Ellen Girardeau Kempler, winner of Ireland’s Blackwater International Poetry Competition, is a poet with a mission

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

 

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“Place poet” Ellen Girardeau Kempler and her “self-esteem cave” where she surrounds herself with reminders of her achievements and happiest times

Three-time winner of Laguna Beach Library’s annual poetry prize, and more recently the winner of the prestigious Blackwater International Poetry Competition – based in West Cork, Ireland – Ellen Girardeau Kempler is a much-published Laguna poet with a mission. She wants to help people to “feel in [their] deep heart’s core” (a quote from William Butler Yeats, one of her favorite poets) a visceral connection to the immensity and mystery of our universe. 

“When we are open to the unexpected, both poetry and place can awaken us to the deep link between the personal and the universal,” she says. “If throughout your life you continue both physical and intellectual exploration, you are more likely to sense the magic around you.” 

Kempler’s trip to Chilean Patagonia in 2013, during which she caught sight of Andean condors flying free in the immense, glacier-carved landscape, was a transformative experience for her, bringing home the importance of being receptive to the power of the universe and reminding her how close California condors came to extinction in the eighties.

“We need to pay attention so that we will be alert to astonishment,” she says.

Kempler quotes Matsuo Basho, a Japanese poet considered the master of haiku, from his introduction to “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” to make her point. 

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough…to see something hidden glimmering there.”

In this quote, Basho, who lived from 1644 – 1694, seems almost to have anticipated the ‘selfie’ obsession that consumes our society these days, with him admonishing us in advance of the perils of narcissism.

“We’re so caught up in branding ourselves, and seeking attention, that we don’t seem capable of living in the moment. It’s all about who will see us and what they will think of us based on the image we choose to project,” Kempler says. “Usually what’s in the background is ignored, but that’s where the condors fly and the whales spout and the unexpected happens.”

Also, Kempler notes, so much photo-shopping is done these days that the public is often suspicious that stunning natural photos – such as the Milky Way reflected on Lake Titicaca – are not real. “The only way to know the reality of nature is to become a personal witness to the phenomena that occur – and it isn’t always possible to predict their timing,” she says.

The value of wandering—and waiting

Kempler’s visit to Patagonia brought home to her to the realization that being willing to wander without expectations, at home and abroad, could greatly enrich her life. She recalls one of the most wonderful travel experiences that she has had by simply “putting [herself] in a place” without too many expectations. 

“In Reykjavik, our travel group took overnight shifts, hoping to see the Northern Lights, but that night there was nothing to be seen. The following night was so cold and windy, I gave up after a while and went inside the hotel. But eventually I went outside again.

“Suddenly the night sky changed, and bands of green began to circle and enclose us, interspersed with shimmering lights made up of transparent rainbow colors. It was an otherworldly feeling, as though we were literally seeing the wind.” 

Kempler says watchers reacted in almost primal ways, dancing and screaming at the sight. 

“It’s particularly important that people understand how connected we are to nature in these times of climate change. In recent years, I traveled to the Athabasca Glacier in Canada, and saw just how fast the ice is retreating,” she adds “The glacier has lost half its volume in the last 125 years.”

That’s one reason why Kempler built a website, Gold Boat Journeys, to inspire others to explore the written word and the wonders of the world in person, and to share her own life-changing experiences.

Not just a “place poet”

While Kempler is happy to be known as a “place poet,” she writes about a range of subjects. Birthday Wish, the poem that won the Blackwater International Poetry Contest against strong competition from poets all over the world, from Sri Lanka to Ireland, is a poignant reflection on her dying father’s last days. Although he, a theoretical physicist, could no longer understand complicated algorithms, he was able to read, on his e-reader, an illustrated biography of Marc Chagall, given to him by Kempler. The thought that her dad was still able to appreciate patterns and colors and abstract images in his last weeks has been a comfort to her.

 

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Besides travel, Kempler loves her terrier Arlo and hosting a Little Free Library

The Laguna poet will be flown to the West Cork Literary Festival, where she will read her poem and enjoy four nights free accommodation. She’s hoping not to have to drive – one of her most humbling experiences, she says, involved a solo trip to Ireland, a pink rental car and the challenges of driving on the left hand side of the road, especially around roundabouts. The toll collector told her not to worry to pay. She had suffered enough, he felt. She agreed.

Kempler says that writing poems, besides giving her pleasure, has helped during difficult times in her life. She has established her office as a “Self-esteem Cave,” noting that like most creative people, she often doubts herself and needs to remind herself of her achievements (which include being a finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books and Ireland’s Fish Poetry Prize, judged by Billy Collins). 

Here in the “cave,” she has hung her prize certificates and a map of the world, and her desk and shelves contain reminders of her journeys to Ireland, Iceland, Patagonia and other destinations, along with books by favorite poets including Yeats, Pablo Neruda, and Emily Dickinson.

Travel is great, but you don’t have to go far afield to experience the wonders of nature. Kempler recalls going for a walk on the beach in Laguna and being lucky enough to see a mother whale and baby gamboling in the ocean.

Armchair travel that engages the mind and the spirit

Visiting Kempler’s website is a journey in itself. Here the hyperlink-clicking visitor will find inspirational quotes, writing prompts, even a writing contest, along with stunning travel photos and an invitation to use her consulting services through her Gold Boat Journeys. She’s also a whiz at social media and for a while worked as a consultant for Expedia.

Kempler, who has in the past handled marketing communications for the Laguna Canyon Foundation and Laguna Art Museum, and her husband Roger, a lawyer, are the parents of two grown daughters, Alex and Holly, and a cuddly terrier named Arlo. Since moving to Laguna Beach in 1997, they’ve been active volunteers for a variety of nonprofits including the Laguna Playhouse, Pageant of the Masters, Friendship Shelter and Transitions Laguna. The Kemplers have also hosted plein-air artists from all over the world.

“My favorite thing about Laguna is that it is an island surrounded by wilderness – the greenbelt on three sides and the bluebelt on the other. I love listening to the city’s soundtrack from here where I live on Top of the World: birds chirping, owls hooting, coyotes howling, wind chimes dinging, kids skateboarding, the boys down the street practicing drums and piano, punctuated by echoes of fire trucks, seals barking and other noises from down below,” she says.

Besides writing, traveling and volunteering, Kempler enjoys an eclectic range of activities including picking berries and baking pies, taking pleasure in the books that come and go from her Little Free Library, and watching the occasional TV mystery and drama. 

In September, Ellen Girardeau Kempler, an Oregon native who loves “green places,” will head to Japan to enjoy its natural beauty, and she hopes, see snow monkeys – and who knows what else? She looks forward to finding out.

Visit Ellen Girardeau Kempler’s website at www.gold-boat.com. You never know what you might discover.



Dr. Korey Jorgensen: Specializing in helping others

By: Samantha Washer

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Dr. Korey Jorgenson began his work at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic (LBCC) as a volunteer back in 1972.  “I was attached to the Marines…I was a doctor at the El Toro base.  One of the people I worked with was Bill Anderson (now at Sleepy Hollow Medical Clinic in Laguna Beach).  He was one of the physicians at the Base and he said I should look at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic as a place to volunteer my time,” explains Dr. Jorgensen.  

He did more than look, continuing to see patients at the clinic until November of 2014 (that’s 42 years, if you’re counting).  Not only did Jorgensen find LBCC a good fit for his services, he found the city to be a good fit for him personally, as well. “When I got out of the service in 1973 I was really ready to make Laguna my home,” he says.  

Leaving a thriving practice for Laguna Beach Community Clinic

The Laguna Beach Community Clinic was founded in 1970 as “a free clinic.” While the Clinic still serves low-income and uninsured patients it is no longer “free”, but rather relies on a “sliding fee scale and public support funds for care reimbursement” according to the group’s website.  It is a licensed non-profit agency.  Dr. Jorgensen continued his private solo practice in Costa Mesa as a family practitioner and an HIV specialist while also working at LBCC.  In 1991 he decided to take “a break” from his solo practice and start an HIV treatment program at LBCC.  

“I stayed at the Clinic from then on,” he says.  

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Dr. Korey Jorgensen just stopped seeing patients at LBCC after 42 years

Bringing his HIV treatment expertise to LBCC

Before Dr. Jorgensen arrived the Clinic didn’t have anyone who was knowledgeable about HIV, nor did they have any funding to pay for such treatment.  Under Dr. Jorgensen’s leadership, LBCC utilized money from the Ryan White Foundation, a federal program named for an HIV positive boy who had been discriminated against as a result of his having HIV, and partly funded by a tax on cigarettes. However, in 1991 HIV was “still a death sentence,” says Dr. Jorgensen.  It wasn’t until 1996 when better treatments were discovered along with better testing.  “This allowed doctor’s to more effectively treat and monitor patients with HIV. Then the death rate started to go down.”

“Everything has gotten better” for those with HIV

Things have changed so much in regards to HIV since it first arrived – its treatment, the public’s perception of it – that it’s hard to remember how dire a diagnosis of HIV was back then, not to mention the paranoia and fear regarding its transmission.  

“People’s attitudes have changed,” says Dr. Jorgensen.  “There is still a stigma attached to it, but there is a much better understanding of how it is transmitted; not from kissing, not from sharing a utensil.”  

As the only HIV treatment center “south of the 55”, as Dr. Jorgensen points out, he has seen many – and lost many – patients through the years.  Thankfully, things have improved. “Everything has gotten better…it has totally turned around,” he says.  Nevertheless, there are still 50,000-60,000 new cases a year.  This has been the statistic for the past 20 years with certain ethnic groups making up a larger share of those numbers, according to Jorgensen.  

“Women of color,” Jorgensen explains, “are a growth group for HIV.  Latinos, who are a hugely important group in Orange County, for example, bear a disproportionate share of the disease in the county.”  

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Dr. Korey Jorgensen, a past recipient of the Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade Citizen of the Year Award, on the deck of his Laguna Beach home

Retired but still heavily involved

Dr. Jorgensen, who, up until his retirement, was one of three doctors seeing patients at LBCC, also served as Clinic Director for several years.  And while he may be “retired” from LBCC, he is still involved.  “I donate money.  I also collaborate with staff on a pain management program; I have an advisory meeting with Dr. Bent, the current Clinic Director who is retiring soon; and I also collaborate with the people who write the newsletter, a very effective tool for informing donors what the clinic is doing with their money.  My fourth role is my involvement with maintenance issues.  No one was doing it when I Ieft so…” he says laughing.  I’m just guessing here, but I got the feeling that Jorgensen would happily hand off this particular responsibility in case anyone is interested.

Grateful for the kindness of strangers

And while no one disputes the importance of maintenance, Jorgensen strongly believes in acknowledging those who donate to LBCC.  “Without them we don’t exist.  Being alert to the fact that you depend on the kindness of donors…and strangers…you must be ready to thank them.  Many of my friends support the Clinic because they know I work there,” he says.

The LBCC’s biggest fundraiser just took place on May 5.  “The Cinco de Mayo fundraiser is a fun, fun party,” he says, “and a major source of funding.”  There is also “Handbags for Health” where high-end, vintage handbags are donated and then sold to raise money for LBCC.  “We also participate in ‘I Heart OC’ as well as make an annual appeal four times a year where we ask for money.   And we have grant writers, too.”  All of these things help keep the LBCC running and able to do its important work.

Chairman of The Laguna Food Pantry

The Laguna Beach Community Clinic is not the only place Dr. Jorgensen helps do important work.  One might think that with his retirement from seeing patients at LBCC Jorgensen would be honing his golf swing or some other equally indulgent activity with his new found free time.  If he is, it didn’t come up in our conversation (and it would mean his days have more than 24 hours in them).  Rather, Jorgensen finds time to be the Chair of The Laguna Food Pantry.  

“The Pantry gives away 2,000 pounds of food each day,” he explains.  “At least one third of these folks (who receive food from the Pantry) live, work or go to school in Laguna Beach.”

From running an efficient meeting to feeding 3,000 families a month

Jorgensen has been involved with the Food Pantry for “about 10 years”, he says, and was asked to join their Board by Jane Fulton, who was then the group’s Director.  

“I became the Chair because I know how to run a meeting,” he says with a laugh. 

Jorgensen explains that The Laguna Food Pantry gets food from Ralph’s, Pavilions, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and, now, Gelson’s.  “We also purchase what might be in short supply.  We give out fresh fruit, vegetables, frozen meat, canned goods, bread by the baleful – a lot of bread.  I think we serve 3,000 families a month.”  Jorgensen says that while the group happily accepts food donations, their preferred method of receiving support is cash.  “We can buy the food really cheap so the money goes a lot further,” he explains.  They have their “Pantry Palooza” coming up on June 10 at the Marine Room.  Jorgensen says it’s a “very, very fun event” that runs from 5-7:30 with “a great band for dancing and a terrific taco bar.”

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Dr. Korey Jorgensen somehow finds time to tend to his avocado tree

Laguna Beach HIV Advisory Council

And still Jorgensen finds the time to help more.  He is part of the city’s HIV Advisory Committee.  “It’s mostly to educate people about HIV and reduce the stigma of it,” he explains of the group’s purpose.  “The meetings are once a month.  They are outreach meetings.  This is not a charitable organization, but an advisory committee.  But I value my involvement.  I’m the only doctor.  The rest are concerned citizens – about 20 – who get together.”  The group meets on the first Thursday of every month from 4-5 p.m.  Check the city’s website for more information.

And still more interests…

Jorgensen does have interests outside of his philanthropic work, though when he has the time to indulge in them is a mystery.  “I own and manage three apartment buildings in town.  And I enjoy doing that.  I enjoy going to the museum for music.  I love the (Laguna) Playhouse, No Square Theater and Theater Out in Santa Ana.  It’s a gay-themed theater, like No Square, with amateur actors and lots of energy, signing and dancing.  It’s really a lot of fun,” he says.

Homework, snack and a standing handball game

However, it seemed pretty obvious during our conversation that the thing he enjoys most occurs every Wednesday.  “My son and daughter-in-law live close by.  I spend every Wednesday with my grandson who is eight.  I pick him up after school and we do homework, play handball, have a snack…it’s really, really great.  He loves coming over,” says Jorgensen with satisfaction.   

Which makes me think that in addition to continuing his lifelong work helping others, Dr. Jorgensen’s got game.  

Eight year olds are known to take their handball pretty seriously.


Mia Ferreira: Improving lives and providing shelter for those less fortunate, one warm smile at a time 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Aga Stuchlik

Mia Ferreira ups the happiness quotient in any environment she enters. But her easy-going nature, and sunny smile belie an earnest yet caring take-charge administrative style. Just ask the residents at the Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL).

Mia is the Program Manager, effectively running the ASL homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon.  With a rotating staff of ten, Mia supervises, handles case management, and coordinates efforts with Friendship Shelter for the 45-60 “guests” who show up every night at the ASL.

“People come to us very broken,” says Mia. “A lot have serious mental illness. Their families may have written them off; they’ve been overlooked. I try to engage and show them I care, remember their names. 

“They’ve been treated like ‘clients’ and now they are ‘guests.’”

Mia Ferreira

In such an emotionally charged situation it’s easy to see what a difference a kind-hearted and engaging leader can make. One example is a guest that Mia was able to connect with through her unique sensibility: It was a flower that brought them together.

“There is one guest who is seriously mentally ill. She sits outside all day. She’s earthy,” said Mia. “Every day I brought her a gardenia from my garden – and because of that I’ve gotten to know her, and gain her trust.”

Family, school, work

Mia’s relationship to Laguna and the South County has come full circle. As a youngster growing up in Capo Beach she first had dreams of going to college far from home. Of course, she’s no dreamer, so she made that happen. “I swore I wouldn’t come back,” she jokes. 

After undergrad in Hawaii, she migrated over to the east coast and pursued her Master’s in Public Health at Emory University. Proudly an activist for social justice, she fondly recalls living for a time in Chicago while busy with anti-war protests. Mia was back on the west coast, working up north in Salinas with a homeless organization – a soup kitchen, work and arts co-op when her dad became ill. She wanted to help him out and has since found herself back on home turf.

Every step of the way Mia has been involved with social service agencies, working with the poor and homeless. It’s just in her nature. She laughs, “Crazy people love me! It feels good. I’m still smiling.”

And she’s going to school again on top of everything else she’s doing. At night she’s at class earning a second Master’s Degree, this one in social work. “I wanted to learn more clinical skills – learn more ways to engage people,” she says. “How do you help people effect change in their lives? I see it happen all the time. I’m getting better and better at it.” No doubt!

Her time, her mantra, “Family, school, work!”

Finding balance

Of course there has to be balance in one’s life when faced daily with the needs of the mentally ill and suffering. Mia meditates, and has a spiritual practice. She also loves to go biking with her mom, and go with her partner and 10-year-old stepson to Salt Creek Beach for his surfing, or to his soccer games. She loves the outdoors, the beach, and creating artwork – mosaic and block printing.

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Mia is the always-cheerful program manager at the Alternative Sleeping Location

In her own life, as well as those she looks after, she says it best: “I believe in the possibility for everybody to lead a thriving life.”

Laguna has come to own a special place in her heart. “I’m so impressed with Laguna Beach,” she says. “The only [South County] city that has a homeless shelter!

“So many people in the community have commented to say ‘thank you for doing this important work,’ but anybody can do it – be kind to the homeless.”

The journey

For Mia Ferreira it’s about the journey more than a destination, though there have been a few recent blue-ribbon outcomes for ASL guests. “We just housed 44 people in permanent housing,” said Mia happily. “We screened over 90 people starting eight months ago, and got 44 into housing – apartments all over Orange County.”

That’s quite an accomplishment, considering it was a countywide application for HUD grant monies for just 100 housing units. Applicants had to be screened and identified as both chronically homeless and with a disabling condition.

“Meeting people where they’re at, non-judgmental, and loving…” is the way Mia describes the ASL approach to connecting with their guests. In this way they are able to start a journey toward wellbeing, and even success. Success came to one recently. “One guy did it!” said Mia. “He got a Pell grant to go to school. He did it and has a job now.” That makes her smile even brighter.

At work at the ASL office

Mia’s work at the shelter gives her joy, and that joy is infectious. “I have a strong sense of belief that my happiness is tied to other people’s happiness,” she says. The fact that many of the ASL guests stop by to say hi, and just want to hang out with her is testimony to her approachable leadership style. She is a friend to all. And her friendship adds a measure of dignity to the lives of the ASL guests.

The destination

 “People should work in jobs they would volunteer in,” Mia says. “This work is about wanting to live my values.” 

Clearly Mia has found her life’s passion in helping the needy in whatever way she can. But the way forward for the people who rely on the ASL is something Mia thinks about every day. “We need more affordable housing options in Orange County,” she says.  “A lot of folks have only minimum wage jobs.” 

For those who are homeless with no jobs, as many are in Laguna Beach, there is also the matter of what becomes of them during the day. For this Mia would like a magic wand. “If I had a magic wand I would create, in South Orange County, a day center. A drop-in center where there would be mental health and substance abuse services, case managers, and activities – things to do during the day.” 

Musings? Not likely for long. If anyone can create a magic wand to improve the lives of homeless people, it is Mia Ferreira.


Derek Ostensen: Keeping open space green and real

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I met Derek Ostensen, of Derek Ostensen and Associates, at his home in North Laguna that is as close to the open space as one can live. This is fitting since Ostensen has committed his working life as an environmental scientist/ecologist to preserving open spaces. 

Our interview started off on unusual footing. He and his wife had just purchased a virtual reality head set and he, being a gracious host, asked me if I wanted to try it out.  After putting the headset on, I first found myself atop a very tall building that definitely kicked my acrophobia into gear. Then I was face to face with a raging, frothing T-Rex.

Virtual reality is very cool, indeed.  But I was there to talk to Ostensen, a Laguna native, about his work protecting open spaces in his hometown, as well as other places in California. 

Derek Ostensen, environmental scientist, ecologist and Laguna Beach native 

For him it is truly a labor of love. “I love wildlife and I love nature – that applies throughout the world. But Laguna has exemplary attributes; the arts, the education system, the sense of community, and the environment are all parts of that. The ability to quickly be in the wilderness is an important part of Laguna. That’s why I feel really passionate about preserving the open space in Laguna Beach,” he explains. 

An existential decision brings him home

Saving Laguna’s open spaces started with a letter to the editor. Well, that’s not entirely true. Before the letter, there were undergraduate degrees in digital media and environmental studies, and a Master’s in ecological restoration. 

There was a job with The Discovery Channel that resulted from winning a nationwide internship search, and lined up perfectly with both college majors. While he enjoyed the work at The Discovery Channel, he says, “I had an existential decision to make.”  The Discovery Channel is in Silver Springs, Maryland.  “I had to decide if I wanted to live an east coast life or come back home.  I’m really close to my family and it was really important to me to continue that relationship with them, and with the town I love so much.”

So back he came.

A letter can only accomplish so much

Then came the letter.

Carrying on his commitment to conservation and getting the message out about the importance of protecting the natural world, Ostensen was dismayed when he came home to find out how much of the wilderness surrounding Laguna was still in danger of being developed. “I wrote a letter to the local paper saying that the city had accomplished so much but that it was surprising to me that there were still so many large parcels vulnerable to private development. But you can only accomplish so much with writing a letter,” he says, laughing.

A mentor and commitment to the Laguna Canyon Foundation 

Scott Ferguson, a family friend and highly experienced conservationist who now serves as the Southern California Director of for the Conservation Fund, a national land conservation organization, read the letter and called Ostensen to meet for coffee.  

“He told me that writing letters to the editor was a fine and decent enough thing to do, but he offered me the opportunity to work with him and learn the process by which large amounts of open space are protected,” says Ostensen.  

Ferguson gave Ostensen a job, and this led to Ostensen’s first partnership with the Laguna Canyon Foundation (LCF), helping “link corridors and preserve rare species” throughout Laguna Beach.

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A hiker sets off on a trail through some of Laguna’s open space   

 “It was a fun and fascinating experience,” says Ostensen.  “Each property came with its own unique history and set of family complications. We had to find common ground in an unsolicited way. It was challenging and extremely rewarding.”  

Some of the stories he relayed to me could easily be their own reality television show. “I’m so grateful for these wonderful landowners,” he says, telling me about one of his favorite acquisitions that also happened to be one of the smallest.  

“Ralph Hahn, who lives in Laguna Canyon, has a profound love of the canyon. He had ten acres above his house. We didn’t have enough money to buy it for the appraised value, and he accepted less for it. To this day, we still see each other all the time. There are many relationships like that that have developed.”  

Ostensen’s work with LCF has been long and varied. A consultant for them since 2003 (as well as to The Conservation Fund), he has worked to help them facilitate the permanent preservation of open space in Laguna Beach.

Preserving and restoring the land

Ostensen says that while “the majority of top priority purchases have been completed,” there are still 400 acres left to complete all of the open space acquisitions in Laguna. One of the largest remaining parcels that Ostensen worked to preserve, 150 acres – adjacent to the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and Moulton Meadows Park – was purchased by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) just 12 months ago from Driftwood Properties. 

“OCTA has accomplished some of the biggest conservation successes in the past seven years. My hat goes off to OCTA. We are very grateful for their partnership.”

Again, working as a consultant for the LCF, Ostensen says, “My partners and I have preserved 15,000 acres across California. I’ve restored 100. Yet I find that part of it extremely meaningful.  

“When you start restoring a space you don’t have a sense of nature; it has been so degraded. But in a few years you can see the wheel of life coming back to the land. I want that to be a major focus of my life.” 

Despite all his success, Ostensen is knee-deep in, perhaps, his toughest project yet: restoring Aliso Creek. 

Working to restore Aliso Creek

In order to restore the “wheel of life” to Aliso Creek, Ostensen must focus a lot of time, money and energy on first eliminating arundo, a non-native species with an almost bionic propensity to grow. It’s a giant reed that can decimate up to 75% of the native habitat, from the nearly 20 miles of creek.  

“It’s a ten year process to restore the creek,” Ostensen says. Permitting alone took three years, he tells me, and it has taken over 18 months just to kill the arundo. They have removed 4 million pounds of the stuff so far. 

“It’s definitely a team effort, but it’s our hope that over the next decade, Aliso Creek will transform from a degraded habitat into a drastically improved, healthy creek with improved water quality.”  

Just the idea that progress is being made – right now – is something many who have followed the long tortuous plight of Aliso Creek probably never thought they’d see. Yet to talk of its completion? Even more fantastical, but true, thanks to people like Derek Ostensen.

High-rises on Main Beach?!

“There could have been high-rises on Main Beach,” he says with just a hint of indignation. “There are people in this town who have contributed so much [to preserve it].”  People like the ones who marched to preserve Laguna Canyon in 1989 when Ostensen was eight years old.  

“My parents picked me up from soccer. I still had my cleats on, and I saw 10,000 people all committed to saving the canyon.

“The community put so much effort into that – and seeing that it was saved reinforced in me that people could band together to accomplish great things.”  

The event to save Laguna Canyon was huge, but there are others that happen without fanfare. Ostensen likens it to “A thousand cups of tea.”

“I feel an infinite sense of wonder for nature; the way plants can adapt to harsh conditions, the extraordinary design of a wildflower,” he says. “I want to contribute as much as I can to protecting that. It’s all amazing to me.”

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Derek Ostensen relaxing at home with his daughter and the dogs.  (He and his wife went to Laguna Presbyterian Preschool together!) 

And while he gets particularly passionate about Laguna’s open spaces, his work spans from LA to the Mexican border, and east through the Mojave, providing him with a lot of different habitats to immerse himself in. These habitats once preserved, however, still need attention.  

 “We have gone through the last 60 years preserving the land. Sometime within the next 10 to 20 years the remaining open space (in Orange County) will either be developed or preserved.  

“The population of Orange County continues to increase dramatically, and the open space is experiencing increased visitation. The mission is shifting from preserving the land to educating people how not to love it to death!”  

It’s a startling reality when you think of it.  With no more land left to save, preservation must give way to stewardship.

Laguna’s wilderness is not an accident

All of this got me thinking about my experience with the virtual reality headset. It’s a very cool gadget for experiencing things like a volatile dinosaur. However, it is not how I would like to experience nature. I want the real thing. I want to smell the sage, stopping to pull the thorns out of my socks while listening to a quail call to its mate.  

The amazing thing is, thanks to people like Derek Ostensen, if you live in Laguna Beach, you can experience these things within minutes of leaving your house. 

“I feel a tangible sense of gratitude for all the people who have worked so hard to create and protect the things about Laguna Beach we all love so much,” he says. That gratitude is something we all should consider.  

It’s easy to take for granted, but one doesn’t have to look far to find other cities where the wilderness has long since vanished. Laguna would look a lot different if people like Derek Ostensen hadn’t cared – and didn’t continue to care – so much to protect it.


Justin Myers: mover, shaker and willing helper

Story by ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The word ‘no’, it seems, is not in Justin Myers’ vocabulary. The thirty-two-year-old has resided in Laguna Beach for nearly three years, and he’s already made a significant impact in town, simply because he has a hard time turning down an opportunity to help others. 

Justin was raised in Newport Beach, and he jokes that during his upbringing he “volun-told” at the insistence of his mother, who was involved in some local charity organizations. But it’s clear when speaking to Justin that volunteering is not something he’s ever really felt forced into. 

Rather, he’s always had an inherent desire to help others. 

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Justin Myers

When he was a student at Corona del Mar high school, for example, he set out to meet the minimum community service requirement of 80 hours, which he far exceeded. 

“I ended up having close to 3,000 hours of community service,” he says. “I was involved with Boy Scouts, and I was an Eagle Scout. Serving the community has always been instilled in me, and it’s something I enjoy.”

Justin’s dedication to service benefits Laguna Beach today in many different ways, and his willingness to say ‘yes’ and contribute his time, talent and energy to those in need is inspiring. 

“Laguna is such a great community, and it’s so incestuous in nature when it comes to philanthropy and being involved here,” he says. “It’s just great to see how active everyone is in this community.”

Getting Started with Sister Cities

One particular organization about which Justin has always been passionate is Sister Cities International—a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network dedicated to building and strengthening partnerships between the US and its international ‘sister cities.’

Justin got involved at a young age with the Sister Cities exchange program between Newport Beach and Okazaki, Japan. He made his first trip to Japan in 1997 at the age of 14, and he has since served as a chaperone for students on the same trip, as well as to Newport’s French Sister City, Antibes. 

“It really has had such a profound impact on my life, to experience life outside of the ‘orange curtain,’ and the whole premise is about promoting art and cultural exchange,” says Justin. 

In 2008, Justin got a call from the French Consulate, asking him if he’d be willing to support Laguna Beach’s Sister Cities exchange program. And, of course, he said yes. 

Though he’s lived in Laguna for a couple of years, he’s been actively involved in Laguna’s Sister Cities Association for close to a decade, and he was recently appointed to serve as the organization’s president. 

Today, he’s actively working to bolster the relationship between Laguna Beach and its Sister City, Menton, France, as well as San José del Cabo. And, in 2012, Laguna Beach City Council approved a friendship alliance between Laguna and St. Ives, England; Justin is currently working with LCAD on an artist exchange program between the two cities.

Extending His Reach to Countless Other Groups

Through his involvement with Laguna Beach Sister Cities Association and by relocating to Laguna several years ago, Justin has met many other community-minded people, who have seen in him the potential to make a significant impact in other ways. 

“It’s just been kind of a snowball effect,” says Justin.

He was asked, for example, to contribute his time and skills to build a website for the Friends of the Laguna Beach Library. Once the project was completed, Justin joined the nonprofit organization, to which he regularly volunteers his time, managing projects and helping the library with its website, emails and tech issues. 

When the Laguna Playhouse celebrated its 90th anniversary, Justin was asked to join that committee—and he was soon invited to join the board, too. Today, as a member of the Playhouse’s board of trustees, Justin enjoys helping the organization with its development and fundraising initiatives. He also volunteers his time in support of the Playhouse’s Youth Theater program.

And, more recently, Justin was brought on as the director of the Laguna Food Pantry, where he works part-time. Though there are many rewards for Justin when it comes to giving back to local families in need, he particularly loves watching families in need come in and pick out healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables together. 

“That’s why I get so actively involved,” he explains. “Everyone sees Laguna and thinks it’s such a wealthy town, but there are so many people in this town that are underserved and have a need for things,” he says.

