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Luke Johnson brings a unique talent to his custom sneaker and art apparel designs


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna resident and artist Luke Johnson incorporates two of his passions – art and cats – into his creations for Luke Johnson Designs (LJD). Unfortunately, his cat Sammie is unaware that a similar likeness appears on several of Johnson’s shoe designs – LJD Art Jam Sneakers.

“I like the cat image,” Johnson said. “It’s not exactly my cat Sammie. Sammie’s eyes are golden, but it’s a good black cat – and I like the black and white Sammie Cat sneakers. I also like the colorful ones based on my 3D sculpture. A couple of people asked me to autograph those shoes when they bought them.”

Johnson’s mother and partner in LJD, Stacy Collins Johnson, said, “We’re a family business dedicated to celebrating neurodiversity by creating original and outstanding custom sneakers and art apparel for original and outstanding people.

Luke, who happens to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, is a Laguna Beach artist with an atypical eye who provides the inspiration and original art behind each LJD product in the designer collection. I’m a Neurodiversity Family Life Coach and artist with experience in retail, education, marketing, tech, design and, most importantly, motherhood.”

Luke Johnson 5

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“Why fit in when you were born to stand out” is LJD’s motto and Johnson’s designs are a singular reflection of that message

Collins Johnson’s daughter, Eva, inspired by her brother, majored in psychology and is now working with autistic children for Flagstaff, Ariz. schools and pursuing graduate studies.

LJD supports the ASD community by providing young neurodiverse adults opportunities to build self-esteem and gain independence. “It’s my hope that others will become part of this creativity in a collective environment.”

Collins Johnson was born in Laguna, and her mother still lives here. Sadly, her family lost their home in the 1993 fire. Collins Johnson lived in San Francisco for many years before coming back to Laguna in 2012.

“When I lived in San Francisco, I did a lot of art,” she said. “I was a volunteer art teacher at my kids’ art-based school and was in some figurative drawing and painting groups. I have also had a few pop-up shows at Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art.”

So, how did the family end up back here in Laguna?

“When you have a special needs kid (Luke was diagnosed when he was 2 years old), you have these meetings called IEP (individual educational program) planning meetings,” Collins Johnson said. “Because we couldn’t find the right fit, at one of these meetings, the vice principal said, ‘I’m not supposed to say this, but I know you’re from Laguna Beach, and they have an excellent program.’ Then I called a friend I went to high school with who happens to have two autistic twin boys who are now in their mid-20s – and she had moved back here. She said, ‘Come here, the schools are great, and Irene White, who is the head of the special education department for the district, is absolutely phenomenal.’”

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Design Collection

It turned out to be exactly the right move for the family.

“Just the bare minimum, things that I had to just fight for in San Francisco, were offered here in Laguna schools,” she said. “The schools and the community were just so wonderful with Luke and kids like him. They teach empathy, and I’m very appreciative and glad we made the move – all that’s great – plus the beach!”

Johnson’s talents were recognized early. “In middle school art class, the teachers noticed his work and he won some awards. Mr. Dressler at Thurston took Luke under his wing.”

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Brooks Atwood: Engineering meets art with hair-raising results for local visionary artist


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. –Maya Angelou

Laguna resident Brooks Atwood certainly proves that statement to be true. To label him “innovator” doesn’t fully describe the scope of his past and present roles as artist, architect, design consultant, actor, television host, educator, provocateur and co-founder of Berries Design.

“I’ve done a million things as I think many people have,” Atwood said. “I’m definitely one who has had multiple professions and multiple past lives.”

In his current life, Atwood has gained fame as the lead innovator on the “dream team” on Netflix’s new show Hack My Home, which debuted on July 7. Filmed in Atlanta, in each of the eight half-hour episodes, the squad “hacks” a home. The other “dream team” members are Mikel Welch (head of design), Ati Williams (head of construction) and Jessica Banks (head of engineering). According to Atwood, the reality show offers a rare look into what goes into a home renovation – all through the lens of innovation.

Picture computer monitors rising out of a dining room table to transform it into an office desk, a loft stairway that folds against the wall like a sculpture, small appliance storage that drops down from the ceiling, and a bevy of hidden drawers and secret doors.

