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Bonnie Harper proves there are far more abilities than disabilities when living with Down syndrome

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Mention the name Bonnie Harper, and watch people’s faces light up. Bonnie is known by many, both at the Glennwood House and beyond, as “the most popular girl in town.” She’s always on the move. With two paid jobs, several volunteer positions, an active athletic schedule, and a full social life, Bonnie is busy. She barely had time to catch up with me one Thursday afternoon, between laundry day and Girls’ Night Out. Squeezing our interview into an already hectic schedule, her eyes were on the clock. But that didn’t stop her from greeting me with enthusiasm. “I’m Bonnie,” she told me, shaking my hand. “I’m 30.” 

Bonnie Harper closeup

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Bonnie Harper, at home at Glennwood House, an independent living community 

for adults with physical or developmental disabilities

In those 30 years, Bonnie has built a full and rich life, integrating herself into several local communities and proving – to herself and everyone around her – that her many abilities exceed her challenges, and her wide variety of talents are far more important than her limitations.

Glennwood House becomes home

Bonnie is one of the original residents at Glennwood House, celebrating her fifth year there and loving it. When she returns to her mother’s place in Laguna Niguel on the weekends, she can’t wait to get back to Glennwood. She appreciates the freedom and independence, she loves her friendly neighbors and staff, and she adores the structure of a scheduled environment. “Bonnie’s alarm clock is set for 7:30 a.m.,” Rachel Landers, Associate Director of Glennwood House, tells me. “If we go in at 7:29, Bonnie will know it. She’s very by-the-book.” 

Bonnie is Glennwood’s “Calendar Girl.” She’s in charge of the front office calendar, writing the date and keeping track of the resident sign-in and sign-out sheets. She also maintains a detailed personal calendar of everyone’s birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events, making sure cards are sent out on time.

In addition to the supportive staff, the beautiful grounds, and the opportunity for independent living, there’s never a dull moment at Glennwood House. There are art classes, bowling nights, special conditioning training, as well as computer and reading classes. But Bonnie’s favorites might be movie and karaoke nights. She keeps her own extensive movie collection in her room, peppered with plenty of Disney. But Glee, Bonnie tells me, is her favorite. Her older brother, Forrest, got her Glee for Christmas – 

and it was the perfect gift. “Bonnie also knows every song from Mamma Mia,” Rachel says. “She can even act out the parts. She’s the karaoke queen.”

Bonnie Harper group

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Hanging out in the common room at Glennwood, where there’s never a dull moment

She’s also motivated to pitch in and help when she can. “Every day, Bonnie sweeps the dining hall,” says Rachel. “She consistently does that every night. We don’t ask her, but she’s always thinking of others.” That concern for others extends to Faith Manners, Chief Operating Officer at Glennwood. If Faith isn’t in her office, Bonnie will begin asking Rachel her whereabouts. “She’s very intuitive about who’s there and who isn’t,” says Rachel. “Sometimes I have to just say she’s at the bank.”

On the job and on the move

Through Integrated Resources Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fully assimilating people with disabilities into the community and securing paid employment opportunities for them, Bonnie has worked the past six years at Panera Bread. Recently, she added another day of employment at Del Taco. “She dumps the trash, cleans the tables and trays, keeps the salsa and salt and pepper in the right places,” says her mother, Kay Harper. “They’re happy with her and she loves it.”

Bonnie Harper Del Taco

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Bonnie showing off her new Del Taco uniform

Bonnie’s former job coach, Ann Boscardin, worked with her for three years. They went out every day, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, allowing Bonnie to work in both paid and volunteer positions. “She’s a very conscientious and good worker,” says Ann. “She remembers things.” 

The restaurant industry is perfect for Bonnie, who has a passion for food. “She loves different kinds of foods and likes to try different things. She’ll never order the same thing from the same restaurant,” says Ann. “She’s very interested in the textures and tastes. The only time she didn’t like something was when she put five or six jalapenos on it. I told her she still liked jalapenos, just not so many at once.” Bonnie loves her lunch at Panera at the end of her shift. “She’d try something new every time, planning for it throughout the week,” says Ann.

In addition to her paid employment, Bonnie volunteers at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Woods, serving lunch to the residents, sitting with them and chatting. She also donates time at the Family Assistance Ministry and Crossline Church in Laguna Hills, stuffing bulletins into envelopes. She’s active in the church community, participating in the Lighthouse Group, a weekly youth group meeting for young adults with special needs. Lighthouse provides physical, emotional, educational and spiritual support for this community.

Bonnie also returns to her alma mater, Dana Hills High School, to work at the textbook collection center, meeting current students and making new friends.

“If the focus is on what Bonnie can do, it’s amazing,” says Kay. “There are so many abilities.”

Take her out to the ballgame…and the pool

Speaking of what else Bonnie can do – she’s adept at a wide variety of sports. She’s an incredible swimmer. She loves kayaking, paddleboarding, and almost everything else involving water (including Caribbean cruises). “She very steady, even if not very fast,” says Ann. “She finishes her workouts and is very methodical.” 

But baseball is Bonnie’s first love. She’s been active with the Challenger League since she was five. The Little League Challenger Program, and Senior League Challenger Division, is an adaptive baseball program giving individuals with physical or developmental disabilities the opportunity to play on a league. “The kids aren’t competitive or mean to each other,” says Kay. “They’re just there to support each other. If somebody falls, everyone stops to pick them up.” 

Although Bonnie is a Dodgers fan, she’s been able to play at Angels Stadium with the professional players over the years. 

Ann adds, “She’s also the biggest goofball. Bonnie loves a great joke.” 

A heart for others

When Bonnie lost her father last year, her concern wasn’t for herself. “Do you miss your husband?” she sometimes asks her mom. Bonnie’s empathy, her protective nature and kind disposition have touched countless lives around her. 

“If I hadn’t had Bonnie,” says Kay, “I wouldn’t be the person I am. She’s taught me so much more than I was prepared for – patience and love, tolerance and the acceptance of others who are different. All that makes me a different person.”

Bonnie Harper room

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Bonnie in her meticulously clean room at Glennwood

Kay offers some generally great parenting advice. “Try not to overreact. It’s easy to overreact in parenting. You need to take it slower. Let time pass. Become more understanding and tolerant.” Kay says it’s better to set the example, rather than preach the lesson. Using phrases like, “That’s not how we do it in this family” or “I wouldn’t do it that way” gives children more autonomy and control. It makes them the agents of their decisions.

Glennwood gives its residents that autonomy and independence. It empowers them to make their own choices, and provides a safety net – and some consequences – 

if they choose unwisely. 

Facts and statistics about Down syndrome

Down syndrome results from the presence of an extra (or partial extra copy) of chromosome 21. It’s become more common in recent years, and the life expectancy of individuals with Down syndrome is on the rise. As Ann told me, “If you’ve met one person with Down syndrome, you’ve only met one person with Down syndrome.” The only thing individuals have in common is an extra chromosome. Beyond that, individuals are as unique, distinctive and particular as anyone else.

Bonnie Harper desk

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Bonnie at her desk, showing off her many memories and memorabilia

In 2011, Brian Skotko, a Harvard-trained physician and researcher, published a groundbreaking survey “Self-perceptions from People with Down Syndrome.” The study reported: “Among those surveyed, nearly 99 percent of people with Down syndrome indicated that they were happy with their lives; 97 percent liked who they are; and 96 percent liked how they look. Nearly 99 percent of people with Down syndrome expressed love for their families, and 97 percent liked their brothers and sisters. While 86 percent of people with Down syndrome felt they could make friends easily, those with difficulties mostly had isolating living situations.” 

Even stereotypes that are positive and well intentioned can be hurtful. The assumption that all individuals with Down syndrome are happy, friendly, and loving is a generalization and, as with any generalization, fails to take each unique individual into account. It’s important to see people – and their personal qualities, talents, flaws and gifts – for the specific individuals they are.

Actor and Down syndrome advocate Chris Burke put it best: “Having Down syndrome is like being born normal. I am just like you and you are just like me. We are all born in different ways, that is the way I can describe it. I have a normal life.”


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Lynn Gregory: A force for Laguna schools is on to her next adventure

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna Beach schools have benefited greatly from the efforts of countless people. From administrators to teachers to volunteers, in grand initiatives and small daily gestures, so many people have contributed to making Laguna schools a source of pride in the community. And while this is nothing if not a group effort, there are certain individuals who make a singular difference. Lynn Gregory, the Laguna Beach Scholarship Foundation (LBSF) coordinator, is such a person. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, she “has been” such a person, since Gregory is leaving the district she loves, not to mention the country she loves, for Budapest, Hungary. 