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Justin At Work at The Laguna Food Pantry

As for the challenges of being involved with so many thriving charities and non-profits? “It was a bit difficult at first to kind of shuffle my time around, and tough to get people to take me seriously because I was so young, but I think I have proven myself in terms of my involvement,” he says. 

And he has proven himself in the community—and enough to earn support and backing as he puts plans in place to revive Laguna’s Lions Club chapter, another nonprofit that has the potential to accomplish so much with Justin at the helm.  

Food and Wine

Of course, along the way, Justin has also built a career for himself. An international business major, he has an entrepreneurial mindset, and he recently started his own event planning and catering company in town. Prior to that, he ran the Newport Beach Vineyards and Winery’s special events. 

He has also worked with Lindsay Smith-Rosales, executive chef and co-owner of Laguna’s Nirvana Grille on some social media and marketing efforts. Starting his own Laguna Beach-based catering company married all of his skills—especially entertaining and connecting with people—together naturally. 

And, even when he’s not working, he’s still making the people around him happy.

“I love entertaining, and I love cooking, it’s my passion… usually on a Sunday my friends are all here at my house having brunch—usually lavender pancakes,” he says. 

A North Laguna resident, Justin also enjoys relaxing at the beach, and you can find him on the sand with a glass of wine in hand when he has a free moment. Which, of course is rare. 

Justin’s focus today is getting others involved in the causes and organizations about which he cares deeply, and he’s confident that he’ll be able to motivate others—no matter their ages—to get involved, too. 

“Really, I want to grow awareness about some of these groups that aren’t as well known, and I want to get younger people involved, because there’s no sustainability with these organizations if the younger generations aren’t there,” says Justin.


Aga Stuchlik: Passionately capturing life

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Agnieszka Stuchlik, or Aga, as she’s known, came to Laguna Beach it was originally meant to be a quick stop on a longer adventure.  “I was supposed to be here for a very short time, but ended up staying.  I loved the community!” she says.  So that, and the fact that her traveling companions were unable to secure their traveling money encouraged Aga to think longer term about Laguna.  

Five years later Aga is still here, but she has made some changes: leaving her longtime position at Laguna Coffee Company to augment her passion for outdoor adventure by working at REI. She’s been in the action sports department since November.  

“It was a hard decision, but it was time to move on,” she explains.

Determined and adventurous

 Born in Poland, where she lived until she was 18 and old enough to travel on her own, Aga got her passport and went off to see the world.  

“When I got my passport I went to England.  The first time it was for two months,” says Aga.  “When I was there I knew there was no way I am going back [to Poland]. It’s so hard to travel in Poland. Not everyone has cars, like here, so it’s very hard. In England you can go wherever you want.”

She did return to Poland just long enough to finish her degree. “Then I went back to England for nine years.”

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Agnieska Stuchlik, “Aga”: traveler, photographer, hopeful U.S. citizen

For six of those nine years, Aga says she lived in and worked with the Polish community there. “I didn’t learn English at all,” she says.  Wanting to rectify that, she began studying English, became fluent, and took a job “as a postman during the day and a long distance motorcycle messenger at night.”  

Ignoring the rules of a “macho” society – and her mother

Motorcycle riding was familiar to Aga because that’s how people got around in Poland when she was a kid, or I should say, how boys and men got around.  For girls, it was not encouraged.  Aga didn’t care.   

“Poland is a very macho society,” she explains. “I bet now it’s changing, but when I lived there it was a big deal that I rode a motorcycle.  I just had to do it.  My mom said ‘No, don’t do it,’ but I would say I was going to a sleepover and go riding.  

“When I showed up with a motorcycle my mother said, ‘I’m not talking to you!’”

Fortunately, her mother changed her mind about speaking to her daughter, if not about motorcycles. 

Aga has not abandoned her love of motorcycles.  She is the proud rider of a cherry red Yamaha R1, and to hear her describe the enjoyment she gets from it is to hear a truly passionate devotee. 

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Aga Stuchlik with her prized Yamaha R1 motorcycle

“I don’t know how many people go to work and say ‘This makes me happy.’ I never feel that way in a car, but a motorcycle is just so joyful,” she says. “I know I have to stop at lights, and it can be windy and all that, but it still makes me happy. It’s dangerous and uncomfortable when your shoes get wet with rain, but I have joy just touching the air. I just want to feel the air because it’s fun!” 

It makes me wonder what I’m missing in my car with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning set to a comfortable 70. 

Laguna Coffee helps launch a career

Aga’s joy in touching air, and her freedom of spirit have coalesced into another love: photography.  Photography started as a way to show her friends and family her travels, but it has developed into a new and meaningful career.  

“I think it started in England,” she says. “It was more…I wasn’t thinking about it much…but when I moved to Australia, it picked up.  Then when I got to the States people made me realize it was something I can do.”  

Many of those “people” were regulars who got to know Aga at the Laguna Coffee Company. “You think, ‘It’s just a coffee shop,’ but it gave me a start.  It gave me a home. These wonderful people… gave me so much,” she says of her time behind the counter there.  

It was not hard to see the bond she formed with some of the patrons there. In the span of our 45-minute interview at Laguna Coffee at least five people came over to give her a hug.

She tells me that it was her Laguna Coffee customers who helped her to believe in her talent. “I met a lot of people who encouraged me to put myself out there. Stu (Saffer of StuNews) was one for sure.  He always believed in me and poked me to do more. I’m not a very brave person, but they pushed me to do something different.  Also, it’s so easy because I love to travel and there are so many things to take pictures of.”

Bravery is in the eye of the beholder

I told her that I found it humorous that she doesn’t think of herself as brave. She, who rides a motorcycle everywhere; took off to live in several foreign countries; will go car camping in Canada in 20-degree weather; or will hike and rock climb to get to a waterfall (only to find out it’s dry). To me, she is the very definition of brave.  

When I tell her so she dismisses the idea. For her, embarking on these adventures is just who she is – it’s natural.  I still call it brave, but, then, I think camping five miles away from a Costco is an adventure.  

A versatile photographer who hopes to inspire others

Aga takes her photography seriously. She is enrolled in photo classes at Orange Coast College and she says they have helped her tremendously.  

“I do a lot of pictures of products. I’m very versatile,” she says of her work. And while she has learned to photograph different things, her true love is photographing her travels.  “People are so go-go-go here! They don’t take time off.  And I understand; it’s so expensive to live. But maybe one of my photos can inspire them to take a day off.  

“In the end, I will have those memories.  I want other people to have those memories, too,” she says emphatically.

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Aga sees photo-worthy moments everywhere

Some people say things like that because it sounds good. Aga means it. She wants to share her joy. (To see her work you can go to her Instagram account at @agaxbike and you can also see it online).

A hopeful citizen who will always consider Poland home

Despite her determination to never live in Poland again she still views it as home. “It is where I grew up.  My family is there.” Next up is a trip to Poland, England, and Iceland. She has also recently applied to get her US citizenship.  “They said it takes from six to eight months so hopefully I get it before I go home.”  

After that, who knows?  Her dream is to photograph penguins in the South Pole.  “They’re my favorite animals,” she says. “I’m looking into volunteer opportunities to help get there.”  

I’m sure it’s not a matter of “if” this excursion happens, but “when.” Aga is nothing if not resourceful.

A remarkable “regular person”

“When communism broke down we didn’t have anything like here. No skateboards, no scooters. We’d play hockey on the pond,” she says. “Boys rode motorcycles; girls learned to cook. I don’t cook very well, but I can put a motorcycle together! That’s how I got my first bike. 

“My friend gave me a bag of parts and I just put it together,” she says matter-of-factly.  And that says a lot about Aga.  She’s happiest in places with “no reception” and could easily “live in a tent.”  But she will always have her camera handy.  

“Maybe people will see my pictures and think, ‘Hey, she’s a regular person and she did it,’ and they will want to do the same,” she says.  

She may be right about inspiring others to get out and see the world, even if it’s the world close to home. However, I have to disagree with her on one thing: she is anything but “regular.” 


Terri Meisberger: You’ve seen her at The UPS Store Laguna Beach… but wait, there’s more.

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It would be so easy if a person could be summed up in one sentence; he’s a great guy, or she’s an atomic expert. But we humans are complex individuals. I found such is the case with Terri Meisberger. I’ve known Terri for many years – in the way that one knows a neighbor or a common school parent. So it was delightful and insightful to discover the facets of her life that don’t pop up in casual company.

Terri Nathan Meisberger

Fact one: I never knew she was an engineer. She’s the face and the force at the UPS Store in North Laguna. She’s mom to three kids (at one time, one was in each of the three school levels – TOW, Thurston, and LBHS). And she has a whole backstory to her days as Industrial Engineer Terri Nathan. 

Engineering days

“I was living in Dallas, and got my MBA while I was working at Texas Instruments,” she said. “It was such a fun place to get started.” That’s also where she met Mark Meisberger, the love of her life for 27 years now.

In her Texas days she went from work in manufacturing engineering at Texas Instruments to tech marketing for Rockwell International. Fact two: She travelled all over the world for Rockwell educating people about Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

When the company made changes, did mergers, and eventually moved, Terri was ready in case she got laid off, and so was Mark. “We had a bet, whoever got hired first, we’d move there,” said Terri. “He got Toshiba, in Irvine.” So, move they did to Orange County, and Terri managed to continue with Rockwell as it merged with Conexant, also in Orange County.

The couple soon found that Texas style notions for a home did not match up with southern California reality.  “We had relocation people and looked at every neighborhood in California!” Terri laughs. “Got rid of the pool – check. Got rid of the 3-car garage – check. Got rid of the 3,000 square foot house – check.” 

Finally, her boss, who had been extolling the virtues of Laguna Beach, got her ear. “I hated the cookie-cutter communities, and he kept saying, ‘Look at Laguna Beach!’” So they Laguna-sized down from Texas-size, into a 25-foot lot house in Arch Beach Heights, and loved it. “It was a great house and a great location.”

But that isn’t to say that a girl who grew up in Chicago and moved here from Texas would be prepared for the kinds of extremes we all faced here in Laguna in the 90’s. 

A different sort of life in Laguna

“Arch Beach Heights was scary at first. I’d lived there six months and there were the fires, then there was the mudslide, and then the Northridge earthquake. Mark was in Japan during the earthquake. I didn’t know what to do – go to work? Stay off the roads? I was not prepared for that.” 

She was flying back from a business trip as the fires raged in Laguna in 1993. “I flew over that from Oklahoma,” she said. “People helped shuttle folks into town… they offered to let us stay with them. It was my first glimpse of what Laguna really is: people helping people. I was a total stranger. So many people lost homes, but people helped however they could. This is such a unique town.”

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Mark and Terri Meisberger at The UPS Store

The Meisbergers moved to Top of the World when along came kiddos number one (Matthew), two (Ryan), and three (Luke). Having children raises lots of complicated issues, and for Terri that began after her second. When it became evident that there were “nanny issues” so awful that Terri really doesn’t want to talk about it, she made the decision to quit working, and stay home to raise the boys. 

After her third baby, Terri discovered a lump in her breast. “I thought I had the flu,” she says. “Turns out, it wasn’t.” 

The “C” Word

Fact three: Terri had the kind of breast cancer so rare, she had to research it herself to figure it out.

“I was nursing the baby [Luke] when I found the lump. I was lucky to find it,” says Terri. “I’d never had a mammogram. It might have been years before I’d found it. He saved me!”

From then on, it was a brave new world. “Everything the doctors told me, it was the opposite,” she said. “At first they said it’s slow-growing, you’re not going to need chemo.” But she had a type of cancer very untypical for a young person, called “Hormone Positive.” 

“I wasn’t on the 80/20 bell curve of average cancers,” Terri says. “An ‘Oncotype DX’ [genomic] test tells the likelihood of recurrence. You have to be your own advocate.”

Terri went on to explain that doctors generally treat patients as an average without examining further for more rare cancers. They also generally advise lumpectomy over mastectomy. “They don’t promote it,” she says. “If I want to live five more years, I had to do it.” She received the chemo and endured first one mastectomy and then the other. “To me it was a high risk I’d have [the cancer] again. I didn’t want to mess around.”

She witnessed the community gathering together again in support, this time for her. “I don’t tolerate drugs well and had severe reactions. Everyone came to my rescue,” she said. “So many friends helped – brought meals, took the kids… And Mark. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

The message Terri wants to get out is early detection. She was just out of chemo with a lot of complications herself when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her mom was told she had six months. “I feel, after seeing what she went through, fortunate to have a diagnosis very early. 

“I’m totally a fan of early detection. Prevention is a lot easier!”

Attitude is everything

To say the least, it was “a tough few years” while Terri battled cancer and mourned the loss of her mother. The thing that keeps her going is her ever-positive attitude. “Everything happens for a reason,” she says. “I’m stronger for it. I have three great kids! My family keeps me grounded. Just make the most of every day and be the best you can be!”

The best of life these days includes the UPS Store, which Terri says is like a social hour every day, being with the kids and their sports (tennis, surf, basketball, football, soccer – and deep-sea fishing. Phew, that’s a lot!), and supporting the community with her volunteerism, including raising money for the sports teams and being part of the Orange County Women’s Health Project.

The little store with it all

The UPS Store Laguna Beach was originally Mark’s baby. He had been travelling a lot for business and his company even dropped those dreaded words – you’ll need to move. Oh no, he thought, and started searching for opportunities to stay in Laguna.  The former Mailboxes, Etc. was up for grabs in Boat Canyon. He started there as the Mailboxes corporate identity switched over to UPS. For a while he got a second UPS store in Long Beach with a partner. It was after he sold that branch to the partner that Terri jumped in to help out at the store here in town. Mark has since gone back to corporate life with Samsung, and Terri is manning the helm at UPS.

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It’s the little store that can. In a relatively small space, UPS Laguna Beach houses everything from post boxes to shipping and printing services, and sells everything from gifts to greeting cards. 

“We try to be everything for people, the festivals, galleries – making the shop work for everyone.”

Their store is the number one UPS Store in Orange County, and this year the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce awarded it Professional Service of the Year. The business is a big supporter of sports, such as Laguna Beach Little League and the Jogathon, and with organizations such as the Chamber, and Laguna Beach Business Club. They’ve recently taken a second location in Rancho Santa Margarita; hence Terri is even more busy than usual. 

Meanwhile, when she’s not at the shop, or opening the new one, Terri loves to cook. She’s taken the best of the Laguna Culinary School courses, and enjoys serving it up to her friends. But she’s most proficient at preparing one thing, as her son Matt hauls in the catch from his deep-sea expeditions. She smiles, “A lot of fish!” 

She’s been in a book club “…forever! It forces me to read!” And if there are enough hours in the day, she likes to travel with Mark, work out, hike, and train her new puppy, Abby, the cute yellow Labrador. Terri Meisberger has many facets to her life, yet she remains always calm and considerate. She’ll take the time even at the busy shop to enjoy the “social hour” that it is with her many customers who are also friends. 

She has been candid and open with me, and it is a privilege to share her story.


Alex Rounaghi: A bright future looms on the horizon for this LBHS senior  

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Alex Rounaghi, a senior at Laguna Beach High School, is doing what many high school seniors are doing at this time of year: waiting to hear from colleges.  But Rounaghi may be in a less stressful position than a lot of his classmates in that one of his top choices, Georgetown, has already accepted him. He’s just waiting to see if anything comes in that may change his mind.   

One of the most competitive colleges in the nation – with a 16% acceptance rate – is not bad as a “yes” to have in one’s back pocket. 

Senior Class President, Secretary General, to name two

Georgetown, near Washington DC, is a good fit for Rounaghi since he has spent much of his high school career focusing on government and world issues. He is senior class president (and held the same office as a sophomore). He is co-Secretary General of the Model United Nations (MUN), holding that position for the past two years.  In his junior year, Alex was chosen as a Boys State delegate by Laguna Beach American Legion Post 222 and traveled to Sacramento for a week’s education in government.”

He also played on the LBHS volleyball team for three years, only giving it up this year because, “there just wasn’t enough time in the day.”

Alex Rounaghi

Senate Page and Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade Junior Citizen of the Year

There is an abundance of high-achieving kids at LBHS (and everywhere else, it seems).  So many, in fact, it makes me reflect on what the heck I was doing with myself back in high school – certainly not running an 80-student program while putting on a 600-student MUN conference, or serving as a Senate page in Washington DC – two things Rounaghi has done in the last 12 months.  

For these efforts, and others too many to name, he was chosen as Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade Junior Citizen of the Year for 2016, an honor he shared with another LBHS senior, Elle Madhavi. Not bad for a span of less than 365 days. 

“Super interested in stuff”

In addition to all of this, Rounaghi has maintained a 4.4 GPA, which means when he says he doesn’t have time for volleyball, it’s not because he’s watching “I Love Lucy” reruns.  He explains his many accomplishments this way: “For me, I’ve always been super interested in stuff. I started high school wanting to be a doctor. So I volunteered at the hospital. Then I got interested in politics and government through MUN and the 2012 election.”  

His interest in politics and government peaked when Rounaghi took it upon himself to become a Senate Page. The Senate Page Program is a highly selective program whereby high school students are invited to work for their state’s Senator, side by side on the Senate floor.  

“I don’t even know how I found out about it. I just researched it on the Internet, and it seemed super interesting to me. I applied to both Boxer and Feinstein, not expecting too much, but then later, in April 2015, I found out I was Senator Feinstein’s page,” he said. “I was super excited.  I memorized every senator’s name…it just got me more involved.”

Serving our nation’s leaders

Alex and his family arrived in Washington DC on July 4th. “It was super cool to be there then,” he said as he smiled.  

His family left when he started work on July 7th and Rounaghi moved into Webster Hall, the Senate Page Residence, for five weeks.  

“We’d put on our uniforms and sit in the middle of the Senate. We set up podiums and got water…simple tasks, but it was cool to be so close to them and hear the nation’s leaders talk about their weekends, and things like that,” he said. “It was also hard sometimes. Once, I had to work from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., but still, that was super cool.  

“Another aspect I liked was being surrounded by the other pages.  One of my roommates was from Louisiana. I keep in touch with him.  And then one guy from Kentucky and another from Nevada are going to Georgetown…maybe more.  They’ll find out this week.”

When he returned home he resumed his duties as co-Secretary General with Elle Mahdavi, who was also selected as Patriots Day Parade Junior Citizen of the Year this year.  

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Alex Rounaghi and Elle Mahdavi, Laguna Beach Patriots Day Parade co-Junior Citizens of the Year, at the Parade Honoree Brunch at Tivoli Terrace last February

The Model United Nations

Rounaghi says he applied to be MUN Secretary General his sophomore year. “It’s basically a dictatorship,” he says with a laugh. “They just selected me and I’ve been doing it for the past two years.”  

According to the MUN website (unusa.org), MUN is an “authentic simulation of the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, or other multilateral body, which introduces students to the world of diplomacy, negotiation, and decision making.” Students take on the role of Ambassadors of UN-member countries and prepare draft resolutions, debate and strategize how to solve real world issues. There is a competitive aspect to this, as well, with the best student “delegates” receiving recognition after attending a MUN conference.

A doozy of an election to cast your first vote

Since he has some political experience as class president and with MUN stressing diplomacy and problem solving, I asked Rounaghi to weigh in on this year’s presidential election, which is clearly lacking in the former, and, one could argue, the latter, as well. 

“The election is bringing out the worst in our political process. Compromise is now a dirty word. We should focus on experience, not vague or extreme ideas,” he says. “It’s super entertaining, but I don’t think it’s good for our country as a whole.”  

When I asked him to describe his duties as class president, Rounaghi says his job is to “achieve what people want while being pragmatic and realistic.”  Huh. If only…

Going to college with an open mind

Wherever Rounaghi ends up in college, he says he would like to study economics and government. However he adds, “I want to go to college with an open mind. I know I’m not going to be a scientist, but maybe I will study law or business…I want to find out what I’m truly passionate about.” 

In the meantime, he has a few more months of high school – and Laguna – before he sets off on his next journey.  Short-term plans include getting a summer job and “spending time with my friends here. LBHS is unique in that everyone is friends with everyone, and I will definitely miss that.”  

Other things he will miss about home? “I will miss the beautiful beaches, views, hiking trails, and everything else that makes Laguna so unique.”  One thing that won’t be hard to leave behind?  The familiar refrain, “I won’t miss the traffic,” he says.

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Alex Rounaghi, taking a rare moment to relax at LBHS

Rounaghi says he’s not worried about leaving home. “I feel confident about it.  You come home at Thanksgiving, winter break, spring break…” he says. “You can call – whenever.”  

While he’s excited, there are two people who may not share the enthusiasm for him moving all the way across the country. “I don’t know about my parents,” he says, grinning.  Of course, they will get used to the idea.  

Rounaghi texted me after we met saying he has also been accepted to Dartmouth. Will it be Washington DC or New Hampshire? Either way he’s heading east to discover his passion. For someone with a strong interest in “stuff”, it’s bound to be an exciting journey.


At home with Rona Gromet

Story by ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Rona grew up in the Bronx in New York City, but followed a strong instinct to head west as an eighteen-year-old. And it was an intuition that, as it turns out, was spot-on.  

“I just looked at a map of California and picked the farthest school south on the beach,” she says. Rona attended San Diego State, and has called Southern California home ever since. And, though a mix of fate and brave determination brought her out to California, something much deeper has kept her here: a love for her community. 

In 1990, she moved to Laguna Beach, and it’s very clear when talking with Rona that she couldn’t picture herself living anywhere else. 

She and her husband, Stevan, raised their three children in Laguna, and have been active members of nearly every aspect of their community, from school sports to philanthropic endeavors. 

“I love this town, it is beautiful. I don’t ever leave Laguna if I don’t have to,” says Rona with a genuine smile. 

And her passion for Laguna explains Rona’s long history of giving back to the town, particularly by opening up her home to its residents, non-profit organizations and those in need, and for no other reason than the fact that Rona simply loves helping others.

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Rona Gromet

Park Avenue Parties

 Roughly ten years ago, Rona and her family moved from their house on Marilyn Drive in South Laguna, to their current home on Park Avenue. And, just like her move to California, Rona knew instantly that it was a fit. 

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘I have to have this house!’ It was so warm, inviting and welcoming,” she says. Which, interestingly, are the very words that I’d use to describe Rona. 

When I visited her Tuscan villa-style home last week, she greeted me outside a stunning, oversized front door and led me inside with earnest conviviality. The home is gorgeous, impeccably decorated and large—in fact, it sits on a 150,000 square-foot lot. 

It offers sweeping views of the canyon, and a spacious, open outdoor area with a pool, hot tub, outdoor fireplace, and plenty of seating.

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The Stunning Outdoor Space at the Gromet Home

But it maintains a cozy, well-lived-in feel. And that’s thanks, in part, to the four family pets—two dogs and two cats—that also greeted me once I stepped inside, and to the beautiful photos of the Gromet family of five that decorate the most frequently used room in the house: the family room. 

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Kobe, the Gromets’ Golden Retriever 

Rona’s now adult children happened to be home for the weekend, and she was visibly happy to have a full house again. Rona loves when there’s a gathering of any kind at her home and she has the opportunity to entertain in a space that was made for celebratory get-togethers. 

 “I am a social animal, and I love having parties and entertaining,” she says. “I just have a soft space in my heart for people.” 

 This ‘soft space’ has led Rona and Stevan, over the last decade, to open up their home just as readily to visitors and guests, too. The Gromet home has hosted countless fundraisers that benefit local institutions such as the Laguna College of Art and Design. It has also seen Laguna Beach Live! and Pacific Symphony concerts, and smaller-scale parties such as an afternoon tea party to raise money for families in Nepal through the local R-STAR Foundation. 

And, in 2007, the Gromets welcomed Hillary Clinton to their home after being asked by close friends to host a fundraising event for the then presidential hopeful. 

More recently, the home has seen personal gatherings—such as a festive, joyous family party for Rona’s birthday. 

No Place Like Home 

One of the most memorable gatherings for Rona, however, was the 2014 fundraising event hosted at her home for Steven and Michelle Chapman, following the news that their then-25-year-old son, Stephan, had been diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma. 

“It felt really good that we could raise money and help,” Rona says. 

She recalls a band, the donation of an impressive amount of food, and a silent and live auction. But what she loved most about this particular fundraiser is also what she loves most about Laguna Beach. 

“It’s such a small town, and it feels like a small town. It’s tight-knit, and if something does go wrong, people come together and want to help each other out.” 

This mindset has motivated Rona to extend her impact far beyond Park Avenue; she’s been involved with and attended fundraising events for other local organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach, and SchoolPower. She also participates annually in the local Relay for Life event. 

And she’s encouraged her children to take her lead, too. For example, she and her daughter Danielle—who is currently a sophomore at CU Boulder—enjoyed volunteering their time together at the Friendship Shelter over the years. 

As a matter of fact, the Friendship Shelter may inspire the next big fundraising event at the Gromet home. Rona explains that she has a soft place in her heart, too, for the local organization. And, when she’s asked to help out and host an event, she’s almost always game. 

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Rona At Her Home on Park Avenue

“I feel that we’re very fortunate to have this kind of space, so if it’s needed, why not offer it up? That’s my general attitude—if I can help, then why not?” she says of her role as one of Laguna’s most kind-hearted hostesses.


Cary Redfearn: Lumberyard’s heart and soul

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He’s kind of quiet, and admittedly a fairly private guy, yet Cary Redfearn occupies the most popular corner in Laguna Beach. There isn’t an elected official, a theatergoer, or even a Farmer’s Market visitor who can resist the siren call at one point or another. In they come by the sidewalk-full, into Lumberyard’s everyone-knows-your-name embrace, and there’s Redfearn at the helm, sure to stop by for a quick howdy-do and a chat. He knows everyone’s name after almost eight years on this lively corner.

Cary Redfearn

Private guy or no, Redfearn is the first to step up for an ever-rotating turn of community events, giving of his popular watering hole space wholeheartedly. Programs including SchoolPower, athletic boosters, the Community Clinic, and other local non-profits count on the Lumberyard largess like a long-sought oasis, where there’s room for everyone and you can be sure a good percentage goes toward what’s near and dear to the heart of the benefit charity.

“One reason we do so much with the schools [in Laguna Beach] is because of my kids,” Redfearn says. “They’ve gotten a private school education for public school prices. Now my kids are in great schools [Berkeley, and Cal Poly], and it’s because of the Laguna Beach schools.”

It’s intimately about family

The Redfearn family – Cary’s wife Suzanne, daughter Halle, and son Joseph have long understood the restaurant life. Cary and Suzanne have been married 23 years during which time the restaurant has always been like another family – six days, five nights a week. “She knows that, and understands that,” says Cary. Suzanne has been the brain-stormer behind the SchoolPower Chef’s Challenge concept, an event in which the various school principals face off in the kitchen for culinary bragging rights.

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Redfearn’s restaurant, The Lumberyard

The Redfearn kids have helped out with hostessing and bussing at the restaurant too. “Joseph’s first day - he was on his feet for five hours,” remembers Redfearn. “It gave him a new appreciation for the business.” With his self-deprecating sense of humor he gave his kids a bit of advice, “There are easier ways to make money!”

The life of a restaurateur is a mixed bag. One part, it’s a long-suffering lifestyle, “It’s tough to be away. It’s a very personal business.” One part, it’s a lot of fun, “It’s one of the things that keeps me young. It’s a social world – with good food and community.”

And then it’s also one part trying to keep it all in perspective.

“My wife said to me, ‘Every now and then, when the restaurant is full, take a look around and see people enjoying, celebrating – and realize that you’ve created that space.’ I generally try to do that. I feel lucky.”

I happen to know that Cary, Suzanne and the kids are busy enjoying a long-wished-for escape together to the land of milk and honey right now. Well, make that Buffalo mozzarella and other formaggi, plus pasta, and you get the idea. Yes, mecca for anyone, anywhere, interested in food and travel: Italy.

 “I love to travel. I love to cook,” says Redfearn. The family is celebrating Suzanne’s “big birthday” all together, with Italian panache. On the itinerary are culinary adventures like truffle hunting with a chef and cooking in the wine region. 

“I’m probably going to come back with all kinds of crazy ideas from Italy.” 

We look forward to that! 

Continually passionate about work

Laguna’s ocean started out coursing through his veins when Cary Redfearn was just a lad. His family would come down the coast from Los Angeles and visit often. 

“My dad loved to bodysurf,” he said. “One week turned to two, then to a month. My parents said, ‘When you graduate, we’re going to move to Laguna.’” Thankfully they owned up to those words in 1974, and Cary joined his dad in the love of bodysurfing at Oak and Victoria beaches. 

Meanwhile, he put himself through college working at restaurants. By the early 80’s, Redfearn found the way toward his ultimate goal.

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The Lumberyard’s handcrafted feature table

“I’d been dying to get my own restaurant. I found out Walt’s Wharf in Seal Beach was available, and I made an offer,” said Redfearn. “I offered to rent it when the owner didn’t want to sell. I re-opened Walt’s in 1985 as GM, with Walt Babcock.”

He and Walt went on to launch Oysters, in Corona del Mar. They partnered together for 18 years, with Redfearn buying Babcock out in the last four.

“It was my first ownership,” says Redfearn. “I took a pay cut – no pay checks, no bonuses – suddenly you’re responsible for payroll, taxes, loans… it was scary.”

It worked out well though, with Redfearn attributing that to a good concept and a good chef. By 2004, the restaurant was recommended by an incognito reviewer, and invited to the prestigious James Beard House, in New York City, for a one-night culinary showstopper.

“I brought the chef and four other cooks, my wife, and all the demi-glaces,” said Redfearn. “You get one night, and present a multiple five-course menu.”

The night was a big success, and “showed where our restaurant was at the time.”

Redfearn and Oysters continued until the dream location presented itself, on the corner of Forest and Third, in Laguna Beach: the former Cedar Creek Inn.

“I always wanted a location in Laguna,” says Redfearn simply. 

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Redfearn at Lumberyard’s U-shaped bar, right up front

Now, being a business owner as well as Laguna resident, Redfearn brings a lot to the table. He’s newly on the board at the Chamber of Commerce. He says he’s “a rookie” among the good people who care about the town and make a difference, but he’s “in the thick of it.” He sees the city, for better and for worse, from multiple perspectives. 