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With his unique style, Atwood, seated in the lobby of the Hotel Laguna, is immediately recognizable. He credits his wife Gianna for his fashions and “look.”

Atwood’s work as a designer and educator earned him the distinction of being named one of the “world’s innovative creators” by Eyes In Magazine and one of six “Emerging US Designers” by the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City. Brooklyn Magazine named him “One of the Most Important Names in Brooklyn Design.” He has received numerous awards and co-founded two companies – Berries Design and Pod Design.


“I’ve had multiple experiences as far as television goes,” said Atwood. “I was on HGTV’s design competition show Design Star, season eight. I made it to the finale, which was very exciting – being on a reality competition show is kind of like being kidnapped, it’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.”

Atwood’s stint on Design Star resonated with the audience. “I think it was the authenticity or uniqueness, something people had never seen before on that scale, and so a lot of people watched the show,” he said. After the first episode, a management company contacted him, and, as a result, he got an agent.

Official trailer for “Hack My Home,” now on Netflix, #5 in the U.S. at the time of this publication

“I was talking to the company 51 Minds about developing shows around me, and it just took a while to find a show to fit with my talents,” Atwood said. “When this show came to them three years ago, they immediately thought of me. Then we spent a year doing chemistry tests to find other castmates, which involved Zoom calls almost every week with four different people to see what the chemistry was with the other castmates. I knew Mikel from HGTV, but I didn’t know the two women, Ati and Jessica. We did a test filming in person in Los Angeles, and the chemistry was definitely there. It’s great to work with three people who have totally different backgrounds, opinions and experiences.”

The show was filmed entirely in Atlanta, Ga. “Everyone is filming in Atlanta because of the tax incentive,” Atwood said. “I had breakfast with Susan Sarandon at a local restaurant.”

While on location, he picked up another design job just by happenstance. “I was living in an apartment building and one day, a woman in the elevator said, ‘I loved you on HGTV. My fiancé and I just bought this house, we want to get married there, would you do our house?’ So, they hired Berries. The house is very cool, and we did some imaginative things such as a secret door to their master suite hidden in a giant wall of bookcases.” The whole project took 8-12 months.

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Atwood attracted audience attention on “Design Star”

“I was working at night and during breaks in filming Hack My Home, doing sketches and presentations on my iPad,” Atwood explained.

“During filming, each day was different and jam-packed. We’d start early and end late. It took a year to develop the show, a year to do the chemistry tests to find the cast, and then a year to film and edit.”

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Aviva Schmidt: personal trainer, yoga instructor and wellness coach publishes first book


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Although the focus here is on Laguna native Aviva Schmidt’s book, You Got This, just published in July, to understand Schmidt – and the path she took – it helps to know her background. It played a significant role in who she is today. “Helping my clients succeed is everything to me,” she said. “Fitness and nutrition have always been my passion, and I have worked as a personal trainer, yoga instructor and fitness coach for over 20 years.”

Although she was born in Laguna and went all through the Laguna Beach Unified School District system, Schmidt left after high school, and her journey back to Laguna involved many stops along the way.

“I’ve moved several times – Laguna Beach to San Francisco, to Israel, then NYC, back to Israel, Australia, back to Israel, Boston, then to Laguna Beach again,” she said. “But during COVID, because I could teach online from anywhere, I moved to Kauai, but returned after eight months. People were ready to get back to in-person training, so I came back to Laguna.”

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Aviva Schmidt added author to her resume as of July when her first book, “You Got This” was published

It all started in Venice, Calif. Schmidt’s parents, David and Shoshana, were married on Venice Beach in 1970 – hippies, by all standards, Schmidt admits. “He was a struggling artist. After graduating from the UCLA Department of Fine Art, he acquired studio space in Venice.” Soon after, they became transcendental meditation teachers.

However, to support the family, he eventually took a job as a recruiter and started his own business.

“They moved to Laguna and I was born at home on Magnolia Street, then we moved to Aster Street and later lived in Canyon Acres for 10 years, until the house burned down in the 1993 fire,” Schmidt said. “When I was young, my parents had a garage where they would hold transcendental meditation sessions.”

At age 3, Schmidt developed a love for dancing. “A woman on my street organized dance recitals, and I also went to Kyne’s Dance Academy in town. Growing up, I studied dance and fitness.”

