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Monica Silva: Developing big plans for KX93.5

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

You might be surprised to learn that a garden helped Monica Silva become the Development Director of KX93.5, Laguna’s only radio station. As the then Assistant Branch Director of the Boy and Girls Club, Laguna Beach (BGC), Silva decided that what they needed was a garden.  The only problem, according to Silva, was “We needed $3,000 by the end of the day. So I gathered my resources.  We partnered with Transition Laguna…” and the Boys and Girls Club got a garden. 

“After that I got the attention of Corporate [Boys and Girls Club Corporate Offices].” 

Her resourcefulness landed her a new position at the BGC: Development and Marketing Assistant.  “I have no formal training.  For me it has been all about learning on the job,” she says of her career in development.  

“But I learned from the best,” says Silva emphatically.  Her teacher? Michelle Ray, Development Director of the BGC.

Monica Silva 

A job turns into a new home

Without her ability to make that garden a reality – in a day – she might still be doing what she had always done: working with children.  A teacher before she had her first child, Silva was enjoying being a stay at home mom in Fullerton when a friend told her of an opening at the BGC in Laguna.  “I knew nothing about Laguna Beach.  I had literally been here for brunch, that was it,” she says, smiling.  

She was intrigued enough to take the job – and make the commute, for a while anyway.  “We had a good thing going.  It was the golden era of TLC (the BGC Branch at Bluebird Park), a really magical time.  I became ingrained in the community,” explains Silva.  She became so ingrained she moved her family to Laguna.

 “My husband was not pleased,” she says.  “Our whole lives were in Fullerton, our families…it was what we knew.  Now, we can’t get him out of here,” she says with a laugh.  “When we drive by on the freeway…I can’t get him to go back!”  

She says the move caused her kids a little bit of “culture shock.”  

“Not my daughter, she was so young when we came here, but it was definitely different for my son.  He didn’t have to fight for the ball,” she says with a smile.  Now, her daughter is in 4th grade, her son in 8th, and Laguna is home.

Transitioning into development at the Boys & Girls Club

Silva says that as the Assistant Branch Director, “I watched a whole class of kids, from kindergarten through 8th grade go through the Club.  I loved it. I worked with the kids, their families.  When you work with someone’s child, they are trusting you with the most important thing in their lives.  The trust that’s built is tremendous.”  However, she was excited to make the switch to her new position.  

“It was a fun transition,” she says of moving to the development side of things.  Plus, the kids still came to find her in her new office.

An “utterly surprising” request – that wasn’t

Then she got a call.  

“I got a phone call from Tyler [Russell, KX93.5’s Program Director],” explains Silva.  “He said I would find what he had to say ‘utterly surprising.’” 

After hearing him out, Silva says,  “I was not surprised!”  She and Russell had worked together on different joint BGC/KX93.5 projects.  She says they had a good working relationship and shared the same can-do attitude.

KX93.5, “Laguna’s only FM” located at 1833 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach 

He asked her if she would come be the Development Director at KX93.5.  “I loved the radio station,” says Silva.  “I saw potential.  It’s just…super Laguna!”  So she took the job.  “I could not have done it without the support of Michelle Ray,” says Silva definitely.

Ambitious goals for a small station

So Silva transitioned to a very different “sell.”  

“The BGC was an easy sell,” she says.  “It’s kids; it wasn’t starting from scratch which is the radio station.  I decided to utilize my strengths as well as figure out my weaknesses.”  

A lifelong music fan, Silva is very busy in her new job.  

“Concerts, parties, events…there’s too much to do – and it’s awesome!” says Silva enthusiastically.  

There are also other less glamorous things like developing a “Street Team” (volunteers tasked with getting the word out about the station), creating strategic partnerships, and launching a teen program.  Silva has big ambitions for the station,  “I want it to become so consequential with new bands it becomes a destination.”  

In the short term, however, she just wants everyone in Laguna to know they have a radio station.  “We want them to know this is not Tyler’s station.  It’s Laguna’s station,” she says.  And Laguna’s station has a lot going on.

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Monica is Development Director of KX93.5, Laguna Beach

Coming up they will be MC-ing Hospitality Night.  Then on December 13th is the Winter Concert Classic at the Irvine Bowl, featuring Kenny Loggins and several other acts.  “This is huge!” enthuses Silva.  

“I love Kenny Loggins!  But I’m from the 80’s so no surprise… This is going to be such a great event!  We’ve partnered with the Montage and it’s a fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club, SchoolPower and KX93.5.”  

Then the station hosts its “KX Take Over” where the station turns the airwaves over to “local legends who play music, talk about whatever and raise money for the station,” explains Silva. They also have their “Are You Listening” program that gives free underwriting to local businesses if a customer calls in to the station and lets them know their business is tuned to KX93.5.  Add their “KX Presents” Series that takes place the last Thursday of the month at The Marine Room (“The Marine Room has been awesome! We love them!” exclaims Silva.) 

