Back to Top


Chris Keller looks at life going forward in Laguna

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

We knew Chris Keller was a mover and shaker back when we wrote about him in a Stu News 2012 movers and shakers story. Guess what? He’s shown no signs of slowing down. Unless you add to his busy business life a new wife and new family. Then he slows down a bit to savor a home life with Amy, their daughter Alexis, and their nine-month old baby, Rocco. 

We caught up with Keller while he also had caring for his parents on his mind. He was back in the old hometown, New Jersey, and like many of us he was surprised how time has a way of sneaking up unexpectedly. The next thing you know, you’re helping out your parents instead of the other way around. 

“It’s the first time in 28 years I’ve spent more than a week there,” Keller said. “I just wanted to make sure they’re in a good place.”

Keller is a family man, though it may have taken having his own family to realize that.

Laguna’s business opportunities

In the meanwhile, this 40-something young man has enjoyed great successes in the commerce of Laguna, including the Casa del Camino and associated super popular Rooftop. After that came the successful restaurant The House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer which, unlike its name, enjoyed the spotlight with some brevity. Yes, Big Fish is closing and will be missed, but Keller had some tough business decisions to make. Big Fish is saying adios, while Keller’s partnership group, Casa Resorts, focuses on, well, resorts. 

Many of Laguna’s old-time locations have to thank Keller for a bit of an up-do. Big Fish came in where the Aegean Café sailed off. The Rooftop was the first of its kind to dominate Laguna sunsets since it poured its first mojito. And the Marine Room is underway with some fancy upticks, like the music stage area moved to the back room, and even some fine new bathrooms.

Amy says the Marine Room is “Chris’ other little baby.”

“It’s doing great, and looking great,” says Keller. “There’s a better layout, and we’re getting great feedback.” The Marine Room is poised to be “the best whiskey bar in town.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Many friends and regulars of the Marine Room wanted to talk with Keller – so they all jumped in to be photographed

Keller moves where the opportunities are, and where his passions take him. Lately, since he and Amy have been getting healthy with exercise and juicing, they have moved on to the next project; a juice bar.

“I’d been an on and off vegetarian/pescatarian for many years,” said Keller. “Then a year and a half ago I went on a vegan diet. Working out and juicing every day – I’ve never felt better in my whole life.”

Look for healthy fruits and veggies whipped up into shakes or extracts (always a good choice instead of the movie theatre fare!). “We’re going to have our top 10 or 15 juice recipes,” he said. “We’re really excited about it. That place has so much history and a cool vibe.”

Keller’s newest business, a juice bar, will open soon next to the movie theatre

In addition to working for success in his own businesses, Keller has been very active with the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, and with Visit Laguna Beach to promote Laguna as a thriving community, a destination, and a brand. He is an important spoke in the wheels of commerce, promoting business and the things that attract people to Laguna.

Between the two organizations, Keller sees strategic opportunities for the small businesses in town. “Having the trolleys run year-round (starting in March) – the City has been over the top with helping to make that happen,” he says. “That’ll be a game-changer.”

His Casa Resorts partnership is looking toward strategic growth as well. “We are re-focusing to obtain more boutique hotels,” he said. “Looking around Laguna is a priority.”

He also has a dream of one day having a hotel in Italy.

An ambitious paperboy

Keller comes by his drive for work and entrepreneurship the old-fashioned way – he started as a paperboy. Then when he was 15 his dad brought him home an application for the next step up the pre-corporate ladder: a pizza job.

The world of a pizza parlor was Keller’s intro to the hospitality industry. He worked there day and night, and found out he loved it.

That led to a career path via Johnson and Wales University where he earned a degree in hospitality. From there he was invited to help open the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. 

“Las Vegas was an amazing place to live, and I thought I wanted to be president of MGM Grand!” he said.  But one day his friend called him from California. His friend had a Hilton Hotels colleague who wanted Keller to give him a tour of Las Vegas. It must have been some tour because that guy made Keller an offer that got him to leave Las Vegas and find his future in Southern California. 

“I had no idea I would love it so much,” he recalls.

After working with Hilton in Anaheim, Keller joined with his friend and another partner to buy the Casa del Camino Hotel in Laguna. “Every time I came to visit Laguna I thought, I wish I lived there!” And so he did.

Keller moved into one of the smallest rooms in the hotel, and lived there for seven years, while growing the hotel and restaurant business. It doesn’t feel like work to him, though because he’s doing what he loves. “I’m always working, but it’s not like work,” says Keller. “It’s part of what I do. I enjoy doing what I’m passionate about.”