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Aviva Schmidt has been a yoga instructor for 24 years

“I fantasized about being a dancer,” Schmidt said. “I went to Orange County School for the Arts when I was a freshman at Laguna Beach High School, but it was then in Los Alamitos, and the commuting time didn’t work out, so I went back to LBHS. After high school graduation, I studied dance in France.”

Family moves to Israel

Prior to that, her parents had left transcendental meditation and became Orthodox Jews. “My father was invited to a service at Chabad Jewish Center of Laguna Beach by the Rabbi and when my father came back, he said, ‘This is what I want in my life.’ My mother attended a service and she agreed.”

To Schmidt’s surprise, the summer after she graduated from high school, her parents told her they were moving to Israel. “At first they lived in the oldest city in Jerusalem but now live in the city. They have five kids and 20 grandkids.” They also have a great-grandchild on the way from Schmidt’s youngest brother.

“My whole family is there – my parents, sister, sisters-in-law, three brothers, brother-in-law and 20 nieces and nephews. My oldest brother is a rabbi. My youngest brother, who was born in Israel, is a personal trainer and MMA fighter and coach, and my sister-in-law is a personal trainer.”

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Schmidt sits next to two paintings by her father. The one on the left is of her brother Ari holding her brother Yosef when he was a baby. Her father’s subjects, for the most part, are “Our Boys” the Jewish soldier. Now at 81 years of age, her father creates every day.

“When I came back from France, I moved to San Francisco with my sister,” Schmidt said. “We didn’t know anyone and had no place to live and no plans. I stayed there for six months, then went to Israel for a year.

“After that, while I was in Australia, I took advanced courses in fitness, yoga and nutrition.” During her second visit to Israel, which lasted 13 years, Schmidt taught dancing and aerobics and body sculpting at the local gym. “I got interested in learning anatomy.”

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Behind the scenes at the Sawdust Festival: a look at some of the people who keep it running


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Alive and well, the Sawdust Art Festival has been going on for more than six decades. The magic behind the way the Sawdust Art Festival comes together – both in summer and winter (for the Winter Fantasy) – involves neither spells nor potions. The “magic” is a group of dedicated folks, many who have been at the Sawdust for years, who keep it in tip-top shape.

At its inception, the Sawdust culture was about creating an environment for the public to view – within a concentrated time and space, a dazzling variety of artistic forms and expressions in an emotional environment where the art is actually produced. The staff does an incredible job of sustaining the environment that has allowed the Sawdust to flourish.

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General Manager Tom Hartmann

At the helm is General Manager Tom Hartmann, who started in April. Before coming to the Sawdust, he served in a variety of roles with the Boy Scouts of America.

Hartmann explained the opportunities and challenges of his new position.

“I was born and raised in Orange County,” he said. “As a kid, I was brought here to the Sawdust, and later I brought my kids. That’s the fun part. I see my role here as a dual mission – to oversee the staff and operations and also the artists and membership. There are decisions made for the festival as a whole –and the individual artists, who are each different.

“This is an amazing opportunity to support and maintain the vibrancy of our community. They are all Laguna Beach-based artists – which helps keep Laguna, Laguna. The cool part is that the festival keeps it an artist enclave. The long-term challenge is that times are different now. The cost of housing is an impediment for everyone, including artists. That’s even more reason to do everything we can do to maintain the Sawdust’s vibrancy and stay rooted in keeping the culture alive.”

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The plant whisperer, Tom Crivella, has been with the Sawdust for 53 years

Waiting in line to enter the Sawdust, the first thing visitors see is the luscious garden. The wizard behind the garden is Tom Crivella. Previously with the Laguna Beach Recreation Department, he’s been with the Sawdust since 1970. Born in Maryland, he came here when he was 17 years old. “My parents bought in Newport Beach, my dad was stationed at Camp Pendleton. Ken Frank hired me. I started here when I was 20 years old, maintaining the front entrance to keep it looking good and raking the sawdust. It’s been a pleasure working here.”

A huge advocate of using fish meal to fertilize, which seems to have some mystical growing power, Crivella said, “It’s safe environmentally and for animals.” Good to know for the many dogs who stroll by on the pathway.