“In January we will have another big artist play this small venue and provide our community with an awesome night of music,” explains Silva of the event.  And, if you can believe it, there is more – but you will simply have to go to their website (www.kx935.com) to find out what it is.

Doing more than just watching

One of Silva’s goals is to help people appreciate Laguna, “connect the dots,” as she says.  “I love that I have another perspective coming from somewhere else.  We’re really lucky.  Let’s celebrate it and not ignore it.  This is a beautiful place.  Obviously the scenery is beautiful, but I feel like the people make it beautiful.  One of my favorite quotes is ‘Do something more than watch.’  We all do something here.  No wonder I’m here.  I love it!”   

If it’s true that everyone does something in Laguna, as Silva suggests, then it’s also true that Silva just happens to do quite a lot of “something” to spread the word about Laguna’s only FM radio station.  

And that’s exactly how she likes it.


Adolfo and family serve up Mexican fare and loads of good cheer for generations of Lagunans  

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Adolfo Vides knows his quetzals from his dollars. But the quetzal, the currency from his native Guatemala, is not nearly as enticing as the American dollar to this hard-working achiever of the American Dream.

Adolfo’s restaurant will turn 31 in their Laguna Beach location this March, but the family started in the restaurant business in Westminster back in 1969. “Rent was only $150 a month!” Adolfo says brightly. “But there was no business.” 

That first day they sold $20 in food, and staged the place with various family members at the tables and put their cars out front so the place looked busy. “No one wants to go into an empty restaurant,” said Adolfo. They lasted there three years before moving on to purchase various other questionable sites – some better than others.  

There was the time his produce supply guy wanted to go into business with him, but that guy didn’t really understand the restaurant business. “I bought him out,” says Adolfo. Or the restaurateur who got depressed because his wife ran off with the cook, and just wanted out. Adolfo paid all his back bills, and took over the restaurant for him. “It was still a bad location,” says Adolfo. “But it was a good deal.” 

He’s even sold the same restaurant three times. “Nobody else makes it,” he says. “They close the doors, and I start it up again…fix it up.”

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Connie and Adolfo Vides

The man knows his way around a good deal, and the restaurant business has been a darn sight better than when he first came to the U.S. and was picking celery. “I did that one day, and then I couldn’t stand up,” Adolfo recalls. That turned him toward a friend who worked at the Red Onion, and landed Adolfo the second worst job – washing dishes. “It was so busy! And not enough machines!” Figuring in a way to earn more, and keep track of his dollars, he went to school at night to learn bookkeeping. 

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It was a far cry from the career he had as a teacher in Guatemala, where his dad was a doctor, and the family owned a coffee plantation. But he and his wife, of the same town, left Guatemala following a terrible bus accident Adolfo was in, in which five people died, and the survivors received threats on their lives.

He’s a plain talker

“They pay you for this?” Adolfo asks me during our interview. The answer would be yes. “I’m going to charge you for my story!” he says with a smile. 

Adolfo is a guy who puts all his cards on the table – telling it straight, whether it’s about people, his past, culture, or the almighty dollar. He’s still driving a bargain even as he tells me he plans to retire in the next year. 

“I had bladder cancer two years ago: chemo, radiation, surgery,” he shares. “Then intestines last month – like a kink in the hose.” Following that surgery, the spry (almost) 81 year-old is still the second person to arrive at the restaurant every morning by 8 a.m. and then he’s fixing stuff in his garden every afternoon. “I’m okay now. I don’t feel nothing,” he laughs. “I get a lot of exercise here!” 

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He can’t even blame his recovery and good health on the fresh Mexican food at Adolfo’s. “I can’t eat the same thing for 50 years,” he says. “I like Sizzler’s salads, and ice cream!” He steers a little clear of salt and sugar, but will take a beer now and then, “When somebody buys it for me!” Of course. Dos Equis? No, “Coors Lite!”

In fact he was happy to head off this Thanksgiving to his favorite getaway, Palm Springs and the casino slot machines. “I enjoy watching the people losing the money, and they’re screaming,” he says a little sadistically. “But not me. I don’t like to lose money. It’s hard to make!”

It’s a Family Affair

Perhaps Adolfo enjoys the screaming because it reminds him of his own family. “My grandfather came from Spain. Small guy, screaming all the time,” he says. “It sounds like fighting – like Italians too.” As far as real fighting, Adolfo says he’s more likely to get the silent treatment. “Couples always have something to fight about,” he jokes. 

Adolfo is apt to tease his wife, Connie. “She bought a VW camper 14 years ago, and has never used it,” he says of her enthusiasm for camping. “After ten years, the sleeping bag is still in its bag!”