A fixture at three of Laguna’s four schools

Gregory has been a fixture at three of Laguna’s four schools for close to 20 years: El Morro, Thurston and LBHS. She and her husband Scott moved here as newlyweds in 1994. They looked at other places – Corona del Mar, Seal Beach – but chose Laguna, even though what they could buy needed some work. “We could afford tar paper and plywood,” she says with a laugh. But they remodeled and started their family. “It has been our home ever since. I’ve never lived in a place where a community becomes your family. Maybe because we didn’t have any family out here…” she muses.

A legacy at El Morro Elementary

When her oldest son started at El Morro Elementary, Gregory began volunteering at the school. “It was Melanie Lewis’ fault,” she laughs. Lewis was El Morro’s PTA president at the time, and she knew a good thing when she saw it. “I just jumped in,” says Gregory. “I loved the connection with the parents. I fell in love.” She began to take on more and more responsibility until she herself was PTA president for two years. And she left a legacy with programs and practices that are still being used today like Character Counts, Strike Team, Spirit Wear, as well as getting a teacher’s lounge, and helping make changes to Boo Blast so that it became a successful fundraiser.

Lynn Gregory closeup

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Lynn Gregory, Laguna Beach Scholarship Coordinator and volunteer extraordinaire, is stepping down. She and her husband will be moving to Budapest, Hungary in November.

Choosing to work for free

 “My husband tells me I have a problem with boundaries,” she says with a laugh. “He’d say, ‘Remember, you’re a volunteer.’” While his hints were acknowledged, they were also ignored. Gregory simply can’t do anything halfway. That’s why she finally retired from her job as a flight attendant when her oldest son was in fourth grade. “I had to choose a paying job or PTA president,” she says, laughing as if there was any other choice she could have made. 

 Leading all the way 

And she continued to make that same choice when her boys moved on to Thurston, again helping to implement PTA programs that are still going strong today like the Epic Challenge and the Sports Swap. And she still wasn’t done, dedicating even more time and energy to SchoolPower by chairing its Dinner Dance for several years and serving as president.

Volunteering is a manifestation of her faith

 Gregory is quick to pile the praise on others. If you talk to her you’d think she was merely a bystander to all of these things. She credits the many people she has worked with and, more importantly, her faith. “I believe that my desire to serve is a direct correlation to do what I am called to do,” she says. Luckily, I have seen Gregory’s effectiveness first hand so I can vouch for her efficacy. 

Beware the double handshake

One of the things that make Gregory so effective is that, not only is she willing to work extremely hard, she is good at getting others to join her. Those of us who have had the pleasure of working with her over the years joke about “the handshake.” 

Gregory is from the south. Despite her years in California, she has not lost her southern charms, and she’s not afraid to use them. If you should find yourself in Gregory’s very elegant, double-handed handshake, there is a very good chance you will find yourself agreeing to do something you had absolutely no intention of agreeing to. And she will make it seem like it’s all your idea.

Lynn Gregory sons

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Lynn Gregory proudly shows off a photo of her two favorite kids, sons Harrison and Thomas

Finding the Laguna Beach Scholarship Foundation

Gregory continued her volunteer efforts even after she got the job with the Scholarship Foundation, but the fact that she got the job to begin with was a bit of a surprise. First, she was made aware of the position on the last day of the job posting. “We were traveling,” she recalls. “I didn’t even have a resume.” But it sounded intriguing enough that while in the airport lounge, she dictated her work achievements to her husband who wrote them down on a napkin and then into a workable resume. 

“Lo and behold, I was hired,” she marvels. She did ask her boys for their blessing. “I didn’t want to encroach on my kids’ territory,” she says. They were unanimous in their support, although looking back Gregory thinks their support was more practical (easy access to lunch money) than selfless. 

Helping students, donors and LBUSD

Regardless, she took the job and has been the LBSF coordinator for the past six years. The LBSF acts as a liaison between scholarship donors, LBHS and its students. In addition, it develops funds, manages the scholarship application process for students and provides oversight of managed funds. It is governed by a Board of 30 volunteer trustees, and anyone is welcome to become a trustee. Gregory works for LBUSD and is tasked with coordinating with the donors and the students.

It’s about more than the money

 ”It’s a community, grass roots organization. They now give over $500,000 to our kids,” marvels Gregory. “But what I’ve noticed is it’s not just about the money. It’s the acknowledgement. The kids like to be recognized. They need to be validated. I’m not someone who thinks everyone should be given a trophy for just showing up, but these kids are working really hard and they need to feel seen.”

Lynn Gregory Lynn and Scott

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Lynn Gregory with her husband Scott at their home in Laguna Beach

That is a mantra, of sorts, for Gregory. She is dismayed at the pressure so many high school kids are under. “There’s so much undo pressure. They don’t deserve it,” she laments. She quotes her co-worker who likes to say, “College is more about the plan than the place. And there are so many plans!”

Sad to leave but happy to go

 However, as much as she loves her job, she is leaving – and soon. “You might as well pull my heart out,” she says. “The Scholarship Foundation has been the pinnacle for me. I think I was meant to be a cheerleader, an encourager for these kids. They strive and they work so hard. Sometimes they need to hear it from someone other than their parents. Being in this position has allowed me to take part in that. I will miss it.”

She will miss it, but she’s looking forward to this new phase in her life. “I’m excited for the adventure,” she tells me. “It’s a perfect time.” Her boys are out of the house and the former flight attendant is one who has always loved an adventure. “My mom used to say ‘Where the wind blew, Lynnie flew,’” she says.

 The wind has come up again, and is blowing the Gregorys halfway across the world. “I’m looking forward to spending time with my husband,” she says. And there is a city to master, cooking classes to take, and a very foreign language barrier to try and overcome. “I suppose I’ll give it a try,” she says gamely of learning Hungarian. “But the street signs are crazy!” And because she is who she is, Gregory has already reached out to several international schools to see if they need any assistance.


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Katie MacDonald: Young, but seasoned in the business of flowers

Written By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Katie MacDonald’s resume is quite robust, especially when one considers she’s just 23 years old. Over two years ago MacDonald purchased The Flower Stand at the Lumberyard. However, working with flowers was not her first love. “When I graduated from high school, I was really passionate about photography,” she says. She started taking photos for her family, then friends, then friends’ businesses. “I noticed that people always wanted flowers in their shots. I figured I was creative enough that I could do them myself.” 

A family connection leads to a new career

MacDonald’s mother was good friends with Beverly Walker who owned The Flower Stand at the time. “She and my mom were super tight. I ended up having a similar relationship with (Beverly),” explains MacDonald. 

Walker noticed MacDonald’s flair with the arrangements she created for her shoots and offered her a position. Eventually, MacDonald says, “I realized my love of photography was not as strong as my love of flowers.” It wasn’t too much later that Walker asked MacDonald if she would be interested in owning The Flower Stand. For a 21-year-old, this was a very big step. MacDonald consulted with her family and, after deliberating, they all decided to do it. “My family made it happen,” says MacDonald gratefully.

Katie MacDonald with offerings

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Katie MacDonald, owner of The Flower Stand, with some of her fall offerings

The flower business is not for the faint of heart

If her family helped make the purchase possible, it has been MacDonald’s blood, sweat and tears that has made it thrive. Walker stayed on for a year working with MacDonald. Their time together gave MacDonald a good idea of what she had gotten herself into. 

“I knew Bev worked brutal hours,” says MacDonald. So the up at 5 a.m. and to bed at 11 p.m. with the daily mad scramble in between wasn’t a surprise. The constant need to be “on” creatively was also not a surprise. MacDonald says that what posed a significant challenge in the beginning was the business side of things. “The creative aspect was never an issue. I’ve had to grow into the business end.”

Learning to prioritize has been key

Another aspect of the business she has had to learn to manage is her communication with clients. “Being in constant communication with people is a challenge,” she admits. “I’m learning how to prioritize.” MacDonald does a lot of weddings, for example. There are conversations with a client about things that are going to happen in three months and there are conversations with another client about things that need to happen that day. Every conversation is important, so organizing which is the most critical has been a learning process.

The good news is MacDonald learns fast. The first year she says she worked seven days a week without relief. Now, she manages to take a day (or even two!) away from The Flower Stand. This is not to say, however, that when she’s not there she’s not working.

Katie MacDonald working

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Katie MacDonald has a lot of options for her arrangements this time of year

Finding love at the flower market

With such a crazy schedule, it’s even better news to learn that MacDonald has managed to squeeze in some romance. “The first day I went to the flower market, I met my boyfriend,” she says with a smile. His family is one of the top wholesalers in the flower business. “His parents met the same way,” she says happily. “What started as a friendship grew into love.” The fact that he has an intimate understanding of her business is helpful. It’s also helpful that he has to get up even earlier than she does.