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As evidence of Crivella’s skills, this plant with the purple flowers started as a tiny sprout in April

This is Art Education Director AnnJo Droog’s seventh show. Droog, who organizes classes during the festival in Studio One, started in the office as an administrator. “I get to know the artists on a one-on-one basis,” she said. “Knowing the fundamentals of how the Sawdust runs made the transition easier, since I had already established relationships with the artists.”

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Annabella Miller: A passion for animals led her to fostering dogs


Annabella Miller’s love for dogs can be traced back to her early childhood in New Jersey, where she was born and raised.

“It was a family effort,” she said. Her parents, Neal and Nieves (Cespedes) fostered dogs even back then.

After moving across the country to Aliso Viejo five years ago – and then to Laguna two years later – Miller’s mission to help dogs expanded into founding a volunteer rescue club at Laguna Beach High School, where she will soon be a senior. As president of the club, she selects volunteers from a small core group to attend adoption events. They help ease greetings between pets and potential adopters, maintain a clean pen for the pups and play with the dogs.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Annabella Miller, a dog’s best friend

“I have always been passionate about animals. Dogs, more specifically, had a very special place in my heart,” Miller said. “After participating in a family effort to foster a few dogs at a very young age, I was inspired to foster on my own at the ripe age of 12.”

Her current role as foster started about five years ago when they adopted Puddy from Lovebugs Rescue in Corona del Mar. She started volunteering there and soon began coordinating the dog adoption process.

“I became friends with the founder and CEO, Heather Peterson,” Miller said. “I started fostering, and then became active in facilitating adoptions, which involves an application screening process, interviewing applicants and arranging for meet and greets at Huntington Beach Dog Beach.” She also volunteers at adoption events and fosters for Leashes of Love Rescue in Lake Forest. To date, Miller has fostered six dogs and found them forever homes.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Puddy inspired Annabella to start fostering

As one might imagine, fostering involves vet visits and boundless patience, since some of the dogs have been traumatized. “The first dog we fostered was rescued from a shelter. He had been tied to a pole and someone found him. He had some issues and chewed up the remote, but usually after a month, the dog gets used to surroundings.”

Lovebugs Rescue pays for medical expenses and furnishes basic equipment when fostering, items that go with the dog when it is adopted. It’s not a surprise that the rescue/fostering process requires substantial funding and the two nonprofit rescues – Lovebugs and Leashes of Love – depend on donations from dog lovers to keep them going. Miller’s six fosters were: Bentley, Winnie, Peanut, Smores, Celeste and Joy.

annabella miller Bentley

Courtesy of Annabella Miller


As told by Miller, here are a few of their stories.

January 2019: Bentley had a very difficult first year of life. He was in a home that left him tied outside to a pole, forcing him to dig a hole as shelter. Luckily, he was rescued by Lovebugs. As a 1-year-old, 10 lb. terrier mix, he was extremely energetic and playful. He had no problem getting comfortable in our household, and we often found him play-fighting with our family dog, Puddy. He was a very fun addition to our home for the short time that we had him. After conducting many interviews, I placed him in an amazing home.

annabella miller winnie

Courtesy of Annabella Miller


October-November 2019: Winnie was turned into the shelter pregnant, but was spayed anyway, causing her to lose all of her puppies. She was 2 years old and 15 pounds when she came into our lives. She had extreme anxiety coming into our home and would refrain from approaching any human. She had even less trust toward men. It took many hours of sitting in her pen with her to gain her trust. Once she came out of her shell, she was the sweetest girl we had ever met. It was extremely hard to let her go, but I found Winnie an amazing home nearby. My dad and I love to go visit her occasionally and see how well she is doing in her new home. She seems happier than ever and now lives with one other sibling.

annabella miller celeste

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Courtesy of Annabella Miller


January-February 2022: Celeste was a sweet girl who was surrendered by her former owner. She came to Lovebugs extremely matted and in desperate need of a haircut. Once she got cleaned up, they discovered she had three large bladder stones and would need surgery. Having been through a lot, Celeste was very shy and mellow. However, once she opened up to us, she was the most loving dog and would always love to cuddle.

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Laguna’s Park Rangers – a specialized program making a difference in our community


Laguna Beach welcomes a whopping six million visitors every summer – and already the city seems to be in high gear with the opening of the Festival of Arts, the Sawdust Festival, Art-A-Fair and the Fourth of July just around the corner.