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Adolfo and Connie, together since they were 24 years old

That may be because Connie (short for Concepción) is more of the creative sort. “She loves to sew,” he tells me. “Blouses, skirts, curtains, bedcovers… Beautiful!  She’s smart and talented. People come in and say, ‘Wow, looks expensive!’” And then the teasing, “She made me ties and shirts. One time I was in Costco and someone said to me, ‘Nice shirt!’ and when I said my wife made it, he said he could tell because the pocket was on the wrong side!”

Adlofo’s will continue in the capable hands of his daughter Peggy (named for Peggy Lee), when Adolfo retires. It’s been a family affair since the beginning with Adolfo at the helm, and Connie and Peggy slicing and dicing in the kitchen or ringing and dinging at the cash register.

The American Dream lives on at Laguna’s local Mexican favorite, Adolfo’s.


Pam Wicks: Embracing the yoga of devotion

By: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Pam Wicks came to Laguna Beach from Aspen, Colorado in 1998.  Her then-husband got a new job in Los Angeles so Wicks and their two young daughters reluctantly followed him to the coast.  “I had no desire to leave Aspen.  And there was no way I was going to live in LA.  So we looked at different places.  I didn’t like any of those places.  I knew about Laguna from a friend.  I needed to check it out.  I’m a small town girl.  I drove into Laguna and I was home.  Something happened to me.  I just knew this was the town,” explains Wicks.

When the water is like diamonds

Despite such a visceral reaction to the town, when Wicks’ husband lost his job, she decided they would move back to Aspen.  She and her two daughters had only been in Laguna for about a month so it had not quite become “home” yet.  “I didn’t intend to stay.  But it was one of those days where the water is like diamonds.  I was at Main Beach and I said, ‘We just cannot leave.’  My husband thought I was insane, but we stayed,” says Wicks.  And in the 17 years since she decided to make Laguna home, Wicks has found Laguna to be a welcoming environment for her many interests, most of which surround India, yoga and the Neighborhood Congregational Church (NCC).  

Pam Wicks, Bakhti yogi, piano teacher and Kirtan leader

A Bakhti yogi (the yoga of devotion)

As a devotee of the study and practice of yoga for over 30 years, Wicks is extremely knowledgeable on the subject and rattles off yoga references with such ease that it’s hard to keep up.  She has clearly learned a lot since her father gave her her first yoga book. “It was called Yoga USA, or something like that,” she says laughing.  Wicks is so knowledgeable, in fact, she is a Bakhti yogi (the yoga of devotion). And her yoga practice encompasses much more than mastering poses.  She explains that “that” kind of yoga, the kind most of us are familiar with, is just one part of the practice.  “It’s supposed to keep you healthy and flexible so you can sit and meditate,” she explains. 

Wicks began her yoga practice in earnest when she lived in Boston.  “I had the best teachers.  I really got into it.  Patricia Walden was one of them.  She has become fairly well known,” says Wicks.  “Then I moved to Aspen and had another great teacher. She became my best friend.  By the time I got to Laguna Beach I had my own practice. 

“I don’t really go to class anymore, except Kundalini.  It’s a fabulous class,” says Wicks enthusiastically.  She tells me that all are welcome to attend, regardless of their experience.  It’s at the NCC, 340 Saint Ann’s Drive on Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m.  Immediately following this class is another one of Wicks’ passions: Kirtan (or chanting).   

An altitude of attitude and the mastery of Kirtan

“Every religion has some kind of chanting.  It’s what I consider a mystical piece of the spiritual path,” explains Wicks.  “This is devotional singing.  We chant in Sanskrit.  It’s really powerful, even if you don’t understand what you’re saying.  It takes you out of your head, and it’s about the heart.  Everybody gets really happy.  It’s really fun.  People dance.  We dedicate it to peace and healing.”  

It’s called a Kirtan Circle and it follows the Kundalini class at the church. Wicks obviously takes her Kirtan seriously, but there is a vivaciousness to her that makes it all seem very accessible.  It’s not hard to picture her and her best friend on the chairlifts in Aspen practicing their chanting.  “People thought we were nutty,” she says. “But that’s how I learned Sanskrit.”  Yes, Sanskrit.

Pam Wicks, Neighborhood Congregational Church Music Director, at home

With her immersion in yoga and chanting, it makes sense that Wicks would develop a broader interest in India since, she says,  “Yoga is based in Hinduism.” 

Meeting Tenpa Dorjay, owner of the local store, Tibet Handicrafts, has also been an important catalyst.  “He became a good friend,” she says. It is through him that Wicks became involved in hosting the Tibetan monks who now make an annual visit to Laguna. “This began a great relationship. It has been happening for six years.  This year we went stand up paddling.  The monks are so much fun!” 

Meeting the Dalai Lama and helping Norgyeling

Her relationship with Tenpa is also responsible for her meeting the Dalai Lama. 