A creative endeavor in every aspect

MacDonald says the best thing about her job is that she has made great connections. ”I have made so many new friends. It has been great becoming part of the community. And I’ve done it myself. Plus I never have a boring day. Every day is different.” And it definitely fills her creative need. “It’s cool to be creative in every aspect of the business. There’s social media, finding and using new flowers…everything.” 

A vision for the future

But while she enjoys her shop, her long-term goal is to transition to a studio, and hire someone else to manage the shop. “I thought I wanted to open flower shops in high-end beach towns up and down the coast,” she says. Now, the idea of having a warehouse space that houses tables, rentals and, of course, flowers is the direction she’d like to move. It’s a more family friendly environment (for when the time comes) and as there are no walk-ins, it’s a much more focused business.

Katie MacDonald in front

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Katie MacDonald at The Lumberyard in front of her cheery flower shop

The Flower Stand opens other doors

Until then, however, MacDonald will continue running The Flower Stand. “Owning a storefront really sets you up for success,” she says enthusiastically. It opens the door for the other parts of her business, such as weddings and corporate events. “Corporate events are kind of my niche,” explains MacDonald. “I love them. They’re more creative than weddings.” 

A seasoned professional at the age of 23

She’s also partial to this time of year. “l love fall,” she says. “I love foliage. I try to find stuff no one else has, even a particular daisy variety that’s from Holland. Whatever I can find that’s unique.” She’s no longer bound by the constraints of tradition. “When you first learn you use the easiest flowers. You want everything to be ‘pretty’. Now I have confidence to use other things.” Spoken like a true professional. She may only be 23, but she has earned her status as a seasoned veteran, one arrangement at a time.


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Michelle Mercado: Celebrating five years at Sourced

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Michelle Mercado was in high school, she would pack her ’57 Chevy with friends, ditch school in Anaheim and head to Thalia Street beach for a day of fun. “I was drawn to Laguna,” remembers the owner of Sourced.collective, the business Mercado has helmed for the past five years. In a nod to the mysterious workings of the universe, her business is located on Glenneyre at Thalia.

A place for creative people to come to work

Sourced.collective is a place where “creatives come to work, create and play,” according to its website. It is Laguna’s only shared workspace. “It’s natural for us,” explains Mercado. “Real estate prices are high, people are working from home, and there is a craving for people to work together in a shared space.”

And have events, and do yoga and celebrate artisans

In addition to a shared work environment, the space, a charming, shingled beach cottage, is used for events, pop-up markets, artist residency and even yoga classes. If it seems an eclectic mix, it is, but Mercado’s approach to her business is anything but haphazard. However, it would also be incorrect to imply that this has all been part of Mercado’s master plan when she took over the space in 2013.

LLP Michelle closeup

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Michelle Mercado, owner of Sourced.collective, at 950 Glenneyre St

 When she started, “Things weren’t formal enough to create a five-year plan,” she says. Even now, when asked where she sees things going in the next five years Mercado hedges. The only thing she will commit to is to helping the people who are working in her space reach their potential. “At this point, the biggest opportunity is how do we showcase the work that people are doing here?” she says. 

A trip back to Orange County changes her direction

Mercado’s background is in hospitality and event planning. She had been working in San Francisco in what she thought was her “dream job” planning high-end weddings when a trip to Orange County for her grandfather’s funeral changed the course of her career.

Falling for a shingled beach cottage on Glenneyre

A close friend, Rachiel Macalistaire, had found this delightful space on Glenneyre and Thalia. Mercado and Macalistaire shared a love of vintage finds. At the time, Macallistaire already had a shop in south Laguna. “After talking to Rachel, I thought ‘ don’t know what it is, but I want in.’ I was just so drawn to the building,” remembers Mercado. The thought of partnering with Macallistaire was too tempting to pass up, so they embarked on their new venture.

At that time, Sourced offered a retail component in the front that Macallistaire handled and rented office space in the back. The office space sold out in a week’s time. Mercado formed her own event planning company, Sourced Events, and the people who rented the space were mostly involved in various aspects of the wedding business. It was a symbiotic group.

However, after two years, Mercado started to wonder what else she could do. “I dropped the events planning and clicked back into my hospitality days. We became just a ‘creative source.’ People thought we were people who made stuff, but that’s really never been true.”

Adapting and changing to find the right formula

Eventually, McAllistaire moved on to other things, leaving Mercado to take over the retail portion of the business herself. “I just went down another path and then thought ‘How did I get here?’” So she did what everyone should do when faced with life’s big questions, she went to Bali for a month. She closed the store and when she returned, she had a vision. She would create a business that offered office space, co-working memberships and events. “These things supplemented the absence of the retail,” she says. Sourced.collective was born.

LLP Michelle at table

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Mercado is thrilled to be helping creative businesses grow and reach their potential

“This formula totally works,” she says enthusiastically. “The most interesting thing is I get to peer into and support these different businesses. It allows them to go after bigger things. For example, a client comes in for web design, but then they realize they need a graphic designer, and then one person’s client becomes everyone’s client. It’s something you don’t get if you’re working at home by yourself,” she says.

She’s not interested in being the only game in town

Mercado is hopeful that the shared workspace idea will expand in Laguna. “I hope there is more. I’m tapped out. There is no ownership of co-working,” she explains. In the beginning she says the idea was “self-serving,” because she wanted to make her event planning business seem bigger. As the concept grew and developed, she saw the potential of where it could go. 

It may start out as self-serving, but it doesn’t stay that way

The same can be said for the donation-based yoga classes she offers at Sourced. Mercado says she was having trouble finding the time to get some exercise. The idea of bringing the exercise to her was, again, “self-serving,” but it has grown to be a communally beneficial experience that has exceeded her original intentions. And that kind of sums up Sourced.collective. 

LLP Michelle party

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Sourced.collective celebrates five years with an office party “for people who don’t have office parties”

The theme for Friday’s anniversary party was “Something in the Middle.” “It’s where the future meets the past,” explains Mercado. “Our building is a testament to time, but we’re doing something new here.” Using her party planning skills, Mercado blended spaceships and paper airplanes, and other past/present motifs, but the event was not her singular vision. True to the business being celebrated, Mercado says the party planning was collaborative in all aspects. Of course, Mercado could have done it all herself, but that is no longer the point.


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Ketta Brown: A long run with Laguna’s schools comes to an end

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ketta Brown, LBUSD School Board member, has just four meetings left before her term expires. Choosing not to seek re-election after 12 years of what she says is “the best job (she) ever had” is bittersweet. However, after countless hours of dedication to Laguna schools and other local nonprofits, starting with Laguna Presbyterian Preschool, the Friendship Shelter, Top of the World Elementary then Thurston and LBHS, it’s understandable why, with her three kids now out of the house, the time has finally come for her to step back. 

Jeb’s schedule finally comes first

Brown says she decided not to run for re-election because after so many years of being beholden to the school calendar, it was time to put her husband Jeb’s schedule first. Jeb is a doctor and, “All of his partners are younger with younger kids so he gets last dibs on vacations,” Brown explains. 

With no kids tying them to the school calendar, the only constraint was Brown’s school board duties. “If I do something I need to be 100 percent invested. I can’t miss meetings without being wracked with guilt,” she explains. The only workable solution for her was to step away.

Running for School Board to right a perceived wrong

The decision was not an easy one because of Brown’s deep connection to the schools. “What these administrators and teachers and everyone involved does…it matters. And they matter. It has been such a gift to be able to participate,” she says. These warm feelings were not, however, what motivated her to run for School Board originally.

ketta brown close up

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Ketta Brown, four-term LBUSD Board member, retires this year

“The school board happened because I thought they treated Nancy Blade abominably,” Brown explains with her usual candor. Nancy Blade was the principal at Top of the World Elementary, then Laguna Beach High School before resigning in 2006. “I thought she had been treated horribly, and I was angry. You can disagree with someone but you can’t treat people like that.” Brown was elected to the School Board in 2006.

Change comes, just not immediately

Being front and center is not Brown’s preferred location. “I’m a great back office worker,” she says. “But when you feel you must step into the breach then you have to do it. I felt like it was one of those times.” Once elected, Brown says there was a “steep learning curve.” One of the things she learned was that, while change was definitely possible, it was not instantaneous. “You are one of five people,” she says simply. 

School board members are tasked with setting the direction of the school district. It is an important job and one Brown, and the other members, take very seriously. Passions can run high. Just ask parents their thoughts on the proposed school year calendar change and you’ll see what I mean.