Without a doubt, summer 2023 is going to be a busy one for the city’s six new Park Rangers – Fernando Arizmendi, Aureliano Becerra, Darryl Byrd, Crystal Carter, James Kirk-Johnson and Colin McNamara.

One might wonder what our Park Rangers do. Unlike Park Ranger Smith in the mythical Jellystone (of Yogi Bear fame), their sole purpose is not to protect picnic baskets.

As part of the Laguna Beach Police Department’s Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET), our six Park Rangers address the quality-of-life issues throughout our community, focusing on education and enforcement at all parks and beaches. In addition to the Park Rangers, NET is staffed with a police corporal, a homeless liaison officer, four traffic police officers and parking services officers.

lagunas park Crystal Carter

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Park Ranger Crystal Carter at Heisler Park

Park Rangers interact with city residents, business owners and visitors on city streets, parks, beaches and trails in the approved city uniform and advise residents, businesses and visitors of city, county and state ordinances which may include littering, smoking in public, possessing alcoholic beverages and other disturbance-related violations.

The NET Team is led by Sergeant William Downing and is supported by Corporal Britnie Priest.

Recently, our six Park Rangers gave Stu News some insight into their roles.

Stu News: From the description online, it sounds as if there isn’t a typical day for a Park Ranger, and you must handle (and possibly defuse) situations as they arise. Could you describe for readers, what you do as a Park Ranger? What are some of the community engagements and problem-solving issues that you have experienced lately?

Fernando Arizmendi: We conduct patrols of the beaches, parks and the Downtown area mostly. We can conduct these patrols by foot, UTV, ATV and driving. We deal with mostly quality-of-life issues or concerns that our community might have.

lagunas park Aureliano Becerra

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Above the beach at Heisler – Park Ranger Aureliano Becerra

Aureliano Becerra: We handle quality-of-life concerns throughout the city. I have encountered great support from our community as I perform my duties throughout the city. Understanding that without our community supporting us our job becomes exponentially more difficult as we only have so many sets of eyes patrolling the city.

Darryl Byrd: As a Park Ranger, I ensure safety of the community and visitors here in Laguna Beach. We typically focus more on our beaches and hiking trails where we can answer questions and also enforce rules and regulations that need to be addressed.

Crystal Carter: As a Park Ranger, our role is heavily focused on community engagement and education. Some of the problems we face daily are the violations of the Laguna Beach Municipal Codes, and we try to educate the community as much as possible to keep everyone out of trouble.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Park Ranger James Kirk-Johnson

James Kirk-Johnson: On a day-to-day basis, our job entails patrolling seven miles of Laguna Beach beaches, trails and specific neighborhood concerns. That covers Laguna Beach Municipal Code violations, homeless population issues, e-bike concerns, out-of-city tourism affecting local resident issues, etc. We spend time educating and informing the public on a lot of issues that other beach communities may or may not be addressing, because they do not employ a Park Ranger program or a similar specialized unit like ours.

Colin McNamara: Absolutely, being a Park Ranger at Laguna Beach is a unique experience that I truly treasure. As a Park Ranger, we work closely with the public through public events and interactions at Laguna Beach’s parks and beaches. We are boots on the sand and enforce municipal codes, while also assisting anyone along the way. As much I like to have only positive interactions, we are always going to enforce and educate the public on municipal codes. These can possibly lead to negative interactions but through practiced de- escalation techniques, we can leave an interaction with a peaceful and respectful compliance.

lagunas park Colin McNamara

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

On patrol – Park Ranger Colin McNamara

Stu News: What is your favorite part of your position as a Park Ranger?

Fernando Arizmendi: That every workday is different. Also, the fact that we get the unique opportunity to engage with our residents, our community and our visitors of Laguna Beach.

Aureliano Becerra: My favorite part of the position of Park Ranger is that I get to engage with the community. Educating others as to why we have particular laws tends to bring understanding to the enforcement side.

 Darryl Byrd: My favorite part is being able to walk the beaches and trails and educate people to ensure that those areas remain safe and clean for everyone who visits and lives in the area.

Crystal Carter: My favorite part of being a Park Ranger is getting to work with this amazing team and community.

