery. “He kissed me on my forehead, and said, ‘I’m glad you made it’.”

These days Holly is good as gold. She checks in with the doctor every three months, and does home monitoring where the device in her heart actually sends a signal through a system to the doctor’s phone. 

“Even though I tried to put on a brave face I truly had a hard time imagining any quality of life ever again. I was wrong!” she says. “I am beyond grateful. My life is both a miracle and a blessing and I wish to cherish every 90 seconds of it!”

She’s not sure the doctor would approve, but she’s feeling good enough to get back into tennis, and her former partners are thrilled. And her beautiful dog, Sophie, is happy to get back to long walks together.

Sophie loves a nice walk once again with her pal Holly

There is no reason to doubt this optimist and activist. Last year alone she saved eight people’s lives with early detection. Her Heartfelt project has detected thousands of young people with heart defects, and provides the service at an affordable price - a fraction of the cost it would be in hospital, and the outpouring of love and gratitude from the families of loved-ones she has helped to save is palpable. 

May Heartfelt Cardiac Projects grow and flourish just as Holly Morrell’s heart does.

Anyone, of any age, can schedule a screening at the website: www.heartfeltcardiacprojects.org


Nick Henrikson:

A Tale of Travel from the Dark to the Light

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Nick Henrikson spies me from across the street and grins, waving grandly. He has only met me once before. 

I watch him make his way across the street, and he stops briefly to chat with random people he knows. Even as he makes his way to my table here at Zinc, two women see him from the sidewalk and stop to say “hello” to Nick. He introduces me with something close to a reverential bow, and tells the women that he’s being interviewed. They are delighted, and assure me there’s no one better. 

In my 30 years of interviewing rock stars, celebrities and global entrepreneurs, I’ve not met anyone so immediately endearing. My best friend, Lisa, told me months ago that I should interview the iconic Nick Henrikson of Ralph’s grocery store fame and, while I never question her judgment, I wondered a little bit about the recommendation until now, this moment. Now, it’s all clear. 

Nick Henrikson, a 22-year-old Laguna Beach resident, is sunny. He is simply sunny and bright. I feel bathed in a glow as I sit across from him, and it is his person, his persona, that creates this immediate warmth. 

He has traveled a long way to reach this warmth himself. With help from his parents and a set of talented and committed educators in Laguna Beach, Nick found his way from the dark to the light. And now, everything is sunny. 

Nick’s First Three Years: Not a Sound

It’s hard to believe that Nick never smiled as a baby, or even uttered a sound until the age of three. While he never presented overt symptoms of autism such as “stemming” (repetitive patterns such as rocking or spinning), head-banging or dissociative behavioral issues, his mom, Maggi, felt something was amiss and enrolled him in special education and speech evaluation as a preschooler.

As he learned sign language and communicative gestures, it wasn’t until his baby brother, Erik, came along that Nick connected the communication dots. He would lie next to and even on top of Erik to try to get sounds out of his baby brother; he was fascinated and completely focused on the research project. When Erik was about 18 months old, and Nick was 4 years of age, they spoke – for the very first time – together. Nick’s vocabulary went from one word to more than 30 in just a few days’ time. It’s as if his brother showed him the way … and, then, Nick was off and gabbling. 

From that point forward, Nick never stopped talking. An enormous dam had simply crumbled and, just as he intuitively emulated his brother’s first attempts at communication, Nick began to emulate the peers around him. He leapfrogged forward in educative and social skills, wrapped in the protective and encouraging arms of the Laguna Beach Unified School District.

For Nick, It’s All in the Details … Every Detail

“I have high-functioning autism,” Nick tells me. “It makes it hard to learn, and it was hard to listen to teachers, but I remember facts really well, so that probably has helped get me through.”

That’s a serious understatement. When Nick was at Thurston Middle School, he worked one period every day in the front office and knew where every single kid was at that time. Harried parents would come in with a forgotten lunch, and Nick would say, “He’s in Room 212!” 

Still to this day, he can easily recite every friend and neighbor’s license plate. He began playing tennis at the age of 7, and did very well in the high school’s tennis team because he “watched Rafael Nadal a lot” because Rafa was his favorite. He also ran up records in cross-country, participating on the team the entire four years he was in high school.

Nick has worked at Laguna’s Ralphs on Cleo Street since the age of 16. He came on board as a bagger, and then began to help with inventory. Now, seven years later, Nick knows where every item is shelved in the store, and knows the price code for any item the store stocks. 

A few years ago, he was promoted to the check stand because he’s so incredibly fast with check out. He knows the product code before it’s even scanned against the laser-infused glass, often pausing briefly to correct the system if a code number is askew. 

“I like it when people ask me where things are, because I can tell them what shelf it’s on,” says Nick. “But most of the time, they just ask me where the bathrooms are.” 

“I’ve worked with Nick about five years, and he’s just got a gift at putting a smile on people’s faces,” says Kevin Tate. “You may walk in feeling a little bristly but, before you know it, you’re feeling warm and cozy because Nick’s done something or said something to make your day right.”

A Big Step Toward Independence: The Glennwood House

Over the seven years at Ralphs, Nick has gotten to know a vast amount of Laguna Beach residents, and remembers each by name. 

Through his childhood, Nick struggled with shying away from people and making eye contact, both traits found in people with autism. Today, as long as he knows you and likes you, he’s happy to give you a hug. He also works consciously to maintain eye contact with people he meets – again, this is an easier task for him when it’s someone in his known circle, and it’s always easier when they’re the first to reach out and engage with Nick. In that nanosecond, he brightens noticeably and a happy smile flits across his features. 

“I love to travel, but right now, I really like Laguna and the people here, so I’m going to stay in Laguna,” he says matter-of-factly. 

Last year in August, Nick took yet another huge step for himself by moving to his own place in the Glennwood House at 2130 S. Coast Highway. “Glennwood is for young adults with developmental disabilities who want to have more independence,” says Nick, again in a scholarly tone. “I thought I’d be different than most of the kids there, but I have a few friends now, and I love that I can come and go, just as long as I let them know where I’m going.” 

He says the step was a big one, “Even though my parents live right up the hill,” he admits. “It’s way different living on your own. At first, I thought about having a roommate, but sometimes I’m working late, and I didn’t want to bother someone or, you know, worry about bothering someone. So, I have my own cool pad to myself.”

Fortunately the meals are “fantastic,” thanks to resident cook Shelia, and Nick does his best to hit all three offerings in the day. “I wish dinner was a little later, but I know that if I ask to bend it for me, they have to bend it for everyone.”

Life is a Highway …

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It’s incongruous, really, this child born into the closed world of autism who is now so genuinely magnanimous in his outlook and approach. 

His mother, Maggi, assures me that it’s taken a village to help and support this child-now-young-man, and she can’t say enough gratitudes to the people who have stepped up and stepped into Nick’s life. 