“Four of us from Orange County went with Tenpa to his village in India.  It’s a Tibetan settlement.  Many Nepalese fled from Nepal and settled in India.  Where they live, this place is a very harsh environment, infrastructure non-existent.  We fell in love with it,” she said. “There is a little monastery there.  They need help.  The village is very poor. The last time we went, two years ago, the Dalai Lama was in the village so we get to meet him.

“We are going back in January,” she enthused.

The last time they went they took solar lanterns purchased with the money they raised.  These lanterns supply 200 families with electricity.  The non-profit organization that raises money for this town and its monastery is called Nying-Je Foundation.  

Join “In the footsteps of Buddha”

After that trip, in early February, Wicks, Tenpa and other intrepid travelers are planning a tour, “In the footsteps of Buddha.”  

“Tenpa is our guide,” says Wicks.  “We will go to his village, then to Bodh Gaya.  If people want we were thinking of adding Bhutan. It’s a good way to go to India for the first time.”  

There are still a few spots open on the tour so if you are interested in going, contact Wicks (949/573-7104).

Pam Wicks in festive holiday spirit at her cozy Laguna Beach home

The music director of the Neighborhood Congregational Church

With Wicks’ immersion in far eastern culture, it might be surprising to learn how deeply committed she is to the Neighborhood Congregational Church.  However, according to Wicks, the NCC is “known for being open.  It’s in our mission statement.  It appeals to my eclectic self.” 

As the NCC’s music director – and a highly regarded piano teacher – Wicks plays piano at every Sunday service.  Coming up at the NCC is their Christmas Eve service.  “It’s big!” says Wicks with enthusiasm.  “We have lots of music, sacred dancing, lots of variety…fiddlers, bells.  It’s fantastic.”  

For more information on the NCC you can go to their website at www.ncclaguna.org.

A personal passion influences her family

“I am a Bakti yogi.  There is nothing I would rather do than serve,” Wicks tells me earnestly.   As evidenced by her many endeavors, she walks the Bakti walk.  

Not surprisingly, her commitment to her practice rubbed off on her daughters.  “They grew up with me going to ashrams and such,” she says.  “They are now 27 and 28 both are very much into yoga.  

“My oldest one a little more, maybe.  She graduated with a degree in Eco-Buddhism from Wheaton College,” says Wicks proudly.  As for the rest of her family, Wicks says laughing, “I’m the weird one who chants.  But everyone has done it, whether they want to or not.”   

Wicks may jokingly call herself “weird”, but if being energetic, enthusiastic, passionate and positive is weird, then sign me up.


Peter Blake: the art dealer extraordinaire 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

With dogged determination and against most odds, Peter Blake has carved a name for himself, and for Laguna Beach, in the international art world. 

There was a time when he thought he would be forever trapped inside a restaurant, like his childhood spent in his dad’s New York luncheonettes, diners, and coffee shops… “Places with those huge menus,” Blake recalls. He knew he had another passion, but it wasn’t going to be an easy road.

“I was desperate not to end up in the restaurant business,” the gallery owner said.

But restaurant work was not always terrible. That’s how he made a start at a new life right here in our little town.

Peter Blake 

Blake landed in Laguna having wended his way westward from New York via Dallas. His then-wife was not enamored of Dallas and gave him the choice, “New York or DC.” They reached a compromise when Peter countered with, “Let’s give California a try, and if that doesn’t work we’ll move back east.”

He describes driving down the coast from LA and seeing the rocky cliffs by Crystal Cove, entering Laguna – and it was love at first sight. “I thought, my God, this is it!” So move they did, and Peter Blake got a job in what he knew best: a restaurant. 

Romeo Cucina became like a second home, with Blake beginning as a waiter in the mid-1980s, and working his way up to becoming the General Manager. Then in 1993, he and the bartender from the Agean Café realized their joint dream, and opened an art gallery.

Careful when you follow Peter Blake 

“You don’t have to go to Harvard Business School to know when a recession is coming. Just follow Peter Blake!” he laughs. 

The gallery opening was indeed followed by a recession, and then even worse. After opening the unfortunately named Fire Gallery (complete with painted flames in the windows) in the Village Fair, the disastrous Laguna firestorm came. 

“I was working at the gallery seven days a week, and at the restaurant five nights a week. And we were putting in the gas pizza oven at Romeo. When the Laguna fires happened the fire department let me through – you had to have a damn good reason to get through town then, and the gas oven was it,” said Blake. “I was back and forth, back and forth. I thought I’d lose the restaurant or the gallery that day. It was really scary.” 

After that, of course he changed the name of the gallery, and carried on for three more years at both jobs 24/7, until the gallery was able to financially break even. Then he was able to bid farewell to the restaurant world, diving full-time into the ever-uncertain art world.