James Kirk-Johnson: Daily interaction with the public while being outdoors in a great workplace environment.

Colin McNamara: My favorite part of being a Park Ranger at Laguna Beach is that every day I walk, drive and hike through the beautiful city of Laguna Beach with all the natural views it has to offer.

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Debbie Neev: a passion for water, among other things


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” Although this quote can’t be attributed to Debbie Neev, it is a true reflection of her passion for water. A geophysical engineer, Neev champions water conservation, water reliability and educational outreach and has done so for many years.

For more than two decades, she’s served on the Laguna Beach County Water District Commission, but the commitment doesn’t stop there – that’s just the beginning.

She’s also represented Laguna Beach and our Water District by serving on the South Orange County Watershed Management Area Executive Committee, the statewide organization Cal Desal and the Association of California Water Agencies’ Groundwater Committee.

Debbie Neev closeup

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Debbie Neev

Although water is still her first love, Neev is passionate about many things, and it is inherent in her community activities – and there are many. In 2015, she was appointed to the Design Review Board, serving as their liaison on the Affordable Housing Task Force. She also currently serves on the board and is an officer for both Glennwood House and the Woman’s Club. In addition, she is well known for her involvement with various other community organizations, such as SchoolPower, the Soroptimists, Ebell and volunteering at the Assistance League Thrift Shop.

As readers know by now, Neev has been selected as Woman of the Year for 2023 by the Woman’s Club, and she will be honored at a luncheon on June 23.

“The Woman’s Club members nominate – and then vote for – a woman from our community who has made a significant contribution in the community, either through philanthropic, civic, charitable or nonprofit activities,” said Kitty Malcolm, Woman’s Club president.

From Colorado to California

A 30-year resident of Laguna, Neev came to California from Colorado. “I went to school at the Colorado School of Mines, which is a very strong engineering school. I did geophysical engineering and then transitioned into environmental engineering,” she said.

“After my husband got his Ph.D., he did his postdoc at Beckman Laser Institute at the University of California, Irvine, and I got a job working for an environmental consulting firm in Long Beach – that brought us to California,” Neev said. “We first lived on the UCI campus and then we started looking for a place. California is where we wanted to stay, so we were looking from Long Beach to as far south as we could go. Then, in the meantime, I got pregnant, so our requirements changed when we found out I was having twins. We never thought we’d be able to afford to live in Laguna, and then we found a foreclosure and we snatched it up.”

A physicist, her husband has his own business and travels back and forth to Israel. “My son Matthew was over there with him doing research and recently came back,” Neev said. “Zachary is an accountant and Matthew is hoping to get a job with the city or county.”

Debbie Neev water district

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The Water District, her home away from home

“Matthew and Zachary went all through school here and loved it,” she said. “The school system is wonderful. Zachary still talks about his third grade teacher at Top of the World, Mrs. Hustwick. She used to read Greek mythology to them, which I didn’t know until we went to Paris and he could identify the Greek statues. Here was this third grader saying, ‘That one is so and so, and that one is so and so.’”

Neev said her biggest accomplishment, and what she is most proud of, is her family.

From consulting to the Water Commission

“While I was with the consulting firm, we did a lot of environmental cleanup and wastewater treatment,” Neev said. “When I saw the advertisement in the paper here that they were looking for commissioners, I thought it would be really interesting to see it from that perspective, not from the consultant’s perspective. The firm that I was with worked for different water districts and cities, so I knew quite a bit about the infrastructure.

“I thought it would be wonderful to be able to apply that knowledge and be on the commission. It was my first love and still is and I really enjoy it. Then quite a few years later, I was appointed to the Design Review Board. I was also on the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which was an appointment by Governor Schwarzenegger. That lasted three or four years.”


Even with her commitment to the environment, Neev has found time over the years to devote to nonprofits, taking into consideration their focus and approach to giving.

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Mother Nature is alive and thriving at Top of the World Elementary School’s garden


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The garden at Top of the World Elementary (TOW) was constructed in the 1980s to replace an aging wood play structure and for decades has been a place that children experience first-hand the pleasures of growing plants and produce.

Showered with tender loving care from students, volunteers and teachers, over the years, it’s become a magical space and continues to thrive.