And ultimately about sports

One of the joys of family life is sharing a common passion, and for the Redfearns that means baseball.

“I coached Little League, and always sponsored, first with Oysters and now Lumberyard every year,” says Redfearn. “Also slow-pitch softball league in the summer season.

“As a family, we love baseball. We do fantasy baseball. We’re huge Giants, and Angels fans.” His eyes light up when he mentions Lumberyard’s attraction, “[Angel’s manager] Mike Scioscia’s been in, Torii Hunter’s been in…”

Baseball boosters have hit a home run at Lumberyard too. One of the fun fundraisers they do every year is coming up on May 12. The LBHS varsity team will be out front, in uniform – and waiting on tables. (Make reservations mentioning the team in order to to be included on the fundraising).

Redfearn also manages to stay in shape with basketball. “I continue to do basketball at the Boys and Girls Club in San Juan Capistrano with a bunch of old guys like me,” he laughs. “If I didn’t do that, I’d be yelling at the staff more! It’s my release. It’s great camaraderie.”

So, when you don’t happen to see Cary Redfearn up front and center at Lumberyard, it’s probably because he’s playing sports or watching sports. 

If it’s Sunday, he’s making the family meal (“I love braising!”), with a glass of wine in hand, and sports on TV.


Dr. Diana Kersten: local eye surgeon, global reach

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Dr. Diana H. Kersten, MD, a board certified ophthalmologist and partner at Harvard Eye Associates, went to the University of Iowa, College of Medicine, because it was close to her home in Iowa City. “They have this huge medical center. It really dominated everything.  Three quarters of our neighbors were doctors. It was just really prevalent. I think of my friends, seven or eight of us went to med school. 

“I remember one of my friends went to business school and I thought ‘Why would you do that?’” she says with a laugh. 

Discovering a more “delicate” surgery

Thinking she was going to be an orthopedist, she nevertheless took a summer internship in ophthalmology.  “I thought, ‘That’s so cool!’” It didn’t hurt that the University of Iowa had one of the top three ophthalmology programs in the country. 

“Lots of surgeries are pretty masculine. This (eye surgery) was like a tea party! It was so delicate.”  

It turns out, that “there’s a lot of hammering,” as she describes it, in orthopedics – the opposite of a tea party. After spending some time with Dr. Kersten on her comfortable couch in the lovely Laguna home she shares with her husband, Mike, and son, Lucas, it seems only natural she’d gravitate towards such an intricate practice. She is the definition of elegance, even with wet hair and bare feet. Her demeanor is both gentle and calm, two traits that I, for one, think would be tremendously useful for any type of surgeon, especially one who works on eyes.

Dr. Diana Kersten, partner of Harvard Eye Associates

Who forgets to mention Harvard?!

 Paired with this elegance is understatement.  Getting in to a program ranked in the top three in the nation is obviously no easy feat, yet Dr. Kersten talks more about how she had decided to go into ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) practice if she didn’t get accepted into Iowa’s ophthalmology program. She acts as though getting in was just something that happened, when clearly it wasn’t. 

I later find out (but only because I went on Harvard Eye’s website) that she trained in ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. With the name of her practice perhaps I should have realized, but who forgets to mention Harvard training? In my notes I found mention of a “residency in Boston,” but that was it.  I’m sure, actually I know I’d find all kinds of ways to work my time at Harvard into completely unrelated conversations, let alone an interview.  And yet, with Dr. Kersten it’s not that surprising.  

She is brilliant, hardworking, and formidable, yet like most truly accomplished people, she just doesn’t seem to feel the need to tell you she’s brilliant, hardworking and formidable. 

A passion for international ophthalmology

In addition to that whole Harvard thing, Dr. Kersten also completed a fellowship in International Ophthalmology.  She has worked extensively in underdeveloped countries, spending two months in Kenya during her last year of med school. “It was amazing. I fell in love with international ophthalmology,” she says.  Because she was a “little younger than (her) classmates” she took two jobs overseas: one in Nepal for three months and another with Project Orbis.  

She explains that with Project Orbis, doctors traveled on a DC8 aircraft. The back of the plane was equipped as a small operating room. The team of doctors flew in, stayed three weeks, performed cataract surgeries or conducted lectures. She did this for a year. “It was a great experience,” says Dr. Kersten. “We went to Eastern Europe, Sudan, northern Nigeria, Tunisia, Mali…It was a really great experience. I got to meet so many people. After I came here (to Laguna) I worked for them once a year for a week or two.”

New responsibilities but still committed to helping others

Still active in international ophthalmology, despite adding the extra responsibility of becoming president of Harvard Eye’s new surgery center (on top of her regular surgical responsibilities), Dr. Kersten is involved with Direct Connections.  

“[Laguna Beach local] Mary Ellen Carter started this non-profit called Direct Connections with Africa. She’s a retired social worker, a real dynamo,” said Kersten. “I went to Malawi last May and had an amazing experience. It’s one of the poorest parts of Africa. People can’t even get glaucoma drops. I brought 100 pounds of eye drops.  There are clinics that provide free surgery, but the people are so poor they can’t afford to get to the clinics so I paid for their transportation to the clinic. There is one cataract surgeon per one million people. It’s very humbling. There is nothing like it to make you feel grateful. We can be so quick to be critical here, but there they can’t even buy something as basic as glaucoma drops.”  

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A photo in Dr. Kersten’s home of a family waiting for a mother undergoing 

eye surgery

What are cataracts?

Dr. Kersten says that in terms of her practice, “I like being a generalist.”  However, she mostly does cataract surgery. She explains that a cataract is, “When the lens of your eye gets cloudy, usually when you’re 65 or older, but sometimes if you’ve had an injury or taken prednisone it can happen much younger.  UVA light and diabetes can be part of it, too. It’s very common.  In fact, it’s kind of rare to see a 90 year old without cataracts. You may not need surgery for them, but to some degree it’s just a natural occurrence,” she explains.  “To correct it you’re vacuuming out the old, cloudy lens and replacing it with a clear lens.  Now is such a great time to practice.  The innovations make it a little more fun.”

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Dr. Kersten with son, Lucas, and husband Mike Austin, Dir. of Finance at Friendship Shelter Laguna Beach, and their newest adopted member of the family

Staying with and helping grow Harvard Eye Associates

When Dr. Kersten came to Harvard Eye there were two doctors: she was the third.  Now there are 13, with five partners, of which she is one.  It’s an impressive resume and according to Dr. Kersten, somewhat unusual because Harvard Eye was her first real job – and she never left.  

“That’s not usually how it goes,” she says.  

And while she gave no indication of retiring anytime soon she does say, “When I’m ready to retire I’d like to slow down and do more international surgery. There are new procedures I’d like to become proficient at.”  

Trying to do it all

In the meantime, she will keep up her busy work schedule, try to find time to read, exercise and, most importantly, spend time with her family.  And just so you know she’s human, she mentions that she, like every other working parent, sometimes finds balancing the two a challenge, like when her son, Lucas, a water polo player at LBHS, tells her he wishes she could come to more of his games – something she would undoubtedly like, as well.  And while she, like every other working parent, does her best to do it all, I’m just guessing she makes it look a lot easier than it really is.


James Pribram: ‘Eco-Warrior’, professional surfer, and compassionate Lagunan

Story by ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

James Pribram can still remember—with impressive clarity—the first time he tried surfing. He was a few weeks shy of seven years old, and he followed his older brother out to the arch off Pearl Street Beach. The first set came in, James got thrown around, and he was frightened and started to cry. When he finally caught a wave, he rode it all the way to shore, beached it, and ran home, tears still streaming down his face. 

“When I calmed down, I thought, ‘That was easy, I caught a wave and stood up!’ And I wanted to get back out there. From then on, my chosen path was always surfing,” says James. 

 

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James Pribram

Indeed his path—which took countless sharp turns in unknown directions, and brought him around the world—was formed by his passion for surfing. 

But it was also a path dotted with powerful experiences beside the ocean, which James has long viewed as far more than just a playground for his sport. He has an inherent passion for protecting beaches and surf breaks worldwide, which eventually granted him a different title: Eco-Warrior.

 “My earliest recollection was the ocean. It was my first love,” he says. 

Today, James runs the Laguna Beach-based Eco-Warrior Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at preserving oceans and beaches through education and activism. He is one of those rare, compassionate individuals who are determined to leave the world a better place than they found it. 

And though he’s seen much of the world, from exotic beaches to devastating environmental disasters, Laguna Beach will always be home to James. It’s a place that taught him many of the valuable lessons he’s learned—from how to navigate big waves and look after other people, to the importance of forging your own path and making a difference.  

An Education

 James was raised on Ocean Way, off of Pearl Street, and from the time he turned seven, he found immense joy—and success—on his surfboard. The first surfing contest he entered was the Brooks Street Classic; it was 1981, he was 10, he did well, and the exhilaration of the competition hooked him. 

He started competing locally, and by the time he entered high school, he had been invited to join the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA). He thought he had the world at his fingertips—that he’d make the NSSA national team that year—that surfing was everything.

And then he found out, during his freshman year, that his GPA was below NSSA’s required average. 

“That lesson changed my life. That was the first major crossroads in my life: quit and drop out of high school, or buckle down and do the work. It taught me that there is much more to being a champion than just your sport. You need also to be reliable, articulate, and responsible,” says James.  

He made the decision to stay in school, though it wasn’t an easy one. Not only did James prefer the ocean to the classroom, but he was also born with a speech impediment. 

He insists that no one made him feel different or made fun of him—it’s one of the best things that he remembers from the Laguna Beach he grew up in—and he’s still close friends with some of his classmates from Anneliese Schools. 

“But the classroom was just never my thing,” he says.

Nevertheless, he fought hard to get his grades up, with the help of his mother, who played an instrumental role in James’s eventual academic success. James recalls her sitting down with him every single day to help him throughout the remainder of his high school career.  

By the time he graduated from high school, he’d made the NSSA National Team, helped the LBHS surf team secure the national championship title, and he’d won the 1988 high school state championship. 

The day after high school graduation, he was on a flight heading to Australia to compete. 

“It was a huge deal for me. Nothing has ever come easily for me, but that’s the best possible lesson: no matter what it is, you have to work hard for what you want. That experience changed my mindset,” says James. 

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Making Waves

James became a professional surfer in 1990, competing in the U.S. Pro Tour, the Bud Tour, and the ASP Tour. 

And, in 1993, ESPN offered him the opportunity of a lifetime: to travel to Tahiti, where the network would film the surfing series “Hot Summer Nights”. The show was a huge success, and James found fame almost overnight. He traveled all over the world to film and do appearances, and he was featured in magazines and on the runway at various fashion shows. 

“I remember walking down the beach off Pearl, and people were coming up to me, stopping me. Up until that point I hadn’t really grasped what had happened, but in the blink of an eye my life was different. The show shifted my career from being a professional competitor, to being an ambassador of the sport,” he says. 

After 9/11, when the economy tanked and there were fewer professional events and opportunities for him, James eventually returned home to Laguna Beach to figure out the next step. 

In the fall of 2003, he founded the Aloha School of Surfing, and his timing couldn’t have been more perfect. That summer, MTV settled into Laguna to film “Laguna Beach”, and business was suddenly booming. James continues to run the surf school today.

The Eco-Warrior

Of course, along the way, James thought constantly about the state of our ocean and beaches. With the influx of tourists in Laguna, he couldn’t help but notice a subsequent influx of trash where it shouldn’t be: where he was getting in the water to surf. And he wanted to do something about it. 

James believes that, having been raised in Laguna Beach, the desire to make a positive change was instilled in him from a young age. 

When he looks back on the Laguna in which he grew up, he remembers there being an incredibly strong sense of community. He recalls the “older guys” who looked after him and taught him to be respectful and to take care of the things he loves.

“I grew up in an era where caring for the town and causes you believe in, that was part of our culture—I remember people like James Dilley, who were a big deal. I remember the March for Laguna Canyon. I feel like I’m just living up to the culture I was raised in,” he says. 

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A Walk Along The Beach

He took that spirit in 2005 to Dick Baker of Ocean Pacific, and said he wanted to get support for a major beach cleanup. 

James was handpicked by OP to serve as an ocean advocate for a three-year project that would take him to beaches around the world. His role? Serving as a spokesperson for environmental and ocean-related issues. 

His first trip brought him to Chile, where he marched with other activists to protest a paper mill that was dumping chlorine into a nearby river. On that trip, a photo was taken of him holding a cross wrapped in olive branches for good luck; though James insists that he was merely in the midst of thousands of fellow protesters, in the photograph he appears to be leading the charge. The photo became an iconic, powerful image; he was soon dubbed the ‘Eco-Warrior’. 

Bettering the Laguna of Today

After he fulfilled his end of the deal, James returned home to Laguna Beach, still thinking about what he could do to help make a change and advocate for the ocean. And, once again, his timing was perfect. 

In 2011, he famously saved Maira Kahn, of Irvine, from drowning just off Pearl Street Beach. He was eating lunch on his parents’ deck when he saw her get swept off a rock by a set wave and thrown into the ocean. 

“We still keep in touch. I went to her wedding recently,” says James. “Maira was the one who said to me, ‘Hey, you’ve done all of these incredible things, but what are you doing for your home?’ I made an important realization then,” he adds. 

In 2014, he founded the Eco-Warrior Foundation, which is different from other non-profits of its kind in that it doesn’t raise money; it’s run by volunteers who get their boots on the ground and their hands dirty. Its Upstream Initiatives and Adopt-a-Beach programs have made a significant impact locally, and they rely on participants—especially Laguna Beach residents—for help. 

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 “When people show up and pick up trash, they feel empowered, and those conversations that people have when they’re working toward this common goal, well, they bring the community together,” he says.

James hasn’t gotten in the water very much since August, due to a couple of injury- and skin cancer-related surgeries, so he’s focused on slowing down, building his foundation, and pursuing some other hobbies, such as yoga and meditation. And, of course, he spends as much time as he can back at his childhood home on Pearl Street, where he visits often with his parents. 

“It seems like I’ve been trying to get to this place for my entire life… where I’m healthy, happy, and back on the beach. If I could envision perfectly my life the way I want it to be, well, that’s exactly what it is today,” he says. 

Ever the compassionate champion for the ocean, he adds, “And, I’m where I need to be today to take my foundation to the next level.”

For more information, visit www.eco-warrior.org


Raise a glass to Renae Hinchey: She’s keeping our water clear and flowing through the Water District

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Clean water direct from the tap is a standard Americans expect, and just one of the reasons we were collectively horrified at the news from Flint, Michigan. But available and clean drinking water is something we humans can no longer take for granted. It is our responsibility to life on earth that we practice ecological balance to ensure the sustainability of our water supplies. 

Of course, here in Laguna Beach we are constantly reminded of the state of our water, or lack thereof. We can thank Renae Hinchey, General Manager of Laguna Beach County Water District (LBCWD), for minding our taps – keeping them clean, safe, and flowing.

Renae Hinchey 

Hinchey will have been with the LBCWD for 16 years this June. She was in the public water industry in Riverside prior to that, for 26 years. You could say she’s been deep in water for many years.

“Water is interesting. That’s the reason I’m here,” she says. “I like the challenge. Something is always happening!”

Such as troubleshooting, and emergency planning: What if there was an earthquake up north, and the supply line to our Colorado River water was broken? 

“It could take days to fix a break,” Hinchey explained. “We used to have five days of storage supply. Now we have a three-month supply.” Phew. A broken supply line is one of those worries that keep a water district manager awake at night.

Of course, if the water is local, you can fix it a lot easier.

Back in the Day

In the Wild West days of Laguna’s ranch beginnings – in the early 1900’s, there were a few shallow wells in Laguna Canyon. Ranchers would transport the water in buckets by horse and cart. Those wells dried up, and by 1922 even the drilled wells there were unusable, as they had become too salty. So, a committee of five guys headed up to Huntington Beach and posed as a duck club to get some water down here to Laguna.

That worked, and by 1925 Laguna voters passed a bond to create its own County Water District. Despite Huntington Beach suing Laguna Beach for snagging some of its water (they lost), that well water, too, became unusably salty. In 1943, Metropolitan Water supplied the Colorado River water via aqueduct, for which residents paid dearly.

“Reliable water has always been difficult for Laguna,” says Hinchey. 

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The downtown office and gardens

And expensive. “In 1989 it was $356 an acre-foot,” said Hinchey. “Now it’s almost $1,000. We are a non-profit. We’ve had to raise the rates.”

A reliable, local supply is the answer.

Local Water – There is Such a Thing!

The most important thing on Hinchey’s agenda these days is local groundwater. 

“Metropolitan water prices keep going up for imported water. We want our groundwater back,” says Hinchey. “It’s been a fight since the 80’s.” 

Metropolitan countered that Laguna had “abandoned” its well rights, and could not enforce its use again. But Laguna had an adjudicated judgment from 1933 for groundwater. 

“We got that done. Then let’s get that groundwater again!” says Hinchey. “This is my fourth attempt.” 

She added that the political climate now is different now than in the past. “We don’t need a lot of water, so everyone finally agreed. It was worth all the energy and effort so we have a local source of water. It’s just extremely important.”

Water from the Santa Ana River Basin is all set to be flowing into our taps, and Hinchey is sure it will not only be reliable, but also that rates will be able to stabilize.

Best Person for The Job

 While Hinchey was working in the private sector, she was cognizant of fluctuating economic realities in Southern California. She sought out a good, stable job and landed herself in the public sector – working public administration, for a water district in Riverside County. She worked 11 years there while also earning here Master’s Degree in Public Administration as well as getting her teaching credentials.

“I’m very energetic, so I’d work at the [Western Municipal] Water District, and teach three nights a week,” said Hinchey. She taught business and publication writing. 

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General Manager of Laguna Beach County Water District, Renae Hinchey

Moving on from Assistant to General Manager at the Water District was not easy, and not because she isn’t talented and intelligent. She’s simply the first female.

“I had push-back as the first woman,” says Hinchey. “I’d be at a meeting with all the GM’s at the time, and I was the only woman in the room… I had one employee say, ‘I won’t work for a woman!’”

There are now three women General Managers in Orange County. “I’m the first, and longest standing,” Hinchey says proudly. “I speak when I have something important to contribute.” She is aware of setting a positive and competent example of female leadership in this male-dominated sector.

Learn History at the WD, Right Downtown

One of the noticeable examples of Hinchey’s influence at the Water District offices downtown is the display right up front. “I’m big on the District’s history,” she says. There hadn’t been enough information about it for the public, so she set up a big display wall with facts and historic photos. “How we got started and the progress the District’s made – all the unusual things this District has done.”

For example, the building itself is the oldest municipal building in Laguna. The Water District, established in 1925, shared the building with the City, established in 1927. They all cozied up with the prisoners, too, as the jail resided there as well.

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The District’s history wall

These days, people stop in at the relatively new front reception window. Or they tune in via social media. “We do a lot on Twitter and Facebook,” says Hinchey. “If you ‘like,’ you get [water conservancy] tips.”

And then people phone in. “We get a lot of people calling in on neighbors,” she says. “We have to take it seriously, and be diligent.” 

Water snitches will be heard.

Conservation Minded Above All

There are not so many different issues amongst Orange County cities, as all have been reliant upon imported water. “The projects may be different, but the goal is the same – clean, reliable, sustainable water,” says Hinchey. “But we don’t have a huge population here. Laguna is built out, so water can be conserved.”

Still, it was a little annoying that after so many successful years of conservation, Laguna was asked to further cut back by equal percentages to our less-than conservative neighbors. “We were buying 4800 acre-feet a year, and brought it down to 3300 acre-feet since 2000,” said Hinchey. “We took it seriously.

“We’d conserved 30% already, then needed another 24%.” We got to 22%. But Hinchey is motivated and energized in dealing with the current drought. 

“We have very conservation-minded people here. I can’t believe the things people do! I’m amazed.”

The next step will be toward alternative technologies, like water desalination. We can count on our head of the Laguna Beach County Water District to be progressive. 

“We need to be out there looking for other sources of water in the future,” she says hopefully. Being open-minded and learning about science and engineering breakthroughs will be part of the job. Hinchey is up for it.  

“I like a challenge. I love this job!”


Mark Lewis: Puts LBHS girls basketball on the map

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

As Orange County’s smallest public high school, LBHS posts some pretty impressive results in the world of high school athletics.  At around 1,000 total students Laguna Beach High School successfully competes with schools many times larger.  Certain sports garner a lot of attention (girls water polo, anyone?) while others seem to only generate enthusiasm for the players and their parents.  It’s understandable, but unfortunate because there are some great sports stories taking place in the gym, on the field, or wherever Breakers are competing.

Mark Lewis, LBHS’ girls basketball coach and 2012-13 Coach of the Year

One of the most compelling success stories that has quietly and consistently unfolded over the last five years at LBHS, is the girls basketball team.  Beach towns are not generally known for their prowess on the basketball court.  However, with a small yet dedicated squad, coach Mark Lewis has put LBHS girls basketball on the map.

A former basketball star moves to Laguna

A former star basketball player at Tustin High School who went on to play at CSULB, Lewis is now the Director of Public Works for the city of Fountain Valley.  He and his wife, Melanie, came to Laguna right after college and eventually started a family.  “My wife and I are both athletes so we wanted our kids to be active,” he says. As a result, he adds,  “I coached everything, even sports I didn’t know much about.” 

Not surprisingly, both Lewis’ kids, Brandon and Alexandra, eventually focused on basketball. Since this was a sport he obviously knew a lot about, he happily continued coaching them.

A determined daughter makes a request

However, when Brandon entered high school only Alexandra, four years younger than her brother, was still in need of his coaching services. He assumed when she got to high school, he’d hang up his whistle.  Alexandra had other ideas.  When she got to Thurston she told her father she wanted his role as her coach to continue once she started at LBHS. The problem was, as Lewis says he explained to his daughter, “It’s not that easy to become a high school coach.  You don’t just volunteer and get to do it. I figured she’d just get over it eventually, but she was relentless. Finally, I was just like, ‘Get over yourself!’” he says, laughing.

She didn’t.  And amazingly, between her 7th and 8th grade year, the LBHS girls basketball coach, Jon Hendrickson, resigned. Because of Brandon’s success as a LBHS player (he set a school record for most three pointers in a season), Lewis was familiar with then athletic director, Mike Churchill.  “No one wanted to coach the team so I went to see Mike Churchill and he said, ‘Are you serious?’ I knew [then principal] Dr. C and some of the school board members so there was some comfort there, I guess, and I got the job.  I inherited a team and a schedule.  

“They’d just graduated their top two players.  Four girls decided to quit two weeks before the season.  We lost every game.  It was a rough,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Winning begets winning.”

Lewis admits he is “probably more intense” than his predecessor was.  He lost girls to his new schedule (no more two weeks off over winter break) and demanding training regimen, but the ones who stayed saw their hard work rewarded with results.  

“I knew what I wanted to accomplish.  I thought it was fair to ask the girls to put their best effort on the floor.”  

In addition to having the girls play together, he also gained control of the schedule.  He admits he didn’t exactly schedule the toughest teams right off the bat, but they won two tournaments and broke the school record for number of wins (19) in a season his daughter’s freshman year.  

“Winning begets winning,” he says. The days of losing every game became a distant memory.

Coach Mark Lewis runs through drills with his team in the LBHS gym

The challenges of injuries and demographics

Still, the program hemorrhaged players: some to injury (torn ACLs are a problem), and some to pursue other interests.  When asked why so many girls seem to migrate away from the sport (or not try it at all), it’s clear it’s a subject he has pondered quite a bit. “Girls basketball in south Orange County…it’s a different demographic.  It’s really hard to get girls interested in basketball. It is a very physical, skilled game.  You need to have a certain skill level to play.  You can’t get lost on the court.  

“But I’m recruiting!  I go and talk to the girls volleyball team and tell them, ‘You don’t have to be a basketball player.  You can be a volleyball player who plays basketball,’” he says emphatically.  “We also do really fun things as a team.” 

A Coach of the Year pulls out all the stops

Coach Lewis knows that fun is a great recruiting tool and he’s not afraid to use it. “This year we played at Staples Center before a Clipper’s game; we went to Hawaii, Catalina…other coaches tell me ‘You’re doing all that in one year? How do you not have people wanting to play for you!?’”  Such is the life of a high school basketball coach in a beach community, even one who was voted Coach of the Year in 2013-14.  

“We have a lot of great athletes come through our high school,” he says.  “They just play other sports.”

There are collegiate opportunities for girls basketball

Maybe it’s the seeming abundance of collegiate opportunities in the other sports?  Lewis tells me that there are plenty of collegiate opportunities for girls who play basketball at a school like Laguna. “Is Laguna going to produce a lot of D1 [Division 1] players?  Probably not, but there are a lot of places for them to play at a D3 level. I have a player who is playing at Vassar. There are definitely opportunities.”  

Making the most of his opportunities is something Coach Lewis excels at.  When asked about his strengths as a coach he says, “I think I know the game really well and I can teach it to the talent level I have.  You have to know your personnel.  I’m able to tap into what makes them go.  I know what I can and what I can’t get out of the girls.” 

Walking the line between coach and father

And when “one of the girls” is your daughter, that’s a good skill to have. “We have an amazing relationship as player and coach and then as father and daughter off the court.  I probably am harder on her, but I’m harder on my better players and she’s one of them.  What’s harder for her is the scrutiny she’s under for being ‘the coach’s kid.’  Plus she hears stuff about the coach, which is different when the coach is your father.  But she knows how to walk that line.  She handles it all really well.” 

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LBHS girls basketball players practice before their CIF game

Four record-breaking seasons 

Fast forward through the last four seasons:  Alexandra is now a senior. This is her last season. The team has gone to CIF for four straight years. They have won 19 games every season except this one, where they won twenty. They won league this season for the first time in 11 years and for only the second time in school history. The team was going for win number 21 against St. Paul in the 2nd round of CIF on Saturday.  Coach Lewis was hopeful, but not optimistic.  “They are a really tough team,” he says simply.  

When a sister breaks her brother’s school record

For now, Lewis says, “When I’m on the floor coaching, I’m in the moment, but sometimes I do stop and look at what’s going on as a dad, and I can say, ‘Hey, that’s my kid out there.  That’s pretty cool.’” Like when Alexandra broke her brother’s three point record this year with him in the stands cheering her on?  For a coach, coaching his daughter, it probably doesn’t get much cooler than that.

A season of firsts and lasts

 With the tough CIF game looming, Lewis says that this season has been one of “lasts” for him and his daughter, as player and coach.  As in the “last home game” or the “last time they will play Estancia”…those kinds of “lasts.” And, depending on how their game on Saturday goes, it could possibly just be the “last” game, period.   

Regardless of the outcome, the LBHS girls basketball team has worked its way out of the basement to achieve an impressive lists of firsts in the school record book. This is in no small part to a coach who takes pride in the fact that his small team is recognized for playing basketball “the right way.”  

Of course, winning doesn’t hurt, either.  

The girls lost that game to St. Paul; the final “last” for Coach Lewis and his daughter, in a long list of firsts.



Stu Saffer: A grudging subject, honored Citizen of the Year, and Laguna’s number one newsman

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Stu Saffer is being honored as Citizen of the Year by the Laguna Beach Patriot’s Day Parade Association this year. That is the only reason he agreed, begrudgingly, to be featured in this week’s “Laguna Life and People.”  It’s hard to tell the man whose name is on the masthead what to do. Of course, he has a deep sense of community spirit that prompted his acquiescence (plus Shaena can be very persuasive).

Stu Saffer

A father’s short-lived, but powerful influence

Born in Washington DC in 1942, but raised in rural Middleburg, Virginia, Saffer has lived many lives. He is the youngest of four children who lost their father, the town doctor, when Saffer was only 11 years old. 

Before his father’s untimely death, Saffer says, “I got a lot of one on one time with him because I was the only one still at home. He was a country doctor. Our phone would ring at 2 a.m. and I’d hear his car start. He believed in treating all people the same, and giving back. Sometimes he got paid in produce, or a nickel a month from people who couldn’t afford to pay him.” 

His father’s dedication to those he served made a lasting impression on Saffer who also believes strongly in giving back.  

“Those aren’t just words to me; I’m not just saying that,” he explains emphatically.  It’s real.” 

That commitment to community is what fuels Saffer to deliver two editions of StuNews a week, tirelessly and without respite.  Well, that and his absolute love for what he does.

Family loyalty takes precedence over a dream job

Determined to become a reporter when he graduated from college, Saffer had his new career with the Houston Chronicle all mapped out.  

“That was exciting,” he remembers.  “It was my dream job.” 

Unfortunately, he got a call from his oldest brother who needed him in California to help him with his business selling semiconductors. “My brother said, ‘Writers don’t make any money!’ So a year later I’m in LA (selling semiconductors), and I’m miserable. My brother and I were entirely different personalities. He measured everything by net worth.”  

Saffer adds, “He was a very unhappy person.” 

Just to add insult to injury, a year later, while watching the Academy Awards, Saffer sees his brother, the one who warned against the vagaries of writing for a living, sitting next to Larry McMurtry who had just won the Best Screenplay Oscar for “The Last Picture Show.”  

“He was the ‘poor’ writer my brother knew!” Saffer said indignantly. “I called him and said, ‘You SOB!’ He just said, ‘Well, sometimes a writer can get lucky…’”

The Vietnam War, Great Books and other jobs

After he quit working with his brother, Saffer took a job with Teledyne. 

“They were building helicopters for the Vietnam War. I was against the war so I was in kind of a funky position. I decided I couldn’t do that anymore, so I quit,” he says. “Then I started having fun.”  

The “fun” ranged from selling swimming pools to “The Great Books of the Western World.”  That was pretty lucrative. “Those books were great!” he said. “I sold the leather-bound books for $1,600 a set. I wouldn’t sell the ones that weren’t leather.”

Saffer says he was still “trying to write”, but he also wanted to get into the real estate business.  

“I got into the mortgage business in the 1970s. I had a very successful company, Churchill Financial Group,” he said. “We sold it in the early ‘80s [which is about when Saffer permanently moved to Laguna]. We had over one hundred employees. After we sold it I went to work for a savings and loan. I didn’t care as much about money. I’d been divorced two times by then. I’d made money; I’d lost money. It was something that was important to me at one time, but then it just became less important.”