Reviving Gallery Row

The Peter Blake Gallery opened on Gallery Row at a time when conditions looked much different than they are now. What is now Madison Square Café was then a drug den, with squatters living on the premises. As if it isn’t hard enough for merchants trying to pay the rent by selling art, it was difficult to attract visitors to that area. But Peter Blake not only has an eye for cutting edge art, he also has a progressive, trend-setting sense of the space in which to view art. His minimalist, modern gallery with a big glass front was an immediate eye-catcher, and helped to resuscitate the Gallery Row district.

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To market the area further, Blake and fellow gallerist, the artist William (Bill) DeBilzan started First Thursdays Art Walk in 1998. 

“The galleries were all struggling, and we started to promote Saturday night as art night. Then Bill heard from a Portland friend about First Thursdays,” said Blake. “Siân Poeschl helped with organizing, creating a board, and with the conditional use permits. We wanted it to stay pure, and worthwhile for the entire community.” 

First Thursdays Art Walk’s mission is to promote art education and appreciation in Laguna Beach, and is funded by member galleries, local art institutions, lodging establishments, and the City of Laguna Beach. The first Thursday of the month has now become legendary in Laguna, and another good reason for the local community to get together.

In 2001 Blake further enhanced the North Laguna area with the opening of his now-ex wife’s clothing shop, Fetneh Blake. It was a stressful process getting the shop permitted through the city, and following on the heels of 9/11. Blake attributes the stress of the experience to the end of their marriage. Today, however, they remain on good terms, Blake has re-married (to Stephanie, an artist), and the Fetneh Blake shop has been wildly successful. 

On Ocean Avenue the gallery finds its home

Fast-forward to 2008 when Peter Blake Gallery moved into its new space on Ocean Avenue, for which Peter Blake sunk his life-savings (close to $200,000) on improvements and permits. Then, guess what? Yes, another recession.

Blake jokes that he’s not some guy up on the hill, living behind gates, gazing at his monochromatic paintings. He’s the guy who has had to move into a small apartment, and struggle for the cause of art.

“I came from nothing,” he says. “I didn’t go to college. I didn’t go to art school. I work seven days a week. But you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to move anywhere else – any city in the world. I love this town.”

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Peter Blake Gallery, on Ocean Avenue

The recession continued to stink, however, and Blake admits to being late on the rent at the gallery every month until 2013. He had to be creative not only in finding art that speaks to people, but in finding ways to reach out with that art to the buying public.

“Galleries on the internet and art fairs were happening – two things I thought were ridiculous,” said Blake. “Buy art from a computer screen? Hang art in temporary shows, temporary walls, with harsh lighting?” It seemed unreal. But it has happened for Peter Blake in a big way.

Taking art on the road

Fresh off the plane from two art shows, Blake is more than happy to be home. “I’ve never been happier to be home,” he says. His head is still drumming form the electro-Cuban beat pumping out at Miami Art Week, and from the bustle of a Dallas art show. It may have seemed inconceivable once, but these and other art shows have heaped international recognition on the Peter Blake Gallery, and have become part of Blake’s monthly agenda.

Miami Art Week, for example, is a highly prestigious juried show for which you have to plunk down $500 and your art intentions to even be considered as an exhibitor. More than 800 galleries applied this year for the 100 slots available. “It’s a huge honor to be vetted in,” says Blake. The down side is rejection. “They email you and send you a hard copy,” he said. “It’s double humiliation!” 

This year was the second year that Peter Blake Gallery has been accepted and exhibited at Miami Art Week. Though a bit worn out afterward, Blake remarked about how the show puts Laguna Beach on the map. 

“Every booth has the name of the gallery, and the town they’re from,” he said. “There was Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, Caracas… and Laguna Beach. That brings notice to Laguna Beach that has transcended my name. It’s given our art a good reputation.”

Home sweet home

Peter Blake is a visionary art dealer who would love to see more visitors, and locals alike, enjoying galleries and shops in our downtown. He hires LCAD students to work in the gallery because he likes the way they think out of the box (“Sometimes they find out how hard it is and they change their major,” he laughs). 

“We need to engage and support the arts,” he says. “To re-invigorate the town we don’t need typical run-of-the-mill shops. We need interesting stores that attract locals and visitors.” Plus mom and pop businesses like Peter Blake Gallery.

His dream for the future is a walking-friendly downtown with one or both Forest and Ocean Avenues closed to traffic, and any business that wants park-lets to have it. 

He is passionate about a safe, accessible downtown, and the successful future of Laguna’s reputation as an arts community.


Laura Farinella: Laguna Beach’s Chief of Police

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Laguna Beach Chief of Police, Laura Farinella, graduated from Chapman University with a degree in communications she started her working career doing pre- and post-production on films.  “I loved Orange County so much so, I was traveling to Sunset and Gower (in Hollywood) regularly.  But that got old,” she explains. “It wasn’t the team environment I was looking for.  I’d always played team sports.  And the work was inconsistent and unreliable. So when I decided to do something else I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’”

LBPD Chief Laura Farinella 

She moved to Long Beach with a friend of hers who worked at Vons.  Farinella took a job there in the meat department.  Then she met a friend from high school.  “She was a cop. It sounded interesting. I get bored easily, I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” said Farinella. “I got my civil service book (to study for the entrance exam) and that was that!”