According to the California Department of Education, “Top of the World Elementary has always had a focus on developing environmentally and socially conscious students by providing opportunities for them to make positive impacts locally and globally. There are three onsite gardens used as outdoor classroom spaces, an 18-foot geodesic dome greenhouse and outdoor cooking stations. In a one-year period, students spent a combined 10,000 hours learning outdoors.”

Mother Nature pathway

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The garden with its mature fruit trees and abundant flowers

When TOW Principal Meghan Schooler calls the garden, “phenomenal,” she’s not exaggerating. One just has to step into the enchanting Outdoor Classroom to appreciate its value to the students – and the community.

Gardening requires a lot of maintenance volunteers, as well as volunteers to keep the education ongoing. “We have a great group of volunteers,” said Director of Communications and Engagement for the Laguna Beach Unified School District Ana Urenko. Volunteers give more than 1,000 hours a year to the school garden.

One of the three gardens, the Outdoor Classroom, is a fenced one-half acre rectangle located behind the field. It has 20 plots for third, fourth and fifth grade classes, CLC (an alternative school within Laguna Beach Unified School District) and after-school use. The Primary Garden is used by the lower grades and is located near the first grade rooms. The kindergarten garden is the newest addition, in the kindergarten yard.

In addition to TOW PTA, the gardens have multiple sources of funding to keep them flourishing.

Mother Nature Osborne

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Part of the Outdoor Classroom is an amphitheater where (on May 16) LBUSD Board Member and PTA Garden Coordinator at TOW Kelly Osborne instructed Teacher Darby Nagby’s second grade class about the specifics of the garden

The Outdoor Classroom has seating areas for instruction, a reclaimed log seating amphitheater, outdoor blackboards, tool sheds, vermicomposting, sprout house and mature citrus trees. It has several themed gardens such as the Fire-safe garden and Pollinator garden.

The TOW Outdoor Classroom is the site of a sequence of standards-based lessons taught over the course of the school year. In these lessons, real-world connections can be made to science, math and social studies in the outdoors. Each class visits the garden six times a year for academic lessons.

The entire school has access to the seating area for various subject matters such as art, science, nature studies, or pure enjoyment of the environment. On Fridays during lunchtime, students can access the garden to do crafts or pick produce and flowers.

Mother Nature blackberries

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Blooming blackberries 

The gardens overlook Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park, which covers 3,879 acres in the lower watershed of Aliso Creek. Sitting at 1,000 feet high, children in the gardens can experience the majesty of the natural world with the canyon and ocean landscape below.

On May 16, LBUSD Board Member and District School-Wide Garden Coordinator Kelly Osborne instructed a second grade class (on garden specifics) and then assigned them tasks. They had to graph the garden and then had a choice of watering, picking weeds, or removing snails from the plants or harvesting carrots or fava beans. With choices made, they all set off with enthusiasm to get buckets.

Mother Nature graphing

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With Teacher Darcy Nagby overseeing, the second grade class graphs the garden

It was obvious the second graders were relishing their tasks and even snail spotting took on a serious note.

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Shelby Anderson – LBHS history teacher (and history princess) sparks inspiration


A self-proclaimed history princess, Laguna Beach High School (LBHS) history teacher Shelby Anderson came very close to her dream of becoming a Disneyland princess by being selected as one of the winners of the Walt Disney 100th anniversary Teacher Celebration. Although not considered royalty, many parents and students think teachers belong in that sacred realm.

shelby anderson 100 teachers

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Courtesy of Shelby Anderson

Walt Disney 100th Anniversary Teacher Celebration

Anderson was invited – as one of 100 exceptional teachers who reflect the creativity and imagination of Walt Disney – to attend a one-of-a-kind teacher event. Out of the more than 7,900 applicants, Anderson was among the 100 selected to be treated to a four-day, three-night stay at the Disneyland Resort to experience the Disney 100 celebration. An added bonus was a chance to visit the Disney Imagination Campus workshops and offerings.