A couple years ago, friends and family members began asking Nick for rides to the Orange County or LAX airports. He owns a beautiful Nissan truck “With plenty of suitcase room,” and he adores the side job. He’s never had a car accident or even a speeding ticket, and several people will ask Nick to drive them to the airport in their own car, and bring it back home for safe keeping while they’re traveling. 

He has since expanded his driving role to dropping off and picking up people who go out on the town. “When I turned 21, my parents took me to Las Vegas,” he says. “I tried a scotch, and I tried a beer, and then I decided alcohol was just not going to be for me.” 

As a designated driver, he’s absolutely punctual, is happy to travel up and down the coast, and only asks for two or three days’ advance notice so as not to interfere with his Ralph’s schedule. “I love it,” says Nick enthusiastically. “I like helping people and I like driving, so it’s the perfect combination for me.”

With the expanding “Drive time,” the new living digs, travel adventures on the horizon, and the full-time job he loves at Ralph’s, Nick says he’s not sure he could be much happier. “I think as long as you’re good to people, they’ll be good to you. ‘Mean’ is not in my nature … so I know it’s all going to be OK for me.” 

••••

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best.


Miguel Contreras guides teens down the right path

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Miguel Contreras is the much-loved and appreciated assistant teen director at the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach.

The Club offers special programs every day for some 30 to 35 rambunctious teens, and Contreras, or “Miggy”, as they like to call him, has got their backs. 

“Miguel is just an incredible role model and confidant,” said Executive Director, Pam Estes. “The kids trust him, and he’s very stable in their lives.”

Contreras is not one to shout out about himself. In fact, his favorite pronoun is “we”. “We have a great program here,” he says. “Everyone gets along well and does their best to keep the kids healthy and safe. It’s a team effort.” 

Miguel Contreras

But he is a person with a backstory of his own, one that has made him a perfect mentor for many of the at-risk teens he encounters. 

He grew up in a LA/San Fernando Valley area that he describes as “a questionable neighborhood.” The area was rife with gangs and drug deals. His father taught him very early on to lie on the floor when they’d hear gunshot. “You don’t want to get hit by a stray bullet,” his father told him.

“Gang life was the biggest danger for me,” Contreras said. “I was the oldest kid, and didn’t really have anybody to hang around with at home. So, I hung around with the gangs.” He saw and heard about the things they did, but he had the temerity to stand up against it. “I made my share of mistakes,” he humbly says. “But I just didn’t agree with hurting people.” 

One important event helped him put things in perspective; he became a father at the age of 17.

Once you know Miguel Contreras, it doesn’t surprise you that he is still married to the same wife, and that they have two other children as well. He’s got a big heart and enjoys spending time with their kids, especially the youngest (at 14) and only daughter. “While she still wants to be with me!” he laughs. He worries for her like most dads do for their daughters once boys enter the equation, though. “She’s giving me gray hairs!”

A kid at heart

What launched Contreras into his future with the Boys & Girls Club was his own children’s joy in Head Start when they were preschoolers. At the time, the program was at El Morro School. Contreras took them there and was so impressed with the program he started volunteering in his free time. That program burgeoned into the pre-school program at the Boys & Girls Club, now called “Even Start”.

Contreras is admittedly like a kid at heart, and the executive director saw how much his presence would add to the Boys & Girls Club. So, Contreras seized the opportunity when a part-time position became available, and began working with the Club’s “Kinder Buddies”. 

For the last six years he has been full-time, working with the slightly more challenging Teen group. 

“High School kids need us even more,” he said. “They can get into trouble with drugs and all that kind of stuff.” He gets it, and the kids know he gets it.

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Books are part of “College Bound”

The Director of Teen Services, Dalene Hamer, has been working with Contreras these past six years. “It’s such a pleasure to work alongside Miguel,” she says. “The passion and dedication he brings to the Club is inspiring and encouraging. The teens feed off of his energy, and his leadership and guidance motivate us all to be better and do great things.”

Every day at the Club, Contreras is involved with a planned activity, from “Triple Play” sports, to homework, cooking, arts, and leadership training. “We prepare teens for the future,” he says. “One of our biggest visions is to keep them healthy and active.”

The Triple Play sports are big fun too. Right now it’s girls basketball season, plus everyone joins in for lightning (basketball in teams of two), and bunker ball, which is like dodge ball and capture the flag combined. Two teams build bunkers out of gym mats on either side, and then try to attack the other team with balls as they go for the prize in the middle. Contreras enjoys it. “I’m a teenager trapped in a 40 year-old body!”

But it’s not all play. “I want to make sure these kids have the tools to get it right; that they don’t fall prey to gangs and drugs,” Contreras says with conviction. He knows from where he speaks.

He mentors and guides early training in college prep, with programs such as “College Bound”, which introduces kids to college mock admissions tests, SAT tests, and other practice drills early on, so they can prepare. 

“We even have middle schoolers, just giving them a little jump start. We get them started early so they don’t get so stressed out.”

Rock solid in many ways

Most importantly, Miguel Contreras is there like a solid rock to lean on, someone to get support from, and often confide in. 

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OC Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year Austin Willhoft chats with “Miggy”

Austin Willhoft is one of those kids. He is the first of Laguna Beach Boys & Girls Club members to be named Orange County Youth of the Year, by the national Club organization. The Youth of the Year recognition is awarded to a club member promoting service to Club, community and family, proving academic success, strong moral character, life goals, poise, and public speaking ability.

Willhoft has been very frank and open about the hardships and violence he faced in his own home growing up, and what a difference the Club has made for him. He has been accepted to the University of Oregon, and is now eligible to participate in state Club competitions to receive a scholarship. If he goes on to win state, then there are regionals, and finally nationals where the scholarship bounty increases to $50,000 and is installed by the President of the United States. 

Contreras is proud of Willhoft’s accomplishments in the face of adversity. Additionally, as he beams, “He’s our ‘Iron Chef’ in the Teen Cuisine program!”

Teen Cuisine is one of Contreras’ favorite programs. It’s all about healthy eating, good cooking, and proper food prep. Once a month the kids pick a spot on the globe, and investigate recipes from that country. Thankfully, so far they haven’t picked Mauritius, because who knows what they eat there, but they have found plenty of interesting and tasty places. They even learn some things about the culture and history as they explore.

Contreras stocks up for the big cooking fest, and focuses on alternatives like turkey instead of red meat, and low-sodium versions of sauces. “The thing the kids love is that they get to eat what they make,” he said. “And you can’t believe how much they can eat!”

Probably the biggest part of mentoring and encouraging youth to cope with the many anxieties of the teen-aged years is to simply be a good listener. With no judgment, and no anger, good listeners provide a safe zone for kids to express themselves however they need to. It’s not a skill taught in school but one that will get you places in life that you might never have thought possible. 

Miguel Contreras is clearly there, as he’s surrounded by the many teens that know they can count on him.


