Blue Bell Cat Foundation celebrates 35 years with renovations and resolve to become sustainable

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Over the past 35 years, the Laguna Canyon property that housed Bertha Yergat and her beloved felines, has evolved into a legendary sanctuary for senior cats. Blue Bell Cat Foundation, home to senior cats whose owners can no longer care for them, nurtures their residents and enriches the special people who care for them.

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Bertha Yergat Cottage

Started by Bertha Yergat, and sustained by Susan and John Hamil, there are endless stories to be told about their evolution, resident cats, dedicated staff and volunteers, and their historical ties to Laguna Beach. However, their current story involves celebrating the foundation’s 35th anniversary with much-needed renovations – and planning a future that makes the foundation sustainable in our high-cost economy.

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Director of Blue Bell Cat Foundation, Jenna Mikula

Jenna Mikula, who was appointed director in 2023, is now at the helm, and the foundation is moving forward with some exciting plans. “I started out as a volunteer, and I very quickly moved into a caregiving role because they had a position available just a few weeks after I joined the team. I was interested in learning more about the cats and helping this organization – they had such an incredible mission, story and history.” Over time her role evolved, and she started taking on more and more responsibilities and that was recognized with a promotion to assistant director in 2021.

“Late last year, Susan Hamill and the board of directors promoted me to director,” Mikula said. “It’s a very hands-on director role.” As one might imagine, it’s not one of those cushy corporate director jobs. “I’m still really involved in the cat care. I’m here a minimum of five days a week – usually six – and they are normally 10- to 12-hour days, because there’s just so much going on with the cats and then also managing the property.”

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Blue Bell’s Garden, which is cared for by Sue Brown

Mikula described all the changes that are coming up and how the foundation is working toward sustainability.

“As with any aging structure, it is in need of renovations,” she said. Just last year, they replaced the roof and recently put in new countertops.

Coming up next month, they will replace the flooring in each house as a result of a fundraising campaign for their 35th anniversary. “It was tremendously successful,” Mikula said. “Our goal was $50,000 and we raised almost $85,000. We had some incredibly generous donors. It became a reality for us pretty quickly, so we are moving forward with the plans for the flooring.”

To facilitate maintenance, the flooring will be coved. “That’s going to be a huge benefit from a cleaning perspective,” she said. “Besides the floors, the lower building needs some modifications to the walls to complete the plan that we have for the floors, which is like the ones you see in medical facilities.”

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Molly, resident of Bertha cottage

However, the residents need to be completely out of each building (upper and lower houses) while the upgrades are taking place.

“The plans for the cats are challenging,” said Mikula. “Right now, we have 33 cats in residence. We typically house around 50 cats, but we’ve had several residents passed away and we haven’t had a whole lot of incoming new residents right now, although we do have quite a few in our pipeline. But we’re putting a hold on any new cat intakes until after we kick off the flooring project and get a significant portion of that done because it’ll be a huge upheaval for the cats.”

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Andrew Wentzel House

There are 15 cats in the Andrew Wentzel house, which is the first cottage to undergo renovations. “The lower house kitties tend to be either our newer kitties because we have the individual suites that we use for adjusting new cats to the community or they’re either newer kitties or cats that have health issues and they need to be isolated,” Mikula said. “But we do have other kitties that live there. We’re expecting the renovations to last about two months just because of the timing for each project. We need to move everybody out of the lower house, have that house all done, move those guys back, then move the cats out of the main house and have that house done. There are several logistical pieces that make the time frame a little longer than we would like it to be, but we’re just glad that we’re able to get it done and that we had the funding to do it.”

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Jenna with Midge (in foreground) and Clarence

This is the first time there’s been a major renovation like this in a long time. In 1998, the houses suffered severe damage from the mudslide in the canyon. The structures were still standing, but the interior of the buildings needed to be cleaned out (mud was several feet high inside) and remodeled/refurbished with all new interiors. In 2010, the lower building was damaged again by flooding and needed reconstruction.

The pre-renovation will be kicking off the weekend of the 4th of July. “We’re going to be moving all of our lower house kitties from the Anderson Wentzel House up to the Bertha Yergat cottage,” Mikula said. “We’re going to close off a space for those kitties to segregate them from the existing community of cats. They don’t know each other, and we don’t want them to have issues. They’ll be housed in there while the Wentzel House is being renovated – we’re planning for about two weeks total for all of the work – then the kitties will be back down there before the end of July.”

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Garden and Tigger House

“I’m hoping that we can keep that cat community intact,” Mikula said. The people they interact with will be the same, as well as the schedule and activities of the day so I’m hoping that with that continuity, the displacement won’t be so frightening for them. The only one I’m a little worried about (but I know I really shouldn’t be) is our blind kitty, Claude. He’s one of our community cats that came to us through the community cat fund and because he’s blind, consistency is very important. Moving him to a new environment is going to be a little bit shocking, so for him we’re planning on utilizing a smaller space so that he won’t have a large space to get used to right away. I really think Claude will be fine as he’s proven time and again that he is very adaptable.”

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Bleys relaxing in the upper cottage

After the lower cottage renovation, there’ll be a bit of a break, and then they’re going to have the driveway resealed. Around mid-August, they’ll be starting on the upper cottage, where they came up with an unexpected obstacle.

“We found out the mastic they used to adhere the previous floor tiles has asbestos in it, so we need a special asbestos abatement contractor to come in and handle that work before we can even begin the flooring project,” Mikula said. “Anytime you’re ripping up materials in an older house it’s always good to check because you’re not sure what you’re going to find. We certainly don’t want anyone exposed to that – people or cats. It was unfortunate that we discovered it, but it was good that we investigated, so now we can handle it safely.”

In addition to the changes relating to the renovations, another change has recently occurred.

“Our relationship with Canyon Animal Hospital ended and we built a new relationship with Laguna Beach Veterinary Medical Center and Dr. Cohen and Dr. Krueger,” Mikula explained. “They have been tremendously helpful; they’re wonderful caring people and their staff is also amazing, so it’s always a great experience. I recommend them to anyone who asks for a veterinarian because small family practices like that are special. I think it’s important to support them because they support our community in ways that corporate veterinary practices can’t.”

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Bench in the garden created by local artist Marlo Bartels

As with many nonprofits, Blue Bell Cat Foundation is faced with the dilemma of rising costs for goods and services. “Because we have an aging property, we have to think about investing in that. This year we’re also working with our financial management firm Knightsbridge to create a plan for our endowment – and how we can invest and grow that endowment to be financially sustainable in the future. One of our challenges is increasing costs across the board. In the last few years since COVID, supermarket prices for everything increased and our supplies were affected as well.”

Strategic plan

Mikula brings a wealth of experience to this subject. Before she came to Bluebell, she was a CPA and held financial positions with a Fortune 500 company for 10 years.

“The increase happened so fast for small organizations like Blue Bell, it’s hard to keep pace with that, especially since we’re a nonprofit,” she said. “We have limited capacity for space and the new cat acclamations take a lot of time and investment, so it’s more challenging for us to keep up – that’s why we’re looking to grow our endowment to get to a point where it generates enough income for us that we can fund our annual operating budget through that income and not have to dip into the principal that’s earning for us. Considering the rapid increase in costs in only five years, our strategic plan is one of the things we’re focusing on this year.

There’s no doubt the future looks promising for Blue Bell. The vision of Bertha Gray Yergat, who bequeathed her home for just this purpose, has come to fruition (and flourished) as a unique senior cat sanctuary.

For more information about Blue Bell Cat Foundation, go to https://bluebellcats.org/.


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