Up on the Roof

“There’s room enough for two – up on the roof…” so the song goes. Even Keller admits it’s been matchmaker heaven up on the roof of Casa del Camino, at The Rooftop. But for him, it’s personal.

One day while he was up on the roof, a cute girl came in. She was giggling and talking with a friend, and caught Keller’s eye. He came over to the table and met Amy Amaradio. That was it. They’ve both been over the moon since.

Life, learning, and family

While Amy handles marketing and PR for Casa Resorts, and is busy with the juice bar, she’s also been hands-on with their daughter, Alexis, who is an LBHS sophomore, and mom to Rocco, born nine months ago with Down Syndrome. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Alexis, Rocco, Chris, and Amy

Like only parents raising special needs children know, it’s definitely not easy but the rewards can also be life altering and blissful.

“It’s my best experience in 43 years of life,” Keller said. “It’s a whole other enlightening experience that I’d never thought about. 

“There are hard times, emotional times, but it is absolutely the best,” he says. “Rocco is doing great. He’s super happy. He’s got an amazing big sister and she makes him giggle. They have a special bond too.”

Keller is an integral part of the fabric of this community and a family man surrounded by love.

“I’m a simple guy, simple lifestyle,” he says. “I love my family, the beach, concerts in the park, the farmer’s market… I feel fortunate to live and work in Laguna Beach.”


Ruben Flores: Bringing new life to Laguna Nursery

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

To say that Ruben Flores, owner of Visionscape, Inc. and the reinvigorated Laguna Nursery, has a green thumb is stating the obvious.  With a BS and an MBA from Cal Poly Pomona in Ornamental Horticulture and Landscaping Design and Business, respectively, and a last name that literally translates to “flowers” it would be surprising if he didn’t. What is a surprise is the extensive reach of his “green thumb,” going well beyond just plants and flowers to basically anything he sets his sights on.  

If something needs new life, Ruben Flores is the man who can reinvigorate it.

An historic nursery needs saving

Take his Laguna Nursery, for example.  Flores purchased it seven years ago on a “whim”.  Having been a nursery for the past 52 years, Flores felt compelled to save it from its fate of becoming a storage space for a local hotel.  

“The nursery had been through several owners and gone down, down, down as far as it was serving the community,” he explains. Flores decided to fix that, in addition to running Visionscape, Inc., his landscaping design firm now in it’s 26th year.

“That,” however, was no easy task.  Lots of factors are working against the nursery business these days, according to Flores. “There are lots of reasons not to garden,” he says, listing things ranging from people’s aversion to too much sun exposure to the increased interest in drought resistant plants.  “It used to be everyone bought tomatoes and rose bushes.  Now it’s drought resistant plants and succulents.”  Flores is a fan of drought resistant plants and succulents, but since one of their selling points is their heartiness and longevity, they’re not replaced as often as rose bushes and tomatoes. This means less need for people to venture to the nursery.  So Flores had to create reasons for people to come.

Click on photo for a larger image

Social media, concerts and, of course, plants

“I brought socialization into the nursery,” says Flores.  “Everybody realizes the value of social media.  I’ve taken that on at the Nursery.  We expanded horizontally.  So we have plants, statues, fountains, but we also have a baby grand piano and do cabaret nights and concerts. 

“This brings in people who might have no idea of planting a petunia on a Saturday afternoon.  They have a glass of wine, listen to music and they see the space with a different brain.”  

Walking through the nursery there is a lot to see besides plants.  Art, from sculptures to paintings, from 32 countries are represented at the Nursery.  With jobs that take him all over the world, as well as the US, Flores has ample opportunity to collect beautiful and interesting objects.  “I want there to be the interest for the exterior that we have in the interior,” he explains.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

An interest leads to a fast start for his business

His interest in the “exterior” got off to a dynamic start.  Fresh out of school and lecturing on coastal plants he was hired to do the landscaping of Laguna’s “Villa Eden”.  As he worked on that job, he got another one down the street.  He tells me his first two jobs were for $25 million dollar properties, laughing, “I have an interest in coastal plants.  The most expensive homes tend to be on these coastal sights.  That was not my intention.”  But it turned out to be a very happy accident. 

“The second house was owned by Severin Wunderman.  “He changed my life,” says Flores.  “He had seven houses and I did all of them.”  Wunderman, who died in 2008, was a well-known art collector and philanthropist who made his fortune in the watch industry.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Smart business leads to civic involvement

In his landscaping business Flores says he did “the isolation thing.  I’m my own man doing my own thing.” The purchase of the nursery, however, changed that.  “I realized the store can’t exist without support from the community.  I started to reach out, make alliances.” Now firmly entrenched in Laguna Beach civic life Flores’ reach extends to a surprising number of organizations.  