For Lan Zentil, “Complacency” is not a word in her Idea Notebook

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Back in 2011 at a real estate conference, Lan Zentil thought she was sitting in a crooked chair. When the chair swap didn’t change how her back was feeling against its rungs, she decided there might be another issue. 

Sure enough, she had a lump the size of a Ping-Pong ball in her shoulder blade. Two weeks later, she was undergoing every test imaginable with doctors thinking some kind of cancerous tumor was going on. On the day before Christmas Eve, her doctor confirmed that she had bone cancer (sarcoma) in her shoulder blade.

At that point, Lan and her husband, Tony, had already accepted that some kind of surgery was going to be in her future, so they had already been “partying” for several weeks … their type of party being rock climbing, tennis, backpacking and road tripping with their two kids, Tasha and Hendrix. 

“Our big thing is being active,” says Lan. “So, with this unknown coming up, we decided to make sure we got out and did all the activities we most loved to do.”

And this is how Lan tackles life, it seems. A constant flurry of activity and bubbly energy, Lan only increases the pace when something deigns to block her path.

In March 2012, Lan had surgery to remove the shoulder blade. Now, exactly two years later, she’s still completely cancer-free and the thought of that ordeal really isn’t even in her head anymore … except this one reminder:

“When I found out I had cancer, I had this sense of urgency … ‘Get out there!’ … ‘Stop stalling!’ There’s no assurance that next year is going to be there for any of us,” she says. 

“The key now for me is to not get complacent. I’m healthy again and the cancer thing is already a distant memory … but I won’t allow myself to get complacent.”

Mothers and Daughters Unite!

In the six weeks between surgery and physical therapy, Lan’s “Idea Notebook” expanded significantly. Once PT was underway and she was assured much greater range of motion than her doctors first said, she put the last of her personal worries behind her and got busy “on everyone else who needed help,” she says. 

That spring, she and three friends organized the LagunaLoves.org organization, inviting Laguna Beach-based moms and daughters to get involved in fundraising activities of all natures. 

“Laguna Beach is such an awesome giving town – from families that really don’t have much money all the way to the top,” says Lan. “It still surprised me, though, when so many moms and daughters each committed to at least 10 hours of fundraising time that summer in Laguna Beach.”

As the plan went, moms and daughters would choose their organization of choice, and then work together or in other mom/daughter teams to reach their goals. Whatever their choice of donation, 100% of the proceeds went in that direction.

Lemonade stands popped up all over the streets and sidewalks of Laguna Beach. Makeshift sandwich and cookie stands greeted beachgoers, and neighborhood hot dog barbecues reigned supreme. Moms and daughters flooded into community garden projects, led Zero Trash days to clean up the beaches, and cooked and cleaned at the Friendship Shelter. Lan’s own daughter, Tasha (then 8 years old), scavenged all summer for recyclables, earning more than $300 to purchase three bikes for children in Uganda. 

At the official “end” of the project in August, the entire group got together for a high tea party and discovered they’d raised $4,000 in just three months. 

“I think people want to give,” says Lan. “Sometimes, hey just don’t know how to get started.”

40 Lakes in 4 Weekends

Heady with the success she was seeing in her grass roots idea, Lan decided that same summer to raise her own funds by stand up paddling (SUP) 40 lakes in four weekends, and named it “40 Within 4.” (Granted, most of us wouldn’t paddle 40 lakes in a lifetime, nor would we necessarily take on paddling at all were we missing a shoulder blade, but we’re not talking about us, we’re talking about Lan, the whirling dervish.) 

“I was just so excited that I still had this great range of motion in my arm,” says Lan. “I had only taken a lesson at a women’s clinic, and paddled once or twice beyond that, but it seemed like the perfect thing to do to continue my physical therapy in the outdoors where I wanted to be.”

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Her SUP is a big part of her lifestyle

Because her husband, Tony, was planning a 100-mile bike ride in Lake Tahoe at the end of July, the couple meticulously planned from there. With kids tucked into the “fifth family member – their Euro Van – the family devoted four weekends to skipping from lake to lake in Lake Tahoe, Mammoth, Yosemite and everything in between.

She completed the 40-lake voyage and raised $4,500 for her efforts.  

The organization that Lan wanted to donate her funds to didn’t exist. So, with help from her social worker at UC Irvine, she created it. 

“I know that a lot of cancer patients really struggle financially, and I wanted to get help right to them, in their hands – just little amounts of money here or there that would make a difference in a day or a week,” she says. Lan made it clear that 100% of her funds would go directly to the patients, so UC Irvine created a fund “depot” just for Lan. 

In that depot, Lan began depositing gift cards as the fundraising came in - $50 and $100 increments – for gas, Target and Wal-Mart, initially. She expanded from there, even including gift certificates to the advanced physical therapy clinic that had given her athletic lifestyle back. Social workers who work daily with cancer patients meet regularly to choose the recipients.  

“The patients know that another cancer patient gave these gift cards to them, and I like that. 

“If I can help relieve a little stress or take the load off, even in some small way, I like being a part of that healing.” 

“The Complacency Barometer”

Recently, after dropping off the last of her “SUP earnings,” Lan realized it was time to “re-fund raise … time to get back out there!” 

Thankfully, a new project idea was readily available in the same Idea Notebook. Lan calls this project “40 Children in 4 Days,” with a plan to pack herself off to India this fall. 

“I turn 40 this year. It’s just time to widen my scope,” she says simply. 

The India trip is one-part help at orphanages she’ll be visiting (4 days) and one-part research (3 days). She’s already planned a couple tea plantation tours, which will further launch her next business, an organic tea company she’s named A Cup of Humanitea.  

“The cancer thing gets you thinking about where you’re spending your time,” she says. “Being a real estate broker in this town is great and I love my clients, but it’s very demanding and time-consuming. I want more time with my husband and kids, and I want a job that actually combines art, creativity and travel. So, that’s why I’m getting into the tea business.” 

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Tea Service for humanitarian causes

Lan has already started blending teas and packaging for distribution. Proceeds, of course, primarily go to humanitarian causes, with countries like India at the top of her list.

“In the end, it’s all about that complacency barometer, you know?” she queries. “You plan to do this with your life, or plan to do this for your fun and, before you know it, the years are just gone. 

“My biggest key to success is anxiety,” she says and pauses to laugh at the surprise statement that just came out of her mouth. 

“All I’m thinking is, ‘You gotta do this! Hurry up!’ There are so many people to help out there! Hurry up!”

 

A professional writer for 30 years, Diane Armitage is also the author of the 4-color book, The Insider’s Travel Guide: Laguna Beach’s Best.


Ethan Damato; a water polo recipe for success

He will be honored Saturday by the national Water Polo Hall of Fame 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

What do you get if you combine two atoms of Hydrogen with one atom of Oxygen, add a little Chlorine, a bunch of Adrenaline, and seven Carbon-based humans? If you’re Croatian or Hungarian, or almost any European, you are not allowed to answer this. 