Finding her passion in law enforcement

She went through the police academy in 1990.  “It’s six months of boot camp and college at the same time,” Farinella says.  When I ask if she ever considered quitting she says, “Regularly! People are yelling at you all the time, but that sets the foundation.  Once you get out and apply it, it’s a very exciting job.

“When I was driving around Long Beach I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for doing it. I loved it. There was a lot of potential for mobility at Long Beach because it’s such a big force.  I took advantage of what they had to offer,” she says.  

Eventually, Farinella became a training officer, then a recruit drill instructor. “I liked the teaching aspect of that.  To be able to mold the new recruits is a pretty cool job, but then I got promoted out,” she says.  

Persevering in a male dominated field

With a ratio of 90% men to 10% women in the force, Farinella says, “You need to find great mentors. Mine were male because there were no female mentors to be found.”  As for bias, she says it existed, but the examples she gives didn’t come from her fellow officers.  

After responding to a call with her female training officer, Farinella recalls the people she came to help saying to her, “They let you two work together?” Another call was met with, “We didn’t call you.”  

“And this was from the public!” says Farinella ruefully.  When asked why there aren’t more women doing police work, Farinella, a mother of two, who is married to a Long Beach detective says, “Shift work when you’re having children is very hard. It’s long nights… you get called out in the middle of the night.  After they have kids, many women retire.”  

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Laguna’s first woman Police Chief

As far as how she handles the life/work balance, Farinella says, “We don’t get to pick the kids up at 3 o’clock. You feel bad about that. But we have family time in the evening.”  

And her kids get to say their mom is the Chief of Police.  Farinella admits, “Yeah, I think they think that’s something.”

Big time training for a small town

With the recent mass shooting events, and the closing of all Los Angeles schools the day before we met, our conversation naturally turned to this tragic “new normal.”

 “If we have a major event, I can handle that. I have relationships worldwide, nationwide and region-wide,” said Farinella. “If I need an asset I know where to get it. We always have to be aware, even though we’re little Laguna Beach – we are constantly talking about active shooter scenarios.  I have my secret clearance, and I’m always getting briefings.” 

Because Farinella spent most of her career in Long Beach (rising to the rank of deputy chief, the first woman to ever hold that position in that city’s history), she brings with her skills that, while not necessarily needed on a daily basis in Laguna, would be very helpful in the event of…well, in the event of something terrible. While the fact that this is a “constant” issue for our police department is a depressing thought, it’s nice to know how prepared they are – just in case.

In addition to what the police are doing, there are things the public can do, as well. “You can always go back (when these tragic events happen) and find something.  Someone said something.  If something doesn’t feel right, say something,” Farinella advises. “A knock on a door from a police officer may be all you need.  And it can be anonymous.”

Community policing shows results

What Chief Farinella is doing that impacts the city more regularly, is part of her practice of “community policing.” 

“This is the community’s police department,” she says. “We talk about providing concierge service but I don’t want there to be a divide.  I think dialogue and a level playing field are very important.”  

To that end, Farinella has implemented several outreach programs, including Coffee with a Cop (where the department provides coffee and anyone who wants to have a conversation can come and talk to an officer), the Dog Walker Watch program, a sort of neighborhood watch program for those out and walking about. There is also the Dinner Downtown Footbeat.  

“We brought the seven bars we are called to most often together, and said, ‘Let’s deal with these problems.’ We have reduced our assaults by 50%,” says Farinella proudly. 

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Additionally, the department sends officers to the youth shelter regularly in hopes of giving the kids there a positive encounter with the police.

Happy to give back to Orange County

“I love it every day I come here,” she says.  After driving to Long Beach for 16 years from Rancho Santa Margarita, Farinella says she is happy to have “two more hours in my day.”  But there is more than extra time that makes her happy with her new job.  “Now I can give back to the county that has given me so much.  

“It’s the cherry on top to work in Laguna Beach! I wanted my last years in law enforcement to be able to give back, and get back to community policing.” 

The LB she came from has 968 sworn officers; the LB where she is now called “Chief” has 50.  Of course, there are differences in the day-to-day issues between the two city police departments and I, for one, find that very comforting.  Chief Farinella’s log sheet may read differently here than it did in Long Beach, but it’s nice to know that whatever calls come in, she most likely has had experience in dealing with it – especially in these days when the unthinkable has become tragically common.


Dan Pingaro: sailor, ocean advocate, and Community Foundation’s captain for non-profits

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Dan Pingaro is the captain at the helm of Laguna Beach Community Foundation. But it’s not the first time he’s been a captain.