He’s involved with Laguna’s HIP District; he’s on the board of the South Laguna Community Garden and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, is president of the Laguna Beach Beautification Committee and the Laguna Beach Sister Cities Association.  With such an array of groups, his involvement may have originally been motivated by business considerations, but it has obviously evolved beyond that.  Listening to him speak about the people and projects he’s involved with it’s quite obvious his interest is personal.  

Take the Laguna Beach Beautification Committee, for example. The Committee, which, as Flores explains, had “been around for 65 years” and had done “some very important things for the city,” like preventing high-rises on the beach and getting a public park out of the development of the Montage. As was true with Laguna Nursery before he stepped in, however, it had lost some of its zest, or as Flores puts it, the organization, “Kind of went away.”  With his help, it has since been “brought back to life.”  

The Sister Cities Association is another organization that has caught Flores’ attention and is flourishing as a result. “We are creating three 15’ x 15’ plots at Heisler Park, with room to add two more, for gardens that represent our sister cities: Menton, France; St. Ives, England and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico,” he says.  When Flores gets involved, expect things to grow and get done - two good traits for someone whose life revolves around plants.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

A gift for revitalization

Flores has gotten to the point in his career where he can be selective regarding the jobs he wants to work on.  “I will do your place if it’s photographable, even if it’s just 200 square feet, but it has to have something.  We’ve done most of the notable houses in town so when you’re working on that caliber you want to do things that challenge you,” he explains.  

When asked about trends, Flores’ passion for what he does is palpable. “I’d say succulents and grasses.  We’re foregoing flowers for textures.  There is so much emotion in texture.  People forget about movement.  Even on a hot day we usually get a slight breeze; seeing the beauty in the movement may be enough to draw you out to take a walk through your garden.”  

Talking to Ruben makes you want to be outside.  The Laguna Nursery was created to entice you to do just that.

More than just a place to buy plants, Laguna Nursery represents possibilities - of what you can do to transform your home and what a business owner can do when they are committed to reinvigorating something in need. Revitalization is something Ruben Flores knows a lot about.  Whether it’s plants, an exterior space or a community group, he can’t seem to help but give things new life.


Scott Alan, living in the here and now

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Scott Alan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laguna Bound 

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Amber, Scott’s other half

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

And Amber’s just fine with that too. They have a lot in common. 

“She’s Pisces, and I have Pisces rising. We have a Pisces thing going on,” explains Scott. “She completes me.”

Even before Scott moved here for good in 1999 he had some Laguna history. He lived in the canyon for several years in the 70’s and 80’s, and even got married. They were friends, she had a “cool little kid”, and Scott didn’t want to see them go on welfare. He helped her to get a job, and the son to stay in school. “I’m a catch, I guess,” he laughs.

“I got married to be a dad, not to be a husband,” he said. They are actually still married even though she moved a long time ago. And they have stayed friends. “We just can’t live together,” he says. “I’ve been married 30+ years. Works for us!”

It’s art, it’s a car – it’s an Art Car

The other thing that marks Scott around town, and anywhere else, is his mode of transportation. 

It all started in a small garage in LA in 1986.

Scott was the proud owner of a 34 year-old VW. It was a little beat up, with three different colors of primer, but ran like a champ. So he decided to let some friends on a graffiti crew go wild sprucing it up. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to know what you’re doing, just wow me.’” Work progressed in his driveway, and despite police cruisers passing back and forth making sure, it was all very legit - and artistic. 

Submitted photo

Click on photo for a larger image

 

The original Virgin of Guadalupe extra-terrestrial VW

“They painted it up space themed, and I’ve been on that ever since,” says Scott. 

The Virgin of Guadalupe as an extra-terrestrial caught the attention of another friend who said, “You gotta meet my friend…” And so it went until there were five or six cars worthy of attention.

Some of the other art cars were on their way to Stanford Children’s Hospital for a show. So Scott went along, and has been doing shows ever since. “The kids love it the best,” he says. “They don’t have adults filters. They just say, ‘That’s cool!’”

Scott has had three art cars now, including an Avatar themed VW (that, sadly, was demolished in an accident), and his current Star Wars Darth Maul themed “Galactic Please Patrol.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Scott and Amber with the Galactic Please Patrol car

“I’m constantly doing this one,” said Scott. “Trying to make it my old car again. Now I’m putting in a sunroof, and new pop-out windows.”