No, it’s not a science experiment. It is a recipe for the fast-paced, heart-thumping, nearly death-defying sport of water polo. 

In many parts of the USA you’d get a quizzical look and maybe that tired retort about how do you keep the horses from drowning. But not in California. And especially not in Southern California. 

Now if you add a huge heart, a lot of passion, and a focus on every nuance of strategy thrown into the mix, you get Ethan Damato. In this personification you won’t find quizzical looks, but rather recognition, admiration, and respect. Even in Europe, where they think they own the sport.

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Photo by MARY HURLBUT

Coach Ethan Damato

Laguna Beach takes pride in having nurtured, and witnessed the success this hometown boy has achieved. 

Back when Damato was a lad at Laguna Beach High School his then coach, Rick Scott, saw his future in coaching. “It was after losing a game,” Damato remembers. “We were on the bus on the way back to Laguna and I was so upset. Rick came over to talk with me, and he asked, ‘What do you think we did wrong?’” As Damato has been doing since the day he met the sport in high school, he was replaying every quarter of the game in his mind. Scott valued his feedback. 

“He told me, ‘One day you’re going to be a coach.’”

“I coached him all four years of high school,” Scott told us. “His passion and love for the game was clearly evident. He gave everything the moment he hit the pool deck.” Damato was team captain, and demonstrated early on his leadership capabilities. “He was always talking from the pool, always coaching the players in a very positive manner,” Scott said. “I’ve watched him be a leader outside the pool too. He’s been such a positive role model.”

Damato went on to play at Cuesta College, where his college coach dubbed him “Little Big Man”. “He didn’t think much of me athletically,” said Damato. “But, intellectually; he appreciated my mind.” He, too, saw coaching in the young athlete’s future.

Since Damato took the head coach position at the high school in 2008 he has guided the fall season boys team, and the spring season girls team, training them in-between seasons, and working every other waking hour as a club coach. His assistant is former high school teammate, Trevor Lyle. To date, they have led both the LBHS girl’s team and boy’s team each to CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) championships twice, taken the club team, SET, to the National Junior Olympics for one gold, two silvers, and three bronze medals, and racked up countless tournament wins.

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Photo by DAVID NASH

LBHS girls win 2013 CIF SS Division I Championship

Additionally Damato works with the Youth National Team, as Assistant Coach, where they will be traveling to Madrid to compete in the championships this summer, and he has been selected as Head Coach for the girls UANA Junior World Championships competition between North and South America.

This young man is deservedly being honored April 5 at the Water Polo Hall of Fame awards ceremony, with the Doc Hunkler Distinguished Coaching Award, a national award given to only one coach nationally who has demonstrated excellence in working with female athletes.

Water polo is a rigorous sport that requires individual talent mixed with team coordination, guided by an able coach. But when it’s the high school years, you have to deal with grousing complaints and pushback. 

Damato believes girls are easier to coach because they listen. “I joke with the boys, when they finally learn to trust me, they graduate.”

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Photo by MARY HURLBUT

Coach Damato’s office

Most fans will bemoan the fact that water polo gets so little attention in the world of sports given that so much hard work goes into it.   

ESPN.go dives into the debate of the toughest sports in the world. With choices based on four factors, endurance, strength, agility, and nerve, this is what ESPN sports columnist Eric Neel says: “We’re supposed to believe (boxing), football, basketball, and tennis are harder than water polo? Please. Endurance? A water polo player swims 1.5 miles a game, with another player dragging and climbing all over him, pushing his head under the water and saying unkind things about his mamma when he comes up for air. Strength? These guys egg-beater their legs for 32 minutes in nine feet of water, muscle each other for position and rise up into the air like they’re jumping off a trampoline to shoot and block shots. Agility? They work back-cuts and spin moves like Kobe and Marvin Harrison. Nerve? They take 50-mph shots in the face and breathe in lungs-full of water. And they keep coming back for more.

“Boxing is the No. 1 sport in our rankings, and boxing is brutal. But you know what water polo is? It’s boxing plus sprinting plus basketball plus wrestling. With no floor beneath your feet. Show me the boxer who levitates and shoots a ball with a defender in his face while he’s bobbing and weaving. Until then, show me love for water polo and the amazing athletes who play it.”

That sounds like the mindset of Ethan Damato.

The small world of water polo can seem a confusing mix of rules and regulations peopled by near cultic fans. Laguna kids start as young as the 10 and under age group in Chad Beeler’s program at the community pool (a boys and girls mixed team), and learn very early on to either love the sport or leave it. It is physically demanding and requires intensive training and time. Those who stay with it get to know every teammate and even many of those they oppose, like one big family.

Shining stars in the Laguna water polo family include Damato’s past and current athletes. Annika Dries (LBHS 2009) plays on the Women’s National Team and won the gold medal with the United States in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Nolan McConnell (LBHS 2012) plays on the Men’s National Team, and current LBHS students, sisters Aria and Makenzie Fischer, each play on national teams. 

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Photo by MAGGI

Aria and Makenzie Fischer

Aria Fischer, only a freshman, has made a huge impact on the team already. “I can wholeheartedly say she’s one of the best players in the country,” Damato said. The Fischers are a water polo family in every sense. Dad, Erich, and mom, Leslie, played water polo when they were at Stanford, and Erich also played for the USA in the 1992 Olympics. 

Leslie says that one of the amazing things about Coach Damato is that he makes the team a family. “He’s so able to make them love and care for each other,” she said. “And so quickly. It takes a special person to do that.” 

Makenzie, a junior, plays on the Women’s National Team, and will continue with competitions overseas. She can attest to the level of her coach’s dedication. “On New Year’s Eve he sent me a video upload of our game! He wanted to analyze it.” 

It’s a good bet we’ll be seeing these young stars playing in the Olympics in the future.

Many of Damato’s high school athletes have gone on to play water polo for some of the biggest names in academia as well; Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Johns Hopkins among them.

How in the world would Ethan Damato find time for anything besides water polo? Cupid must have felt the light bulb go off over his head when he thought of sending love to the pool deck. 

Kari Johnson started at LBHS at the same time as Damato. She was to be the swim coach, and he was to be the water polo coach. Things did not go swimmingly at first, as each maneuvered to gain new territory in the same space.

“We were both laying a foundation, and trying to set a precedent,” said Damato. “It wasn’t easy at first, but we had a lot of respect for each other.” Before long they had more than that, as they fell in love. Aww! Last summer they got married, and you know that somewhere the water gods were smiling. 

It was an action-packed year for Ethan Damato as his club team won the Junior Olympics gold, the high school girls won CIF, he took a national team to Italy, got married, had a honeymoon, and got the distinguished coaching award too.

Go Ethan!


Turning 70, Mick Donoff plans one heck of a ride

By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Next week, Mick Donoff turns 70. 