Keeping things in perspective

After 12 years, Brown says she can still be surprised by how impassioned some people get about certain things. She likes to run through her rhetorical checklist in order to keep things in perspective: “Did anyone die? Did anyone’s house burn down?” Sadly, Brown has endured both of these tragedies so she comes to her perspective the hardest way possible. 

ketta brown TOW

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Top of the World Elementary School, where Ketta Brown dedicated many of her years with the PTA and taught a cooking class

However, this is not to imply that she fails to see the importance or gravity of the Board’s decisions. Her perspective simply gives her a framework for approaching things. Because the issues she and the Board must contend with do not rise to the level of life’s most horrible tragedies, they can and should be dealt with some composure, she feels. However, when things get personal or slide away from polite discourse, Brown is equipped to handle it. “I’m bulletproof,” she says. 

Midwestern roots paved the way to a long road of civic duty

Brown’s dedication to Laguna started just about when she and Jeb moved here in 1990. Both are from the Midwest and when they arrived in Orange County it was Brown’s job to find the place they wanted to settle. “We looked at Irvine and I thought, ‘I’ll die here.’ Newport…not happening, then we looked here and I felt like I just couldn’t live anywhere else.” In the small town where she grew up getting involved was just something that was expected of you. “You had a civic duty to become involved. It was ingrained,” she says.

She even cooked with the kids

Not only did Brown become deeply entrenched in the local PTA, she also ran an after school cooking class at Top of the World for nine years. “It was so much fun!” she enthuses. “We did everything. We’d cook fish and the parents would ask me ‘How did you ever get them to eat that?!’”

Committed to the idea of public education

Whatever her role, Brown has a deep, emotional connection to Laguna schools. “When I got elected I realized that public education is the greatest opportunity that most people will ever have. It deserves the same attention as other things, like public finance.” And so she very much appreciates when the community is engaged in what the schools are doing.

Trying to be creative in a tight box

Nevertheless, there are some things she wishes the general public was aware of. “We are very constrained by federal regulations and the education code. We have a very small box in which we can maneuver. We’d love to invent our own car, but we can’t. The best we can do is maybe choose the upholstery and whether or not there’s a sunroof,” she explains. 

Size matters

Laguna’s small size, while a plus in so many ways, can also be a hindrance in terms of programs that can be offered. “It’s subtraction by addition,” she says. “We’d love to add every AP class offered, but we just can’t.” So, it’s not necessarily that school leaders are ignoring the great ideas people send them; many times it’s simply a matter of not having the bodies to fill the classes that these great ideas would take place in.

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Ketta Brown at one of her happy places, TOW Elementary

However, Laguna schools are not in a position to complain. “We are well-funded. We can do things like add a social/emotional program where we have counselors at every school. That’s unheard of. We heard parents’ concerns and we were able to create a top notch structure built around measurable outcomes,” she explains proudly.

Finally, educating the “whole child”

In her twelve years on the Board, Brown says one of the things she’s proudest of is the district’s commitment to educating the “whole child.” “We always talk about the ‘whole child,’” she says. “I felt that we gave that idea lip service, honestly, but now I feel like we’re walking the talk. We have a great administration team, incredible teachers at all levels…I can say that with complete candor, and I don’t know any other districts that can say that.”

Laguna really is different

Brown is fiercely loyal to the people she works with. “I am with them 100 percent. The schools in this town are my family. People should treat my family well,” she says smiling. And for the most part, they do, which is why she and her family came to Laguna in the first place.

“If you choose to live here and you feel like you can breathe, those are the people who stay. It’s a feeling of community. I do think Laguna is different. Maybe it’s what’s in the water. There is an importance placed on character,” says Brown. She lists the programs each school has in place to foster good character and kindness. “We are trying to raise socially conscious, socially aware kids,” she says. 

She is also an advocate for letting kids make mistakes. “Everybody has to make a bad choice sometime,” she says. “Did you learn something? Then that’s ok. Life is lived one way: forward.” For Brown, “forward” means taking a step back from the schools she has dedicated herself to for so many years – and being able to take a vacation whenever she wants.


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Sgt. Jim Cota: 24 years with LBPD and counting

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Sgt. Jim Cota’s first job after graduating from the Golden West Police Academy was with the Laguna Beach Police Department (LBPD). When he graduated there weren’t many options due to Orange County’s bankruptcy. “There were only a handful of cities that were hiring. I chose Laguna Beach which turned out to be the right choice for me because I never left,” he says. Sgt. Cota has been with LBPD for 24 years.

And he’s not planning on leaving, at least not yet. Rising through the ranks from a police officer to a narcotics detective to a field training officer to corporal and, now, as a sergeant, Sgt. Cota’s ambitions have not abated. He is planning on being involved in LBPD’s promotional process next year. However, there’s not a lot of rope left to climb. All that stands in front of him is lieutenant, then captain and, finally chief. “I want to promote to lieutenant,” he says. “We have some openings in the next year.”

Sgt Cota close up

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Sgt. Jim Cota is a 24-year veteran of the Laguna Beach Police Department

A heavy load requires his full attention

While he may have his eye on the future, Sgt. Cota’s present requires his full attention. As a sergeant of the investigations division, he oversees six detectives, the department’s administration training officer, the property and evidence officer, the community officer, the school resource officer as well as the social media team. And, if that’s not enough, he’s also the department’s press information officer. He acts as the department’s spokesperson. “This is a real honor for me,” he says earnestly. “I get to highlight and showcase all the wonderful events and the great jobs all the officers do, as well as communicate with local media sources.”

Committed to a graduate degree from USC

Sgt. Cota is investing a lot of energy in the communications part of his job. “I’m currently enrolled in a graduate program at USC – fight on! – in communications. And, yes, I drank the juice,” he says with a laugh. “But really, I’m most proud of being accepted to such a prestigious school.” Cota was interested in USC’s program because of their focus on social media. “They’re teaching new ways to conduct research into the next generation. It’s a very intensive program. A degree of this magnitude goes hand in hand with my PIO (public information officer) duties for the police department.”

Choosing the Nike way of getting things done

With all of this going on, Cota says he practices the Nike “Just do it” philosophy. “My life may look difficult to most people. I have to balance work, school and family life.” Luckily, he says both home and the members of the department are very supportive of his efforts. He says he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be, doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. However, it was a dark event that set him on this path.

Sgt. Cota is not someone who grew up wanting to be a police officer. After graduating from high school he went into real estate. “I enjoyed it, but something was missing in my life,” he says. The turning point came when he watched the 1992 Los Angeles riots on TV.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots make an impact

 “I remember watching the early stages of the riots and questioning why the LAPD was not helping Reginald Denny. (Reginald Denny was the truck driver who was pulled from his truck and beaten at the corner of Florence and Normandy in south central Los Angeles.) I realized I could really do that and make a difference, as opposed to what I was doing (in real estate).” Cota went on some ride-alongs with a friend who worked for an LA agency, and he was hooked. “I fell in love with the job,” he says.

Sgt Cota talking

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Sgt. Jim Cota conducts an interview in the LBPD conference room

Laguna’s Main Beach protest provides a great learning opportunity

Luckily, Cota has never had to deal with anything close to the events in LA that motivated him to become a police officer. The biggest event he has worked in recent times was the Main Beach protest in 2017. Sgt. Cota credits Laguna Beach Police Chief Farinella with managing the event “perfectly.” “I learned a lot observing her decision making which helps me make swift decisions in the investigations unit.” He saw her decision making up close as the two worked together in the command post that day. “I observed her make timely and critical decisions that made that operation so successful,” he recalls.

A high regard for those he works with

 Sgt. Cota goes on at length about the high regard he has for Chief Farinella. He is also a big believer in community policing, which she demands. The idea is that the police should interact with the community beyond their traditional police work. Cota believes this helps foster community support. 

Community policing is key

“We take time to get out of our cars and talk to the kids, stop at a lemonade stand. You don’t see that in other cities. This is the philosophy that the Chief expects from the officers in this police department. Police officers who work here have to be willing to do more than just write tickets and arrest people.” 

Community policing is something that is taught in depth at the Golden West Police Academy and the LBPD embraced the concept before Chief Farinella came on board. However, she has taken it to another level. “She gets it. She gets this community’s needs. Her personality is exactly what the City needs, and it has responded well to her,” he says.

A true, blue Dodger fan

Sgt. Cota responded well to his new Chief before he even had a chance to  become such a fan of her job performance. When Chief Farinella first started, Sgt. Cota recalls there being the usual anxiety about new leadership coming in. What broke the ice for the two of them is when they discovered they shared a love for the Dodgers. “We’re the only two who are die-hards,” he says smiling.

Sgt Cota Dodgers wall

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Sgt. Cota isn’t shy about where his baseball loyalties lie

Cota is equally effusive about his investigations team. “They are absolutely incredible,” he gushes. “They’re like a second family to me. Each of them works so hard, night and day, for this organization.”