The importance of children

Something that was always important was his relationship with his adopted daughter, Jackie.  Saffer was married to Jackie’s mother and had adopted her children.  Jackie was a toddler at the time, and the two developed a strong relationship that lasts to this day, even if the marriage to Jackie’s mother didn’t.  

“We were really close and had a lot of fun,” he says about those days. 

They lived in north Tustin at the time.  Saffer coached Jackie’s softball team, and the two went on long bike rides every Sunday. “We’d always end up at IHOP. I think that’s the only reason she went with me,” he says with a laugh.  

Jackie now lives in Naples (Long Beach) and has four teenaged sons. “No one could give me a better gift than that,” he says earnestly. 

Another gift is his relationship with his “surrogate son,” Brandon.  

“I wouldn’t be doing this [meaning StuNews] without him,” says Saffer. 

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Brandon joined Stu for one of the Stu News community gatherings at zPizza 

Brandon was the son of a single working mom who happened to live upstairs from Saffer. “I met him when he was one and we bonded fast and quick,” Saffer said. “I didn’t go out anymore because I wanted to spend time with him. His mom worked at night so I became the baby sitter.” 

It changed Saffer’s life. “I got involved in Brandon’s life. I started paying attention to what was going on in town – something single people don’t necessarily do. He made me settle down. 

“He’s thirty-one now, and I expect him to ride with me in the [Patriot’s] parade.  I will always be grateful that his mom let us bond. It was good for both of us.” 

From printing press to online newspaper

Though Saffer’s personal life had settled down, his professional life was booming. He finally found the career in journalism that had been his dream from the start. 

He ran, and ultimately sold, both “The Laguna Coastline News” and “The Laguna Beach Independent” (that he launched from scratch). But Saffer still was not ready to abandon the newspaper business.

He says that he had an online version of ‘The Indy,’ but it wasn’t much and no one paid attention to it. “I found out that [generally] online papers are broke. They have a hard time selling ads. But I had this concept that is StuNews. 

“I don’t mind taking risks,” says Saffer, knowing profits were going to be hard to come by.   

“It took awhile to get it how I envisioned it,” he said. “I wanted it to read like a newspaper. I wanted it to have ads along the side and in the middle, like regular newspapers. I modeled it after ‘USA Today,’ without long stories since people don’t read long stories anymore. And it worked!” Yes it did.

“People liked it once they figured out how to read it,” he says. “Plus the ads are there as in a regular newspaper, subliminally.” 

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Stu with many of Stu News’ readers and friends at SNL event at GG’s

The community rallies in support of “StuNews”

Not long after Stu Saffer launched StuNews, he was diagnosed with cancer. He knew the newspaper had already made an impact on the community when the people of Laguna reached out with their hearts. 

“A wonderful bunch of women in this town decided to do a fundraiser,” he said. “They said, ‘We know you won’t accept it, but we’re not going to do it for you; we’re going to do it as a fundraiser for StuNews.’  

“They called it SOS (Save Our StuNews). Four hundred people came – and the business was only six months old!”  

This was the first time, Saffer says, he was “humbled” by his community. “They kept it afloat,” he said. “After something like that, you know you have to make it work. You have to give back.”

He has, and Stu News Laguna (SNL) flourishes.

The importance of Shaena

The “making it work” part was aided tremendously by the addition of Shaena Stabler in 2011.  

Saffer became acquainted with Stabler when she was working on a fundraiser to aid victims of the Haitian earthquake in 2010. “I told her I’d promote her event in every single issue,” he said. “That was it. Then she contacted me a year later and said she was thinking of making a change. She was at ‘The Indy’ selling ads for them. I was having trouble selling ads. So we met at Jean Paul’s and I had no idea what I was going to say to her. 

“Then it hit me as I sat down with her. I said, ‘I know how good you are. I don’t think anyone can do what you do better; I don’t think anyone can do what I do better than I do. Together we ought to be awesome. I will give you half of my business.’” Just like that, Stabler became Saffer’s business half.

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Stu with his business partner, Shaena Stabler 

“Shaena became my partner,” he said. “She understood what I wanted to do. She didn’t fight it. We set mutual goals and all that, but within ten days I knew she was the right person, and she knew she was the right person. It was fun! And we’ve had fun ever since. I want her to be the best she can be. The two of us have made this work, and it never would have worked without her.” 

Shaena writes the checks, Stu writes the news. 

Health issues are an uphill battle

And how he writes the news is no easy feat. Saffer survived cancer, but has had further health problems to deal with. 

“I have this thing called pulmonary arterial hypertension,” he said. “People didn’t used to survive from it. Still, there’s no cure, but I have a wonderful doctor, Dr. Michael Rovzar, who specializes in this.”  

Dr. Rovzar has a staff dedicated to dealing with the insurance companies and writing grants so that the very expensive medication needed to keep patients with this condition alive is possible. Talking to Saffer about this was a lesson in everything that is frustrating about our health care system. Suffice it to say, he is extremely grateful to his doctor and his staff. However, even with the medication, Saffer finds almost every activity incredibly strenuous. 

“The problem is I still can’t breathe well when I’ve had to exert myself,” he explains. “It’s hard for me to walk and distance; my breathing gets stressed and it takes time for my breathing to recover. That’s the biggest problem.” 

The daunting consistency of deadline days

And yet, the deadline days come twice a week regardless of how he is feeling.  “Every Monday and Thursday are deadline days,” says Saffer. “Maggi (Henrikson) and Elizabeth (Nutt) have their assignments. Allison (Rael) goes to the police department and goes through the log for me.” That starts the publication wheels moving. 

Saffer explains the online formula, “I formulate the questions and get answers back from the police department. That whole process takes a lot of time. 

“I decide where every article goes, and I send them to Michael Sterling, our web master, around 1 or 2 a.m. Then I do the final layout. That takes time, a lot of effort.” 

And keeps him up late! Many issues are not completed until the wee hours, but Saffer feels that sense of accomplishment twice a week, every week, with no time off. 

“I’m very proud of every issue. It seems daunting, but it’s just fun,” he says. “Especially now. I really can’t do anything else! That’s one reason I love it so much. It’s my lifeline; it keeps me alive.”

A natural hitter and happiness

Another thing that undoubtedly keeps Stu Saffer going is his love of sports, particularly baseball. He is an admitted sports nut.  

Baseball is a particular favorite because back in the day he was a gifted hitter. “I was a pure hitter,” he says. “I could hit like the best of them. You can’t learn to be a hitter; you just have it. 

“People said I could do whatever I wanted in baseball, and maybe I could have, but what they didn’t tell me was the second part of that, which is that you can do anything if you make sacrifices. I learned that with Brandon. If I’d learned that sooner, who knows? I do know that I wouldn’t be any happier than I am now.”

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This year, the Patriot’s Parade will celebrate 50 years – and Stu, as 

Citizen of the Year

Part of that happiness is due to his selection as this year’s Citizen of the Year.  “When Charlie Quilter [the president of the Patriots Day Parade Association] called me and said I’d been chosen, he asked, ‘Would I accept it?’ said Saffer. “I guess I have a reputation of not accepting tributes. But this really humbled me. It made me feel wonderful.  

“I love what I do. And I love it for all the right reasons. I consider myself to be the luckiest guy around. I get to write about the town that I love. I just feel lucky to be here.  And then to be Citizen of the Year…nothing could make me happier than that.” 

Finding a replacement…as if

Saffer says that he wanted StuNews to “make Laguna Beach a little smaller.” I think everyone would agree that he has achieved that goal. Next up is to find Stu II.  

“In my perfect world I will find my replacement,” he says rather hopefully. “I will find someone who has a passion for Laguna as I do.” 

And while he may entertain the idea of finding someone to fill his shoes, we all know there’s only one Stu – and he is more than StuNews, which is saying a lot.


Laguna’s Nicole Anderson on family, community and what work/life balance means to her 

Story by ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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Nicole Anderson

We’re sitting in Nicole’s pristine, beautifully decorated North Laguna office—which is as warm and inviting as the attorney herself—when I ask her about the photographs that will accompany this piece. I suggest that they be portraits taken at Anderson Law Group Inc., the thriving law firm she founded and runs today. But Nicole has a different idea.

 “Can we take them at my home, with my family?” she asks. “It wouldn’t feel right to have photos done without them present. They are a better reflection of who I am.”

The sentiment is quintessential Nicole, a bright and successful self-starter who, at the end of the day, is all about her family; Nicole is married to Laguna native Peter Anderson, and they have two young sons, William and Barrett. 

But Nicole, in addition to working as a practicing attorney and spending quality time with her family, is active in the Laguna Beach community, and a devoted volunteer. I sat down with her to learn exactly what it is that motivates her, and how she balances it all.

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Nicole and Peter Anderson with their sons, William (5) and Barrett (3)

Colorado—Where It All Began 

Nicole graduated in 2004 from Colorado College (CC), where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in International Political Economy and had the opportunity to study economics and international law abroad for a year at the London School of Economics.

During her freshman year at CC, she met Peter Anderson, who was studying geology and who happened to be a third-generation Lagunan. Though the two dated throughout college, they parted ways briefly to pursue graduate school opportunities. For Nicole, that meant returning to her home state of Michigan, where she earned her J.D. from Wayne State University Law School.

Nicole’s father works in estate planning and business law, and one of her first jobs growing up was making copies in her dad’s office. 

“He’s always been a mentor to me,” says Nicole.  

Following law school, Nicole clerked for the United States Attorney in Detroit, Michigan, and then served as a law clerk for the Honorable Judge Gadola, Federal Judge of the Sixth Circuit, as well as for Cline, Cline & Griffin in Michigan. 

Ultimately, Nicole relocated to Laguna Beach, married Peter Anderson, and earned her Masters of Law from Chapman University School of Law in 2011. As for adjusting to life in Laguna? “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says.

Anderson Law Group, Inc.

In 2008, Nicole was working as a partner at the Law Offices of Anderson and Le in Orange County when she made an important realization: the intense hours required of her as partner were not conducive to a healthy work/life balance.

“At that point, I thought to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I wanted to become a mom, and I wanted more flexibility in my life,” says Nicole.  

She made the decision to start Laguna Beach-based Anderson Law Group Inc. in 2009, which presented to Nicole an incredible opportunity for growth, as well as a new standard for work/life balance. 

“The firm grew slowly, but it was just me. And it’s not just about practicing law—it’s learning how to run a business. After doing it all myself, I truly respect self-starters, and as a business law attorney, I’m better able to help people navigate the process of starting their own businesses,” says Nicole.

Today, it’s a highly specialized firm that’s dedicated to estate and business planning law. Roughly 90% of Nicole’s clients are based in Laguna Beach, and she’s found success largely through word-of-mouth referral. 

Founding Anderson Law Group has enabled Nicole to keep her family at the forefront, to take vacations, and to inspire her all-female staff of four to seek a similar balance. 

 For Nicole, it also means entirely free weekends with her boys. She loves to bike down to the Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, practice yoga, hit the beach, and explore the trails behind her family’s Canyon Acres home during her downtime.

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The Anderson Family

And, of course, regular date nights are a must, too. She and Peter, an engineering geologist who recently founded his own company, can be found dining at local eateries such as La Sirena, Broadway, and 230 Forest. 

“Peter is very involved, and he keeps the family running!” says Nicole. 

Bettering Laguna for The Next Generation

 A flexible schedule also frees up space for Nicole to volunteer her time to multiple community organizations. Giving back has always been a part of her life, and it was her parents who instilled that value in her, having led by example. Her father was president of their hometown’s community foundation for ten years, and her mother is a nurse who has volunteered her time at a community clinic.  

Community service is essential to Nicole, and she simply can’t imagine seeing it any other way. 

“I love Laguna. Without this town and this community I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s so important to give back, and in the end you get way more than you give,” says Nicole. 

She has dedicated her time to the Laguna College of Art and Design, where she served on the Board of Trustees from 2009-2014. And today she works with the Laguna Beach Community Foundation as a three-year member of the Board of Trustees. 

With two children who will go through the Laguna Beach school system, Nicole has also taken an interest in supporting education-based non-profits. She serves on the endowment committee for both the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach and SchoolPower’s Endowment. 

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Nicole and Peter’s eldest son William with Oscar, the family’s Black Lab

Nicole is particularly excited about her volunteer work with an organization called NextGen, of which she’s been a part for several years. NextGen is aimed at engaging the ‘next generation’ of Laguna Beach locals, and inspiring them to give back to and get involved with their community, especially as it pertains to playing a role in shaping Laguna’s future. 

“If we don’t use our voices, they’ll never be heard,” she says. 

Nicole helps run and host fundraisers and events for the organization, and she works to motivate younger residents to attend City Council meetings and get involved with Laguna’s multitude of non-profit organizations. 

Ultimately, the family-focused and hardworking Nicole wants to ensure that Laguna remains the wonderful place it is both for her own children, and for generations to come. 

“I’m usually the youngest person on the boards I serve, so I’m working to engage younger generations to become a part of the decision-making in Laguna Beach that will affect all of us and our kids,” says Nicole.


Brian Crawford: Capturing the beauty of yoga

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Brian Crawford moved to Laguna as a sophomore in high school, he says it was a good, and much needed, chance to start fresh. Coming from the Bay Area, Laguna Beach was nevertheless a familiar place as his family had visited many, many times. He fit right in, becoming friends with the skim boarding crew. He says he would just sit and watch from the beach: No video, no photography, just watching.  

Before he moved south, Crawford says he used to make home movies, but in Laguna his friends made skateboarding videos. That was their thing, and so he let that interest go. His interest behind the camera would, however, return – in a big way.

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Brian Crawford

 “Once I graduated from Laguna [Beach High School], I needed to figure what the hell to do,” says Crawford.  First he went to work for his brother-in-law’s car dealership, but in 2008 he lost that job. It was both a curse and a blessing. He went back to his interest in videos and moved to Los Angeles to see what would come of it. 

The most important thing that came of it was Crawford’s realization that he needed to get sober, and that where he lived was “so important” to his mental state.  

So back to Laguna he came.

Stu News Laguna photographer

One evening Crawford took at picture of the sun setting at Oak Street. He remembers thinking, “This looks like a decent shot.” So he sent it to his dad for a second opinion. His dad agreed. “I’d been reading Stu News Laguna so I sent the picture to Stu, saying ‘I thought you’d like this photo’.” He did, and Crawford eventually began working for StuNews as a photographer.  

He was also working at Gina’s delivering pizzas, and says that on his deliveries, “I would drive a pizza up to Top of the World. It would be sunset, and I’d see an image while on this delivery. I’d post it to Stu and it was so awesome to get recognized for what I was doing.”

Adding a human element to his photos

Four years ago, with his creative eye working, Crawford happened to spy Liz Campbell at The Stand. Liz is a yoga instructor at Ritual Yoga.  “I love nature photography, but I’d never done people with it. But Liz has these beautiful tattoos and I thought it would be cool to shoot her at the Top of the World caves,” explains Crawford. 

“She was a little freaked out, a little hesitant, but she came, and we went to the caves. We had such a rad experience. It was just like creating a landscape photo, but adding the dimension of a human adds a whole other level…it’s harder and more beautiful. These yoga poses are so beautiful. Yoga is one of the most beautiful things!”

From these modest beginnings, Crawford has built a name for himself as a well-respected yoga photographer. 

Ritual Yoga leads to Instagram – and a career

“Liz’s shoot was really successful. I approached Ritual Yoga. When they saw the photos they were like, ‘This is so rad. We like your photographs! You’re doing our website.’ 

“So I shot a lot of images.  And I got paid!” he says with a laugh.  “I thought this might work for me. I may not be working at Gina’s for the rest of my life.”

Things really picked up when he finally acquiesced to his friend’s advice and went on Instagram.  

“I was always against it, but I thought, ‘All right, I’ll give it a shot.’ So I put some photos on Instagram and I got totally inspired,” he says. “There was this great feedback from the yoga community. I enjoyed making people feel inspired and happy.”

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Photos by Brian Crawford photography

Crawford’s photos combine the beauty of nature and yoga

Crawford’s niche has allowed him to travel all over the world.  

“I started to gain a following. I found a passion for yoga photography. I fell in love with it,” he says. “I love meditation – and yoga is based around meditation. As I got deeper into it I thought, I need to get involved with these people. This is my path. So I started marketing myself as a yoga photographer. 

“In two years, I have 20,000 Instagram followers. I have followers who have a million followers, who have reached out to me. Yoga is a small world, but it’s not too small. I’ve been able to make a name for myself.”

An idol becomes a friend

When we met, Crawford had just returned from Hawaii a week ago.  It marked a pinnacle of his career thus far. “I have this musician…my favorite musician ever. I listen to him every day!” He said. “Then we connected on Instagram, and he started following me. I was so honored! 

“I was working on Kauai and he lives on Maui. I reached out to him. I came to his house and I took photos of him and his daughter. He trusted me. He let me into his home. We became friends.  

“Everything I wanted to do – I accomplished last week. I joked with my parents that I was retiring,” says Crawford who seemed genuinely surprised and humbled by his good fortune. 

The musician, whose name he mentioned much later in our interview, is known as “The Grouch.”  

Since he still needs to make a living, Crawford will not be retiring, despite his recent accomplishments, anytime soon. 

 Motivated to share the beauty of yoga  

His next goal is to cultivate a celebrity clientele to elevate his exposure as well as attract a larger audience to the beauty of yoga.

 “I want to inspire people who don’t know yoga to try it,” he says. 

Crawford practices yoga every day. As a testament, he cites his personal experience. “I blew my back out a year ago. I went to the hospital; I could not move,” he said.  “I thought my career was over. Once I focused on my physical therapy, I realized it’s side by side with yoga. I just needed to hit my yoga program twice as hard.”  

Doing so has helped Crawford reach healthy, spiritual, and artistic heights.  

“That’s what life is about.  You have to get rid of these things that stand in your way. Living a healthy, conscious lifestyle inspired me to be my better self.”  

It has also helped launch a career. 

 

Brian Crawford’s work can be followed on Facebook at www.faceook.com/Briancrawfordphotography, on his website, www.briancrawfordphotography.com, or on Instagram at @Briancrawfordphotography.


Katie Bond: a caring heart in Laguna – and Africa

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Katie Bond lives with her feet firmly planted in two worlds. Here on U.S. soil, she manages to keep grounded with her practice of yoga. On the other side of the world, she connects through The Peace Exchange, her non-profit creating fair trade business opportunities for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are the two worlds Katie has a deep connection with, body and soul. 

Katie Bond

There was a time when Katie Bond was a small-town, Midwestern farm girl. Her family still operates the Ohio farm, Bond Family Cattle, and they’ve raised grand champion cows and pigs. Most of her family were also teachers: Dad, a school principal, mom and brother both teachers. She became smitten with the west coast, though, because of great uncle Noah. He was the Deputy Sheriff of Orange County.

“Mom and dad couldn’t afford [to live here], but loved road trips to visit him for summer vacation,” Katie remembers. “Ride horses… go to Disneyland… I thought California was magical!”

When she had an opportunity to transfer from college in Ohio to Cal State Fullerton, she took it. Despite leaving familiar surroundings, Katie was drawn to the sunny side of life.

“We had just come out for Christmas, and the sun was out at Balboa Island, and I thought, wow, I’m at the beach!”

At Fullerton, Katie majored in Communication, and went on to grad school at Azusa, where she was made an offer to teach. After almost seven years of teaching, though, she realized that wasn’t her passion.

“I thought, I’m 29 and I have a great job, but I never wanted to be a school teacher,” she said. 

“I wanted to move to Laguna and teach yoga!”

Feeling the lightness in Laguna

Katie acknowledges having “always been into fitness” (she was even on the cheer team at university), but yoga was something else altogether. She learned the practice of yoga when she moved to California (of course!), and it just took hold of her – body and spirit. Being able to teach yoga was a dream come true, but folks back home thought it was a little weird, like some kind of cult.

Katie laughs, “Friends sent letters, ‘Are you okay? We’re worried about you!’”

She’s now in her eighth year of teaching yoga at The Art of Fitness, in Laguna, as well as spin classes. 

“I love the yin and yang of spin and yoga. They’re opposite,” says Katie. “It’s about good music, creating a feeling of lightness, sharing some good energy.”

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On her way to yoga, by the beach. What could be better?

In addition to yoga, Katie’s mind was opened to another world once she moved to California. She was working at a store at the same time she was teaching, to make ends meet. The store, called 10,000 Villages, introduced her to the concept of Fair Trade. And in addition to being a lifelong active-fitness person, she is also a lifelong do-good-things person. Fair trade became the motto for her next phase of life.

Fair Trade makes a difference

“I always wanted to encourage people, and work internationally,” Katie said. “Fair trade makes it all come together. You’re helping people in extreme poverty – you’re getting at their basic needs. Education helps get people out of poverty. Fair trade businesses enable them to have money to send their kids to school.”

For businesses to be accredited as Fair Trade they must be certified by three different governing bodies. In this way it is ensured that workers are paid directly a fair wage, without corruption, abuse, and graft. 

“Fair Trade has to have less than five middle men. There are usually eighteen,” explains Katie. “You’re working in the poorest of the poor places and making an opportunity the people wouldn’t otherwise have.” 

One day while working at the 10,000 Villages store, an invited speaker came to talk about life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was it: the thing that resonated with her heart.

“Congo chose me,” she states simply.

The Peace Exchange – global and local

“Congo is poor, and known as the sexual violence capitol of the world. With that knowledge you can’t not do something,” Katie says. “Education is powerful!”

She thought, how can we help?

Katie started The Peace Exchange. Raising money and raising awareness, she found like-minded people to partner with, and set up sewing centers in the Congo to provide local women with economic opportunities.  

“We provide resources, pay shipping, and pay workers a fair wage,” says Katie. “The women there are victims of sexual violence. We have guarded, gated – protected sewing centers.” 

The danger of sexual assault is an every day fear for the women of the Congo. According to Katie, the first conviction of a rapist only happened five years ago. Women are regarded with very little respect, but the sewing centers created by The Peace Exchange have opened a window for change. The women work only in the daylight hours so they will be safely home before dark. (Laguna’s non-profit, Wheels for Life, has recently given them a grant so that the women can have bikes to ride to their work as well).

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Photo by The Peace Exchange

Seamstresses at work at one of the three Peace Exchange sewing centers

The employed seamstresses not only have money to provide for their families, but they have a newfound sense of respect and dignity.

“It’s about connecting with people,” says Katie. “I talk with a woman about her rape, and then a year later she tells me how she’s a breadwinner, and sending her kids to school. I feel I owe it to them to have the opportunity to succeed.

“It’s something I feel born to do. I love Africa.” 

Katie had an affinity for Africa ever since she was little. She smiles, “I’d ask my parents every year at Christmas for an African brother or sister.” Now she has them.

“Thirty-three sisters in the Congo who count on me!”

Products to market

The Peace Exchange products, including tote bags, yoga bags, and clothes are handmade with colorful African fabrics. They are shipped to distribution centers, such as the one Katie set up in her hometown in Ohio, staffed with volunteers, retired teachers and friends (“They’re still not sure about yoga!”). Presently, The Peace Exchange is getting their products into stores in the U.S. and the U.K, where they are doing a fashion show this year with models from Congo included.

The products can often be found at the Farmer’s Market here in Laguna, and in local stores such as Laguna Coffee Co.

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Some of The Peace Exchange’s African-made products

Katie is not one to be daunted by the giant scope of her passion project, not to mention the endless fundraising needed. “It’s like conducting an orchestra – keeping it all in harmony,” she says. “Sometimes a string pops, but I call it ‘failing forward!’ We’ve been fortunate. We’re not giving up.

“My bad day is never a bad day when you’re doing this kind of work. Many times it seems too hard. There’s pressure to pay the women – and yoga can’t afford that. But I set out to do good work. It’s hard… humanitarian work is hard but good things happen.”

Somehow her Christmas wish and dream of international work has come together like pieces in a puzzle. And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

“Sweat equity, I’ve put in a ton, but now it’s worth it. I get paid to do yoga and spin, which I love, and I get to help people. I’ve wanted that all my life – I just didn’t know what that looked like!”

Good things happen for a reason – and with the dedication of good people like Katie Bond.


Mary Blanton: A gifted El Morro teacher pays it forward and back

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Eight years ago, my son, a student at El Morro Elementary School since kindergarten, showed up for his 3rd grade year. His teacher, a woman named Mary Blanton. The sign on her door read “Club 54.” I had no idea then, but figured it out pretty quickly, that he was going to have one of the best scholastic years of his life. 

In need of some confidence, Mrs. Blanton swooped him up, bestowed her incredible generosity of spirit on him, energized his mind and, after nine months in her care, was almost unrecognizable. The unsure, reticent boy who entered her class, left it a confident, curious 4th grader. Thank you, Mrs. Blanton!  

Mary Blanton, El Morro Teacher and 2012 LBUSD Teacher of the Year

I mention this not because my child’s academic life is of such interest, but because you might as well know that I am as biased as one can get in regards to Mary Blanton.  However, I know I’m not alone in my fandom.  Blanton was recognized as LBUSD Teacher of the Year in 2012.  In this school district, that kind of recognition means a lot.  So when we sat down together I assumed we would talk about her career and teaching.  I learned, however, that there is a lot more to Blanton’s story than her countless hours spent in a classroom.  

Mary Blanton embodies the kind of community spirit Laguna is known for. And as she has swept up so many with her loving spirit, when she needed it most, the favor was returned.

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An appropriate motto for all teachers

A family tradition of giving back

“I just wanted to help,” says Blanton of her days after graduating from CSULB with a teaching credential.  She credits her parents who thought it “more important how I’m helping than what I do.”  

Blanton and her husband, Everett, have passed those same values on to their three sons: Bryce, Noah and Aiden. “When you start to give back, the reward in that is tremendous,” said Blanton. “You tend to want to gravitate to that.” 

That desire to give back makes the fact that Blanton is in Laguna at all a rather happy accident. “I wanted to teach inner-city kids; work at places where it’s harder to find teachers,” she said.  However, in the late 80’s when she was looking for a job, teaching positions were hard to find.  So, right after college she went on a mission trip and helped build a runway and medical clinic on an island adjacent to Papua New Guinea. 

Talking her way into a job of almost 30 years

An Orange County native, when she returned home she took a job as a substitute teacher at El Morro. At the time, El Morro was also hiring full-time teachers.  “I was so naïve.  I got paper-screened out!” says Blanton, meaning they had looked at her resume – and put it in the “no” pile. Not realizing this, Blanton introduced herself to the principal and, next thing you know, she was hired.  

“We didn’t get paid very much,” says Blanton with a laugh.  “I had to keep working at Laura Ashley for clothes so I had something to wear to class.  My intention was to stay until I could get a position in the inner-city, but seeing what a caring, loving community Laguna Beach is…”  

Almost thirty years later she’s still here.

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In class with some of her kindergarteners

Her first year, Blanton was charged with 33 first graders.  “I would come home so exhausted!  I wondered if I should even be a teacher,” she says.  “But there was such an incredible esprit de corps with the staff. It was this great community. I didn’t want to leave. They came to my wedding, held my babies…”  

Most of that original staff has since retired. “I’m so thrilled when I see them now.”

Blanton brought her desire to give back into the classroom. There were sock drives, coat drives, and a project where several of the classes got together and made Valentines Day gift bags for the children at CHOC Hospital.  “We filled them with crayons and stickers…things like that,” she remembers. 

An accident changes everything

As much as Blanton loved teaching, when she and Everett began their family, the plan was for Mary to eventually stay home with the kids and for Everett to keep working as a graphic designer. However, those plans changed when their oldest son, Bryce, who was three at the time, knocked himself out on the playground.  As a precautionary measure, he was sent to the hospital to get a scan and make sure he didn’t have a concussion. What they found was so much worse.  

Bryce had a brain tumor. And, after many agonizing tests, they were told his life expectancy was eight years old.  In an example of how things can come full circle, when Bryce checked into CHOC to begin his treatment, he received one of those special gift bags made by his mother’s class. 

Too many people to name help carry them through

It’s at this point in Mary Blanton’s story that the names of the many people who helped their family cope with what is surely every parent’s nightmare pop up: Virginia Healy, a mom at El Morro, Michael Muhonen, their neurosurgeon at CHOC, Lee Drucker (aka Lee Rocker), a parent of one of Blanton’s students who put on a concert on Bryce’s floor that had the doctors and nurses swing dancing in the halls, friends who left groceries, dinners, and countless other kindnesses she named – but my fingers couldn’t keep up.  

“The outpouring was amazing. Teachers giving me their sick days… the school district was great…People come along side you and carry you through.”  

At this point in our interview, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

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Mary with her husband, Everett Blanton

Because Bryce’s tumor was not presenting in the usual fashion, the Blantons had to make a lot of choices without a lot of concrete information.  When it came time to choose a treatment, there were two in the clinical trial stage.  They rolled the dice and the one they chose, thankfully, is now the protocol for this kind of tumor.  After two long, hard years of chemotherapy, the tumor began to shrink.  Even his optic nerve, which was damaged by the tumor, miraculously repaired itself.  

Bryce Blanton celebrated his eighth birthday, and his ninth… and this year he’s celebrating his 21st.  He was on the student council at LBHS, played on the basketball team, and was voted Laguna Beach “Junior Citizen of the Year” at the Patriot’s Day Parade for all of his good works on campus.  Bryce is now a college student.

A faith in bigger forces

During all of this, Blanton continued teaching.  “I had really good insurance,” she confides. She also had a toddler who got dragged to a lot of doctor appointments.  “I think that’s why Noah is so under the radar,” she says of her middle son, a basketball star at LBHS who now plays for Westmont.  

When I asked her how she continued to teach, to do a job that requires so much emotional energy, she says, “There are bigger forces. It really is my faith in God. I knew that, no matter what happened, God was with Bryce.” Then she adds, “I hope my teaching didn’t suffer. I guess you’d have to ask parents of the kids in my class.”  

If it did suffer, that would be expected.  However, knowing Mary Blanton, it’s extremely unlikely.

