Mary LaRusso retires from the ASL after 10 years of leading with her heart & a lot of true grit


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Since the Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL) opened its doors in 2009, Mary LaRusso has committed herself to serving those in Laguna who lack permanent residences. Once one meets Mary, it’s not a surprise that what started out as a short-term commitment to the ASL turned into a decade of dauntless dedication. She pursues what she says is her “calling” with equal amounts of compassion, conviction, and good old-fashioned doggedness.    

Friendship Shelter Executive Director Dawn Price says, “When Friendship Shelter was asked to help the City of Laguna Beach start the ASL Emergency Shelter, one of our early concerns was how to quickly build trust with people experiencing homelessness on the streets, parks, and beaches in our town. I knew Mary to be a longtime advocate for those in our community who struggle with homelessness, and I asked her if she would help us out by working for us in this new program for a few months. I think I may have asked if she could give us six months. That was 2009.”

Mary vividly remembers that moment, “Dawn tapped me on the shoulder during church one morning at Neighborhood Congregational Church and asked me if I wanted to work at ASL. I said I’d give her six months.” 

(A Sunday School teacher at NCC for 30 years, Mary has served as a leader for the last 16 years.)

Mary LaRusso closeup

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Mary LaRusso at Main Beach

At the time the ASL opened, Mary was already entrenched in helping those in need, doing beach outreach as part of a group called Café Pacifica that delivered Monday night meals to a group in Heisler Park. 

“They called me the ‘queen of the train wreck’ because I could turn anything into a meal, whatever was in the refrigerator or what someone had left over from a party the night before,” says Mary, who loves to cook. She credits her 99-year-old mother, who lived through the Depression, with the saying Mary swears by, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” She readily admits that she still shops in the marked-down items section of the grocery store.

Dawn says, “Once she said ‘yes,’ one of the first things we asked her to do was to go to the beaches and parks and talk with the people who were living there, telling them about the new program and even showing them the blankets we’d have and the duffel bags that they would receive to store their belongings. I remember watching her go from person to person with those items and noticing how trusted and respected she was.

“She initially worked part-time and eventually full-time for us. For over ten years, Mary has been an integral part of our team. She works incredibly hard and has an unfailing approachability and sense of justice that people recognize and respect. She leads with her heart and she backs that up with practicality and follow-through.” 

Mia Ferreira, program manager for the ASL, says, “I’m so sad that she’s retiring. She’s been an instrumental part of the change in values here at the ASL. She is the most compassionate, nonjudgmental person you could ever meet – in both the little and big things. If someone here needed a size six shoe, she’d find it, and she’d do things no one else would do. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.” 

Mary LaRusso Charley

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Mary’s nurturing nature attracts a furry friend

Long before she landed at the ASL, her nurturing side was evident. In 1984, Mary traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast and eventually settled in Laguna. She credits her mother for the decision to move to California. Recently separated from her husband, Mary lived just down the street from her mom and saw her every day. She admits that if her mother hadn’t said, “There’s nothing holding you here,” she probably would have stayed in Connecticut, where she was born and raised.

Mary came out to live with one of her sisters in Lake Forest until she found a place to live in Laguna on Glenneyre. Before working at the ASL, she was an accountant in Newport Beach but had private clients here in town.

Once the ASL opened, she was on the early morning shift, and the one designated to cook breakfast every day starting at 6 a.m. – then she’d help the clients get ready for the day. “I loved it! We got most of our food from the Laguna Food Pantry. It would be difficult to operate without help from the Pantry.” 

She relates a story about Marianna Hoff, a long-term volunteer at the Pantry, bringing over a griddle for her that turned out to be Marianna’s mother’s. “They still use it,” she says.

However, Mary also credits many other food sources: grocery stores, organizations, and individuals. “We also got 50 meals on Friday afternoon from a group, SPIN every Thursday, and volunteers bringing in meals. 

As time passed, Mary switched to a later shift. “I was more of an advocate/navigator, taking the clients to heath care appointments, helping with social services, taking them to the DMV. I was doing more housing navigating and helping them get signed up for support.”

Last year, the ASL helped 109 people transition from homelessness into permanent housing.

Dawn says, “There are many people waking up in their own homes this morning because Mary never gave up on helping them end their homelessness.”

As one might suspect, it’s easy to become attached to those she comes in contact with. “Some keep in touch,” she says.

Mary LaRusso tent

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Mary is looking forward to getting back to beach outreach

When Mia started at the ASL six-and-a-half years ago, Mary was already there. “Mary’s unique and has crazy random knowledge of facts. I’d ask, ‘why do we call that that?’ she’d know. 

“And sometimes during the day, she’d just break into song. She teaches bible study for children at Neighborhood Congregational Church. With her heart, she’s wonderful at transmitting values to children that we should care for the least among us. The class also makes sandwiches for the shelter. She’s so giving, funny, and witty.” 

Mary has strong feelings about the way some see individuals experiencing homelessness and how they are treated. “Homelessness is the condition, not who they are. I feel I’ve been commanded to do this, and I’m grateful I found it. Who am I that I get to live the life that I have? I’ve done nothing to earn living in Laguna, being able to walk to the beach, and having a full refrigerator. Instead, I could be living in the sub-Sahara and walking for water. As long as there are people treated as ‘less than,’ all of us who are fortunate to live here need to be kind. 

“Based on living in this place, we have 90 percent more than most people. It’s a very skewed yard stick.”

Time to retire

Once the facility was on lockdown due to the pandemic, the day program stopped, and she couldn’t be in the building because of safety and health restrictions, she says, “I just felt it was time to retire.”

But, there will be no shortage of things for her to do in retirement. Mary’s mom still lives in Connecticut. They play scrabble on the iPad everyday (with other relatives as well). Until this year and COVID-19, her mother traveled out here each year in the spring with Mary’s younger sister, who has Down syndrome. She even put her sister to work at the ASL during her visits.

Mary has also been helping her partner Jim – who’s been here since 1961 – recover from the back surgery he had in December. They’ve known each other for 30 years and met here in Laguna at The Saloon.

And she will continue to cook a lot!

On Friday afternoons, she videos her virtual Sunday School class. 

She will continue to volunteer and is looking forward to getting back to the beach outreach. 

So, look for Mary down at Main Beach, leading with her heart but always with the grit to make it happen, forever asking those experiencing homelessness that she encounters, “What do you need?”