LBPD is a source of great pride for Sgt. Cota

To have such faith in one’s coworkers is extremely beneficial in a job such as Sgt. Cota’s, especially as things have changed quite a bit in his 24 years on the force. “Society has changed,” he muses. More specifically, Laguna has gotten a lot busier as the visiting population has soared. This means more service calls. And while this obviously presents problems, it also means more opportunities for engagement. “The police department does a terrific job of minimizing crime in this town,” he says emphatically.

The pride Sgt. Cota has in the Laguna Beach Police Department has certainly been earned. It’s also an important factor in why he finds the job so rewarding. “I am so grateful my life went in this direction,” he says. “This is the career I was made for.” After 24 years, with no signs of slowing down, it would seem so.


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Laguna gave him roots, Canada gave him wings:

The soaring heights of Ballet Star Skylar Campbell

Story by MARRIE STONE

Ballet may be coded into Skylar Campbell’s DNA. His mother, Kelly Uygan (neé Leonardi), was a noted ballerina for 15 years, performing with Laguna Beach’s Ballet Pacifica and as a principal dancer for the Hartford Ballet Company. Skylar’s stepfather, Viktor Uygan, also reached international recognition as a danseur in both the United States and abroad.

Laguna gave black tights

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Photo by Rick Guest

Before ballet, there was music, skateboarding, and the Pacific

But for whatever impact nature and nurture had on him, Skylar still came surprisingly late to ballet. At the ancient age of nearly 14, after expressing little interest in pursuing his mother’s profession, Skylar announced – on the steps of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York – that he had his sights set on ballet. And he had the drive, determination, and ability to achieve it. 

After a mere two years, he was awarded a coveted Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) scholarship and a chance to dance in Switzerland at the Prix de Lausanne at the age of 17. The very next year, in 2009, Skylar was offered a prestigious apprenticeship with the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) in Toronto. This year, less than a decade later, he became one of their principal dancers. This quick success is unprecedented in the ballet world. He came up so quickly, his mother says, that when offered the opportunity at the impossible Prix de Lausanne, he’d never even heard of it.

While it could have been nature (with a ballerina’s blood flowing through his veins) or nurture (growing up around dance studios and stages), Skylar’s innate talent is something all his own. His rhythm is rooted in a deep appreciation for musicality. He retains amazing command over his body, able to execute complicated movements with consistent fluidity and grace. And he has an instinctive ability to wholly inhabit his characters. All this makes Skylar’s stage presence nothing less than extraordinary. 

Laguna gave on one foot

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Photo by Karolina Kuras

Skylar’s drive, determination, and innate talent led him to rapid success

Growing up Laguna

Born in Laguna, Skylar attended Top of the World Elementary from first through fifth grades. Typical of a Laguna Beach boy, he couldn’t get enough of the great outdoors, preferring ocean sports and skateboards to ballet slippers in his younger years. “I was jumbling drums and skateboarding and doing water sports,” he says. “Dance came into the picture much later.” 

Laguna gave drums

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

Skylar shows early and avid interest in the drums

His paternal grandmother, the late Lida Lenney, was a former mayor of Laguna Beach. An outspoken environmental activist, Mayor Lenney served during the devastating 1993 fire. The Laguna fire destroyed Skylar’s childhood home on Canyon Acres, and caused his mother to move to Connecticut to dance with the Hartford Ballet before moving back to Laguna when Skylar started first grade.

“I had this kind of duality of two different worlds,” says Skylar. “I bounced between, and was able to pick and choose what I liked of both. I loved the lifestyle of hanging out at the beach.”

Skylar’s maternal grandmother is Carol Leonardi, who was instrumental in helping manage Ballet Pacifica. From 1962 to 2007, Ballet Pacifica was an Orange County institution, nationally recognized for its innovative program. Even if he didn’t yet dance himself, Skylar had a ballet upbringing. His mother took him to countless performances. He brought bouquets to her on stage. Ballet Pacifica became something of a second home.

Laguna gave with mom

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

A young Skylar with his mother, Ballerina Kelly Uygan Leonardi

“Throughout late middle school, seventh or eighth grade, I got the taste for what it meant to be a professional dancer,” says Skylar. “I tried hip-hop, jazz, and ballet. Ballet took over all of those other mediums of dance.” He went on to train with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky in Laguna Hills before launching his professional career in Canada.

But first there was music

For Skylar, music always came first. “Even in the womb,” his mother says, “I would play Mozart piano concertos and I could feel him relax. He was always interested in music, even at the youngest age. On snow days, I would find him watching the symphony rehearse in our building. That musicality has crossed over to ballet. It’s a quality that he’s often noted for in his dancing now.”

Laguna gave piano

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

Even in the womb, Skylar was soothed by music

 Skylar took up both the baritone and the drums at a young age. He’s still an avid drummer. In fact, his company allows him to keep a drum set in the dance studio to play when he’s not rehearsing.

 “Music was the driving force in me from the very beginning,” says Skylar. “I’ll find nuances in the steps, but it’s important to have this natural ability to feel the music. The music is what makes you dance. It’s such a human quality.”

Skylar’s many starring roles

Skylar’s roles are nearly too numerous to recount. But there are some recent stunning performances worthy of note. Skylar created the title role in the world premiere of Pinocchio by Will Tuckett, described by the Toronto Star as “a heartbreakingly poignant portrayal of wooden wannabe boy from fairy tale.” 

Watching videos of his performance, it’s clear Skylar’s heart and head are as invested in portraying the character as his body. He once said in a 2014 interview with My Theatre Award’s Kelly Bedard, “The most important thing I have learned in dancing these roles is to always keep a dialogue running through your mind. We do not have words to express our feelings, so we have to emote these feelings with our bodies. A story or emotion will not transmit to an audience if you are not keeping specific intention running through your mind.” 

That’s how his performances feel – intentional. I wonder if he calls upon a time before he danced, still the wooden boy without the benefit of ballet, to bring this character so intimately to life. As though ballet itself breathed life into Skylar, giving him the ability to transmit that emotion to the stage.

Laguna gave Giselle

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Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

Skylar Campbell in the role of Hilarion in Giselle, National Ballet of Canada, 2016

Other recent performances include the title roles of Le Petit Prince and Nijinsky. “His is a Nijinsky of childlike innocence, conveyed in dancing of unaffected, almost angelic purity,” said the Toronto Star. “He simply breaks your heart.” 

“Performing is why we do what we do,” says Skylar. “There’s something transformative about being on stage. It’s an infectious feeling. I never could imagine living without it now. It’s quite crazy. And it’s a little consuming.” 

For a young man so full of focus and mindfulness, Skylar says it’s still difficult for him to remain in the present. “But being on stage gives you those moments of serenity, those moments of feeling present,” he says. “You feel like you’re doing what you need to be doing. Having the ability to move people by feeling this complete abandonment in certain things is wonderful.” 

Other roles from his online biography include Peter/The Nutcracker in The Nutcracker, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Hilarion in Giselle, Gurn in La Sylphide, White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and Alan in A Streetcar Named Desire. Skylar has also danced roles in Swan Lake, Onegin, Cinderella, Manon, A Month in the Country, Don Quixote, Hamlet, The Seagull, Theme and Variations, Tarantella, The Four Seasons, Emergence, Chroma, Being and Nothingness, Symphony # 9, The Second Detail, Genus, Cacti, Paz de la Jolla and The Dreamers Ever Leave You. He also danced in the world premiere of Frame by Frame by Guillaume Côté and Robert Lepage.

Advice from backstage

There are three things Skylar says during our talk that strike me as particularly insightful. First, he says, he wants to challenge the stereotype that ballet is primarily an athletic endeavor. “What we’re doing is more than physical,” he says. “We have to move the audience with our acting, musicality, dynamics. That’s what makes ballet interesting. That’s why people love it.”

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Photo by Rick Guest

“Ballet requires both athleticism and artistry. That’s what audiences love.”

 He also urges artists to expose themselves to as many different types of art as possible. “Don’t trap yourself into your niche,” he says. “Don’t only watch shows if you’re a performer, or movies if you’re an actor.” 

Skylar’s insistence of diversifying himself as an audience member enriches his own art. It also deepens his curiosity. “I would never want to do what these [other artists] are doing, but I can apply [what they’re doing] to my craft.” It also allows him to bounce around ideas of possibility outside the structured framework of ballet. By expanding his artistic repertoire, it brings depth to his own performance.

His final advice? He urges people to attend the theater, not simply substitute the experience on their screens. “You’re not going into the theater when you’re on Instagram. Instant gratification posts glorify dancers in a way. But there’s a real push and pull with people living on their phones instead of inside the theater.” Social media, he says, has had an enormous impact on the arts. It portrays the extremes of the art form as consumers ogle over photos, or watch YouTube videos, instead of attending live performances. 