Making the most of every minute with family

Blanton tells me of how she spent this past New Year’s Eve. The Blantons – all of them – and two other families, made the trek to Westmont to spend the night with Noah. “He’s in college…I’m sure he had a lot of other things he could have been doing,” says Blanton, laughing. But they all spent the night crammed in adjoining rooms, playing board games and eating pizza. “I just want to hold onto every last minute. As much as I miss the young side, when you see the men they’re growing into…when you realize ‘I would want to be friends with these people’…that’s very special.”

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Tools of the trade for a kindergarten teacher’s “amazing classroom”

The value of engaged parents

Blanton has taught every single grade at El Morro, but spent the bulk of her career teaching third grade.  For the past two years she has taught kindergarten as well as helmed the ESL (English as a Second Language) program.  While her true love may be third grade, her eyes light up when she talks about her “kinders” (“Those days when they wrap their arms around you…” she says smiling) and especially her ESL classes.

“I love what I do. I’m passionate about what I do. I think it is so important for all kids to be provided with a good education.”  

Blanton credits the strong community partnership with the school district, specifically mentioning PTA and SchoolPower.  “If you look around this classroom; it’s an amazing classroom. I used to have to buy pencils with my own money! This weekend, for instance, I just painted and magnetized a wall in my classroom. No more chart paper – yay!”  

But, she adds, “If you strip it all away and just give me parents who want to work with their kids, that’s a game changer.” 

How do you want to change the world?

Mary Blanton is also a game changer.  She tells me that “Bryce and Everett are the two best examples I know of how to live life well.”  While I don’t dispute that at all, I would like to amend the list to make sure her name gets added, as well.    

“We should be letting the people closest to us know that we love them. Teenage boys, newly adult boys, they need to hear it, too. Putting words of encouragement over kids, really seeing what their gifts are. Letting them know that they’re enough. 

“Maybe instead of asking ‘What do you want to do?’ ask them, ‘How do you want to change the world?’ That’s the question I would pose.”  

Later, Blanton sends me an email to let me know she was not the originator of these ideas.  Regardless of who articulated these ideas first, Mary Blanton brings them to life every day. Just ask anyone who knows her.



Jonathan Burke: LCAD’s president and a community leader

By ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

2015 was an important year for Jonathan Burke, president of the Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD): he celebrated 35 years of serving the school, and five years of leadership as its president. Burke has played a significant role in transforming LCAD from a small arts school to an accredited, degree-granting institution that offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

 And, along the way, he’s brought student housing to campus, started a summer artist-in-residency program that sponsors internationally recognized artists, and he founded a downtown gallery that brings high-caliber exhibitions to the Laguna Beach community—to name just a few of his accomplishments. 

But when you talk to Jonathan Burke, he’s focused, like all good leaders are, on the future, not the past. 

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Jonathan Burke

“My vision for the future is to be recognized for what we do,” says Burke. “I want LCAD to become the Julliard of art colleges.”

Burke’s beginnings

Burke was born and raised in Kansas City; his father was a Hollywood actor, and his mother was a painter, so the arts have always been a part of his life. But it was his mother’s influences in particular that helped shape Burke’s path.

First, he followed in her footsteps by enrolling in the Kansas City Art Institute, where he earned his B.F.A. in painting. It was his mother, too, who set him up with Linda, Burke’s wife of 40 years. Burke and Linda’s paths crossed one summer in Kansas City while they were both home on a temporary break from pursuing their respective masters degrees in the arts. Their mothers attended high school together.

The two were married shortly after at Cambridge City Hall. Burke was living in Boston while working toward an M.F.A. in painting from Boston University, and he went on to teach for a year at Massachusetts College of Art, which marked the beginning of a decades-long teaching career. 

“Teaching has always been enjoyable to me, and it makes me a better artist,” says Burke. “It doesn’t take away from my creativity; rather, the ideas students have energize me,” he says.

After a year, however, Burke and Linda grew tired of the cold, and longed to be closer to their family, which had started to migrate West. His parents retired in Santa Monica, his sister was in LA. And so, they packed up their car and their two cats, and moved to San Francisco, where Linda got a job at an art gallery, and Burke at a painting conservation lab. 

Burke loved his work in painting conservation, and had even made the decision to pursue a PhD in the field, but he soon made the unfortunate realization that exposure to the lab’s chemicals was poisonous to him, causing health problems. That’s when he took a break, and started thinking about teaching and the next step. 

And that’s also when he and Linda made a visit to Santa Monica. During that trip, Burke’s parents suggested that he and Linda, who share a deep appreciation and love for art, venture down to a little town called Laguna Beach. 

“I remember coming down to Laguna in January, and it was a beautiful, sunny day. Bees were buzzing around the flowers, people were playing basketball at Main Beach, and the Christmas cacti were in bloom,” reflects Burke. “I said to myself, this is the cutest town I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t forget about it.” The year was 1979.

The opportunity of a lifetime

When he returned home to San Francisco, his mother called him, and explained that she’d read in the newspaper about a small art school in Laguna, after there’d been a fire in its administration building, which burned down. She suggested that Burke reach out to the school to see if they were looking for faculty. 

Burke mailed 20 slides from his portfolio, a self-addressed and stamped envelope to get said slides back, and a letter of introduction to the school. He was almost immediately hired as teacher, and soon after, as chair of the school’s drawing and painting department. 

“They told me that I could build the program that I wanted, one that would be the best representational drawing and painting program in the country. It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Burke, whose interest has always been preserving and reinvigorating representational painting as an art form. 

Burke moved up the ranks quickly, becoming dean and then VP of student affairs. Shortly after he started at LCAD, the school became an accredited, degree-granting college of the arts, and it’s seen only upward movement and tremendous growth, especially since Burke took over as president in 2010.  

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The North Campus at Big Bend

“I’ve had a habit of never saying no, because I’ve always been curious about how the next thing would affect my life,” says Burke. 

No matter his role, his mission from the beginning was to find passionate young artists and to help them understand their places in the world and their voices as artists, and to educate them so that they’ll become masters of their talents. To accomplish this, Burke established a masters program at LCAD, as well as game art, digital media, design and animation majors, and a figurative sculpture program. 

He has recruited some of the world’s most talented students, and brought in some of the most revered professionals to teach master classes in their respective media. 

Art school oasis 

Burke credits some of LCAD’s success to its location, explaining that only in a town that has that reverence and respect for art can artists—and their community—truly thrive and grow. But he insists that nature has a lot to do with it, too. 

“We’re in this absolutely beautiful, inspiring place, the best location of any art college in the country, and I can tell you because I’ve been to all of them,” says Burke.

He believes that being surrounded by the soothing qualities of nature plays a significant role in student happiness and creativity. Establishing housing for freshman students or those students beyond commuting range just blocks from the beach, and exponentially growing the campus itself are some of his proudest accomplishments.

But he’s also proud of the fact that he’s built a college whose resources extend far beyond campus. Really, it’s a school for the Laguna Beach community, too. 

He’s worked with Laguna Art Museum to co-brand exhibitions, created a series of Saturday and summer courses—such as stone carving and live drawing—for community members, and he founded LCAD’s pre-college program, for curious and passionate high school artists who wish to take college-level art classes over the summer to gain experience and build their portfolios. 

He also started an art teacher appreciation program that provides free summer art classes for local art teachers to help them remain creative and to reward them for their work during the school year. 

Burke himself continues to teach fundamentals of drawing at LCAD today—one class per semester, to be exact, but he says he’d teach more if he could. 

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Burke greets prospective students on a tour of the college

One of Burke’s New Year’s resolutions is to drive home to Laguna residents the fact that the college is open and available to the community, and that everyone should make an effort to visit LCAD’s campus. And he has every reason to be an eager host. “I want to encourage people to come and take a tour and to see what’s happening here,” he says proudly. 

“The four words I hear most often from visitors are: “I. Had. No. Idea.”



Brittany Lis: Shining up Marine Room with creativity

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Knowing talent when you see it is a helpful tool when building a portfolio of businesses. So when Brittany Lis applied for a job as a bartender at House of Big Fish several years ago, she says co-owner Richard Ham told her, “I will give you the job, but you’ll end up hating it.” Instead, he offered her the position to manage the corporate office of Casa Resorts, of which he is a co-owner.  Lis accepted, and found herself working for Ham and Chris Keller, two men with very distinct management styles. 

“Richard and Chris are very different, but they balance each other out,” she says.

 

Brittany Lis

After about a year of working at the corporate office, Lis said Keller told her, “If you want to help me, I need help with this.”  “This” was a daunting stack of papers with various projects needing attention. The one on top dealt with the Marine Room, the historic property that Casa Resorts had recently purchased from Kelly Boyd, who had purchased it from the Eltermans, the original family owners of the landmark bar. 

“I don’t live in Laguna; I live in Aliso Viejo. I wasn’t that familiar with Marine Room.  Chris asked me to check it out and I did,” Lis said. “Me, coming from a creative background, I just started having all these ideas. I learned the history. Some renovations were happening at that time so I was there and just started throwing out, ‘What do you think?’ Chris was trusting, and said, ‘OK!’”

Making the most of an opportunity to help

Lis began splitting her time between her corporate office duties and the Marine Room.  Then, Casa Resorts decided to partner with Interstate Hotels and Resorts. 

“After that, there wasn’t really anything for me to do anymore except manage the Marine Room,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait a second…’ I was doing the creative stuff. Doing the day-to-day management is a different skill set.  But I have an extraordinary team behind me.  We all keep it afloat.”

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The marquis sign is one of Brittany Lis’ signature touches

The night Justin Bieber came to play

When stars like Justin Bieber make an unannounced appearance, it’s safe to say that the Marine Room team is doing much more than just keeping afloat.  

“He showed up totally impromptu!” says Lis. 

“I was thinking, this guy looks a lot like Justin Bieber,” she says, laughing.  It wasn’t until after the two went outside, took a stroll to the movie theater and Lis saw him give his body guards a thumbs up that she realized it really was Justin Bieber.  

“No one really knew. There were a couple people who knew it was him, but they were being cool,” Lis said.  “We were dancing, but then a girl ripped his hoodie off his head. He said, ‘Aww…why’d you need to go and do that?’  I guess he figured since his cover was blown he might as well get on stage. He sang two songs, Drake’s ‘Hot Line Bling’ and ‘Sorry.’ He was there for, like, two and a half hours. It was so cool for him to do that!  We want him to be able to come back and always have a good time!”

The many facets of having a good time

Lis is very clear on how the Marine Room should ensure everyone has a good time, not just world-famous pop stars.  Because of the bar’s long history (it has the second oldest liquor license in Orange County, according to Lis), “It has a prohibition era-vibe to it. 

“I did not want Marine Room to feel corporate,” says Lis. “I want people to feel so comfortable they’d bring their laptops and do some work; or (for the ladies) come in wearing a black cocktail dress, feel sexy and get hit on; or come in wearing jeans and a t-shirt and feel comfortable. I wanted this project, like all my projects, to have many facets to them, like a diamond.”

The prohibition-era vibe is also why, Lis says, she wanted to brand the tavern as a whiskey bar.  “We have over 200 whiskeys -- the most in Laguna.  There are some really great selections, some from Japan…That’s the vibe, like a leather tufted couch where you sit and have a glass of whiskey… like you’re in someone’s house.”

Nighttime is the right time at the Marine Room

An accidental model makes the most of it

Lis’ mention of Japan leads us in another direction: her life before Casa Resorts and the Marine Room.  When a friend who was an aspiring photographer asked her to be one of her models, Lis found herself, somewhat accidentally, with a new career.  

After awhile she says, “I realized that all the clients who were booking me were from Asia. I thought, ‘I wonder if I sent my portfolio to some Asian agencies if I’d get a response’.  Within a week I had a response from Japan. My mom was freaking out [about Lis moving to Japan]. But I was thinking, ‘You have to go! This will be the greatest thing for you!’”  

So she went, working and traveling all over Asia, eventually meeting her husband, a Russian, who was also modeling there.  Eventually, despite the glamour and the fun, Lis and her husband decided it was time to come home. 

“It’s not me,” she says of her modeling days.  “I used the fashion industry to travel.”  And, perhaps, find some good Japanese whiskeys – and her husband.  

Keeping her creative juices flowing while “maintaining”

After jet-setting around exotic locales, managing a local bar seems like it could become rather monotonous. Not so, says Lis. “I’ve gotten used to the maintaining part.  My biggest fear is getting burned out. You have to be creative if you’re a creative person. I’m still creating! There are so many projects, so many things I want to do. Yes, you have the accounting, the P&L, and all that, but it’s easy when you’re creating. I have my expectations – and most of the time it’s good!” she says with a laugh.

The Marine Room makes time for community

Many of the projects in which the Marine Room participates benefit the community.  From the Food Pantry to KX93.5, to many other local organizations, the Marine Room is willing to open their doors for a worthy cause.  

“Anyone who knows Chris…he’s a community guy.  He’s heavily involved in helping Laguna Beach.  He’s the one behind those things.  We’re more than happy to help,” says Lis.  She’s also more than happy to keep learning from her mentors.

Learning from the best has been a great experience

“How blessed am I?  Richard and Chris have taught me so much,” says Lis. “So many people want to know how they do what they do.  They’re my mentors and I am so grateful for the opportunity.”  

And she’s not done learning or creating just yet.  “I’m not done at Marine Room, but I think it will get to a point where I will be done,” she says. “I want to do the fun part.  I like to go into businesses that are struggling and help; see something that has potential, and shine it up!”  

Lis says her experience at the Marine Room has been “the best experience for me, because it succeeded. I might feel differently if it had not, but it has been amazing.  

“We are thankful we have the support of the community, and outside the community as well.  We hope to keep it going for another 82 years!”


Dan Pingaro: sailor, ocean advocate, and Community Foundation’s captain for non-profits

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Dan Pingaro is the captain at the helm of Laguna Beach Community Foundation. But it’s not the first time he’s been a captain.

Dan Pingaro, Executive Director of Laguna Beach Community Foundation

Before arriving on Laguna’s shores, Pingaro was Chief Executive Officer of Sailors for the Sea, a conservation organization that “inspires and activates the sailing and boating community toward healing the ocean.” 

Founded by David Rockefeller, Sailors for the Sea began as a local east coast organization with zero programs or staff. Pingaro, as the first CEO, grew it into a global concern, creating four affiliate offices on three continents, multiple partnership programs such as the America’s Cup, and creating a diversified funding base. Ultimately, Sailors for the Sea is a way to contribute and create a legacy of change to effectively address environmental threats to the ocean.

Pingaro has had a life-long love for the ocean. He was a county lifeguard at Aliso Beach as a teenager, and fondly remembers fellow lifeguard and PMMC co-founder, Jim Stauffer, and many fun times in Laguna. “Really good memories of going to The Stand for lunch!” he laughs.

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The ocean, his other “office”

Early in his career he created a foul-weather apparel and gear company for sailors, hikers and climbers, called ClewGear. “It was technical and fashion. We sourced materials and manufactured everything in the US,” said Pingaro. 

“With unique, functional components, it’s the best of its class – to this day,” he says proudly.

He met his wife, Kim, on the water too, as they both enjoy sailboat racing. They moved here from Mill Valley. Now, after almost two years of living in Laguna, they both enjoy the weather better than up north, and they like to spend time on the water – surfing, sailing or swimming, when they can.

Navigating his way to Laguna

After his mom died, Pingaro was hoping for an opportunity to live closer to his dad in Orange County to be able to help him out. He still thought of Laguna and had kept up with the goings on in here through his friendship with Greg McGillivray, and their ocean conservation work. When the position with Laguna Beach Community Foundation opened up, Pingaro was the right guy at the right time. 

His dedication to the environment and pursuit of global sustainability together with his aptitude for fundraising and investment strategies has made him a natural fit for the LBCF, whose goal is to provide strategic philanthropy advice.

Prior to his position with Sailors for the Sea, Pingaro had spent ten years with the US Environmental Protection Agency, in San Francisco. He was responsible for grants and financial management, environmental planning and program development. He was on the America’s Cup Sustainability subcommittee, and was the first recipient of the Surfrider Foundation’s Thomas Pratte Memorial Scholarship. Pingaro brings this background to the forefront at LBCF, where he oversees this non-profit for non-profits.

Laguna Beach Community Foundation gives back

“Our Board and Investment Committee are entirely volunteer, so we are a non-profit helping other non-profits, and advising at a very low cost,” Pingaro explains. 

Since he’s been on board, funds and fund holders have increased significantly.

“It’s been great to have the opportunity to grow an organization,” he says. “The communications committee, the board, the staff – all do a great job.”

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Pingaro’s “official” office at LBCF

LBCF offers expertise on planned giving, plus a free speaker series every third Thursday of the month. Anyone may attend but space is limited to 25. The January speaker, for example, is Ed Fuller, former president and managing director of Marriott International, current president and CEO of the Orange County Visitors Association, and president/co-founder of Laguna Strategic Advisors. 

In February the LBCF series will feature a grant writing seminar.

“It’s crazy – it’s free!” enthuses Pingaro. “And it includes free lunch.”

The series is for non-profits to better market themselves or to learn about other local and global opportunities to give them a leg up. The LBCF also publishes a newsletter full of advice and strategies that anyone can sign up for at: www.lagunabeachcf.org

Time, Treasure and Talent

“It’s surprised me how much of a village community there is here, with an incredible number of non-profits,” said Pingaro. “The philanthropy has surprised me in a positive way.”

He relishes the number of programs that Laguna is lucky enough to support, such as arts, the environment, and human health – as evidenced by a good cross-section of its non-profits. LBCF will steer individuals, families, and other group investors toward the non-profit that speaks to their desires, and will endure as a legacy. Any non-profit can take advantage of LBCF’s national grants database for free. They can also match up individual volunteers with specific goals.

“We’re the hub to learn about the non-profits,” he says. “We’re here to support you and your community.” The LBCF motto is: People give Time, Treasure or Talent.

Having settled into Laguna as home, Dan Pingaro is just steps from his house to his office to the beach. He realizes it doesn’t get much better than that. 

From an ocean conservation standpoint, he’s noticed the waters off Laguna have more fish now than he remembers in the past. 

And from a philanthropy point of view, he’s found there are plenty of fish in Laguna’s sea of generosity.


Laura Farinella: Laguna Beach’s Chief of Police

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Laguna Beach Chief of Police, Laura Farinella, graduated from Chapman University with a degree in communications she started her working career doing pre- and post-production on films.  “I loved Orange County so much so, I was traveling to Sunset and Gower (in Hollywood) regularly.  But that got old,” she explains. “It wasn’t the team environment I was looking for.  I’d always played team sports.  And the work was inconsistent and unreliable. So when I decided to do something else I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’”

LBPD Chief Laura Farinella 

She moved to Long Beach with a friend of hers who worked at Vons.  Farinella took a job there in the meat department.  Then she met a friend from high school.  “She was a cop. It sounded interesting. I get bored easily, I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” said Farinella. “I got my civil service book (to study for the entrance exam) and that was that!”

Finding her passion in law enforcement

She went through the police academy in 1990.  “It’s six months of boot camp and college at the same time,” Farinella says.  When I ask if she ever considered quitting she says, “Regularly! People are yelling at you all the time, but that sets the foundation.  Once you get out and apply it, it’s a very exciting job.

“When I was driving around Long Beach I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for doing it. I loved it. There was a lot of potential for mobility at Long Beach because it’s such a big force.  I took advantage of what they had to offer,” she says.  

Eventually, Farinella became a training officer, then a recruit drill instructor. “I liked the teaching aspect of that.  To be able to mold the new recruits is a pretty cool job, but then I got promoted out,” she says.  

Persevering in a male dominated field

With a ratio of 90% men to 10% women in the force, Farinella says, “You need to find great mentors. Mine were male because there were no female mentors to be found.”  As for bias, she says it existed, but the examples she gives didn’t come from her fellow officers.  

After responding to a call with her female training officer, Farinella recalls the people she came to help saying to her, “They let you two work together?” Another call was met with, “We didn’t call you.”  

“And this was from the public!” says Farinella ruefully.  When asked why there aren’t more women doing police work, Farinella, a mother of two, who is married to a Long Beach detective says, “Shift work when you’re having children is very hard. It’s long nights… you get called out in the middle of the night.  After they have kids, many women retire.”  

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Laguna’s first woman Police Chief

As far as how she handles the life/work balance, Farinella says, “We don’t get to pick the kids up at 3 o’clock. You feel bad about that. But we have family time in the evening.”  

And her kids get to say their mom is the Chief of Police.  Farinella admits, “Yeah, I think they think that’s something.”

Big time training for a small town

With the recent mass shooting events, and the closing of all Los Angeles schools the day before we met, our conversation naturally turned to this tragic “new normal.”

 “If we have a major event, I can handle that. I have relationships worldwide, nationwide and region-wide,” said Farinella. “If I need an asset I know where to get it. We always have to be aware, even though we’re little Laguna Beach – we are constantly talking about active shooter scenarios.  I have my secret clearance, and I’m always getting briefings.” 

Because Farinella spent most of her career in Long Beach (rising to the rank of deputy chief, the first woman to ever hold that position in that city’s history), she brings with her skills that, while not necessarily needed on a daily basis in Laguna, would be very helpful in the event of…well, in the event of something terrible. While the fact that this is a “constant” issue for our police department is a depressing thought, it’s nice to know how prepared they are – just in case.

In addition to what the police are doing, there are things the public can do, as well. “You can always go back (when these tragic events happen) and find something.  Someone said something.  If something doesn’t feel right, say something,” Farinella advises. “A knock on a door from a police officer may be all you need.  And it can be anonymous.”

Community policing shows results

What Chief Farinella is doing that impacts the city more regularly, is part of her practice of “community policing.” 

“This is the community’s police department,” she says. “We talk about providing concierge service but I don’t want there to be a divide.  I think dialogue and a level playing field are very important.”  

To that end, Farinella has implemented several outreach programs, including Coffee with a Cop (where the department provides coffee and anyone who wants to have a conversation can come and talk to an officer), the Dog Walker Watch program, a sort of neighborhood watch program for those out and walking about. There is also the Dinner Downtown Footbeat.  

“We brought the seven bars we are called to most often together, and said, ‘Let’s deal with these problems.’ We have reduced our assaults by 50%,” says Farinella proudly. 

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Additionally, the department sends officers to the youth shelter regularly in hopes of giving the kids there a positive encounter with the police.

Happy to give back to Orange County

“I love it every day I come here,” she says.  After driving to Long Beach for 16 years from Rancho Santa Margarita, Farinella says she is happy to have “two more hours in my day.”  But there is more than extra time that makes her happy with her new job.  “Now I can give back to the county that has given me so much.  

“It’s the cherry on top to work in Laguna Beach! I wanted my last years in law enforcement to be able to give back, and get back to community policing.” 

The LB she came from has 968 sworn officers; the LB where she is now called “Chief” has 50.  Of course, there are differences in the day-to-day issues between the two city police departments and I, for one, find that very comforting.  Chief Farinella’s log sheet may read differently here than it did in Long Beach, but it’s nice to know that whatever calls come in, she most likely has had experience in dealing with it – especially in these days when the unthinkable has become tragically common.


Peter Blake: the art dealer extraordinaire 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

With dogged determination and against most odds, Peter Blake has carved a name for himself, and for Laguna Beach, in the international art world. 

There was a time when he thought he would be forever trapped inside a restaurant, like his childhood spent in his dad’s New York luncheonettes, diners, and coffee shops… “Places with those huge menus,” Blake recalls. He knew he had another passion, but it wasn’t going to be an easy road.

“I was desperate not to end up in the restaurant business,” the gallery owner said.

But restaurant work was not always terrible. That’s how he made a start at a new life right here in our little town.

Peter Blake 

Blake landed in Laguna having wended his way westward from New York via Dallas. His then-wife was not enamored of Dallas and gave him the choice, “New York or DC.” They reached a compromise when Peter countered with, “Let’s give California a try, and if that doesn’t work we’ll move back east.”

He describes driving down the coast from LA and seeing the rocky cliffs by Crystal Cove, entering Laguna – and it was love at first sight. “I thought, my God, this is it!” So move they did, and Peter Blake got a job in what he knew best: a restaurant. 

Romeo Cucina became like a second home, with Blake beginning as a waiter in the mid-1980s, and working his way up to becoming the General Manager. Then in 1993, he and the bartender from the Agean Café realized their joint dream, and opened an art gallery.

Careful when you follow Peter Blake 

“You don’t have to go to Harvard Business School to know when a recession is coming. Just follow Peter Blake!” he laughs. 

The gallery opening was indeed followed by a recession, and then even worse. After opening the unfortunately named Fire Gallery (complete with painted flames in the windows) in the Village Fair, the disastrous Laguna firestorm came. 

“I was working at the gallery seven days a week, and at the restaurant five nights a week. And we were putting in the gas pizza oven at Romeo. When the Laguna fires happened the fire department let me through – you had to have a damn good reason to get through town then, and the gas oven was it,” said Blake. “I was back and forth, back and forth. I thought I’d lose the restaurant or the gallery that day. It was really scary.” 

After that, of course he changed the name of the gallery, and carried on for three more years at both jobs 24/7, until the gallery was able to financially break even. Then he was able to bid farewell to the restaurant world, diving full-time into the ever-uncertain art world.

Reviving Gallery Row

The Peter Blake Gallery opened on Gallery Row at a time when conditions looked much different than they are now. What is now Madison Square Café was then a drug den, with squatters living on the premises. As if it isn’t hard enough for merchants trying to pay the rent by selling art, it was difficult to attract visitors to that area. But Peter Blake not only has an eye for cutting edge art, he also has a progressive, trend-setting sense of the space in which to view art. His minimalist, modern gallery with a big glass front was an immediate eye-catcher, and helped to resuscitate the Gallery Row district.

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To market the area further, Blake and fellow gallerist, the artist William (Bill) DeBilzan started First Thursdays Art Walk in 1998. 

“The galleries were all struggling, and we started to promote Saturday night as art night. Then Bill heard from a Portland friend about First Thursdays,” said Blake. “Siân Poeschl helped with organizing, creating a board, and with the conditional use permits. We wanted it to stay pure, and worthwhile for the entire community.” 

First Thursdays Art Walk’s mission is to promote art education and appreciation in Laguna Beach, and is funded by member galleries, local art institutions, lodging establishments, and the City of Laguna Beach. The first Thursday of the month has now become legendary in Laguna, and another good reason for the local community to get together.

In 2001 Blake further enhanced the North Laguna area with the opening of his now-ex wife’s clothing shop, Fetneh Blake. It was a stressful process getting the shop permitted through the city, and following on the heels of 9/11. Blake attributes the stress of the experience to the end of their marriage. Today, however, they remain on good terms, Blake has re-married (to Stephanie, an artist), and the Fetneh Blake shop has been wildly successful. 

On Ocean Avenue the gallery finds its home

Fast-forward to 2008 when Peter Blake Gallery moved into its new space on Ocean Avenue, for which Peter Blake sunk his life-savings (close to $200,000) on improvements and permits. Then, guess what? Yes, another recession.

Blake jokes that he’s not some guy up on the hill, living behind gates, gazing at his monochromatic paintings. He’s the guy who has had to move into a small apartment, and struggle for the cause of art.

“I came from nothing,” he says. “I didn’t go to college. I didn’t go to art school. I work seven days a week. But you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to move anywhere else – any city in the world. I love this town.”

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Peter Blake Gallery, on Ocean Avenue

The recession continued to stink, however, and Blake admits to being late on the rent at the gallery every month until 2013. He had to be creative not only in finding art that speaks to people, but in finding ways to reach out with that art to the buying public.

“Galleries on the internet and art fairs were happening – two things I thought were ridiculous,” said Blake. “Buy art from a computer screen? Hang art in temporary shows, temporary walls, with harsh lighting?” It seemed unreal. But it has happened for Peter Blake in a big way.

Taking art on the road

Fresh off the plane from two art shows, Blake is more than happy to be home. “I’ve never been happier to be home,” he says. His head is still drumming form the electro-Cuban beat pumping out at Miami Art Week, and from the bustle of a Dallas art show. It may have seemed inconceivable once, but these and other art shows have heaped international recognition on the Peter Blake Gallery, and have become part of Blake’s monthly agenda.

Miami Art Week, for example, is a highly prestigious juried show for which you have to plunk down $500 and your art intentions to even be considered as an exhibitor. More than 800 galleries applied this year for the 100 slots available. “It’s a huge honor to be vetted in,” says Blake. The down side is rejection. “They email you and send you a hard copy,” he said. “It’s double humiliation!” 

This year was the second year that Peter Blake Gallery has been accepted and exhibited at Miami Art Week. Though a bit worn out afterward, Blake remarked about how the show puts Laguna Beach on the map. 

“Every booth has the name of the gallery, and the town they’re from,” he said. “There was Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, Caracas… and Laguna Beach. That brings notice to Laguna Beach that has transcended my name. It’s given our art a good reputation.”

Home sweet home

Peter Blake is a visionary art dealer who would love to see more visitors, and locals alike, enjoying galleries and shops in our downtown. He hires LCAD students to work in the gallery because he likes the way they think out of the box (“Sometimes they find out how hard it is and they change their major,” he laughs). 

“We need to engage and support the arts,” he says. “To re-invigorate the town we don’t need typical run-of-the-mill shops. We need interesting stores that attract locals and visitors.” Plus mom and pop businesses like Peter Blake Gallery.

His dream for the future is a walking-friendly downtown with one or both Forest and Ocean Avenues closed to traffic, and any business that wants park-lets to have it. 

He is passionate about a safe, accessible downtown, and the successful future of Laguna’s reputation as an arts community.


Pam Wicks: Embracing the yoga of devotion

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Pam Wicks came to Laguna Beach from Aspen, Colorado in 1998.  Her then-husband got a new job in Los Angeles so Wicks and their two young daughters reluctantly followed him to the coast.  “I had no desire to leave Aspen.  And there was no way I was going to live in LA.  So we looked at different places.  I didn’t like any of those places.  I knew about Laguna from a friend.  I needed to check it out.  I’m a small town girl.  I drove into Laguna and I was home.  Something happened to me.  I just knew this was the town,” explains Wicks.