Dan Pingaro, Executive Director of Laguna Beach Community Foundation

Before arriving on Laguna’s shores, Pingaro was Chief Executive Officer of Sailors for the Sea, a conservation organization that “inspires and activates the sailing and boating community toward healing the ocean.” 

Founded by David Rockefeller, Sailors for the Sea began as a local east coast organization with zero programs or staff. Pingaro, as the first CEO, grew it into a global concern, creating four affiliate offices on three continents, multiple partnership programs such as the America’s Cup, and creating a diversified funding base. Ultimately, Sailors for the Sea is a way to contribute and create a legacy of change to effectively address environmental threats to the ocean.

Pingaro has had a life-long love for the ocean. He was a county lifeguard at Aliso Beach as a teenager, and fondly remembers fellow lifeguard and PMMC co-founder, Jim Stauffer, and many fun times in Laguna. “Really good memories of going to The Stand for lunch!” he laughs.

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The ocean, his other “office”

Early in his career he created a foul-weather apparel and gear company for sailors, hikers and climbers, called ClewGear. “It was technical and fashion. We sourced materials and manufactured everything in the US,” said Pingaro. 

“With unique, functional components, it’s the best of its class – to this day,” he says proudly.

He met his wife, Kim, on the water too, as they both enjoy sailboat racing. They moved here from Mill Valley. Now, after almost two years of living in Laguna, they both enjoy the weather better than up north, and they like to spend time on the water – surfing, sailing or swimming, when they can.

Navigating his way to Laguna

After his mom died, Pingaro was hoping for an opportunity to live closer to his dad in Orange County to be able to help him out. He still thought of Laguna and had kept up with the goings on in here through his friendship with Greg McGillivray, and their ocean conservation work. When the position with Laguna Beach Community Foundation opened up, Pingaro was the right guy at the right time. 

His dedication to the environment and pursuit of global sustainability together with his aptitude for fundraising and investment strategies has made him a natural fit for the LBCF, whose goal is to provide strategic philanthropy advice.

Prior to his position with Sailors for the Sea, Pingaro had spent ten years with the US Environmental Protection Agency, in San Francisco. He was responsible for grants and financial management, environmental planning and program development. He was on the America’s Cup Sustainability subcommittee, and was the first recipient of the Surfrider Foundation’s Thomas Pratte Memorial Scholarship. Pingaro brings this background to the forefront at LBCF, where he oversees this non-profit for non-profits.

Laguna Beach Community Foundation gives back

“Our Board and Investment Committee are entirely volunteer, so we are a non-profit helping other non-profits, and advising at a very low cost,” Pingaro explains. 

Since he’s been on board, funds and fund holders have increased significantly.

“It’s been great to have the opportunity to grow an organization,” he says. “The communications committee, the board, the staff – all do a great job.”

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Pingaro’s “official” office at LBCF

LBCF offers expertise on planned giving, plus a free speaker series every third Thursday of the month. Anyone may attend but space is limited to 25. The January speaker, for example, is Ed Fuller, former president and managing director of Marriott International, current president and CEO of the Orange County Visitors Association, and president/co-founder of Laguna Strategic Advisors. 

In February the LBCF series will feature a grant writing seminar.

“It’s crazy – it’s free!” enthuses Pingaro. “And it includes free lunch.”

The series is for non-profits to better market themselves or to learn about other local and global opportunities to give them a leg up. The LBCF also publishes a newsletter full of advice and strategies that anyone can sign up for at: www.lagunabeachcf.org

Time, Treasure and Talent

“It’s surprised me how much of a village community there is here, with an incredible number of non-profits,” said Pingaro. “The philanthropy has surprised me in a positive way.”

He relishes the number of programs that Laguna is lucky enough to support, such as arts, the environment, and human health – as evidenced by a good cross-section of its non-profits. LBCF will steer individuals, families, and other group investors toward the non-profit that speaks to their desires, and will endure as a legacy. Any non-profit can take advantage of LBCF’s national grants database for free. They can also match up individual volunteers with specific goals.

“We’re the hub to learn about the non-profits,” he says. “We’re here to support you and your community.” The LBCF motto is: People give Time, Treasure or Talent.

Having settled into Laguna as home, Dan Pingaro is just steps from his house to his office to the beach. He realizes it doesn’t get much better than that. 

From an ocean conservation standpoint, he’s noticed the waters off Laguna have more fish now than he remembers in the past. 

And from a philanthropy point of view, he’s found there are plenty of fish in Laguna’s sea of generosity.



Brittany Lis: Shining up Marine Room with creativity

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Knowing talent when you see it is a helpful tool when building a portfolio of businesses. So when Brittany Lis applied for a job as a bartender at House of Big Fish several years ago, she says co-owner Richard Ham told her, “I will give you the job, but you’ll end up hating it.” Instead, he offered her the position to manage the corporate office of Casa Resorts, of which he is a co-owner.  Lis accepted, and found herself working for Ham and Chris Keller, two men with very distinct management styles. 