“I am honored to be recognized by the Walt Disney Company and appreciative that I have the support of my school and colleagues to be able to provide creative and imaginative opportunities for my students to learn,” Anderson said. “I am further honored to represent my school and community.”

shelby anderson closeup

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Shelby Anderson in her history classroom at LBHS, where she teaches both freshmen and juniors

Anderson explained the application process, “In order to be recognized for this honor, I had to write an essay highlighting ‘Imagination and curiosity as powerful problem-solving tools and describe example(s) where I brought wonder, creativity and imagination to life in my curriculum and inspired my student(s) in new ways.’”

A section excerpted from her essay reveals important insights in her teaching process, “Developing empathetic, resilient, and innovative members of society are values that I provide my high school students opportunities for, and one unit where I have fostered these character traits is studying World War II. This period of history is one that provides many stories for my students to connect with and find inspiration from everyday heroes who overcame some of America’s biggest challenges.”

There’s no doubt that in her classroom, creativity and imagination run wild. Anderson employs WWII history reenactments, using authentic uniforms and artifacts, to engage her students. (Aside from her history gig at LBHS, she’s also a coach for Mock Trials).

The reenactments started with her own personal desire for a hobby. She saw the SoCal WAC group on Instagram and was interested. “I’ve always loved to dress up,” she said. “I love to go to estate sales searching for vintage clothes and artifacts, it’s like a treasure hunt.”

shelby anderson in tent

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Courtesy of Shelby Anderson

Anderson in a reenactment at an event

Her application essay stated, “I have been required to be resourceful and innovative to keep my students engaged during the COVID-19 Pandemic. As a member of The Historical Unit of Southern California (HUSC), I am a reenactor with the Women’s Army Corps and seek to educate the public on American history through the use of original uniforms and artifacts. I brought this passion to my students by hosting a variety of Zoom extra credit events where students would get to interact with World War I and World War II reenactors and see history as close to first-hand as possible. Through these events, students got to learn about conditions for soldiers, home front experiences, uniforms and tools, and even take a virtual ride in a WWII Willy’s Jeep.”

As students slowly returned to school, Anderson still sought to make her classes as interactive as possible. “When we were able to return to the classroom, I invited other members of our reenactment group to speak to our students about the Civil War and its own pandemic of the Spanish flu. My female reenactors spoke to students about Civil war dress (including showing the students and applying all the layers of petticoats and dress to me).”

As more and more venues opened up as the pandemic calmed down, Anderson worked to develop relationships with museums and venues in the area and provide opportunities for students to engage with the HUSC’s reenactors in real life. She has since taken on a board position with the nonprofit and is their Education Outreach coordinator.

“Service is close to my heart. If I hadn’t become a teacher, I might have gone into social work or nonprofit management,” she said.

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Natalya Sheddan creates Brooks Street Brick Art Gallery with help from the community 


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

According to folks who have been around since the early Laguna days, artists used to hang their art from fences or display artwork in their front yards. Natalya Sheddan is not only carrying on that tradition but enhancing it, by dedicating the space outside the fence of her charming cottage to brick art. Her Brooks Street Brick Gallery is a quirky collection of painted bricks, each designed by a member of the community.

Walking past Sheddan’s yard on the corner of Brooks and Catalina streets is like discovering a hidden treasure, and it’s impossible not to stop and look at the diverse designs and inscriptions – both humorous and inspirational – on the bricks.

Natalya Sheddan house

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Brooks Street Brick Gallery 

Sheddan didn’t have this creative collaboration in mind when she moved into her house a year ago with her two children, who are 6 and 4 years old. An Austin, Texas transplant, Sheddan said, “This was the first house I looked at, and I fell in love with it.”

Born and raised in Ukraine, she came to California (because her parents had friends here) when she was 13 years old.

“I came to the area 23 years ago,” Sheddan said. “When I first drove to Laguna, I fell in love with it and kept coming back to visit every weekend. Then I decided to rent a house. It’s a very magical place.”

Natalya Sheddan close up

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Natalya Sheddan

One could say building is in Sheddan’s blood. (Coincidentally, bricks date back to 7000 BC, which makes them one of the oldest-known building materials.)

She transitioned from a 10-year career as a construction lawyer to a builder and owns a building company called Notta in Austin.

Sheddan’s dwellings are unique. Some are permanent homes and others serve as Airbnbs. “Notta means – it’s not a house and not a cabin – they are hybrids,” she said. Sheddan spends half of her time in Austin, traveling back and forth every week. However, the family will spend the summer here.

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