He’s been to art car festivals in Seattle several times, as well as San Francisco and Texas, but it’s expensive just to get there (especially Texas!). “They’ll usually house you, and feed you, and pay twice what your gas costs to get there.” Really, it’s for fun and community.

Being an outsider

Scott will often put on his kilt (“Once you wear a kilt, it’s hard to wear pants!”), get in his latest car, and go in search of art.

Not too long ago, he was on his way to Slab City, that place in the desert where squatters and RV’s camp “off the grid” amongst the concrete slabs left from abandoned World War II Marine barracks. It’s another form of community. Nearby, there’s a sculpture garden called “East Jesus”. Scott met a man there who cleaned up trash and arranged it, creating “art builds”, and a sculpture garden. It is something of beauty from some things of decay.

The man Scott met was one of those people impacted by Scott’s persona. “I impressed him,” Scott said. “He had this connection with me.” 

They talked about life, art, and feeling different from other people, like an outsider. The man listened as Scott told him about Burning Man (the living community of art, temporarily constructed and attended by more than 50,000 people for one week every summer in the Nevada desert), and how he wanted to go, but tickets were so expensive. 

When Scott got home, he received a package from the man. Inside were Burning Man tickets and five ounces of silver. Scott’s not sure about the silver, but the man told him that he related to him because he too felt outcast and uncomfortable when he was young. Until surgery, he was self-conscious and ashamed because he had a condition of gynecomastia. 

Scott had never been to Burning Man before this year, and it was a transformative experience. The connection with the other people there opened Scott’s heart. 

“They are my people,” he says. “They are my tribe.”

The man in East Jesus has promised Scott tickets to Burning Man for the rest of his life.

Forever is a long time, and Scott believes in living in the moment. “Live in the now,” he says. “Be more dog!”


Faye Chapman: Making many people’s lives better

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

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

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

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

A chance encounter’s surprising impact

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

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

An interest turns into a cause

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

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

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

The Hunger Bowl delivers necessities

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

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

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

National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week Month

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

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

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

An original painting by a homeless person

 

“Treat homeless people as people.”

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


Siblings giving: Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

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

Giving a hand up

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

The City didn’t agree. 

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

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

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

A site for opportunity

Aaron and Shira started to visit the day laborers. 

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

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

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

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

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

The gratitude bestowed on these kids is heart-warming. 

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

Meanwhile the teens fund-raised for more projects. 

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

Friends in Need

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

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

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

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

Also the guy who can speak English.

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

Besides that

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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


Ricky Figueroa: Respecting the night shift

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Ricky Figueroa 

Finding an after hours community

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Ricky Figueroa with some of his North Laguna “peeps”

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

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

Paying it forward at Stop-n-Go

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

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

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

Trust and respect build relationships

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Ricky Figueroa behind the counter with a smile

A clerk becomes a hero

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

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

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

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


Creighton Wall knows, it’s character that counts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Arriving on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Brothers, Spencer and Creighton Wall

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

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

He’s not a fan of chicken salad. 

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

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

It started with a bang

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

“California is my wonderland,” he says.

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

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

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

Books and more books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Heavy lifting and sorting: Creighton is passionate about recycling

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

It’s fun at the YMCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

A worldwide family

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

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

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

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

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

Awareness Month

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Creighton Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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


Lynn Epstein: Maximizing potential with humor

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

Therapist by day, comic by night

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Lynn Epstein shows some of her tricks of the trade

A hiatus from stand-up leads to other things

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Books and toys are everywhere in Epstein’s office

A little bit of science and a little bit of magic

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

Add App creator to the list of accomplishments

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

Bringing parents into the process

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

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

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

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

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


Boris Piskun: a Laguna global citizen with a big heart

Story by MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

Boris Piskun

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

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

Submitted photo

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

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

An immigrant’s story

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

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

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

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

On the other side of the border

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

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

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

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

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

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

A global life puts things in perspective 

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

Little Piskun’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoken like a true forward.


Mary Hurlbut: Finding an outdoor joy in pictures

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Scott Brashier

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

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

A self-declared “ocean fanatic”

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Mary Hurlbut with her ever-present camera and smile

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

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

The Sawdust Festival and 27 years of dual booths

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

New technology leads to a new medium

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Mary Hurlbut in her home-office

Finding her style and the hazards of the camera phone

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

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

Social media helps refine her craft

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Mary Hurlbut in work-mode

A post-workout chat with Stu provides a new opportunity

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

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

Living as an artist: a dream fulfilled

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

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

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

Page 6 of 26