“After last year’s birthday, I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my 70th, he says. “I didn’t want a big party, and I didn’t feel like sitting at a resort somewhere, and then I knew what it had to be …”

On April 6, just three days after his 70th, Mick is riding his bicycle from Laguna Beach to St. Augustine, Florida … because that’s what most men want to scratch off their bucket list at 70.

It’s not just his bucket list, though. After seeing many close friends and family members die or suffer from cancer, he’s raising funds with every mile he rides for the charity, Stand Up 2 Cancer. “I think it’s time I stepped up and did something significant with my life to help other people,” says Mick. 

In February, after making his decision for the 3,069-mile trek, Mick set a goal to raise $10,000 for the charity. Stand Up 2 Cancer was co-founded in 2008 by Katie Couric, and gives every penny raised to innovative research teams and scientists who are working on various cancer projects. Mick will be riding under the Ride America 4 Cancer (RAM4C) banner, which creates rides everywhere to help this charitable cause. 

When Mick first made his trans-continental tour announcement to friends, he expected some backlash. “First of all, I’ve never asked my friends for money. And, I figured they would be more interested in talking me off the ledge,” he says. 

“But this big circle of supportive people just keeps growing, and the generosity is really unbelievable.”

See Mick off on Sunday, April 6 at Heisler

At 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 6, anyone and everyone is invited to Mick’s “Send Off Birthday Breakfast” at the picnic tables in Heisler Park. He’s asking that people kindly RSVP to his email address or phone number so that enough food is provided for all. Beyond that, though, he’s just asking for money contributions, either by check or through the online Stand Up 2 Cancer “file” reserved in his name. (Find all the details at the end.)

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Tools for staying busy and alert while pedaling 100 miles a day

The April 6 Heisler fountainhead is actually part of a larger, organized tour through the Adventure Cycling organization. On that same day, hundreds of cyclists will be leaving San Diego to trek the Southern Tier Route, which meanders through Tempe and Las Cruces, beelines through El Paso and Austin, then trips to Baton Rouge, through Biloxi and the Florida Panhandle, and finally deadheads for St. Augustine. 

“It’s perfect that it ends in St. Augustine,” says Mick. “That’s where Ponce de Leon claimed he discovered the Fountain of Youth. I figure I’ll be needing it right about then.”

Pedaling Into the Heart of Americana

Riders can choose to stay in “packs” or take off on their own. No surprise here – Mick wants to do this on his own, even leaving his usual support crew – Sharon, his wife – in California.

“I figure I can cover about 100 miles a day, but I’m not in a hurry,” he says. For Mick, this is an opportunity to do what he loves to do most – meet people from all walks of life. He loves talking to people and learning about their lives. He says his wife considered driving a support crew van, but finally admitted that she didn’t want to be waiting seven hours at a pre-arranged stop, wondering if he’d been mushed on the road when, instead, he’d probably found a pump jockey to converse with at some “rickety gas station.”

“I can’t help it,” he says with a chuckle. “People are fascinating to me. This is my chance to go at my own pace, and stop and talk whenever I feel like it. I get to be a part of Americana, and that’s something I’m looking forward to.”      

For weeks, Mick has been laying out his packs for the ride, testing weight and balance with the bike’s custom saddlebags. Because this is a particularly demanding trek, Mick is leaving his lighter carbon bike behind. This time, for nearly three months, his steel frame bike will be keeping him company. The bike weighs about 36 pounds. Mick weighs about 168 pounds, so total weight should be about 230-240 pounds. 

Tucked, rolled and stuffed into the compact bags are his lightweight sleeping bag and tent, a couple changes of clothes, his bike’s toolkit, his GoPro camera, iPad and iPhone and – most important – his iPhone speaker, attached to the handlebars. 

“I listen to anything from classical to country … and electronica for the hills.”

He’ll stop in Austin for a few days to meet his wife; she’s bringing his “warm weather” clothes to exchange. “Getting through West Texas will probably be the most challenging because there’s not a lot out there … except a lot of wind. So, I figured I’d reward myself after making it through that hurdle.”

An Addiction to Uber

Although he is 70, and though he’s never done a trans-continental trek before, Mick is no stranger to the world of “ultra racing.” 

Mick began running marathons at the age of 34 and, after 30 marathons, decided to boost the mileage count by taking on 50k runs (31 miles). Tiring of that, he upped it again, completing his first 100-mile run at the age of 44. At that point, he was hooked, and participated as an “ultra-runner” in many acclaimed 100-mile races across North America. 

“If you want to get better as a runner, road biking is the thing that gives you the stamina and strength,” says Mick. “So, since I was already doing 80 and 90-mile days on my bike to train for these things, I decided to try ‘ultra-mountain biking,’ too.”

(Sure. Why not? It’s something we all do, after all.)

Through his 50s and 60s, Mick participated in 12 ultra races, some five and six days in duration, covering 500 or more miles. “I had nine finishes of 12 races,” he says. “But I’m most proud of the record I still hold in the Leadville race. I made it five miles before my bike broke. They still have a plaque in my name for that amazing feat.”

On his off weeks, Mick has hiked Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) and Argentina’s Aconcagua (22,841 feet).

“I was fortunate to be a teacher for 38 years, so it gave me the freedom to train and go do” says Mick. “And you know, you always have to come back with a story on what you did for your summer vacation.”

Oddly, the man with endless wanderlust loves his roots. He and his wife have been Laguna Beach residents (in the same house) since 1976, and he demonstrated the same “roots” preference in his occupation, too. He taught computer science and history, and coached track and cross-country at Mission Viejo High School for 25 of his 38 years. He was voted “Teacher of the Year” before announcing his decision to retire. “You always want to go out when you’re on top,” he says with a wide grin.  

Not recognizing that he’s already made a difference in so many lives, he talks of his surprise at former students – some of them in their 40s now – who have seen his Facebook entries and have freely donated money and encouragement. 

“I think this is all going to work out,” he says. “And then I’m probably going to do a bigger trip. I’ve been thinking of Canada to the tip of South America …” 

To make a tax-deductible donation for Mick Donoff’s ride:

Make checks out to SU2C, please reference TEAM RAM4C. Bring the check to the April 6 breakfast, or mail it to Mick directly. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for details. 

Or, go online to www.StandUp2Cancer.org - the search is so convoluted for your specific donation for Mick that we’re providing the shortened link directly to Mick’s page here: http://bit.ly/1hgKPYP

Follow Mick’s progress at the same StandUp link, above, or at his Facebook page, facebook.com/mick.donoff


Joanne Culverhouse, a leader among leaders

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Joanne Culverhouse arrived in Laguna 15 years ago like a breath of fresh air. Her light-hearted personality was immediately apparent when she spoke before the community, and her keen intellect has guided an educational upswing for three of Laguna’s four schools.