When the water is like diamonds

Despite such a visceral reaction to the town, when Wicks’ husband lost his job, she decided they would move back to Aspen.  She and her two daughters had only been in Laguna for about a month so it had not quite become “home” yet.  “I didn’t intend to stay.  But it was one of those days where the water is like diamonds.  I was at Main Beach and I said, ‘We just cannot leave.’  My husband thought I was insane, but we stayed,” says Wicks.  And in the 17 years since she decided to make Laguna home, Wicks has found Laguna to be a welcoming environment for her many interests, most of which surround India, yoga and the Neighborhood Congregational Church (NCC).  

Pam Wicks, Bakhti yogi, piano teacher and Kirtan leader

A Bakhti yogi (the yoga of devotion)

As a devotee of the study and practice of yoga for over 30 years, Wicks is extremely knowledgeable on the subject and rattles off yoga references with such ease that it’s hard to keep up.  She has clearly learned a lot since her father gave her her first yoga book. “It was called Yoga USA, or something like that,” she says laughing.  Wicks is so knowledgeable, in fact, she is a Bakhti yogi (the yoga of devotion). And her yoga practice encompasses much more than mastering poses.  She explains that “that” kind of yoga, the kind most of us are familiar with, is just one part of the practice.  “It’s supposed to keep you healthy and flexible so you can sit and meditate,” she explains. 

Wicks began her yoga practice in earnest when she lived in Boston.  “I had the best teachers.  I really got into it.  Patricia Walden was one of them.  She has become fairly well known,” says Wicks.  “Then I moved to Aspen and had another great teacher. She became my best friend.  By the time I got to Laguna Beach I had my own practice. 

“I don’t really go to class anymore, except Kundalini.  It’s a fabulous class,” says Wicks enthusiastically.  She tells me that all are welcome to attend, regardless of their experience.  It’s at the NCC, 340 Saint Ann’s Drive on Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m.  Immediately following this class is another one of Wicks’ passions: Kirtan (or chanting).   

An altitude of attitude and the mastery of Kirtan

“Every religion has some kind of chanting.  It’s what I consider a mystical piece of the spiritual path,” explains Wicks.  “This is devotional singing.  We chant in Sanskrit.  It’s really powerful, even if you don’t understand what you’re saying.  It takes you out of your head, and it’s about the heart.  Everybody gets really happy.  It’s really fun.  People dance.  We dedicate it to peace and healing.”  

It’s called a Kirtan Circle and it follows the Kundalini class at the church. Wicks obviously takes her Kirtan seriously, but there is a vivaciousness to her that makes it all seem very accessible.  It’s not hard to picture her and her best friend on the chairlifts in Aspen practicing their chanting.  “People thought we were nutty,” she says. “But that’s how I learned Sanskrit.”  Yes, Sanskrit.

Pam Wicks, Neighborhood Congregational Church Music Director, at home

With her immersion in yoga and chanting, it makes sense that Wicks would develop a broader interest in India since, she says,  “Yoga is based in Hinduism.” 

Meeting Tenpa Dorjay, owner of the local store, Tibet Handicrafts, has also been an important catalyst.  “He became a good friend,” she says. It is through him that Wicks became involved in hosting the Tibetan monks who now make an annual visit to Laguna. “This began a great relationship. It has been happening for six years.  This year we went stand up paddling.  The monks are so much fun!” 

Meeting the Dalai Lama and helping Norgyeling

Her relationship with Tenpa is also responsible for her meeting the Dalai Lama. 

“Four of us from Orange County went with Tenpa to his village in India.  It’s a Tibetan settlement.  Many Nepalese fled from Nepal and settled in India.  Where they live, this place is a very harsh environment, infrastructure non-existent.  We fell in love with it,” she said. “There is a little monastery there.  They need help.  The village is very poor. The last time we went, two years ago, the Dalai Lama was in the village so we get to meet him.

“We are going back in January,” she enthused.

The last time they went they took solar lanterns purchased with the money they raised.  These lanterns supply 200 families with electricity.  The non-profit organization that raises money for this town and its monastery is called Nying-Je Foundation.  

Join “In the footsteps of Buddha”

After that trip, in early February, Wicks, Tenpa and other intrepid travelers are planning a tour, “In the footsteps of Buddha.”  

“Tenpa is our guide,” says Wicks.  “We will go to his village, then to Bodh Gaya.  If people want we were thinking of adding Bhutan. It’s a good way to go to India for the first time.”  

There are still a few spots open on the tour so if you are interested in going, contact Wicks (949/573-7104).

Pam Wicks in festive holiday spirit at her cozy Laguna Beach home

The music director of the Neighborhood Congregational Church

With Wicks’ immersion in far eastern culture, it might be surprising to learn how deeply committed she is to the Neighborhood Congregational Church.  However, according to Wicks, the NCC is “known for being open.  It’s in our mission statement.  It appeals to my eclectic self.” 

As the NCC’s music director – and a highly regarded piano teacher – Wicks plays piano at every Sunday service.  Coming up at the NCC is their Christmas Eve service.  “It’s big!” says Wicks with enthusiasm.  “We have lots of music, sacred dancing, lots of variety…fiddlers, bells.  It’s fantastic.”  

For more information on the NCC you can go to their website at www.ncclaguna.org.

A personal passion influences her family

“I am a Bakti yogi.  There is nothing I would rather do than serve,” Wicks tells me earnestly.   As evidenced by her many endeavors, she walks the Bakti walk.  

Not surprisingly, her commitment to her practice rubbed off on her daughters.  “They grew up with me going to ashrams and such,” she says.  “They are now 27 and 28 both are very much into yoga.  

“My oldest one a little more, maybe.  She graduated with a degree in Eco-Buddhism from Wheaton College,” says Wicks proudly.  As for the rest of her family, Wicks says laughing, “I’m the weird one who chants.  But everyone has done it, whether they want to or not.”   

Wicks may jokingly call herself “weird”, but if being energetic, enthusiastic, passionate and positive is weird, then sign me up.


Adolfo and family serve up Mexican fare and loads of good cheer for generations of Lagunans  

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Adolfo Vides knows his quetzals from his dollars. But the quetzal, the currency from his native Guatemala, is not nearly as enticing as the American dollar to this hard-working achiever of the American Dream.

Adolfo’s restaurant will turn 31 in their Laguna Beach location this March, but the family started in the restaurant business in Westminster back in 1969. “Rent was only $150 a month!” Adolfo says brightly. “But there was no business.” 

That first day they sold $20 in food, and staged the place with various family members at the tables and put their cars out front so the place looked busy. “No one wants to go into an empty restaurant,” said Adolfo. They lasted there three years before moving on to purchase various other questionable sites – some better than others.  

There was the time his produce supply guy wanted to go into business with him, but that guy didn’t really understand the restaurant business. “I bought him out,” says Adolfo. Or the restaurateur who got depressed because his wife ran off with the cook, and just wanted out. Adolfo paid all his back bills, and took over the restaurant for him. “It was still a bad location,” says Adolfo. “But it was a good deal.” 

He’s even sold the same restaurant three times. “Nobody else makes it,” he says. “They close the doors, and I start it up again…fix it up.”

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Connie and Adolfo Vides

The man knows his way around a good deal, and the restaurant business has been a darn sight better than when he first came to the U.S. and was picking celery. “I did that one day, and then I couldn’t stand up,” Adolfo recalls. That turned him toward a friend who worked at the Red Onion, and landed Adolfo the second worst job – washing dishes. “It was so busy! And not enough machines!” Figuring in a way to earn more, and keep track of his dollars, he went to school at night to learn bookkeeping. 

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It was a far cry from the career he had as a teacher in Guatemala, where his dad was a doctor, and the family owned a coffee plantation. But he and his wife, of the same town, left Guatemala following a terrible bus accident Adolfo was in, in which five people died, and the survivors received threats on their lives.

He’s a plain talker

“They pay you for this?” Adolfo asks me during our interview. The answer would be yes. “I’m going to charge you for my story!” he says with a smile. 

Adolfo is a guy who puts all his cards on the table – telling it straight, whether it’s about people, his past, culture, or the almighty dollar. He’s still driving a bargain even as he tells me he plans to retire in the next year. 

“I had bladder cancer two years ago: chemo, radiation, surgery,” he shares. “Then intestines last month – like a kink in the hose.” Following that surgery, the spry (almost) 81 year-old is still the second person to arrive at the restaurant every morning by 8 a.m. and then he’s fixing stuff in his garden every afternoon. “I’m okay now. I don’t feel nothing,” he laughs. “I get a lot of exercise here!” 

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He can’t even blame his recovery and good health on the fresh Mexican food at Adolfo’s. “I can’t eat the same thing for 50 years,” he says. “I like Sizzler’s salads, and ice cream!” He steers a little clear of salt and sugar, but will take a beer now and then, “When somebody buys it for me!” Of course. Dos Equis? No, “Coors Lite!”

In fact he was happy to head off this Thanksgiving to his favorite getaway, Palm Springs and the casino slot machines. “I enjoy watching the people losing the money, and they’re screaming,” he says a little sadistically. “But not me. I don’t like to lose money. It’s hard to make!”

It’s a Family Affair

Perhaps Adolfo enjoys the screaming because it reminds him of his own family. “My grandfather came from Spain. Small guy, screaming all the time,” he says. “It sounds like fighting – like Italians too.” As far as real fighting, Adolfo says he’s more likely to get the silent treatment. “Couples always have something to fight about,” he jokes. 

Adolfo is apt to tease his wife, Connie. “She bought a VW camper 14 years ago, and has never used it,” he says of her enthusiasm for camping. “After ten years, the sleeping bag is still in its bag!”

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Adolfo and Connie, together since they were 24 years old

That may be because Connie (short for Concepción) is more of the creative sort. “She loves to sew,” he tells me. “Blouses, skirts, curtains, bedcovers… Beautiful!  She’s smart and talented. People come in and say, ‘Wow, looks expensive!’” And then the teasing, “She made me ties and shirts. One time I was in Costco and someone said to me, ‘Nice shirt!’ and when I said my wife made it, he said he could tell because the pocket was on the wrong side!”

Adlofo’s will continue in the capable hands of his daughter Peggy (named for Peggy Lee), when Adolfo retires. It’s been a family affair since the beginning with Adolfo at the helm, and Connie and Peggy slicing and dicing in the kitchen or ringing and dinging at the cash register.

The American Dream lives on at Laguna’s local Mexican favorite, Adolfo’s.



Monica Silva: Developing big plans for KX93.5

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

You might be surprised to learn that a garden helped Monica Silva become the Development Director of KX93.5, Laguna’s only radio station. As the then Assistant Branch Director of the Boy and Girls Club, Laguna Beach (BGC), Silva decided that what they needed was a garden.  The only problem, according to Silva, was “We needed $3,000 by the end of the day. So I gathered my resources.  We partnered with Transition Laguna…” and the Boys and Girls Club got a garden. 

“After that I got the attention of Corporate [Boys and Girls Club Corporate Offices].” 

Her resourcefulness landed her a new position at the BGC: Development and Marketing Assistant.  “I have no formal training.  For me it has been all about learning on the job,” she says of her career in development.  

“But I learned from the best,” says Silva emphatically.  Her teacher? Michelle Ray, Development Director of the BGC.

Monica Silva 

A job turns into a new home

Without her ability to make that garden a reality – in a day – she might still be doing what she had always done: working with children.  A teacher before she had her first child, Silva was enjoying being a stay at home mom in Fullerton when a friend told her of an opening at the BGC in Laguna.  “I knew nothing about Laguna Beach.  I had literally been here for brunch, that was it,” she says, smiling.  

She was intrigued enough to take the job – and make the commute, for a while anyway.  “We had a good thing going.  It was the golden era of TLC (the BGC Branch at Bluebird Park), a really magical time.  I became ingrained in the community,” explains Silva.  She became so ingrained she moved her family to Laguna.

 “My husband was not pleased,” she says.  “Our whole lives were in Fullerton, our families…it was what we knew.  Now, we can’t get him out of here,” she says with a laugh.  “When we drive by on the freeway…I can’t get him to go back!”  

She says the move caused her kids a little bit of “culture shock.”  

“Not my daughter, she was so young when we came here, but it was definitely different for my son.  He didn’t have to fight for the ball,” she says with a smile.  Now, her daughter is in 4th grade, her son in 8th, and Laguna is home.

Transitioning into development at the Boys & Girls Club

Silva says that as the Assistant Branch Director, “I watched a whole class of kids, from kindergarten through 8th grade go through the Club.  I loved it. I worked with the kids, their families.  When you work with someone’s child, they are trusting you with the most important thing in their lives.  The trust that’s built is tremendous.”  However, she was excited to make the switch to her new position.  

“It was a fun transition,” she says of moving to the development side of things.  Plus, the kids still came to find her in her new office.

An “utterly surprising” request – that wasn’t

Then she got a call.  

“I got a phone call from Tyler [Russell, KX93.5’s Program Director],” explains Silva.  “He said I would find what he had to say ‘utterly surprising.’” 

After hearing him out, Silva says,  “I was not surprised!”  She and Russell had worked together on different joint BGC/KX93.5 projects.  She says they had a good working relationship and shared the same can-do attitude.

KX93.5, “Laguna’s only FM” located at 1833 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach 

He asked her if she would come be the Development Director at KX93.5.  “I loved the radio station,” says Silva.  “I saw potential.  It’s just…super Laguna!”  So she took the job.  “I could not have done it without the support of Michelle Ray,” says Silva definitely.

Ambitious goals for a small station

So Silva transitioned to a very different “sell.”  

“The BGC was an easy sell,” she says.  “It’s kids; it wasn’t starting from scratch which is the radio station.  I decided to utilize my strengths as well as figure out my weaknesses.”  

A lifelong music fan, Silva is very busy in her new job.  

“Concerts, parties, events…there’s too much to do – and it’s awesome!” says Silva enthusiastically.  

There are also other less glamorous things like developing a “Street Team” (volunteers tasked with getting the word out about the station), creating strategic partnerships, and launching a teen program.  Silva has big ambitions for the station,  “I want it to become so consequential with new bands it becomes a destination.”  

In the short term, however, she just wants everyone in Laguna to know they have a radio station.  “We want them to know this is not Tyler’s station.  It’s Laguna’s station,” she says.  And Laguna’s station has a lot going on.

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Monica is Development Director of KX93.5, Laguna Beach

Coming up they will be MC-ing Hospitality Night.  Then on December 13th is the Winter Concert Classic at the Irvine Bowl, featuring Kenny Loggins and several other acts.  “This is huge!” enthuses Silva.  

“I love Kenny Loggins!  But I’m from the 80’s so no surprise… This is going to be such a great event!  We’ve partnered with the Montage and it’s a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club, SchoolPower and KX93.5.”  

Then the station hosts its “KX Take Over” where the station turns the airwaves over to “local legends who play music, talk about whatever and raise money for the station,” explains Silva. They also have their “Are You Listening” program that gives free underwriting to local businesses if a customer calls in to the station and lets them know their business is tuned to KX93.5.  Add their “KX Presents” Series that takes place the last Thursday of the month at The Marine Room (“The Marine Room has been awesome! We love them!” exclaims Silva.) 

“In January we will have another big artist play this small venue and provide our community with an awesome night of music,” explains Silva of the event.  And, if you can believe it, there is more – but you will simply have to go to their website (www.kx935.com) to find out what it is.

Doing more than just watching

One of Silva’s goals is to help people appreciate Laguna, “connect the dots,” as she says.  “I love that I have another perspective coming from somewhere else.  We’re really lucky.  Let’s celebrate it and not ignore it.  This is a beautiful place.  Obviously the scenery is beautiful, but I feel like the people make it beautiful.  One of my favorite quotes is ‘Do something more than watch.’  We all do something here.  No wonder I’m here.  I love it!”   

If it’s true that everyone does something in Laguna, as Silva suggests, then it’s also true that Silva just happens to do quite a lot of “something” to spread the word about Laguna’s only FM radio station.  

And that’s exactly how she likes it.


Singing praises for the singer in the band: 

Poul Pedersen

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The first time Poul arrived on Laguna’s shores was in the late 1970’s. It was a damn sight better than the condemned building he called home in Baltimore. There, he would warm up in the wintertime by filling a bathtub full of hot water to jump in straight from bed. “It had running water and electricity. I built a loft along one wall,” Poul said cheerfully. “I was young!” 

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Poul Pedersen

One day he met the world’s first real professional surfer, Corky Carroll. Carroll was also a singer/songwriter, and came to see Poul’s band, The Four Muses, when they opened for Linda Ronstadt. Carroll liked the band, and he and Poul became friends. He told Poul, you gotta get out to California. So he did. 

He got a delivery car to drive to San Diego, actually moved in with Corky Carroll, and started working at Surfer magazine.

“I worked in the warehouse, mailing out T-shirts and stuff, and being a janitor,” Poul said. Finally enough was enough with that line of work, and he paid attention to the voice inside his head. “I’ve got to get a band,” the voice said. 

He started The Breeze Brothers, an R&B band, and got local gigs, including at The Sandpiper, and the Wind & Sea, in Dana Point. From there his band grew, changed, and evolved: A duo with Bob Hawkins (playing at The Marine Room); The Heat Band; The 133 Band… and, of course, The Missiles of October.

He has never had to return to janitorial work. 

It’s about the music – and then some

Missiles of October is a name Poul dreamed up after having seen the docu-drama of the same name. 

He remembered the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolding on the television when he was a lad, dressed in his Cub Scout uniform. JFK was on the TV in the background and his dad, in his Marine Corps uniform, was before him, wagging his finger, no, no, no. “I was trying to show him how to do The Peppermint Twist,” Poul laughs.

Missiles was formed in 1991 by Poul Pedersen and Bob Hawkins. Having played for 25 years at The Marine Room, the current members of Missiles of October, Poul (vocals), Richard Bredice (lead guitar), Jimmy Perez (bass guitar), and Frank Cotinola (drums) have moved with their considerable following to The White House for their regular Sunday afternoon gigs.

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On bass, Jimmy Perez warms up for Missiles of October

They perform a smattering of original music as well as covers with their own unique flavor.

“Generally I bring in the music – and make sure they’re interested in it,” says Poul. “We all like the Missile style. They all put their own spin on it, so it’s an original sound.”

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Frank Cotinola warms up the eardrums!

The Marine Room is going through their own changes, but Missiles is sticking to its own style, which they can do at The White House. “With The Missiles we have tables and dancing,” says Poul. “The White House is one of the last old-school nightclubs in Laguna.”

Judging by the crowd they’ve drawn in, it seems to be a perfect fit.

But Poul and band mate, Jimmy Perez, are no newcomers to The White House. They played with The Heat Band there for almost ten years, back in the 80’s. Additionally, Poul has been known to take up the solo mic there. 

“I’ve been doing open mic night once a month at The White House,” he said. “Candles on the table… it’s a little more intimate.

“I feel really fortunate to make a living playing music,” Poul added.

He has paid that good fortune forward by contributing music to charity, as he did when his first Missiles band mate had a major heart attack. Missiles of October put on a big fundraiser to help Bob Hawkins deal with his medical bills. 

The other musical passion project for Poul Pedersen is the 133 Band. Local, Clay Berryhill got the ball rolling by inviting several of Laguna’s most well-known and well-loved musicians to be in a band together. The concept of putting bandleaders together begs the question, who leads? 

“It’s a band of bandleaders,” says Poul. “All the egos in the band – but interestingly enough, it’s been lots of laughter, lots of talent. It’s really been fun.” For their first gig, the band opened for The Beach Boys when they played here in Laguna a little more than a year ago.

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Berryhill has launched not only a CD from the project, but also a movie about the making of the band, called 133 The Road to Laguna. The documentary is aiming for film festivals such as Sundance or South by Southwest.

“I wouldn’t be involved with [these musicians] if it weren’t for this film,” said Poul. “We just didn’t all cross paths.”

Coming full circle

  Poul was born in Austin, Texas, but moved around quite a bit with his Marine Corps family, landing for a length of time in Virginia. He taught himself how to play guitar when he was 12, with a Beatles songbook. “I thought I was so sophisticated,” he laughs. “As a teenager things were so important.” 

He “got on the singer/songwriter” style of the times and into the reflective approach of the lyrics of the 60’s and 70’s. “I feel fortunate to have grown up with those influences,” he says. It was one part old-school America, one part innocence lost. He cites Van Morrison as a seminal influence (“I like the way he takes Celtic and Blues, and puts them together”).

On a side note, our own Stu Saffer had a most unusual “first” meeting with Poul. Of course they met here in Laguna, but they both shared an Arlington, Virginia background. As they were talking, Stu flashed back to his days as a mail carrier, and said to Poul, “You lived at 308 S. Irvington Street!” Poul was so taken aback he said the hairs on his arm stood up. Quite a history – and quite a memory that Stu has!

Laguna really became home for Poul when he found a home for his band here, and when he met Woody, his soul mate of 27 years. She was then a cocktail waitress at Hotel Laguna, and is now a manager there. With their working schedules they are really like Laguna ships passing in the night.

At least we know that Poul can be found every Sunday at The White House rocking the classic Missiles of October way.



Lisette Chel-Walker: She serves the City of Laguna Beach and enjoys every moment enthusiastically 

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Lisette Chel-Walker has worked for the City of Laguna Beach since 1983.  “I was the youngest when I started, now I’m the oldest,” she says with a laugh.  Elected as City Clerk in 2012, Chel-Walker began her career at the city with the Police Department – and stayed there for 25 years.  

Hired as Parking Cashier, Chel-Walker eventually ran the entire parking system from receiving all complaints and calls, to mailing late notices, as well as keeping the statistics for parking and traffic.  

Lisette Chel-Walker

Now, as the elected City Clerk, she says her job is to “…promote public participation in municipal government and serve the public, elected officials and the City organization by accurately processing, recording and archiving municipal records for ready retrieval.”  In other words, “this is a paper office,” she says.  

And she owes her career as a civil servant to her father, who was an assemblyman in Long Beach, although it was practicality, not nepotism that prompted the suggestion.

For hire: an aerobics instructor with “experience”

When Chel-Walker first moved to Laguna she started working as an aerobics instructor at the Laguna Health Club, and the Girls Gym.  

“I was a dancer my whole life,” she said. “I came here, went to the Laguna Beach Health Club for a job and said, ‘I teach aerobics,’ even though I really didn’t.  They hired me and we had the best classes!  I was teaching about 12 classes a week. Shape Magazine did an article on me. It was a big, fun thing.  

“Then my dad said to me, ‘What if you get sick? You need a city job.’”  So, being a dutiful daughter she went down to the City and got the job with the Police Department.

From Parking Cashier to City Clerk, she listens to the people

Dealing with the public can be a trying experience, no matter what the job is.  But especially dealing with people who get parking tickets…they’re not the happy customers. 

“I used to field at least 30 complaints a day. I loved talking to people. They were sometimes irate – I’d let them talk. They just wanted to be heard,” she says brightly. “They would always pay their ticket at the end.”  

I’m not sure how many people “love” talking to angry people, but I got the impression that Chel-Walker really does like talking to people, irate or otherwise. And this makes her well suited for her current job as City Clerk, an elected position.

 “A City Clerk is all about details and dates and listening to people.  We are the face of the city, the point of contact,” she explains.  “Customer service is my specialty. I try to be available anytime. I’ve always been a team player. I’m here to promote public participation with the City. You should feel welcome to come in here and get anything.”

Clearly, if you don’t view the City as attentive, you haven’t reached out to Chel-Walker. “We pride ourselves on answering the phones and answering people’s questions.  If we don’t know the answer, we will find out,” she says, adding, “And I don’t mind working 17 hour days when there is a Council meeting.”  

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Lisette Chel-Walker’s office in Laguna Beach’s City Hall

Travel and music – but let’s have good seats

Despite those long days, Chel-Walker carries her enthusiasm into her free time, as well.  As a former owner of a travel agency who is married to a retired pilot (“His line was, ‘Marry me and fly free’ – except that meant stand-by. He left that part out!” she says, laughing), Chel-Walker loves to travel. 

“I love planning group trips. I like being around people. We went to Oktoberfest last year,” she says happily. Coming up next is a trip to Costa Rica. “Nothing makes me happier than being able to include my friends with me on an adventure.”

Another passion is music.  “I love to sit in the first few rows of a concert,” she confesses.  She crossed an item off her bucket list when she took her 22 year-old daughter, who is also a dancer (in her final year at San Francisco State University), to see Elton John. “We sat in the front row. I’ve seen him 20 times. I love 70’s music!  But I’m from that era,” she smiles.

And while you can’t take her aerobics classes any longer (she stopped teaching in the late ‘90’s) you can find her taking a daily jog around the LBHS track.  

“I like to run by myself,” she says. “I run a slow pace. It takes me 40 minutes. It’s a good time to think.”

Sun plus art equals home in Laguna

“To live and work here in Laguna is amazing,” says Chel-Walker. “This is my home, even though I grew up in Long Beach.” 

As a child her father brought her to Victoria Beach in Laguna. “There were the biggest waves!” she recalls.  It took a boyfriend to bring her back again, as an adult. “That just brought me here. I loved everything about it! I loved driving in from the Canyon… it was magical. Every time I was here I was happy,” she says. Her relationship with Laguna outlasted the one with the boyfriend, and Chel-Walker seems more than fine with the way things worked out.

The weather suits her too. “I love hot weather,” she says. “I’m a sun-worshipper.”  

She attributes her love of anything tropical to her Dutch father. “He came from cold Holland,” she says as an explanation for his love of the beach. “I’m a beach girl,” she says. “I take after my dad.”  

However, one thing she inherited from her mother, who was an artist, was an appreciation of art. “I love art, especially by local artists,” she says. “I try and buy a piece of art from every City Hall show.”  And her office looks as though she means it – every wall is covered with colorful, vibrant paintings.

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Part of Lisette Chel-Walker’s art collection.  These pieces are by

 fused glass artist, Maggie Spencer  

It’s not surprising that she is attracted to such paintings; “colorful” and “vibrant” can also be used to describe Chel-Walker herself. As a holder of the “oldest profession in government, along with the tax collector,” her enthusiasm for the job and the city she works for is contagious – and a bit surprising. 

Admittedly, I didn’t have a clear picture of what a City Clerk did prior to meeting Chel-Walker, but whatever I had vaguely envisioned was proven patently false after we met. No soulless bureaucrat here. As an example, when City Clerks were given permission to perform marriages, this go-getter took it upon herself to create wedding vows for those she married. 

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Chel-Walker holding a photo of one of the marriages she has performed as 

City Clerk 

“I wanted it to be unique,” she says. “I googled wedding vows that weren’t religious. I pulled in the things that I liked.”  And then she talks to the couple. “I ask them why they want to be married here and things like that. I just try to personalize it a little.  Why not?  Everyone is unique.” 

That’s true for couples wanting to get married and it’s certainly the case for Laguna Beach’s City Clerk.


Don Sciortino: living the dream

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He received the word of God back in 1972. Don Sciortino was going to community college in Long Island, NY, during what he describes as the “Jesus Movement days” – when young people were looking for alternative ways to perceive reality in the summer-of-love times. He wasn’t particularly religious, and he was partaking of substances to alter his mind as everyone else in college was. Then he took a Philosophy & Religion class, and had a tiresome assignment; they had to read from the Bible, The Sermon on the Mount.

Don became friends with a classmate who happened to carry the Bible. He asked if he might borrow it so that he could get his homework assignment done. That did it.

“I had a spiritual encounter. It was the greatest experience I’d ever had,” Don remembers. “God encountered me like liquid love, going deep inside me. It changed my life.”

Don Sciortino

Indeed, the experience of learning and understanding God’s love led Don to a life lived in terms of Jesus’ teachings. “Jesus heard his father’s voice. God made us not to do to life alone – but to be connected. From Jesus’ connected life, he led people to God,” Don explained. “I wanted to model the life of Jesus.”

Pastor Don has walked that talk. 

Becoming a Shepherd

Don and his wife of 40 years, Karen, met at church – of course. They both were on staff with the Vineyard Church, an offshoot of the Calvary Chapel, “But more charismatic expression,” as Don describes it. That was back in Long Island, but the two headed west to Anaheim, Mission Viejo, and then to the Vineyard Community Church in Laguna Niguel. One day while driving through Laguna, Don had an epiphany.

“I had a supernatural vision driving in front of Main Beach,” he said. “It was a vision of Jesus with a choker necklace on. It was a message, and a strategy in my heart, that necklace of different earthly stones. Then Jesus spoke to me and said, ‘Create a community here, and speak to me’… 

“We sold our house [in Mission Viejo] in one day. It’s been five years now – we love Laguna. It’s so diverse here, and the call of my life: make God visible and love people.”

Pastor Don has been the pastor now for these five years, and serves up his message of love around the clock, and all around the town.

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Photo by Maggi

Net-Works “Living Room”

His Sunday morning message is delivered at The Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach, starting with a breakfast at 9:30. By the afternoon, he is likely back at his Net-Works “Living Room” which is a place to talk, think, pray, and house group gatherings and events – located in the shopping plaza at 303 Broadway. His “flock” of friends, the poor, and the needy stop by regularly for soul-comforting, or a bite to eat, like on Wednesday mornings when he hosts “Bible & Bagels” (the space is conveniently next to Shirley’s Bagels). 

By Sunday evening he may be putting on his live KX93 radio show, “Stairway to Heaven” in which he features songs and lyrics talking about a higher love. “I do a little talk, and tie in some rock and roll songs,” says Don. “Life is a journey that invites and demands us to find answers beyond ourselves. My desire is to give some help and hope in connecting our heart-cries with heaven. It makes the Bible culturally current.”

It’s Net-Work-ing

The community of Laguna Beach is integral with Pastor Don’s mission. 

“I want to be a pastor in and to the city. Then I have the responsibility to love them and care for them. The city is my parish – my flock,” he says. “Embracing all the people – that’s what heaven is going to be like: community, shared life, diversity. A renaissance is coming of people sharing and doing life together.”

The encompassing theme of Pastor Don’s philosophy is that humans are connected one to another, and all to God. He has formed The Laguna Beach “Net-Works”, an affiliation with the association of Vineyard Churches, to bring people together for Sunday gatherings “to celebrate and encourage our identity and mission as God’s people” and weekly groups “to help others pursue their passions and heal their pain” as well as other weekly community groups.

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Photo by Maggi

“We love our city, Laguna Beach,” the mission statement reads. “We love its distinctiveness and heritage as both an artist’s colony and an eclectic marketplace community, as well as being a place of refuge, refreshment and beauty.