“Ballet is an art that only exists with the bodies that it has. Dancing isn’t like a painting or sculpture that can be viewed for hundreds of years. It’s only alive within the people who are alive right now. It’s important to transport yourself in the theater – go see any live art. It’s enriching.” 

But, he admits, it’s also become expensive. “Ballet’s golden days were in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In those days, dancers were celebrities. Attending the theater was a regular occurrence for the general public. Now it’s become an elitist art form. It’s an extremely costly business that limits our audience. We’re not appreciated as much as we were before, because we don’t have this world popularity, or national popularity, as individuals.” But, he says, dancers now tend to look at the bigger picture – they love what they have at the moment, and they trust there will be something for them after their careers end. 

That’s a worry Skylar needn’t tackle for a long time. His place on the international stage seems secure.

Skylar’s return to his hometown

On Saturday and Sunday, Oct 6 and 7, Skylar will return to Laguna Beach to perform onstage at the Laguna Playhouse for the Stars of Dance Festival. 

A particularly meaningful performance, says his mother, because he’s dancing on the centennial celebration of Ballet Pacifica founder Lila Zali’s 100th birthday. “It’s a neat thing that he’s dancing in the Playhouse where my first shows as a young professional were performed,” says Kelly. “That’s a big tie for him to the community – Laguna, Lila, Ballet Pacifica. Dancing on her centennial, and performing the Flower Festival, which is an old classic she loved – Lila would have appreciated that.” 

Skylar will join principal ballerina and Breaking Pointe TV reality series star Beckanne Sisk and soloist Chase O’Connell of Ballet West, as well as his colleague at NBC Jordana Daumec. Dores André and Joseph Walsh of San Francisco Ballet will also perform. The Stars of Dance shows will run on Saturday, Oct 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct 7, at 2 p.m. More information and tickets for the event can be found at the Laguna Playhouse website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com.

Michael Crabb, in Dance Magazine, may have summed Skylar up best: “Incandescent onstage, Campbell’s laid-back demeanor disguises a burning desire to succeed – and a work ethic that’s enabled him to accomplish it.”


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The Alchemy of Mike Beanan: Transforming trauma into comfort for Vietnam Veterans

Story by MARRIE STONE

Mike Beanan may be one of Laguna’s great alchemists. For all his many talents, this could be his best – a gift for converting darkness into light, and suffering into solace. There are a lot of ugly truths about Vietnam, but one of them is this: you can take the soldier out of the war, but you’ll never take the war out of the soldier. 

What that soldier does in its aftermath is the challenge. 

The Alchemy two men

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Photo by Chip Maury

Navy SEAL Mike Beanan (left) with an M60 in Vietnam

When the opportunity to spend time with Mike arose, I embraced it. In fact, I stole the assignment away from one of my colleagues. My own father was a Vietnam vet who carried the demons of war particularly close his whole life. Since his death last year, I’ve sought out men like Mike who give me the chance to look down all those post-war roads not taken, imagining brighter outcomes. He represents a different and positive path – 

one of hope and strength and resilience.

Mike has spent most of his adult life finding ways to turn the brutal lessons he learned in Vietnam into forces for positive change at home by applying his many passions and talents to important causes. As an activist and environmentalist, Mike makes the ocean his second home. “The ocean,” he says “is my underwater church.” There, his alchemy isn’t just philosophical. Mike is working with the City on a water reclamation and treatment facility, turning dirty water into clean. With a degree in Biology from UCI, he’s also interested in the science behind converting human waste into energy.

The Alchemy Mike closeup

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Beanan standing beside his second home and his spiritual sanctuary

As a skilled carpenter, Mike not only builds beautiful homes from nothing (doing every part of the construction himself), he also teaches his trade to others – giving men a sense of purpose and pride. And, if he finds a man particularly down on his luck, Mike opens his home to him, sharing his experience and wisdom, meals and books, until he can get back on his feet. Mike calls it his “burnout bin.”

What, I wondered, pulls a man out of the psychological trenches? What alchemy allowed Mike to turn his own demons into angels? This is what I learned…

A military-style upbringing

Mike’s childhood might have been one long preparation for the military. His parents raised five kids, close in age, on a butcher’s salary. Survival was a skill taught early. Mike grew up siphoning gas out of cars, dumpster diving, and scavenging for the next meal. “It was all survival,” he says. “It wasn’t like we were wolf children,” he says, “but we were raised to be incredibly self reliant.” 

Brought up on the shores of the northern California coast, Mike was the oldest of four sons (his only sister is a year older). The boys lived in a converted garage behind the house and, though his father was the WWII veteran, his mother insisted on military cleanliness. “My mom was in the Women’s Army Corp (WAC). She came in for inspection every Saturday with a white glove. We learned to work hard and have fun.” 

He grew up surfing the frigid waters of the Pacific and camping in the rugged terrain of the California and Oregon wilderness. Using stars, maps and compasses, Mike quickly became adept at navigation, a skill that would soon serve him well. “I could look at a map and tell you where the hills are – the vegetation, the houses and water. I could tell you where we could slip through quietly. Growing up surfing, we had to trespass through farms to get to the water. The farmers carried shotguns and we were carrying nine-foot white surfboards. So we became very good at sneaking down arroyos. We learned Spanish to speak to the braceros so they wouldn’t turn us over to the farmers.”

At age 17, Mike struggled to survive on his own as an emancipated minor, spending time in jail because of it, and deciding, when the draft board came for him – however much he wanted to avoid the horrors of war – he couldn’t go to prison. When Mike got to the military, it was like his whole life had trained him for that experience.

Vietnam: innocence lost and disillusionment found

With Mike’s skillset, intelligence, and work ethic, he quickly moved through the ranks. He was navigating an aircraft carrier by the age of 18, and soon became a sergeant. Then he was scouted as a frogman, completing training, and loving his time back “home” – in the water. “I was so happy to be in the water again. I aced the training. I outswam everyone, outran everyone. I felt free.” To put this time in perspective, two men died during training. It was that dangerous.

From there, Mike was recruited into a secret organization led by the CIA – Navy SEAL Team I. “It was a clandestine, surreptitious operation to kidnap village chiefs. We’d sneak in and sneak out. No one saw us or heard us. Everything was done at night.” 

Mike soon understood these Vietnamese chiefs weren’t a threat to anyone. “It was wrong,” he says. “What we were doing was wrong.” The SEALS were forced into a terror campaign, gutting and dismembering villagers as an act of psychological warfare. In 1981, Mike contributed a chapter for the book Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Al Santoli. He writes: “Not only had [these villagers] died very violently and horribly, but [they] wouldn’t even be able to enter nirvana intact, and that impact was just incredible.” 

Worse than the realization that the war was wrong came the awareness that the military was taking glorified photos of the SEALS to bolster their campaign. “It was all made up,” he says. 

The Alchemy Seals group

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Photo by Chip Maury

Mike Beanan – bottom row, second from the left – flashes a peace sign as a signal that the SEALS wanted out of this war

“They took a picture of us holding a Vietnam flag we’d captured. We hung the flag upside down, which means we’re in distress, then flashed the peace sign. We were trying to send the message back: This war is screwed up and we want peace. Instead, these pictures became the iconic photos of SEAL team because our nation loves war.”

Climbing out of the trenches

Mike returned from Vietnam in 1969, physically intact but psychologically damaged. He transferred to UC Irvine from community college in 1971 as a Biology and Psychology major and went on to graduate work in Social Ecology. 

He drove a school bus for handicapped kids. He helped lead several veterans’ initiatives and programs, including the Handicapped SCUBA Project at UCI, the countywide Veterans’ Split Job Program, the “Amnesty Psychodrama” program, and the Veterans’ Conspiracy model. He soon discovered universities were designed (with all their research and funding) to support the military – not the men who fought in the war, and certainly not the veterans who came home.

“I took all my training from the military and reversed it. How to you unassassinate somebody? We called it guerilla goodness.” Mike trained veterans to empower themselves. He used military tactics against a government trying to deny veterans their rights – payment, employment, treatment. He’d ambush administrators at their meetings. And, of course, he participated in plenty of protests.

Around this time, Mike found transcendental meditation. It’s a practice he’s kept for years. It allows him to get by on little sleep and still feel refreshed. 

Not only did Mike pull himself out of the trenches, but he stretched his hand back and lifted others up as well. For 30 years, he atoned for his time in the war. Then he decided to devote himself to the ocean.

From Navy SEAL to protecting Laguna’s sea life

Perhaps Mike’s most profound impact, and the one he’s most rightfully proud of, is his work with his first love – the Pacific Ocean. As co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, Mike and his colleagues have made significant strides in protecting Laguna’s most precious resource. Now our coastline is recognized as a marine protected area and no-take zone. Our water quality has improved. Our marine life and estuary wildlife are not only surviving, but thriving.