At her first presentation for PTA’s “Coffee Break” she put the crowd at ease with her assured style, evident knowledge and concern for our youth, and with her sense of humor. “How did you decide to come to Laguna?” was one of the questions asked. Culverhouse smiled and weighed in with her hands, “Hmm… Hemet or Laguna? That was an easy decision!”

She served as an elementary school principal in the Hemet School District (Whittier Elementary School), and before that she was a teacher and a principal in Reno, Nevada. The coastal life in Laguna Beach seemed a dream come true, and Culverhouse is still filled with the enthusiasm and joy of those first days.

Now the Laguna Beach High School principal, she has been there for hundreds of kids as they transitioned from elementary, to middle school, and on to high school. The current eighth graders represent the last batch of El Morro and Thurston kids that Culverhouse will have known as principal in all three schools. The pictures in her office tell the story: There she is bending down to the little tykes as she gives them graduation papers at El Morro, standing up beside them at Thurston, and then looking shoulders above her at their high school graduation. 

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Dr. Culverhouse assists Sarina Strickland in the LBHS Library

Confidence of a natural-born leader

Culverhouse is a powerful influence in the community, garnering such awards and distinctions as the Principal of Excellence Award (The Irvine Educational Excellence), Laguna’s 30 Most Influential People, Woman of the Year (American Association of University Women), and Coast Magazine Orange County’s Top 10 Influential People.

One of the reasons for her success is that she enjoys what she does. She was always interested in teaching, and had the confidence of a natural-born leader.

Raised in a military family, Culverhouse encountered the daunting experience of a new school every couple of years as they moved from town to town. But she had (and still has) a loving and supportive family, and the will to conquer her fears. Not that there were many fears because she is, admittedly, very competitive by nature. She embodies the “can-do” spirit. 

Her sister and her father now live in Nevada, but the Culverhouse family remains very close. Joanne calls her father every morning on the way to work. “He just sets my day,” she says. “He is such a positive person, always full of love. I’ll say, ‘How’s your day?’ and he always says, ‘It’s a great day!’”

Three sports star at Nevada

That may be where she got her zest for life. In addition to all the great work she does on behalf of education, Culverhouse is an avid outdoors person. She loves to hike, bike, run, ski, and play lots of sports. 

While she was on her own educational track she participated in three NCAA sports at the University of Nevada: volleyball, softball, and basketball. It was the early years of Title 9, and Culverhouse was a stellar athlete as well as student. She had one year out of softball season due to an injury, but managed to make that up with an extra year, all with full-ride scholarships. 

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An impromptu three-way Frisbee toss in the quad

She loved sports so much she never imagined a life without them. But, inevitably, along comes graduation and the team goes their separate ways. Thankfully Culverhouse fell in love with teaching, and that led her to pursue double master’s programs (Master of Science, and Education Specialist, both at U of N), and a PhD (Educational Leadership, UCLA).

She remains good friends with her athletic teammates from back-in-the day, and they go on annual trips together. This summer they will be hiking in Ireland, from coast to coast. It takes ten days, apparently, if you’re in good shape. That sounds relatively easy when you find out she has biked the entire United States. 

Back in 1986 Culverhouse and some friends wrote on the back of a napkin about things they would like to have done once they reached the ripe old age of 50. The funny, crazy coincidence is that one of her best friends wrote the exact same thing, even though they had never discussed it. Identically they had the same Big Dream written on the back of a napkin. They knew, then and there, they had to – ride a bike across America.

She made the journey with two friends, all the way from Anacortes, Washington to Boston, Massachusetts in 42 days. Yes, they crossed five mountain passes in four days. Yes, it rained a lot and camping gear was soaked. Yes it was often miserable. But how else would you ever encounter Small Town America, like the one with a population of 200 where the neighbors took them into their homes and their lives?

In her “Back of a Napkin” address to the LBHS graduating class of 2013, Dr. Culverhouse reflected on that trip with the wisdom of hindsight. 

These 27 years later she remarked, “What in the world were we thinking? How could we have thought this would be fun? Standing in the pouring rain at a pay phone (ask your parents what a pay phone is) in the middle of nowhere, I called home. When I heard my dad’s voice I lost it and started to cry. I told him I had bitten off more than I could chew and just wanted to come home. But as the years have passed the most meaningful aspect of our journey now is not so much the actual ride across America, but the memories of the overwhelming generosity of spirit of the people we met along the road, and the sustaining satisfaction of successfully accomplishing a very difficult goal.”

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It’s a treat for our community that Culverhouse will share these stories and, in fact, she gives a darn good speech. For some of us, public speaking is a whopping challenge, but Culverhouse speaks as if in a friendly salon with like-minded people. She engages, makes you think and usually makes you laugh too. She has that edge of confidence, bolstered by passion, and tempered by humility.

Recognizing how much influence a teacher holds

Participating and speaking at workshops and conferences has become a regular part of her life and she enjoys it. One of her favorite events was when she was invited by the Department of Defense, of all things, to speak in Germany at a conference of teachers. Her speech was titled “Mentor of Hope and Creator of Dreams.” 

That speech highlights the overlying theme in her approach to education; how educators have the power to influence the life of a child. “As a teacher, you have so much power to influence them,” she says. “Teachers need to be reminded of that. Every one of us can think of a teacher who has impacted our lives.”

Culverhouse’s influence is certainly remembered by her students. One example was her experience as a new fifth grade teacher. She taught her class about voting, and the importance of registering to vote when they turn 18. “If you do,” she told them, “contact me and I’ll take you out to lunch.” Sure enough, five of those kids stayed in touch, registered to vote and their former teacher took them out for lunch. “It’s so rewarding when that happens.” she says. That’s what it’s all about.

Her influence is also evident by the appreciation of the teachers she leads.

In the back corner office of LBHS, where Culverhouse quietly conducts business there is a framed sheet of music. Most people, and certainly not the naughty pupil sent in will look at it closely, but Culverhouse shared the story when we talked the other day. 

It was in her first job as principal in 1995, and she really didn’t know how much influence she wielded. But, when she was leaving to move on to another school, the teachers gathered for a farewell party in the gymnasium. Unbeknownst to her, the music teacher had been secretly practicing the orchestra with a piece of music he wrote just for her. It is titled “No Words Can Say” and the lyrics include, “You’re a leader in the best sense of the word. The driving wheel that makes others turn.” That treasured sheet of music is a moving and touching testament that indeed no words can say. It’s an expressive thank you from the heart.

Joanne Culverhouse, pillar of the community, champion for education, and fun to hang around with!


By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

Kirsten Sedlick

 

Saving seals and sea lions is just another day in the office

If it hadn’t been for her knee injury, she wouldn’t have discovered the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Canyon. Kirsten Sedlick began as a PMMC volunteer and now, 18 years later, she is a PMMC Supervisor with an extraordinarily unique life experience under her belt. After all, how many people on this planet get to nurse sick and injured marine mammals back to health? 