“Our desire and mission is to live a life of love as Jesus did, making God and people visible.”  

To keep Net-Works funded, and as another form of sharing some community love, Don has also networked in retail fashion. He has just launched a new shop in town, Laguna Exchange. 

Laguna Exchange 

Laguna Exchange is a non-profit retail store featuring fashion and jewelry, and the neat trick is that the customer can buy, sell, or trade. This is not a thrift store, though the clothes are, for the most part, used. 

“I love fashion and clothes,” says Don. “Plus a place to offer retail with a purpose.”

Modeled after the Buffalo Exchange, this retail adventure offers the customer good quality, unique, and vintage items which they can purchase either by paying for it, or by exchanging items of equal value. The shop purchases items outright, receives them by donation, or pays for items with store credit. 

Don was thinking up the concept for a good year before they opened. He queried kids around town if they shopped at a Buffalo Exchange, and got a resounding yes. He raised money, and searched for the perfect location. The former bead store on South Coast Highway proved to be the right place at the right time. 

“Many of our community come to us from mental institutions and jail,” said Don. “It’s the wealthy that carry us. But I thought God doesn’t want us just to make it. I want to create more.” The store. “God said to me, ‘What’s coming is what you’ve waited for your whole life.’ I was supposed to network the pair – struggle and passion. And I thought of Jesus’ necklace, and this was a bead store…” It just seemed so right.

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Laguna Exchange

Then he set about fixing up the space and renovating, which additionally provided jobs for several of his unemployed flock. Homeless individuals renovated ninety percent of the store. One was able to get a handyman job after this, and then a car, and even a place to live. 

“The connection just grew. It’s just amazing. I saw him on the balcony over PCH having a cup of coffee,” said Don with a tear in his eye. “Change happens when we’re connected. Change doesn’t happen alone.”

The store raises money to provide for the less fortunate in Laguna Beach: the homeless, single moms, mentally ill, and those struggling with addiction. “We open our doors to give people a unique shopping experience with purpose. We open our hearts to work with those who are ready to transition into a new season of life.”

Don’s passion for community stems from his own personal mission to live a life according to Jesus’ teaching. And the store is the vehicle to drive them all together. 

“Let’s network all the non-profits in Laguna. Not only the poor, homeless, mentally ill and addicts – but I also want to bridge to LCAD, and Laguna Beach High School,” he said. “Young people want to do good works with money.”

The store motto is ‘People Help the People’ and, so far, the message is growing.

Every day is Sunday morning

When Pastor Don is not preaching, he’s taking the homeless into his own home, or finding them some temporary shelter. He’s serving food and words of care for single moms. He’s offering young people a place to play and enjoy music at the shop every Friday night. And he’s mindful of focusing the community on a higher purpose.

Next up will be the “Giving Thanks Party” at Mozambique on November 18, a celebration of food, friends and music. It will include “stories from our local friends that we have had the privilege to serve” as well as opportunities for donation. (Want to buy dinner for someone? Contact mailto: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

November is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness month, so the shop is jumping in with all feet to help where they can. December the focus will be on supporting single moms at the holidays. It’s all part of a dream of a better world.

“God made us to be dreamers,” says Don. “He’s the ultimate dreamer, and shares that with us. The dream is to have a good life, a productive life, and help people. 

“This community is an incubator for dreamers. I’m doing my dream!”


With Cerno, it’s product innovation, development and dedication – plus friendship

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If there is such a thing as “typical” Laguna Beach childhood, Cerno co-founders Daniel Wacholder, Nick Sheridan and Bret Englander, might be its poster children.  Sheridan and Englander attended Laguna Presbyterian Preschool together all the way through Laguna Beach High School. They met Wacholder in middle school. The three boys surfed at 9th Street, played club volleyball and, maybe not so typically, enjoyed creating stuff.  

“Usually for fun we’d just build things,” remembers Englander. “We built a huge palapa on 9th Street back in high school that lasted at least half-way through college… We built a stairwell at the end of Circle Drive to memorialize a friend who passed. Dan and Nick built boats from scratch…”

Englander says they sailed the first boat they made to Catalina at midnight, much to the chagrin of their parents. 

Their latest and most lasting endeavor is Cerno. As stated on their website, it is an industrial design and manufacturing company innovating modern LED lighting fixtures and furniture. 

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Bret Englander, Nick Sheridan and Daniel Wacholder of Cerno

Cerno’s designs have won numerous industry awards and they finally – and with some sadness – outgrew their Laguna Canyon Road space and had to relocate to Irvine. But these three friends, each with a separate yet equal role in the building of their company, are not coasting yet, although they are finally down to a five-day work week after six years of 12 hour days, six days a week. 

They have big plans: leaving their well-respected niche status to become a big time player in their industry.  After spending time with Bret Englander, Director of Sales and Marketing, and hearing their story, I’m a believer.

Three friends, three different backgrounds and a lot of respect

After graduating from high school, the three friends went their separate ways to college.  Wacholder, Director of Operations and Engineering, studied engineering, Sheridan, Director of Design, studied architecture and Englander studied journalism.  After college, they went to work in different businesses, doing different things and eventually concluded that what they really wanted to do was something together. 

“We had these three diverse educations and diverse work experiences that gave us a respect for each other – plus this trust we had developed over our years of friendship,” says Englander. “We all wore a lot of hats, and still do, plus we all work really hard.  We are competitive about how hard we work, still to this day.” 

A successful trade show launches a brand

“We wanted to be a design company,” says Englander. 

First, there was a furniture venture, but they wanted something more technical.   Wacholder, an avid reader, as Englander describes him, was learning a lot about the innovations in LED lights.  They were becoming decorative and Wacholder said, “I think we should explore this.”  

So, armed with prototypes only, they went to the Dwell Trade Show.  

“People were like, ‘What are these?’  And fortunately for us we ended up selling several thousand dollars worth of lights,” said Englander. “After that, we decided we were just going to focus on lights.  Our learning curve was vertical.”

He and Sheridan spent a month in New York.  According to Englander, “That’s the market. We’re isolated on the other coast.  

“We learned we weren’t anywhere near as novel as we thought we were, technically.  But aesthetically, we were novel. I credit Daniel for that. The older manufacturers were putting old technology in new forms.  We were designing new technology.”

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One of Cerno's signature lights, made in California

The market responded to their product as evidenced by the fact that they’ve gone from about 3,000 square feet to over 12,000.  

“Every move has been terrifying,” says Englander. “But so far it has proved to be the right decision every time.”  The space is utilized for both offices and warehouse as well as manufacturing.  

California-made and Laguna-proud

Cerno products are made in California – not just assembled in California – but made here.  “We’re super proud that we do it here,” says Englander.  He tells me about the recent GE decision to move jobs overseas.  “I take it as a defeat.  We’re not a player, but if you have 1,000 Cernos then those jobs start to add up.”  

Another thing Englander says they are proud of is that there are six LBHS graduates working at Cerno.  

“The Laguna Beach community has been so supportive and genuinely curious.  People I know, but don’t know well, ask how we’re doing all the time. That’s rad!”

Cerno is very much of Laguna, regardless of where they are headquartered. “Leaving the canyon was emotional for us, even though it was long overdue,” says Englander.  “We’re attached to the old Laguna, the beach culture.”

Englander also credits their geography with giving them idea that they could be successful. “Growing up in Laguna you see all different types of success.  All the surf companies that have come from here…when you know it’s possible – that’s part of the privilege. You’re naively optimistic because you see the success stories all around you.”

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Another innovative Cerno product

Belief plus hard work – lots and lots of hard work – have all contributed to their success.  “We jumped into the trenches together with the attitude that it was going to be really, really hard.  But failure was not an option,” says Englander.  

That work ethic is still with them, and they still compete to see who can work the hardest.  But it’s nice working “only” five days a week.  

“It was time,” Englander said. “We needed to spend time with our families – and go the beach a little bit more.” 

He smiles. Cerno may have left Laguna, but Laguna has definitely not left Cerno.


Christine Casey: Determination to do it right with Chhahari – a lifeline for at-risk children in Nepal

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut and Chhahari

The first thing Christine Casey decided to do when her only son went off to Stanford University was to leave the desert and return to Orange County. She arrived in Laguna Beach in 1995. The next thing this retired banker and single mother did was to get involved in her community, volunteering her time with an AIDS services organization, her church (St. Catherine’s) and the Assistance League, to name a few.  

“I’m not one for sitting around watching television,” she admits. 

A life-changing trek to Nepal

To further the point, in 2004 Casey went on a trek to Nepal… even her leisure activities aren’t very leisurely! But this trip turned out to be a life-changing event – and not just for her. 

Profoundly moved by the plight of the abandoned and orphaned children she saw there, Casey could not stop thinking about them when she returned home to Laguna.

Christine Casey 

“Seeing kids discarded like garbage…it stays with you,” she said.  “I told my son I really wanted to go back there and do something for those kids.  He helped me realize that I could go back. I had no restrictions; no husband, no children at home…so I backed off all the other things I was doing and started getting money from people, from my church, to help the kids.”

Tom Davis, Chhahari and making a real difference

Realizing that to be truly effective she needed to form a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, she called local lawyer, Tom Davis.  

“I knew his wife, Martha, from volunteering at AIDS services, so I called him, explained who I was and what I needed.  For a very small retainer fee he helped me set up Chhahari. That was the last one I ever gave him! Now he’s the Chairman of the Board.  This guy…you can’t even believe how great he is,” says Casey enthusiastically.

Chhahari, Nepalese for “shelter”, is the organization Casey formed in 2007 to help some of those children she met in Nepal.  

Chhahari’s mission states that it “…is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising funds to provide food, shelter, education and health care for the multitude of orphaned and underprivileged children of Nepal.” Chhahari currently houses and cares for approximately 25 children.

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Chhahari kids get to smile and have some fun together 

The process for vetting the children who come to Chhahari is extensive. They must either be orphaned or their families have no ability to care for them. 

“The only way to change these poor, corrupt countries is from within,” laments Casey. “They want to keep the poor - poor.” 

Determined to do things right

Setting up a charitable organization in Nepal was neither simple nor straightforward. Finding the right people to run things almost 8,000 miles away was the first challenge.  

“I was a banker my entire adult life.  I want the nuts and bolts to add up at the end of the day,” she says, adding gratefully that she has “full faith” in the Nepalese people working for Chhahari.  “There has never been a penny missing.”  

And she can count the pennies because the operating budget is about as tight as it can be. “We are all volunteers,” she said. “I pay my own way back and forth every time I go. Our budget is $35,000 a year. $500 of that goes to marketing and advertising.  Other than that it all goes to Chhahari. I had to make it so that I know that your money is going here and doing exactly that.  We are doing it the right way.”

Unlike the United States’ “failed foster care system”, as Casey calls it, her kids never “age out.”  

“We will never kick a kid out in the street,” she says. “You need to give them a chance.”  Making them leave before they are ready means they have to deal with the same problems at-risk kids do here, even if the means are different. 

“Glue sniffing is a big problem there.  So is alcohol…it’s the homemade kind that kills you, by the time you’re 30,” she says sadly.

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The children of Chhahari

Beyond their basic needs, Casey is determined to bring her charges into the 21st century. “I took them to see ‘The Laramie Project’,” she says. (The Laramie Project is a play, based on the aftermath of the young gay man, Matthew Shephard, murdered in Laramie, Wyoming.)  

“The play came to Nepal.  It was a hard thing to explain [to the kids]…the whole LGBT thing… but they eventually got it. I saw two of our boys crying during the performance. 

“It’s important to me that they are educated academically, but also socially in the world,” she says. 

“We have Hindus and Buddhists in Chhahari. There are very strong caste systems. During the earthquake, rice would be dumped far outside a village, and if the area was within a certain caste, no one would go in there to bring it to them! That’s how bad it is. 

“We had to teach our kids that they we’re all brothers and sisters,” she continued. “Now they don’t know the difference. They ask me, ‘Nanna (that’s what they call me), …why are the people fighting?’ 

“I try and explain it to them, but they see here that it can be different. It has them thinking.”

Walking the walk – and then some

Casey’s commitment to her cause got me thinking, as well, especially when she told me she lives in affordable housing, in a 10x20 foot room.  “I used all my savings to start it [Chhahari] up,” she says.  “I’ve lived the good life. I’ve traveled. I don’t need anything…

“I don’t need any more clothes. Where would I put them? I have everything I need,” she says in her matter of fact way. And this revelation absolutely shocks me. It’s so surprising that I’m sure it says something about my own priorities that I wouldn’t care to admit. 

When Casey says she has given everything to Chhahari, she isn’t exaggerating. And she certainly doesn’t want to make a fuss over it. It is a choice she made and she is very content with it. 

A devout Catholic, Casey brushes off my compliments and admiration. She speaks of her mission as just something that must be done, no applause, no fanfare. …It’s just about raising enough money to help “her children”, and make their world better.

Another opportunity to make a difference

“We are not free from problems,” says Casey about the Chhahari non-profit. “It is always three steps forward, one step back. The government is a hindrance. The earthquake was even worse. It was very traumatizing for our children, even though none of them were hurt.”  

But so many others were. And Casey has found another way to help: prosthetics.  

Because of the earthquake, Casey’s kids lost friends or had friends who became amputees.  “They came to me and said, ‘Nanna, maybe we can help these children?’ And it was so…this was my impetus,” she says, again repeating her mantra, “We are going to do this right.

“A five year old child will need six to ten change-outs (of their prosthetic limbs) in their lifetime… They need rehab… The families need training to show them how to deal with these issues and injuries,” she explained.  So she has partnered with a Nepalese man in Kathmandu who makes prosthetics.  

She recently had a fundraiser in Corona del Mar to support this new outreach program.  And of course, it circles back to Chhahari.

“I want them to be socially conscious.  They’ve never been taught. These countries are so poor; the people are so poor that they turn into takers. I want them to learn to look outward,” she says.  

Every child has potential and deserves a chance

She tells me about one of her children who has developed into an award-winning artist.  “Every child has potential and deserves a chance,” says Christine Casey.  

“If he was tending goats, this would never have happened!”

Casey is not naïve; she knows that giving 25 kids a chance isn’t going to change the world. However, as the saying goes, it has changed theirs. And who knows what happens beyond that? 25 can turn to 50, and on it goes. 

Christine Casey is not stopping. “I’m 72 years old.  I’m in good health.  My life is Chhahari,” she says simply.  

Christine Casey is a woman of modest means who set out to make a difference in the world, and does so every single day. It’s rare to meet someone willing to give everything they have for others. But she did…and still does.  

The next time I’m tempted to buy something to put in my already-full-closet, I will stop and think of her. Another pair of shoes? Or the chance to make a difference somewhere? The answer should be easy.  

For Christine Casey, there isn’t even a question.   

To find out more about Chhahari or to make a donation go to www.chhahari.org.


Angie Miller: with can-do spirit, she’s a giver, a doer, and she likes having some fun in between

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

I’m trying to keep up with Angie Miller, but her thoughts and words are as busy as her life in general. She’s got her corporate advertising, design and promotions company, Miller & Associates, firing on all cylinders and an event company she’s partnered on (Fun is First), for which she is, no doubt, the life of the party. She’s an artist. She’s big on pinnipeds (serving on the board at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center), humans (on the board of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation), and flora; she’s a certified Master Gardener. 

Oh, and then she’s hopping aboard Semester at Sea’s ship with her friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She calls him Little Arch!

Angie Miller

I can’t stop writing as we talk, and I can’t stop laughing at her off-the-cuff tales.

There was the time she thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to get other people’s take on me? So, she sent out postcards to friends, teachers, family, and people who have influenced her, asking, “What is an Angie Miller?” The responses came back in all forms. “The collection is the funniest little thing,” said Angie. “There were words, poems, photos – and even scratch and sniff!”

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Angie has had 12 years of classes and been certified as a Master Gardener

Or the time her friend and business partner at Fun is First threw her a parade for her birthday. Karen, who Angie calls The Queen of Fun, got the high school marching band to bring their oohm-pa-pa on down to Forest Avenue, and Angie, who at the time was not in the mood, was forced to get out front with a baton. You can’t help but change your mood when that happens!

“I couldn’t have started a business with someone more fun,” Angie says about Karen. “I was so uptight – I’m selling heart valve parameter charts!” Fun is First is the perfect foil to Miller & Associate’s straight-man.

One of her long-time clients is Edwards Life Science, for whom Miller & Associates does marketing display type products. “It’s like bi-polar with the two businesses,” she laughs. “It’s stents, and vascular stuff – or party.” 

Heading West – and around the world

Back in the day when Angie Miller was trying to shed her Georgia accent as a college freshman in California, she would drive her roommates slightly nuts. She was an art major who freely admits, “I would do anything!” One day she’d move the dryer into the living room so she could work on silk screening 2,000 shirts. Another day she’d be on a Master Framing project, and fill the place with frames of every size.

Ever hardworking and motivated, Angie attended Chapman University on a full scholarship. After graduating with a Fine Arts degree, she expanded her silk-screening into graphic design and into a full-on marketing business. Her first real workspace was at the Newport Shipyard, and her clients quickly grew: “start-ups” such as Platinum Software, and Three-Day Blinds. When the business moved to Laguna Beach they were the biggest shipper at the local FedEx. 

She attributes her entrepreneurial drive to her junior year, when she went out on Semester at Sea, a shipboard program for global study abroad. It was a work/study situation, and Angie worked as the ship’s photography assistant. The program taught her about the world, and more importantly the world of ideas, which she loves. “That’s when you realize the world is flat,” she says.

Semester at Sea studies include mentors and world leaders on occasion, such as the civil rights activist Julian Bond, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Angie is a founding board member of Semester at Sea’s Alumni Board of Directors and still joins the group at sea a couple of times a year to serve as a mentor to the students.

A commitment to care

A couple of things have caused life-changing moments for Angie. Professionally, she has worked hard to keep the business moving forward; from personally fighting for small business laws in Sacramento, to recovering from the heartbreaking loss of many clients in New York on 9/11. 

Personally, she made a decision to help someone who had become close to her: the Laguna FedEx driver, Susan. Angie and I talked on the exact anniversary of Susan’s death 11 years ago. 

“When she got cancer I committed as a friend to help her. I took time off work to care for her. We had a team; it was a hell of a journey,” she said. “It made me realize I need to be not so serious about work.

“There was quite an impact. I lost a chunk of business when I took care of her – so now I do what I like.” 

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The business she has, she likes. And her time to “give back” has grown exponentially. Those are the things that matter to Angie Miller.

“You know people for all different types of reasons,” she says philosophically. “That’s what I love about it.”

First things first

Perhaps she met her Fun is First partner to balance all the “whacky-doo” stuff she does with brochures and serious medical subject material. “We were not thinking it would be a big thing,” said Angie. “Fun is First was meant to do little pretty parties!”

Then they got a big ole party in San Diego, and then they got another biggie right in their own backyard – the opening of the Montage. They put on a doozy. 

“That was the best thing that ever happened,” Angie said. “It’s amazing that we sell fun. And we like it when fun comes back!”

Montage’s party lit up with fireworks, literally. The only other time there were private fireworks in Laguna that I know of? At Angie Miller’s 40th birthday. Not that it could ever happen again, but be on the lookout for something coming up – Angie’s birthday is November 19. 

Like the song says, the future’s so bright I’m wearing shades! 

Angie’s worked out a good balance in her life of hard work, good fun, and giving her best to many of Laguna’s charities. And she does it all with thoughtfulness, humility, and joy. Her head may be dreaming up some new schemes, but her feet are firmly planted on the ground. 

Going forward, Angie is making plans… 

“Good friends, good health, throw some travel in there – and make it flat!”


Neil Skewes: A true professional behind the bar

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Until meeting Neil Skewes, I’m not sure I had ever met a true bartender. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve met plenty of people who work behind a bar and mix drinks.  But a bartender – one who revels in the profession, and sees it as such…I have not met many, if any, of those until I met Skewes.  

Skewes is that kind of true bartender, as well as the bar manager at Starfish Laguna Beach, and he loves what he does.  He has been doing it in Laguna since 1999 when he started at French 75, but his career stretches back much farther than that. 

 “I grew up in Michigan.  I started managing a gas station out of high school and my brother started waiting tables at a fancy French restaurant,” said Skewes.  “I figured if he could do it, I could do it.  I just took to the business.”  

He started tending bar full time in 1985.

Neil Skewes

Working to make you feel better

Talking to Skewes about “the business” makes one appreciate the true professionals that work in the restaurant industry.  Much is made these days about chefs, and rightly so, but when you are served by someone who is a true professional, you know it – and it just makes whatever comes out of the kitchen that much better. Skewes approaches his job as much a performance as crafting cocktails.   

“I love working with the public.  I love changing people’s disposition,” he says.  “I really enjoy making someone feel better leaving than when they came in. That makes it really rewarding.”  Add to that a devotion to creating signature cocktails, and it’s no wonder people follow him wherever he goes.  

“I am a foodie. I love good food,” he adds. “Good food and drinks are one of the great things of life.

“I love putting flavors together…ten years ago I started doing that.”

And “that” is not something he takes lightly.  

Getting creative behind the bar

When we first spoke, I asked him for a drink recipe that he thought was pretty original.  He delivered.  But then the next day he called me back because he said that, after thinking about it, the one he originally gave me “may have been borrowed by other restaurants”. (Duly noted, Skewes is exceedingly diplomatic, very quick to praise others and not very interested in talking about himself.  This makes him a very delightful person, but a challenging interview.)  He asked if he could give me another drink recipe. 

The “Laguna Lemonade”, as he calls it, is a coconut strawberry lemonade made with fresh strawberries, coconut vodka, fresh squeezed lemon juice and house-made lemon grass syrup. Sold!  He also mentioned a Harvest Martini with cinnamon apple liqueur, cranberry juice and a sprig of mint, which sounds delightful.  

Seeing as it’s now October, the coziness of autumn should be beckoning, but since it’s still 85 degrees, the Harvest can wait…I’m all about the Lemonade.  But I digress…

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Laguna Lemonade and other colorful and creative drink concoctions 

The success of Starfish

Skewes started at Starfish in June of 2011.  He was brought over by Nancy Wilhelm but effusively credits new owners, Archie O’Connell and Gretchen Andrews for the restaurant’s success.  

“They have worked diligently to get the word out about this place.  They have worked tirelessly to make this restaurant a success,” he says.  Their commitment to the restaurant comes up repeatedly in our interview.  As someone whose career spans 30 years, he has seen a lot of restaurants come and go.  In other words, he undoubtedly knows good management when he sees it.

A career of loyalty and longevity

“I find myself content wherever I’m working.  However, it’s a fickle business.  Sometimes places just run their course.  I stay until it’s not viable for me to stay any longer,” he explains. “I was at the Ritz Carlton for five years, the Dana Point Resort (now the Laguna Cliffs Marriott) for five years, French 75 for five years…now Starfish for over four.”  When you think of the normal turnover in the restaurant business, such longevity is astounding.  

After talking with Skewes, it’s not surprising.

Several times in our conversation I tried to get him to take credit for people following him from one place to the next.  The most I could get from him was to say that “people have said that, but I don’t think that’s true.”  Then he heaps more praise on O’Connell and Andrews! 

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Neil Skewes works his magic behind the bar at Starfish Laguna Beach

Working on weekends suits him just fine

He doesn’t limit his praise to the workplace.  Skewes has been married for 20 years.  He smiles and says, “I married up.” His wife is currently serving as the mayor of Laguna Niguel, and has her own business, Five Star Weddings and Events.  

“She’s a dynamo,” says Skewes. “She has run that business for ten years.”  Luckily, their hours are similar.  

“I love my schedule!” enthuses Skewes.  “When my alarm clock goes off it means I’m going fishing or skiing,” he says with a laugh. Work often goes late into the night. 

“The shifts are long.  It’s a performance.  It exhausts…takes a toll.  That’s why we normally work four days a week,” he explains.  

He tells me how he and his wife had a rare weekend off and decided to go to the movies. “It was so uncomfortable. You can’t find a parking spot; there was a huge crowd…we’d never seen that before.  When we got to the front of the line the movie was sold out.  I’d never heard of that!”  Turns out, he prefers his Monday nights out; there’s plenty of parking.

The value of human contact

Skewes’ schedule is just one of the perks of his chosen career.  Another important one, as he sees it, is that while he’s working he gets to try to make people feel better. 

“People are looking for human contact.  I think that’s more of a valued commodity these days,” he says of his job.  He also likes that he knows he can go anywhere and make a living doing what he loves.  

He tells me of how he arrived in the Florida Keys as a young man with $15 and no place to stay, only to land a job waiting tables and enough money to secure a place to stay in the same day.  Though his life is much different now, as exemplified by when we spoke, he was lounging by the pool with a pot of coffee nearby – but the work, more or less, is the same.  

And as far as Neil Skewes is concerned, that’s a very good thing.


Laguna powerhouse Laura Tarbox on success & community

By ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

When speaking with Laura Tarbox, the words that come up most frequently are ‘family’ and ‘friends,’ her focus during our interview, despite the fact that we’re seated at the Newport Beach headquarters of the Tarbox Group—the wealth management firm Laura founded 30 years ago. There is an unmistakable down-to-earth quality and warmth about Laura that make her true values come across as clearly as the view of the Pacific Ocean directly behind her. She is a people-person, which is undoubtedly a quality that has helped her along the path to becoming the woman she is today: a hugely successful financial advisor and one of the leading benefactors in the Laguna Beach community. 

The Tarbox Group’s beginnings

Laura, raised in Santa Monica, attended UCLA and—despite her parents’ protests—majored in English. After she graduated in 1980, she found herself faced with the classic dilemma: what do I do with my English degree? 

Fortunately, Laura’s mother’s boyfriend, a stockbroker, had an entry-level opportunity for her at his Tustin office. And with that, Laura did what she thought she’d never do: leave West L.A. and head south for Orange County. She moved to the Victoria Beach area of Laguna Beach, and commuted back and forth along Laguna Canyon Road each day. 

While Laura fell in love with Laguna Beach, she simultaneously became captivated by the financial world. Though she initially spent her first days and weeks post-college cold calling, she was hooked by the industry. Only five years after graduating from college, Laura made the decision to start her own company in 1985. 

“I was working 60-80 hours a week during that time,” says Laura, who held several other jobs—delivering the Wall Street Journal, for example—while she worked tirelessly to build the foundation for the Tarbox Group. 

Her company was one of the early firms to offer fee-based wealth management services. Going against the grain in that sense for Laura meant that those early years required intense effort and determination. But when asked why she didn’t want to build a commission-based business, Laura will simply tell you that she thought she was “doing the right thing.” 

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At work

Today, not only does Laura still have clients from those early days, but she’ll also tell you that the majority of her clients—roughly 100 families—have become close friends of hers. 

As for the Tarbox Group? “It’s like a big family,” she says. 

Which is important, considering the fact that there were obvious challenges present for Laura as a woman entering the financial world, and especially one with an entrepreneurial mindset. She’ll admit that it remains a struggle for her to this day—though she’s had countless victories over the years. One shining moment for Laura? The day she realized that if she wanted to paint her office walls and have her letterhead be purple, then they’d be purple! It’s her company, after all, and she’s learned to embrace who she is as its leader. 

“The number of women in financial services hasn’t really changed much over the years,” she says, “but I’ve always used that to my advantage.” Even still, Laura says that in meetings held at her office, salespeople will sometimes fail to make eye contact with or speak directly to her, even though the company is her namesake. Moments like those, however, don’t hold Laura back. She’s strengthened by her experiences, which she’s shared with countless of those young women and students whom she’s mentored and taught over the years. 

“Numbers and financial skills… anyone can learn those. People skills are so important in this business, because you become so integrated into people’s lives… and I think in many ways, women do better there,” says Laura. 

Laura understands that there are many emotions and issues around money—one of the biggest challenges for her in her day-to-day work—and she’s found that the more personal you can get and the more you can connect with clients, the more it becomes a team effort, where trust and strong relationships are built naturally.

Serving the Laguna Beach community

Relationships, collaboration and connecting with others are values that have enabled Laura to find success and fulfillment in other areas of her life, too—especially when it comes to community service. She was raised by parents who instilled in her the importance of giving back to your community; her father was a member of the Big Brother organization, and her mother held leadership roles within the Girl Scouts organization. For Laura, time spent giving back is just as important as time spent within the four purple walls of her corner office. 

Before her daughter was born and during her first few years as a Laguna Beach resident, Laura joined the SchoolPower Endowment Fund as a Board Member. Soon after, she started to devote her time to other Laguna non-profits, such as the Laguna Canyon Foundation and the Community Clinic. 

It wasn’t until she joined the Laguna Beach Community Foundation in the early 2008, however, that Laura discovered an organization through which her leadership could have the greatest impact in terms of connecting with and supporting countless, wide-ranging local non-profits. Today, she’s the Founding Chair, and is undoubtedly responsible for much of the organization’s tremendous growth and success since it was founded in 2004. 

“For me, joining the Laguna Beach Community Foundation was the best decision…a natural fit for what I do business-wise, and I love Laguna,” says Laura, who works most frequently on the investment side of the organization. She loves working with a foundation that can reach all of the other sub-organizations and non-profits in Laguna Beach, and she is a big believer in the organization’s mission: strengthening the Laguna Beach community by encouraging, supporting, and providing expertise and resources for its non-profits. 

It’s a lofty mission, considering the fact that Laguna Beach’s zip code boasts one of the highest numbers of non-profit organizations in California. The sheer number of non-profits can be a challenge, according to Laura, but the LBCF has helped provide so many organizations with tools that they might not otherwise have access to—such as board infrastructure and tax counsel.

 “We see ourselves as unique and special, which we are,” says Laura, when asked why she thinks Laguna Beach has such a wonderfully philanthropic spirit. She also adds that she’s found many great friends through her work with non-profits; the spirit of giving is one that helps form unique bonds among Laguna Beach residents. 

Laura’s vibrant life

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At home

Although it’s hard to believe that Laura has time for anything but work and the LBCF, those things are just a part of what makes her who she is. Today, Laura resides in a beautiful ‘coastal craftsman’ on Manzanita Drive, and she’s an avid reader and adventurer. Some of her favorite activities are partaking in her two local book groups, and practicing yoga at YogaWorks. 