Fish and marine mammals are rebounding. Whales, particularly gray whales and their calves, are present in Laguna’s shallow coves. Surveys suggest abalone is also making a comeback. In simple terms, Mike’s many efforts are working wonders in our ocean.

Mike is a member of the Laguna Beach Environmental and Sustainability Committee, and co-founder of the KelpFest Laguna Beach regional Earth Day event. In 2012, he won the Orange County Cox Conserves Hero Award, given in partnership with The Trust for Public Land and Cox Enterprises.

The Alchemy on beach

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Beanan sports his “business suit” while working at the office

“We are the only citywide marine protected area and the only city in the U.S. with a contiguous bluebelt and greenbelt,” he told the Orange County Register last May. “What’s important is that we have a rocky bottom. Because of that, you have tide pools and hundreds of caves that function as nurseries for fish and shellfish. Offshore we have kelp forests equivalent to underwater redwood forests. They can grow to 120 feet high and grow at a rate of two feet a day. Rather than a ‘no fish’ zone, we have a ‘grow fish’ zone.”

Mike’s enthusiasm for the environment, and ocean protection, is infectious. It’s hard not to be moved to action while listening to him talk. 

The Alchemy estuary

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Aliso Creek estuary and sand berm provide a habitat for protected species

 such as the tidewater goby and southern steelhead trout
Mike’s mysterious alchemy

Mike’s journey feels both miraculous and inevitable. A rugged childhood created a natural leader. A broken soldier became an instinctive healer. A former frogman evolved into the ocean’s biggest advocate. But all that could have gone a different way. 

Whether or not Agent Orange caused my father’s eventual brain tumor, I don’t know. But I’m certain the war fueled his lifelong addiction to alcohol. Mike, though, traded alcohol for meditation and medical marijuana. He prefers sea life over life as a Navy SEAL. He didn’t let his demons conquer him. Instead, he used his experiences to help others out of the dark.

Some of his old war stories sound familiar to me (enough to make me tear up while we talked). But Mike’s post-war life feels entirely foreign. What allows one man to thrive while another merely survives? Why did one guy make it home when his buddy didn’t? Impossible to know. Like alchemy, some things remain a mystery.

Mike tells me he didn’t have children in large part because of the war. “I knew I couldn’t protect a kid from the war machine in this country,” he says. “And I knew I’d been exposed to something really bad, and it would permeate everything.” Instead, Mike became a father figure to some and a role model to many. He’s lived his life as an example – an activist, a leader, and a steadfast steward of the environment. 

“You could be my niece,” he tells me as our time wraps up, inviting me out to swim sometime. 

I don’t tell him I’m afraid of the ocean and that, in my 20 years of living in Laguna, I’ve barely swum at all. Instead I say yes. Because Mike is the kind of man that makes people trust him. He makes people feel safe enough to take risks, brave enough to give it their all, and inspired to make a difference.


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Hans Laroche: Committed to kids

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have a child in Laguna Beach, there is a very good chance they know Hans Laroche. Laroche has been with the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach (The Club) since 2002. Through his work at the Boys and Girls Club and his subsequent visits to Laguna’s schools, LaRoche is known – and adored – by Club members and non-Club members alike.

With the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach since 2002

Hired as The Club’s Athletic Director in 2002, Laroche’s basketball leagues have become an almost ubiquitous part of growing up in Laguna. With a thoughtful commitment to balancing competition and fun, something Laroche has brought to all of his sporting ventures, the kids flock to The Club to participate in his sports programs. 

However, Laroche has had to leave the day to day running of his beloved gym to someone else. In April he was promoted to Canyon Branch Manager. Now, he gets to spread his influence to all areas of the Club. It is a change he welcomes, and one he sought out.

Working with kids is his calling

Laroche came to Orange County from Los Angeles where he worked at the YMCA, first as a camp counselor and then ultimately as its executive director. “When I was younger, in middle school, I volunteered to work in the cafeteria, play games with other kids…from day one I realized this was my calling, it was more rewarding for me. From that day on, it has always been about working with the youth,” he says.

LLP Hans close up

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Hans Laroche, formerly the Athletic Director, now the Branch Manager at the Boys and Girls Club

Laroche and his wife moved to Orange County because she got a job teaching at George White Elementary in the Capo Valley Unified School District where she still teaches today. Laroche took a job at the Capo Valley Boys and Girls Club, even though he says his first choice was Laguna. “I had an idea about the Boys and Girls Club. I saw kids were more free than at the YMCA. The Boys and Girls Club is more kid focused. It was different,” he explains.

Jumping at the chance to work in Laguna Beach

Laroche became friends with the Laguna Beach branch’s former athletic director. When he was ready to leave, he gave Laroche a call. “He knew I wanted to work in Laguna so he gave me the first opportunity.” Laroche made the most of it, becoming a beloved part of the club over the last 15 years.

Making a strong connection with “his” kids

I don’t use the word “beloved” lightly. When Laroche makes appearances at the local elementary schools, he is treated like a celebrity. The kids rush over to say “hi” and then just hang around him, happy to be in his presence. The kids can sense that when he says working with them is his calling, he means it.

From Haiti to Canada to the US

Born in Haiti, Laroche and his family emigrated to Canada where he stayed through high school. After that, he says his parents wanted him to go to college in the US. “Your future is brighter in the US than in Canada,” he says. So the family moved south. Laroche went to college, found the YMCA and then, eventually, The Boys and Girls Club.

Starting a culture shift at The Club

When he took over as athletic director, Laroche says he wanted to make some changes. “First thing I realized was that the atmosphere was a little cold. I wanted to make it fun. It didn’t take long. I saw smiles and joy. I started a culture shift with the kids,” he explains.

LLP Hans in gym

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Hans Laroche in Boys and Girls Club gym, his home away from home for 15 years

Making an impact in the gym was a natural fit for Laroche. “Sports was my first love,” he says. “It was always sports.” His enjoyment of sport was infectious. He added games like floor hockey, golf and roller hockey. He added all-star games and kept standings to make the basketball leagues more exciting. With 120 kids coming through The Club a day, there needs to be a lot of variety.

Making it fun for everyone, no matter their skill level

Something Laroche says he sees as an “opportunity” is how to create an environment where kids who aren’t superstars can feel comfortable participating with kids who are. “The kids want to have a good experience. You need to give them a secure feeling that they don’t have to excel.” For those who want more intense competition, there are plenty of places for them to play. It’s much harder to give the kids who just want to experience the enjoyment of sport in a competitive (but not too competitive) of an environment.

Embracing the idea of being a leader

For 15 years, LaRoche focused his attention on the sports programs at The Club. However, his insight into other areas was sought out. “Scott (the former branch manager) told me, ‘I wish you’d speak up more.” So when Scott announced he was leaving after three years, Laroche saw an opportunity. If he were to take Scott’s place, he would be in a position to not only speak, but be listened to. “I decided to try and be more of a leader. I thought if I were to be chosen (as manager) I could probably have an impact. That was my motivation.” After what he describes as a “rigorous” interview process, he was given the position.

His longevity has helped him know what families need

His longevity at The Club has served him well. “I got to work under a lot of different branch managers,” he says. “I got to see how they did things. I had an almost inside look at what the kids want and what the families need.” And changes have been made already.

Leading by example to highlight the importance of The Club’s work

“I started to lead by example,” he says. “We’re not doing the kids a favor by working here. It’s the other way around. Working here is important work. It is serious work. Whether it’s in the gym, the art room or playing games, it doesn’t matter. It needs to be taken seriously. I’ve definitely seen a shift in culture,” he says.

LLP Hans BGC Staff

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Hans Laroche and some of the committed staff at the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach

He and the staff at The Club have worked to create new and exciting programs for fall. And while there is always something The Club needs, when asked what he would do if he were presented with a blank check, he doesn’t think of buying more “stuff.” Instead, he says he’d just like to be able to reach more kids. 

The Club provides a unique experience

“We can handle more kids,” he says. “What has happened throughout the years is there are more groups providing more things. There are more choices. Here, kids can make up their own mind. They can make their own friendships in their own environment. It’s different from an AYSO practice.” And that is why he is so committed to The Club and its mission. If run well, it provides a unique experience for its members that he wholeheartedly believes in.

And while he has only been a manager for a short while, he wouldn’t be opposed to continuing to work his way up the ladder of command. “I would like to have an even bigger impact,” he says. 