At 18, Kirsten Sedlick was a volleyball player on scholarship, bound for college. When her knee took her out of the game, she fell back on what she loved most: animals and the ocean. 

Growing up in Newport Beach, Kirsten was the rescuer of every stray to come her way. She would agree to Mom’s rules - keeping the rescued stray in the garage - but somehow that stray would find its way into the family living room. She also remembers reading a Jacques Cousteau book on sharks and their primary prey, the Elephant Seal. At that point, she decided she’d be a Protector of the Elephant Seals. 

And now … she is. And they know it.  

Kirsten roams the large red barn hospital in Laguna Canyon, checking in on her sick seals and sea lions. She whips up Herring Smoothies and works with team members to herd recovering seals into the “small pool” for feeding. 

Throughout, no matter what her activity, the seals pad after her and gaze up at her. She is oblivious; they are not. Inherently, these injured creatures seem to recognize what Kirsten is here for. 

Kirsten heard of the PMMC when she was working at the Long Beach Aquarium, teaching kids about the universe that exists underwater. On further research she learned that the PMMC was responsible for the entire Orange County coastline in the rescue of Elephant Seals, California Sea Lions, Pacific Harbor Seals and some Northern Fur Seals. The PMMC rescues beached whales and dolphins, sea turtles and sea otters, too. 

“What drew me here aside from the obvious … all these critters … was meeting John Cunningham,” says Kirsten “As soon as I started as a volunteer, he found me and chatted with me. He was so welcoming and so committed to the purpose here, and that’s what I try to emulate with all our staff and volunteers.”

 

Each Patient a Unique Personality

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Averaging 180 patients a year; dealing with an alarming and exhausting onslaught of 373 patients last year; and enduring fire, flood, swarms of bees, famine, disease, poisoning, coyotes and more, you’d think Kirsten and her mighty PMMC crew are participating in an “End of Times” Hollywood movie. 

“It’s never a dull moment here,” Kirsten says with a hearty chuckle. “Every day is different, and every patient’s story is definitely unique.”

The staff is trained to maintain an emotional distance from its patients, even while each patient hangs out for an average of two to four months. The goal, after all, is to release these wild animals back to the seas. While the staff purposely does not interact or make eye contact, they still name each of their incoming patients based on a personality feature, or an issue the poor thing is enduring. 

“Big Bruce,” a recent Sea Lion patient with a Great White Shark bite, was named after the “Jaws” creature (nicknamed Bruce), and the “recovering” Great White in “Finding Nemo.” 

Today, Kirsten and her crew are nursing eight patients, among them “Sir Edmund” (“we found him at the top of a cliff, which Elephant Seals really don’t do”), “Abalone” (who arrived on Kirsten’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and was discovered on a bed of abalone), and “Otter Pop,” (simply “slick on wheels”).

As she thinks back to her favorites, Kirsten mentions Bismarck (a Sea Lion missing both rear flippers), Fiddler (rescued from the top of a roof in Newport Beach), and Captain Hook, a Sea Lion who arrived with more than 70 hooks and lines imbedded in his skin and flippers. He was rehabilitated and eventually released, only to be rescued seven days later toting more hooks and wire. 

“He was like some kind of magnet, the poor guy,” Kirsten commiserates. On Captain Hook’s second release, a Coast Guard ship did the honors of depositing Sir Hook on the far side of the Channel Islands, and he’s been hook-free since.

Fire, Flood and Pestilence

Kirsten stands in the PMMC hospital wing’s kitchen, whipping up Herring Smoothies for her critical care patients who must be tube fed. She points to individual doctors’ charts, each denoting the name of the patient, a series of progressive photos, its weight gains, and its own unique recipe concoction of said smoothie (some parts Karo Syrup, some parts Milk Matrix, some parts Pedialyte, all parts Herring). 

“We’re not an assembly line here,” she says. “Each patient has its own unique Smoothie requirements,” says Kirsten. 

Has she ever tried a Herring Smoothie? “Uhmm, purely by accident,” she laughs, admitting that she’s never been a fish eater to begin with.

Accidentally ingesting a Herring smoothie is not the first surprise Kirsten has encountered in her 18 years. When raging fires swept down Laguna Canyon in October 1993, all hell broke loose. “We have rescue and removal plans,” says Kirsten. “It was so fast and so sudden, though, that we were moving patients into the back seats of our own cars to evacuate.”

In the Christmas flood of 2010, PMMC thought it was ready for the worst. No one, however, expected the hill behind the facility to break loose and tumble down onto the PMMC. 

“I got a call at dawn, and my people were telling me it was complete devastation,” says Kirsten. “When I finally managed to get here, I could hardly recognize our hospital.” 

Fortunately, amidst all the mud and rising waters, every patient survived. The PMMC shipped its patients to Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro and got to work. They spent the next long month digging out the pools, replacing the entire laboratory, and receiving loads of supplies and calls from locals who thought the whale bones that had washed downstream might belong to them. (Indeed, the whalebone display had gone missing.)

“Most of us worked night and day because we missed our patients so much,” says Kirsten. “It was an eerie place without them.”

Saving 373 Critters in a Single Year

The memory of that silent hospital reversed on a dime when early 2013 saw an epidemic of sick seals and sea lions begin to arrive. “We had our usual 7 patients in December, and then had 17 in January and 30 in February,” says Kirsten. “Then in March, we had 112 new patients. It was … daunting.”

Far beyond the fires and floods, the 2013 epidemic that sent hordes of sick marine mammals to the PMMC was the greatest challenge Kirsten has dealt with yet. “At one point, we had 167 patients here, and it was endless 20-hour days just to keep up on each of their feedings four times a day.”

The PMMC hospital became something more like a MASH triage unit. Kirsten was in charge of organizing the volunteers and staff around the clock, and helped with tiered triage decisions for each patient as it arrived. She, herself, tube fed 60 and 70 malnourished seals a day while singing lullabies over the phone to her toddler who wondered where Mommy had gone. 

“We had Laguna animal control officers, park rangers and lifeguards helping us with as many as 13 rescues a day,” says Kirsten. “Our administrative staff upstairs was down here in the trenches. It was an awesome community commitment. 

“When you see support in such a huge way, it gives you the strength to keep going. We had a record number of seals come in, and we had a record number of releases of rehabilitated seals. I can’t imagine a success greater than that. 

“Every day I know this – but it’s the worst times that remind me that I’m really making a difference. How lucky am I to call this my job?” 

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is a non-profit organization at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Visiting hours are 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and donations are happily accepted.


By DIANE ARMITAGE

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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Ron Reno – 32 years – 1,636 weeks – 10,000 days

As his regulars cross the Andree’s Patisserie threshold, he is already bagging their favorite item.

He greets each customer with a happy grin, and gestures with the bakery bag in hand, filled with flaky goodness. This person always wants a Bear Claw. That one prefers the plain croissant. This one is in for his turkey sandwich (no cheese).