She’s also part of a group of women who embark on annual hiking adventures to various mountain communities in the US; last year, they hiked in Jackson Hole. Oh, and she also somehow finds enough hours in the day to run on a regular basis, too, and to grab a bite at Zinc Café, her favorite Laguna hangout. 

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Laura is also a devoted mother to daughter, Jane, who is a sophomore at the University of Maryland. When asked if her daughter will follow in her footsteps, Laura says, “No! My parents constantly scolded me about getting a degree in English, saying it was impractical. My daughter loves music, and I’ll encourage her to pursue a career in the arts, even if she has doubts about it… I’m happy to just be supportive of her no matter what path she chooses,” says Laura.

Oh, and her best advice to women, self-starters, and people in general? “Be yourself, and play to your strengths,” she says, with the confident smile of a woman whose strength knows no limits.


Elsa Brizzi: open minded, compassionate educator, and she loves a good laugh too!

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Elsa Brizzi is really good at letting go. Letting go of self-doubt, releasing inhibitions, and opening herself up to freedom. She also has a way of inspiring that same sensibility in others.

This was evident to me when I witnessed her reception as Woman of the Year this year at the Woman’s Club. Turn after turn, friends and family spoke about the unique characteristics that have made her the dearly loved aunt, the unwavering friend, and the non-judgmental mentor.

Elsa Brizzi

When we sat down to chat recently I was immediately embraced by her warmth and genuinely compassionate nature. She had already made friends with a random neighbor at the adjacent coffee table while she awaited my arrival. I could tell the “new friend” would rather I had not shown up, so she could continue their conversation, getting to know Elsa better herself! Elsa’s warmth is enveloping.

A renaissance woman

Elsa Brizzi is also a woman ahead of her time. When she was facing the expected path of wife-dom and motherhood in the era perhaps now known as the Mad Men era, she took a long, hard look at what that option looked like to her. Ever the progressive, Elsa could see that was not her path; too restricting. 

“So I joined the Navy,” she said.  “It was the late 50’s, after the Korean War, and I was very patriotic. It was a good way to donate my service.”

Serving in the Navy for two years, she learned to be a weather forecaster. She was stationed in New Jersey where the dirigibles came in. Her time in the military also paved the path toward a new life.

“The GI Bill is how I went to college and could buy a home with no money down,” she said.  “I got a house in Garden Grove, and commuted to Cal State Los Angeles. My sister had a surfer husband, and kids in Laguna Beach. She found a house for me, and I loved it. I got another job just to afford it!”  

Yes, that’s two jobs plus college. No one has ever accused Elsa of being lazy!

Beyond being an admirable student, Elsa became impassioned as an educator. She went to USC on a Ford Foundation Grant to earn her teaching degree at night.

Early on, she got a teaching job at a junior high school, a formal school in Pasadena. The kids were not paying attention. “I had to get them involved,” she said. “So I took the desks and chairs and placed them in a circle. Then they got to know each other, got comfortable. And they found out that making a mistake is okay. Correcting it is wonderful!” 

It wasn’t the stuffy school way. “I got a terrible evaluation,” she admits. She was admonished. “My desks were not in a row!” She smiles, “I left that school.” 

She went from there to an alternative school, where the teachers, in fact, had to make presentations to the students to get them to join the class. That is more her style.

From the outside looking in

Having grown up with a German father, and a Spanish-Mexican mother, in L.A., Elsa blossomed in a multi-cultural landscape. 

“Where we are raised, how we are raised, affects how we learn. There’s something inspirational being in diverse groups. I love being in that environment! It’s terribly exciting to see how people take things in,” she says enthusiastically.

After a two-year stint exploring her creative side, in a seaside house she built herself, in Mexico (with Moroccan design influences), she packed up her ceramic and welding studio, and got into the business of teaching teachers. She started a bilingual program underscored by her great interest in matters of the mind.

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Elsa made this art piece for her house 

“I’ve always been into philosophy and psychology – how do bilingual kids feel learning English?” she asks. “In Rogerian philosophy they flourished.” 

She was hired to train minority teachers. “The program is cross-cultural, to learn communication skills. And I wanted teachers that looked like the kids they taught,” she explained. “I started with giving the aids a title, a ‘Para-Professional’. With a title and training they get respect.

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“I brought the teacher corps program to USC to push for para-professional training. I did programs and conferences with both the teachers and the para-professionals to train as a pair. The para-professionals could also get training and credit toward a teaching degree.”

She then launched a program to get disenfranchised immigrants and poverty bound parents turned on by education. “I did grant writing to Head Start to train single moms and parents with no careers to get college credit units, and we’d help them get into college. They learned to be teachers as well as good parents.”

Elsa is the kind of person who can relate to a variety of people, and always finds a way to bridge the cultural gaps. The culmination of her years as an educator, her heart full of compassion, plus her deft hand at artistry is best symbolized in her book, You are a very special You. She wrote it, illustrated it, and translated it into three languages (English, Spanish, and Chinese).

Bridging cultures and generations

Two years ago Elsa started a literacy program linking seniors as mentors, with second-grade children. The Intergenerational Literacy Enhancement Program pairs an adult with each child. Together they work with the textbook, You are a very special You. The interactive use of the book enforces confidence-building messages, such as “No one thinks the way you think… In the tub… Or in the sink”, and “You are special in everything you do… And everyone around you… is very special too!” 

The idea, Elsa explains, is that both the mentor and the child will have learning opportunities in which to share their feelings and ideas.

“Who you are is in self-discovery,” she says. “In the program book, you relate to an older person. How you act toward me is how I expose myself – or feel proud about myself – in your presence. It’s about head and heart. The mentor furthers praise, proximity, and [reinforces that] making mistakes is okay, celebrating correcting is even better.

“It’s wonderful! I’ve learned so much and experienced so much. I saw how outsiders were treated. I’ve learned to treat mistakes as learning experiences. You’ve already made the mistake – now they’re learning experiences!” 

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Kids participating in Elsa Brizzi’s reading program at the library

Kids and seniors participate in the program at the Boys & Girls Club during the months of January, February, and March, and also at Laguna Beach Library for their reading program. Volunteer mentors come from the Susi Q Center, and AAUW. All get special training for the program “interactions”.

The library gives a presentation for parents to come and see the kids share the book, and their own work. In this way, as Elsa describes it, the parents do the interaction too and can then follow up and reinforce the messages at home.

“It’s a program of self-discovery for me too,” she said. “We’ve all got such potential! I’m learning all the time. Heart and soul and brain turned on – continually growing all the time.”

Yes she is!

And to keep the physical in as good shape as the metaphysical, Elsa has also completed her training as a water aerobics instructor. She teaches a class every week in Foothill Ranch, where “the pool is covered and it’s a nice 80 degrees.” Then she gets back to her garden in Laguna where she claims to have the biggest figs around.

In closing, I am touched by Elsa’s care and concern to make our community, and our country ever better. 

“Education is so very important. Just laws, good education, good health care, that’s what any society, any country needs,” she says. “Our children are critical. This community can BE leadership, and show the way.”

With leaders like Elsa Brizzi I believe that’s true.


John Campbell: a view of Laguna through good times and bad, old times and new times

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

From Laguna’s floods, fires, felled trees, and forced entry – you name the catastrophe, and John Campbell has been there. Not because he’s unlucky. His insurance business has helped countless residents recover from their losses. He’s the guy who makes lemonade out of lemons.

The good, the bad, the ugly, and the recovery

In 1998, Laguna suffered the worst commercial fire in its history, and a 10,000 square foot building was in ruins. It also happens to be where the John L. Campbell Insurance Agency has resided since 1977. I’m pretty sure they had some good insurance coverage themselves, and were able to return to the building once it was reconstructed. His offices command the top floor with great street-side views of the goings on along Forest Avenue.

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 John Campbell

Very early in the morning of December 22, 2012, Campbell found his usual gym, The Art of Fitness, was closed. So, despite the rain he headed to work. Squish-squish went his flops-flops on the ground. As he looked down the length of Forest Avenue he quickly assessed the situation. At his building the water was up to the doorframe, but across Forest Avenue it’s about a foot lower. There was mud everywhere. The Marine Room on Ocean Avenue was under 3-4 feet of water. 

Then there was the arson fire in 1993 that burned almost 400 homes. 

“I had 20 total losses and 60 other fire-related claims. Clients were staying all over the place – with daughters, sons, anyone,” Campbell remembers. “I contacted them all. I was lent a cell phone (they were about ten pounds then), and found them all. I wrote $10,000 checks on the spot to use for food, lodging, whatever it takes. 

“That’s what a small business owner does. That’s Laguna Beach. You take care of your clients and they take care of you.”

The upside of the story is that everyone re-built, thanks to insurance coverage. “There was a guaranteed re-build replacement in those days,” Campbell said.

I remember when

John Campbell is a born and bred Lagunan. His parents moved here in 1948, and his dad was an electrical engineer following the service. They lived for a time in Garden Grove, near his dad’s work, and to Campbell, it was almost heaven. “It was all agriculture then,” he recalls. “It was strawberries, corns, beans – miles of farmland. It was great.”

His uncle ran a repair and sales shop, Klass Radio and Appliance, on Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach. As a kid, John worked there fixing toasters, radios, and TV’s. “It was before microwaves,” said Campbell. “Before you threw everything out!”

Then his uncle was murdered in a robbery, by an ex-convict. It was bittersweet that the uncle’s life insurance money to Campbell’s mom enabled the family to buy a home in Laguna. 

As a teenager, Campbell remembers the iconic things that gave Laguna its reputation and personality.

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“That was an interesting time. I saw some strange things,” he said. “There was the hippie canyon event. I had long hair too, whatever, but I was focused on school.”

He commuted to Cal State Fullerton, first studying engineering, then history and anthropology. 

It was a car accident in 1974 that led him to the future he lives today in the insurance business. 

The car crash in front of the Laguna Royale left him with a broken ankle, femur and neck. He was in traction in the hospital for three months. A friend of his parents came to visit him and told him that he’d be eligible for Social Security disability, and to get training and licensing for insurance. He could come and work for him.

He became an agent for the guy’s agency until 1982 when the business fell apart because the man was running a Ponzi scheme. Thankfully Campbell knew enough about the legitimate business, and had plenty of contacts around town. He opened his own shop and eventually bought up others as well.  

Here’s to good times

There is a personal tradition on Swallow’s Day in San Juan Capistrano. Every year Campbell and his wife Lu would go to the Swallow’s Inn in remembrance of the day they met.

It was March 19, 1977, when Campbell met Lu at a wedding. A friend introduced the couple, and it was love at first sight. By June they had moved in together and in July they were married. 

“She was 19 years older, so it was kind of scandalous,” Campbell admits.

Lu was an artist at the Festival of Arts for a total of 32 years, 16 years as a ceramicist, and 16 as a watercolorist. Sadly, she just passed away this past January after an eight-year battle with lung cancer.

During their marriage, the Campbells loved to travel. One of the places that inspired Lu’s art, and John’s love of good food, good wine, and good friends is the tiny Chianti village of Panzano, Italy. 

“Lu and her friend Sally spent a month there and loved it. It’s all she could talk about!” laughs Campbell. Then he gave in, “Okay. Uncle. I get the picture!” The three bought a place there, and continued to visit for many years. Lu’s ashes are scattered there.

Campbell’s offices are festooned with postcards from Italy and other places they enjoyed travelling around the world. Next up he’s planning a trip to France and Amsterdam this year.

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A community volunteer

A big part of the lifeblood of Laguna’s community services has been generated by John Campbell’s energy. He joined the Jaycees in the 70’s, raised funds for Boys and Girl Scouts, he’s a Business Club past president, and he’s been on the Chamber of Commerce Board for six years. Phew. And then there’s the Rotary Club. He loves the annual Rotary car show, and has been a sponsor of the show’s antique “Woodies” since day one. He is the only Laguna chapter president who has been its president twice.

New times 

In his free time, Campbell loves to cook, and he balances that with exercise – weights, core work, and spinning at his ever-favorite gym, The Art of Fitness.

And he has found love and support once again in his life, with long-time friend of both he and Lu, Dianne Reardon. The two are now engaged.


Lea Abel-Stone: The NextGen is stepping up

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Lea Abel-Stone is a fourth generation Lagunan.  Well-known for their artistic legacy, from architecture to wood-carving, the Abel family has contributed greatly to the aesthetic character that defines Laguna Beach.  Another legacy, equally lasting, is their community involvement.  “I’m really proud of the artistic side of my family,” says Abel-Stone, “but their legacy of philanthropy is a long one that I’m really proud of, too.  Everyone knows they can call them (Gregg and Kathy Abel) and they will be there with their support.” Abel-Stone, with six other Laguna Beach women, all with deep ties to the city, is carrying on this philanthropic legacy with NextGen.  

NextGen emphasizes community involvement

NextGen, according to the group’s website, ”represents the ‘next generation’ of local professionals and residents, with an emphasis on local involvement.” 

“You don’t really see our age group as much (doing philanthropic work).  We’re busy with work and kids.  But then I realized my mom and her friends started getting involved during this time in their lives,” she says.  Abel-Stone is 35.   

“Everyone (in NextGen) owns a business or works for a business in town.”  She herself is the Director of Anneliese School’s Manzanita Campus, as well as a former Anneliese student. “We all have different strengths.  We have a website, and we’re on Instagram.  Well, not me.  I’m good the old-fashioned way.” says Abel-Stone laughing. After referring to Instagram as “The Instagram”, she tells me, her friends have accepted that she will not be the group’s social media guru.

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Lea Abel-Stone, fourth generation Lagunan, and co-founder of NextGen

NextGen members have deep ties to Laguna

The group’s other members are Danielle Shuster, Katrina Puffer, Meghan MacGillivray Weil, Nicole Anderson, Katie MacGillivray and Catherine Talarico.  “An impressive group of gals,” as Abel-Stone describes them, who took the reins of the group when the original founder, Aaron Talarico, Catherine’s husband, had to take a step back.  “The wives just picked it up.  The husbands are involved whether they like it or not,” Abel-Stone says with a laugh. 

Wigging out for Friendship Shelter

NextGen put on their first fundraising event in August: a “Wig Out and Donate” event at the Marine Room benefitting the Friendship Shelter.  “It was our version of Dinners Across Laguna.  My mom started those.  I’ve been involved with the Shelter since I was 12 years old.  I would serve dinner, make care packages.  I always helped at events,” explains Abel-Stone.  “Our event cost $100 to come.  We raised about $6,000 for the Shelter.  We’d like to do other events for other charities, but we will always stay with the Friendship Shelter.  We are taking baby steps,” explains Abel-Stone.

Opportunities are everywhere

Their baby steps may be small but they’re definitely not slow.  With the group officially formed in May, it’s remarkable that four months later they successfully staged an event.  “We support each other’s causes and events.  That’s really important.  And even though we are just starting out we know we have a whole group to tap into.  People we all went to school with who are coming back, bringing their kids back.  We can use this group as a hub because making those connections are important,” says Abel-Stone, adding, “There is an opportunity to give back everywhere you look in Laguna.” 

The NextGen Social

In addition to putting on fundraising events, NextGen is also hosting a “Social” on October 7  at Villa Bella.  Abel-Stone stressed repeatedly her desire to “physically call people together.”  That is the purpose of the Social.  The NextGen members want to talk to other like-minded people and find out what is important to them.  

“We don’t want to be political.  We are open to different opinions.  We even talked about doing a survey because it’s good to have all the info,” she explains.  Newly planned is a holiday event – based around a toy drive, most likely – at Ritual Yoga studio.  Stay tuned!

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Lea Abel-Stone, and her husband, Zeda, await guests for their family get-together

Friendship Shelter is a family cause

  “I’m lucky to have a cause I feel so passionately about. To watch the progress at the Friendship Shelter is so exciting.  There is a difference being made there that you can see.  They make it so clear to everyone where their money is going and what good is being done with it.”  It is even more of a family cause as Abel-Stone’s husband, Zeda Stone, will join the Friendship Shelter’s Board of Directors in September.  In an email, Abel-Stone wrote that she’s “very excited and SO proud!!…as are Gregg and Kathy.” 

Learning about how Laguna Beach works

But her involvement does not end there, hence the group and their mission.  She says she has even been going to City Council meetings, not for an issue that directly impacts her, but because she wants to learn more about how the city works.  

“I went to the meeting about Air BNB.  It doesn’t effect me at all, but it was really interesting and really made me think about both sides of that issue,” she says.

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Lea Abel-Stone in her father, Gregg’s, wood shop

Worth the stress to live in Laguna

“I feel so blessed to be here.  I know it’s definitely hard for new families to move in because it’s so expensive.  It’s such a wonderful place to grow up – really a special place – no matter how stressed you get to live here.  The sense of community…you won’t find it anywhere else.  It’s unparalleled,” says Abel-Stone passionately.  

And she would know.  

She has a lot of history to fall back on when it comes to living in Laguna Beach, as do her NextGen compatriots.  Learning from the past to make the future better…the “present” generation just breathed a sigh of relief.  The “next generation” is here.  Whether they use “the Instagram” or rely on more traditional methods, they are already leaving a legacy for the next “next” generation.



He’s practically synonymous with surf culture… Paul Naudé enjoys it - and success is proof positive

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

He was fixing dings and dents in surfboards, and little did anyone know that a surf industry pioneer was at work. Certainly Paul Naudé figured he was just doing something he enjoyed in between surf sessions in his hometown in South Africa. 

Paul Naudé

There were a few others inspired by everything surf-related there in Durban, and it seems like they collectively said, “California here I come!”

They came, they saw, they conquered. Witness the many South African entrepreneurs who conquered our sunny shores with their innovative surfboards, and their surf-style fashion trends. And they grew businesses, placing Orange County on the global map as the economic capital of the surf industry.

How did successes such as Billlabong, and Gotcha blossom from small-time garage stores 10,000 miles away? 

“In South Africa we were outdoor lifestyle driven. The [surf] industry is vibrant in South Africa,” Naudé said. “I don’t know if it’s the work ethic, or it just happened that way.”

Naudé’s early shop progressed from surfboard fixing and building, to the beginnings of surf apparel – wetsuits. From that small and successful business in Durban, he then ran the South Africa branch of Gotcha International, which broadened the nature of surf-related retail. When he was asked to make the move to California he enthusiastically said yes. 

California and Hawaii were always the dream back in South Africa, sparked in no small part by the movie, The Endless Summer. To this day, Naudé has a holiday home in St. Francis Bay, home of the famous Bruce Beauties surf break from the movie.

“Anything California or Hawaiian we gravitated toward, anything surf related – boards, style, apparel…” All good, he says. “All the great board builders – they were all California guys.”

Naudé moved here in the early ‘90’s and has been shaking up surf culture ever since. He recently stepped down after 15 years as the president of Billabong USA. And now he’s in the thick of a new venture.

A world-wide branding

Billabong had been slipping as a publically traded company during the economic woes since 2008. Naude saw the better option, and great potential in taking it private. He took a leave from his position to form a coalition with equity partners and make a bid to buy Billabong himself. 

The tough part was the three-month process of framing the bid. The mixed-benefit side of the next five months of waiting for the decision involved surfing. Of course!

“I headed up Billabong USA for about 15 years and in 2012 decided to step out to try to buy the company and take it out of the public market and into a privately held concern,” he tells us. “The first three months of that project was intense but then there was about five months of back and forth communication that took up very little time daily. It was a sort of forced sabbatical and I got to go surfing virtually every day.”

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 Photo by Jason Naudé

He smiles, “I really got to appreciate Southern California surf. I drove around to different spots and chose to ride whatever board was best for the conditions.

Sometimes I’d have stretches where I’d ride a different board in each of 15 odd consecutive sessions. Anything from a 5’5 board to a 9’6. It was amazing.”

He also found out there’s actually a limit to the amount of free time he can stand. “I found I got a little bored. It cured any thoughts of retirement! 

“I need to be active in business.”

When the bid to buy Billabong was rejected, Naudé decided to take his idea of an independent retail line and run with it. With his years of experience and global contacts, he has already reached markets in more than 30 countries for his new lines: Vissla (men’s clothing), D’Blanc (eyewear/accessory brand), and Amuse Society (women’s beach wear line).

Take a walk around Coast Highway in Laguna and you’ll no doubt see several young guys walking around wearing Vissla T-shirts. The clothes are sold in independent stores, and also on-line. Naudé tells us that the graphics in the designs are key. “With e-commerce you get instant feedback what customers want. T-shirts and board shorts are staple items. The graphics are trend-driven.”

Recent economic shifts are not a downer for the global US market, according to Naudé. “People adapt to economic fluctuation. My own point of view is that the US is going to maintain a position of strength for the next few years. I’m very optimistic about the future. Sometimes correction phases are good reminders. It gets people back to center. Are the best years ahead? Always! I’m an eternal optimist.”

Wildlife, the ocean, family, and other things that matter

Running a global company and surfing, at least on the weekends, is not enough for this South African. He also became an American. “I came to Laguna Beach in ’92. I’m a naturalized American and proud of it,” says Naudé. “It is interesting to learn the history of this country, and it’s an incredible opportunity to become American. I’m grateful for it.”

He also makes the time to give back to two things that have engaged him his whole life: wildlife and the ocean. 

“We have property in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in a wildlife conservancy called Amakhala,” he said. “We have a small game lodge, Hillsnek Safari camp, and are also involved in rhino conservation. Our foundation is Chipembere Rhino Foundation, which is very active on the anti-poaching front.

“I have had a few fundraisers here in Laguna to raise funds for the anti-poaching efforts down there. The good news is that a dollar goes a long way in that country based on the foreign exchange rate. I’ve been interested in wildlife since I was a young boy.”

Ocean conservancy gets his attention in a big way too. Naudé is president of the SIMA Environmental Fund that has an annual fundraiser, The Watermans Ball. 

“We raise funds for surf related ocean environmental groups. We just completed our 26th annual event and have raised about 7.5 million dollars during that time. I’m really proud of the surf industry’s effort in this regard.”

Surprisingly there’s something else he’s proud of, and it doesn’t have to do with any of the above. Back in 1976 he became a publisher, and the magazine is still in business today.

“I started a surf magazine in South Africa called ZigZag (after a surfing term back then). It was pre-desktop publishing. Typesetting, layouts and gluing down columns of copy and captions was painstakingly slow. In my long business career in this industry I’m most proud of the fact that the magazine is still thriving today.”

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Naudé does his own board “up-cycling” at home

Meanwhile, on the home front, Naudé and his wife Debbie have two kids – Frances and Jason. In some backyard downtime they grow grapes on their Laguna hillside, and bottle wine from it. Or he and Jason create camp knives together, out of exotic woods.

But many an afternoon Paul Naudé can be found out back shaping boards just for fun. “I like to build surfboards. It’s how I started. I’ve always liked it. I have a shed at home and I take broken boards and re-build them, I call it up-cycling. I’ll take a broken long board and make it a short board, or a belly board out of pieces that are left. It’s a lot of fun.”

They say if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. For Naudé a little hobby, and a little fun have gone a long way. 

And on it goes!


Sande St. John: A legacy of loving Laguna

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Sande St. John loves Laguna.  “I love, love, love living in Laguna,” she says with her trademark enthusiasm that belies her 30 year residency here.  “I love how you can agree or disagree with people and still be friends.  I love how everybody works together for a good cause…” and her list went on.  

St. John knows a lot about good causes as she seems to specialize in them.  Not just a few pet projects (though she has those), but many, many causes.  So many causes, in fact, that to list them would make for an article much too long to print.  Suffice it to say, St. John has developed a well-deserved reputation as someone who can get things done, hence the nicknames like the “Uber-volunteer”, ’the ultimate do-er” and “Laguna’s Super Angel”. 

Woman of the Year, among other things

This determination to make things happen, coupled with an apparent aversion to the word “no,” has earned her a myriad of civic awards from being the first recipient of the Laguna Beach Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1996 to the Laguna Beach Seniors Legacy Award in 2013, with many others in between.  Children, seniors, veterans, the homeless and the arts have all received St. John’s attention – over and over again.

The incomparable Sande St. John, volunteer extraordinaire

The tradition of the Firefighters’ Labor Day Pancake Breakfast

Right now, she’s focusing her legendary energy on two events: the Firefighters’ Pancake Breakfast at Heisler Park on Labor Day and a celebration of Jon Coutchie, the Laguna Beach motorcycle officer who was killed in a traffic accident while on duty two years ago.  It’s easy to think things like the Pancake Breakfast run themselves because they have been around for so long and are such a community tradition.  I’m sure St. John wishes that was true.  

However, someone needs get it all planned and nailed down and that someone is St. John.  And still, after all these years, she’s enthusiastic.  

“I just love that the Fire Chief (Jeff LaTendresse) comes year after year and sits there stirring the batter.  He stirs the batter the whole time!  The Fire Chief!  He has been doing it forever,” says St. John.

Honoring a mother’s love for her son, Jon Coutchie

If the Pancake Breakfast is a tradition that needs overseeing, the celebration of Officer Jon Coutchie is a brand new endeavor.  “Jon’s mom, Luciana, wanted to do something for her son.  He loved kids so much.  He loved Halloween. So we decided to make it a Halloween-themed celebration of John and make it a family affair,” says St. John.  St. John got involved because, as she says, “I like Luciana.  I love her. I feel her spirit.”  So she got to work.

A fun family event on September 20th

“We have really good sponsors.  It will be at Tivoli Too.  We will have a lot of games for kids, a lot of community organizers, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the police and fire will be there.  Blue Water Music is doing the music.  We have food from all these different restaurants:  Tivoli will be offering a complete dinner, and Mare, k’ya, Mozambique and Sapphire will be offering small plates.  We’re working on a haunted house because John used to build one for his god children every year,” explains St. John.  She tells me this and then adds, “We’re going to have a silent auction and the funds raised will go to the CSP Laguna Beach Shelter.”  That’s how St. John puts on an event.  

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The American Legion Hall, home to No Square Theater

Opening up the floodgates

Many people put on an event like the ones St. John specializes in once.  St. John has been doing things like this for almost 30 years.  “I first got involved in Human Options because my son, Derek, was the Executive Director of the Laguna Beach Club for Kids, now the Boys and Girls Club.  He was familiar with them so I called and offered to help.”  After that, the floodgates of altruistic endeavors were opened.  “Once you start something,” says St. John, “it’s hard to walk away from it.”  

At least it is for her.

The dynamic duo of “The Sandies”

St. John’s initial volunteering may have been instigated by her son, but it was fostered by her friend, Sandy Thornton. The two women served as co-Directors of the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce for years, legendarily putting together a wedding at the Hotel Laguna for two victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, among other things.  The two were, and still are, known as “The Sandies,” even though Sandy Thornton moved to Palm Springs.  “People still can’t tell us apart.  Now, when Sandy comes by they’ll start talking to her, ‘Thank you for this or that’ and she just says ‘You’re so welcome’ even though she has no idea what they’re talking about!” says St. John laughing.

It was the “other Sandy” that got St. John involved with the seniors when they were still using Legion Hall as their home base.  That’s where St. John and I met, as she graciously squeezed me in despite an incredibly hectic schedule made more so by the fact that her daughter-in-law just had a baby and the family, who was moving, needed to be out of their house in days.  The fact that she agreed to meet and be interviewed despite her very impacted schedule speaks both to her generous nature and to that problem she has of saying “no.”  “I love working with the seniors.  They are so happy to be out.  They’re so nice and grateful,” she says fondly.

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Sande St. John shows off the newly spruced up entrance at the Legion Hall

No Square Theater

  “I love this building,” says St. John of the Legion Hall.  It was in a rather chaotic state when we met, but she seemed unfazed.  It was just another project to tackle.  Now, the building is home to No Square Theater, of which St. John is a founding member (of course!).  “My goal in life is to keep the theater alive,” she says with passion.  But she won’t be aiding that cause by performing on stage.  

“When I was at the Chamber, Bree (Rosen, founder of No Square Theater) insisted I be in the show.  I did it for five or six years.  But I was also doing events and I really like doing those more.  Plus I don’t have any talent.  I don’t want to be a tree or a stone or a rock.  It takes too much time to just be a tree or a stone or a rock!” she says adamantly.  “I still provide dinner at the theater every night,” she adds as if someone might be questioning her commitment to the cause.  “I love all my people at No Square Theater!  I will leave them everything -- which isn’t anything -- but I love them!”  

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Sande St. John shows off some props at No Square Theater

If only the Easter Bunny could speak!

One of the other things St. John loves (and she loves a lot of things!) is her direct connection to both the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.  “I own the real ones!’ she states emphatically.  Then she tells me a hilarious story about when she had to dress up as the Easter Bunny and, because the Easter Bunny “can’t talk”, she took to “beating” a volunteer who was not going to give a kid an Easter basket because their name wasn’t on the list.  “Since I couldn’t talk I just started beating on them to please give this kid an Easter basket. I’m sure it was much worse watching the Easter Bunny whacking this volunteer…I should definitely not be the Easter Bunny,” she says shaking her head.

Trying to pass the torch

She may not feel well suited as the Easter Bunny, but she certainly makes a great stand in for the Energizer Bunny. But even that long-lasting, hard-charging critter has to slow down at some point.  

“I would love to get younger people in these organizations.  Every single group needs people.  They need people with passion and vision.  It’s hard to get them.  So much has been done and there are so many groups out there.  

“Way back when there was just the Laguna Beach Service Council.  Once a month we got together and sat around and just talked about the things the city needed.  So many of them have been done or there are really great organizations working on them,” she says with a mixture of pride at how much has been done and a little melancholy for simpler times.  But if that sounds at all like a complaint, it isn’t.  

“I love and feel so blessed just to live in this incredible place.  It’s paradise.  If you live in Laguna you’re lucky enough,” says St. John emphatically.  

Because of people like Sande St. John, I couldn’t agree more.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner and Publisher.

Lynette Brasfield is our Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

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Alexis Amaradio, Cameron Gillepsie, Allison Rael, Barbara Diamond, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Samantha Washer and Suzie Harrison are staff writers.

Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Laura Buckle and Suzie Harrison are columnists.

Mary Hurlbut, Scott Brashier, and Aga Stuchlik are the staff photographers.

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