Running The Club is a team sport

In the meantime, he is pleased with how things are going in his new position. “I’m pleasantly surprised to see how things are so easy,” he says. “The support I have from kids and families, I’ve earned respect throughout my years here so there has been no conflict.” Laroche mentions more than once that he is just part of a larger group committed to serving the kids. There is no room for anything that might diminish The Club’s mission. “This is a team effort. We all have to leave the politics behind and come here with the sole purpose to serve our kids,” he says. Despite his gentle manner and soothing accent, it is clear that nothing less than that will do.


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Discovering What Lies Beneath: Festival of Arts Exhibitor Kathy Jones Trains Her Gaze on Hidden Delights

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

As a kid, Kathy Jones lived inside her imagination. Convinced that a secret button existed behind her bedroom wallpaper that could open a portal to another place, she peeled the paper off the wall. “My mother wasn’t happy about that,” she says. Neither was Kathy when she discovered nothing more than plaster and drywall.

Certain that tiny singers lived inside her family’s radio, Kathy stared at the back of the box and waited for them to come out.

You can write these anecdotes off as youthful fantasy and an active imagination. Or you can see them as early signs of an artist’s mind at work. A few tiles in the mosaic of one woman’s creative worldview – one that is complicated and concealed, the surface never what it seems. 

Discovering What closeup

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Kathy Jones, painter, has exhibited at the Festival of Arts since 2000

Seven decades later, Kathy’s curiosity hasn’t waned. She continues to be drawn to discovery and delighted by surprise. Compelled to keep pulling back life’s wallpaper, her work always attempts to discover something deeper and more fundamental to the human experience. “If a piece doesn’t surprise me in some way,” Kathy says, “you’ll never see it.”

An early appreciation for art

Kathy’s father was a newspaperman. His job took their family from the Bay area, where Kathy was born, to southern California while he worked first for Hearst and then for Norman Chandler at the LA Times

Newspapers gave Kathy access to some early tools of her trade. Her father brought home giant sheets of newsprint and Eagle drafting pencils. “I drew princesses and fantasy landscapes for my animals,” she says. She carried that love of art with her to Stanford University. 

“I’m a restless human being,” says Kathy. “When I had to declare a major my junior year [at Stanford], I thought ‘Why don’t you just handcuff me?’” While she studied drawing, printmaking and sculpture, she majored in French. Why? Because after studying abroad her sophomore year, she’d already taken the required courses. That freed her to explore every whim that interested her – from journalism to Middle Eastern history – any class was possible. 

That early curiosity across disciplines, and her willingness to take intellectual risks, still infuses everything Kathy does. It’s reflected in her art, in her eclectic Laguna Canyon home, in her career in academia, and in her rich friendships. While curiosity may have begun as an innate trait, she’s known how to feed it in various ways throughout her life. It continues to pay dividends.

The trips of the trade

Kathy credits her time abroad for informing much of her work today. Living in France and Germany played an important role in her development as artist and woman. But it was her two years in Egypt, in her early 20s, that transformed her thinking and influenced the lens through which she views the world. 

From 1964 to 1966, Kathy and her first husband lived in Cairo and spent time on the banks of the Red Sea. His work as research scientist and college professor took them to exotic locales. They trained around the perimeter of India, spent time in Saudi Arabia, but made their home in Egypt where Kathy taught art in the Cairo American College. “There was a sense of cultural adventure and cultural celebration,” says Kathy. That influence remains in her work today. “The textiles and the silver. The markets. Egyptian souqs had bags of spices and Turkish jewelry. It was all dazzling to me.”

Her work continues to be steeped in those vibrant colors. “Every painting is an unknown journey,” Kathy says. She’s carried that sense of adventure, those rich textures and tones, and that discovery of the unknown onto her canvases. 

An homage to women

Some years ago, Kathy became captivated by the work of Ernest J. Bellocq, who photographed New Orleans Storyville prostitutes in 1912. “His book always meant a lot to me. The respect and care Bellocq showed in these portraits always touched me. I wanted to pay homage to these girls.” So she created her own Storyville series.

Kathy came of age right before the feminist movement. “In college, only a couple of women went to medical school or law school.” Kathy says she was born between things – too late to be affected by WWII, too early to bear the full brunt of the Civil Rights movement and feminism. 

Her mother was a powerful influence, an Iris Apfel character, modeling Apfel’s fashion iconography and bold style. She owned a shop in Laguna, Townsend’s, specializing in gorgeous textiles and ornate beads. “She’d pair simple muslin pants and tops with incredibly beautiful jackets. Beads from all kinds of sources.” Kathy appreciated the ethnic celebrations in her mother’s work.

Kathy’s own two daughters carry on the legacy of strength. Hallie is the Executive Director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation. “Hallie is a reader and a writer,” Kathy says. “Meg is a maker. She’s always doing something cool. Tie-dying or making beads.” 

Discovering What girls

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Kathy with her daughters, Hallie and Meg

Kathy’s latest exhibit (on display now at the Festival of Arts) is called “In the Mood.” It reflects particular moments in her life and the feelings those moments evoke. Watching her daughters as women and mothers inspired some of this latest work. “One painting is the feeling I have when I watch my daughter and her adolescent girl begin to separate. Another is about watching the career choices my other daughter has to weed through.”

Women – whether strong and powerful, quiet and reflective, in positions of influence, or as steadfast mothers – are important to Kathy. She uses words like ‘homage’ and ‘respect’ more than once when speaking of the women in her life.

A room of her own

“You walk into an art studio and there’s this wonderful aroma,” she says. “And this sense of possibility.” 

Kathy keeps a space at the Laguna Canyon Artists’ Studios, which she’s had since the early 2000s. “The first time I wrote a check, it felt like an indulgence. I’m paying money for just a space to paint. Then I thought, ‘Wow!’ And I still have that feeling every time I walk in. This space means that these paintings are my paintings.”

Discovering What in studio

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An intimate look inside Kathy’s art studio in Laguna Canyon

Her space used to be a dance studio. It still has a giant mirror on one wall. Kathy uses the mirror as part of her process, looking ahead while painting and then, periodically, looking back at her work through the mirror to give herself a different perspective. “It’s an iterative process,” she tells me.

Kathy says the surfaces of her paintings need to be as important as the content. Texture is everything. “I like to see the artist’s hand in the work,” she says. “My paintings are about silence, solitude, space, and shadows – about the moments between actions. I paint people waiting, or gazing, or pausing, or moving from one place to another.” If a piece is working well, Kathy says her audience will feel inspired to bring their own history and stories to the work, making it a shared experience.

Business before art

Prior to devoting her time to painting, Kathy had a storied career in academia. She was the first female Vice Chancellor at UCI and a Vice President at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. After leaving Georgetown, she worked in management consulting and strategic planning consulting.

“To me, a well-run organization has structure, focus, and balance. That’s not different from a painting. There’s an organic whole to both of those.” Kathy says her experience as an artist influenced her management side, incorporating some sense of vitality and fun into the work. She was driven, and accomplished a great deal, but with a lot of joy, respect and civility that’s often absent in the business world.

The delights of aging

We talk about growing older, and the pressures time places on women. “I don’t mind getting older. It’s freeing,” she says. “I came to realize this life is finite. As a result, things matter more to me. You drop the petty stuff (not that I ever dwelled on the petty things anyway). But I recognize this is what it is, and I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

Kathy almost seems giddy talking about this time in her life, and the unexpected surprises that keep coming. “There was a period of time when I was younger and I looked at people my age. I thought they’d done everything. They had their kids, they had their career. There’s nothing new under the sun for them. And I was completely – 100 percent – wrong. That is so great!” 

The gifts of the Festival of Arts

Kathy has exhibited in the Festival of Arts since 2000. “Showing one’s work is hard,” she says. “Having to stand in front of it, talk about it, hear about it. It’s not where I wanted to go. But you have to put your foot in that puddle.”

Discovering What at FOA

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Kathy showing her work to a Festival visitor

From the Festival, Kathy has gotten clients and gallery connections. It’s given her authority to embrace the role of artist. “There’s also a sense of companionship and respect,” she says. “I’m touched by the support that artists give each other, and the joy they take in other people’s accomplishments.” 

I ask how she knows when a piece is finished. “Paintings talk to you like children. When you’re a mother, you’re always hearing, ‘Mom! Mom! Mom!’ When a painting stops yelling at you, you know it’s done.” 

Perfection is the enemy, Kathy tells me. You have to know when to let it go. “I never wanted to be one of those old women who was crushed by the weight of her paintings,” she says. Letting them out into the world seems a necessary part of her process.

Behind the next door…

Whenever people ask Kathy which piece is her favorite, she tells them it’s her next one. “The next one has infinite possibility. That gives me a sense of optimism.”

That seems to be Kathy’s best-kept secret: Never stop peeling back the wallpaper.

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