As I step up to the worn counter, it is only my third visit in as many months. Ron eyes me momentarily and says, “You’re the decaf Au Lait with not so much milk, right?” I grin and feel important. Heavens, I think … I drop into a large chain coffee shop in Dana Point at least three times a week, and they still look at me as if I’m a newcomer from Kansas. 

For Ron Reno, sole proprietor of Andree’s Patisserie, this is what running a small town bakery is all about. “I have an appreciation for the people who choose me,” he says. “It’s important that every person who walks in my door knows that.”

For 32 years …1,636 weeks … and nearly 10,000 days, Ron Reno has been mixing, baking and serving his famed pastries and coffee in this Laguna Beach historic location. 

He is, quite literally, chief, cook and bottle washer. On the rare occasions that he’s chosen to take a weeklong vacation or been forced into a 4-week leave for ACL surgery, he simply closes his blue door and attaches a note to its front with the date of his return. 

Ron Reno is, otherwise, the one and only person you will see at Andree’s Patisserie, from 7:35 a.m. to about 2 p.m., every day of the week but Sunday. On Sunday, Ron rests. 

The Bakery With the Robin-Blue Door

Andree’s, with its blue awning in the tiny alley behind what is now Selanne Steak Tavern, has seen thousands of people cross its threshold. Initially, the small bakery was put in place in the 1940s as an auxiliary baking kitchen for the first restaurant that stood in Selanne’s location, Andree’s. Its namesake – the independently minded woman, Andree Davis – believed that every restaurant’s foundation stood upon the quality of its baked goods. While she had an executive pastry chef and staff in place, she was often seen in the bakery’s kitchen herself, mixing up her famed steamed pudding. In 1962, she introduced her bakery to Laguna Beach by officially opening to the public. 

When Ron Reno first heard of Andree’s Patisserie, he was a new graduate in 1979 with a 2-year baking school certification under his arm. Where most people would not wish to engage in an occupation whose workday begins at 4:45 a.m., Ron had quite the opposite opinion.  

“I decided about halfway through college that I wanted to transfer to baking school,” says Ron. “Baking just seemed like a fun thing to do. People are always happy when they come into a bakery. It’s a happy place to be. Who wouldn’t want that job every day?”

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At that time in 1979, one of Ron’s teachers had been moonlighting at the then-downtown Laguna Beach bakery, Renaissance, and hired Ron to take his place at the all-night job. For two years, Ron worked the graveyard shift, endlessly rolling, twisting, pouring and baking every delectable item from donut holes to towering wedding cakes. 

In 1981, Ron heard that the owner of Andree’s Patisserie was looking to retire. He hot-footed it over to the blue awning storefront and agreed, as a term of sale, to learn how to bake the man’s “family recipe” Lemon Squares and Copenhagen Squares. To this day, the lemon squares are offered daily, and the Copenhagen – a puff pastry bottom with rich custard and Danish pastry on top – makes its appearance every Saturday. 

“It’s important to pay respect to a baker’s lineage,” says Ron. “At that point, though, I had developed several of my own favorite recipes so, for the most part, I rolled my program into play. 

“The former owner’s muffins were good,” Ron notes as an example, “But I use buttermilk and honey in my muffins for more moisture and texture. So, it was a combination of carrying the tradition along, and improving on pastry favorites to create my own signature.” 

271 Decadent Pastries & Breads Baked Daily

Every pre-dawn morning, Monday through Saturday, Ron bakes “271 items” for weekdays, and doubles the amount for Saturdays… A variety of muffins. Three kinds of croissants. Three kinds of cookies (Almond Biscotti counts as one). A crowd of Danishes. The inimitable Bear Claw. Elephant Ears. Three kinds of sandwiches, their ingredients piled high inside freshly baked slices of Ron’s secret recipe potato bread. The baked riches neatly stack themselves, shelf upon shelf, readied for another day of happy buyers.   

Longtime fans will call from L.A. to have Ron set their favorite pastry aside. A woman from Brea drives into Laguna Beach to pick up a Bear Claw, and then beelines back to Brea – it is her only stop. Once a week, another woman stops in for a loaf of his potato bread. Ron learns his clients’ schedules and timetables, welcoming clients who troop in for their annual visit from Europe, and prepping 16 sandwiches each workday morning so that they’re ready for his usual crews. 

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Not even recognizing that his thoughtful sandwich prep has now crossed the line into what moms do for their kids on school day mornings, Ron talks about the motherly advice he dispenses (“usually to women”) as they stand before his pastry bins, half-giddy and half-guilt ridden. 

“Sometimes, you just have to walk people through it,” he says with a grin. “This is non-serious food; it’s an indulgence. But sometimes, you just have to assure them that occasional indulgences are good for the soul. 

“There’s nothing like eating a pastry or cookie that was just baked that morning,” he continues. You just owe it to yourself … it’s part of what makes life great.”

“Old Friends” at the Holidays

At the holidays, Ron’s faithful followers spread the love by buying up hundreds of his fabled holiday cookies and pies to share with family, coworkers and friends. 

Freshly baked cutout cookies with thick frosting shoulder their way into the store’s pastry bins at all the major holidays, even the Fourth of July. He creates cookie stacks in cellophane wrap, and they disappear as quickly as they’re bagged and gift-tied.

Even when it’s pie-making season, Ron never resorts to electric appliances or mixers to mix his dough. “The key to great dough is to never over mix,” he says. “I might start with a mixer to create a crumble, but then I work the dough by hand. You have to feel the dough in your hands to get a sense of it. You have to know how “too wet” or “too dry” feels like, and then know how to scale your ingredients in each batch to create that perfect consistency. There’s just no way you can do that with a big commercial mixer,” he says, adding a tiny shrug.

The Always-Changing Movie

Where many Laguna Beach bakeries have been vanquished by larger commercial organizations, and where bakeries everywhere have come to rely on third-party sourcing to fill their daily pastry bins, Ron Reno will continue to wake at 4:00 a.m. and roll his doughs by hand until he’s simply not able to perform the work any longer. 

“I can’t imagine retiring,” he says. “Last year, when I had ACL surgery, I spent four long weeks sitting on my couch, watching each day go by. I’d watch the light change by degrees as it made its way across my backyard until it was dark. I’d go to bed, and I’d get up again to go sit on the couch. It was my own personal Groundhog Day movie.”

“This place …” he gestures to his pastry bins, the window counter with its sentry stools, “This place here in Laguna Beach is the movie I want to see every day of my life.” 

“Laguna Beach offers this unique niche of people who are doing things in a different way,” he continues. “So many people here approach life from a different angle and they’re doing it successfully. They’re interesting …they’re engaged in life … they have great stories to share,” he says. “That’s the movie I get to be a part of every day. I wouldn’t be anywhere else, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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