“Richard and Chris are very different, but they balance each other out,” she says.

 

Brittany Lis

After about a year of working at the corporate office, Lis said Keller told her, “If you want to help me, I need help with this.”  “This” was a daunting stack of papers with various projects needing attention. The one on top dealt with the Marine Room, the historic property that Casa Resorts had recently purchased from Kelly Boyd, who had purchased it from the Eltermans, the original family owners of the landmark bar. 

“I don’t live in Laguna; I live in Aliso Viejo. I wasn’t that familiar with Marine Room.  Chris asked me to check it out and I did,” Lis said. “Me, coming from a creative background, I just started having all these ideas. I learned the history. Some renovations were happening at that time so I was there and just started throwing out, ‘What do you think?’ Chris was trusting, and said, ‘OK!’”

Making the most of an opportunity to help

Lis began splitting her time between her corporate office duties and the Marine Room.  Then, Casa Resorts decided to partner with Interstate Hotels and Resorts. 

“After that, there wasn’t really anything for me to do anymore except manage the Marine Room,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait a second…’ I was doing the creative stuff. Doing the day-to-day management is a different skill set.  But I have an extraordinary team behind me.  We all keep it afloat.”

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The marquis sign is one of Brittany Lis’ signature touches

The night Justin Bieber came to play

When stars like Justin Bieber make an unannounced appearance, it’s safe to say that the Marine Room team is doing much more than just keeping afloat.  

“He showed up totally impromptu!” says Lis. 

“I was thinking, this guy looks a lot like Justin Bieber,” she says, laughing.  It wasn’t until after the two went outside, took a stroll to the movie theater and Lis saw him give his body guards a thumbs up that she realized it really was Justin Bieber.  

“No one really knew. There were a couple people who knew it was him, but they were being cool,” Lis said.  “We were dancing, but then a girl ripped his hoodie off his head. He said, ‘Aww…why’d you need to go and do that?’  I guess he figured since his cover was blown he might as well get on stage. He sang two songs, Drake’s ‘Hot Line Bling’ and ‘Sorry.’ He was there for, like, two and a half hours. It was so cool for him to do that!  We want him to be able to come back and always have a good time!”

The many facets of having a good time

Lis is very clear on how the Marine Room should ensure everyone has a good time, not just world-famous pop stars.  Because of the bar’s long history (it has the second oldest liquor license in Orange County, according to Lis), “It has a prohibition era-vibe to it. 

“I did not want Marine Room to feel corporate,” says Lis. “I want people to feel so comfortable they’d bring their laptops and do some work; or (for the ladies) come in wearing a black cocktail dress, feel sexy and get hit on; or come in wearing jeans and a t-shirt and feel comfortable. I wanted this project, like all my projects, to have many facets to them, like a diamond.”

The prohibition-era vibe is also why, Lis says, she wanted to brand the tavern as a whiskey bar.  “We have over 200 whiskeys -- the most in Laguna.  There are some really great selections, some from Japan…That’s the vibe, like a leather tufted couch where you sit and have a glass of whiskey… like you’re in someone’s house.”

Nighttime is the right time at the Marine Room

An accidental model makes the most of it

Lis’ mention of Japan leads us in another direction: her life before Casa Resorts and the Marine Room.  When a friend who was an aspiring photographer asked her to be one of her models, Lis found herself, somewhat accidentally, with a new career.  

After awhile she says, “I realized that all the clients who were booking me were from Asia. I thought, ‘I wonder if I sent my portfolio to some Asian agencies if I’d get a response’.  Within a week I had a response from Japan. My mom was freaking out [about Lis moving to Japan]. But I was thinking, ‘You have to go! This will be the greatest thing for you!’”  

So she went, working and traveling all over Asia, eventually meeting her husband, a Russian, who was also modeling there.  Eventually, despite the glamour and the fun, Lis and her husband decided it was time to come home. 

“It’s not me,” she says of her modeling days.  “I used the fashion industry to travel.”  And, perhaps, find some good Japanese whiskeys – and her husband.  

Keeping her creative juices flowing while “maintaining”

After jet-setting around exotic locales, managing a local bar seems like it could become rather monotonous. Not so, says Lis. “I’ve gotten used to the maintaining part.  My biggest fear is getting burned out. You have to be creative if you’re a creative person. I’m still creating! There are so many projects, so many things I want to do. Yes, you have the accounting, the P&L, and all that, but it’s easy when you’re creating. I have my expectations – and most of the time it’s good!” she says with a laugh.

The Marine Room makes time for community

Many of the projects in which the Marine Room participates benefit the community.  From the Food Pantry to KX93.5, to many other local organizations, the Marine Room is willing to open their doors for a worthy cause.  

“Anyone who knows Chris…he’s a community guy.  He’s heavily involved in helping Laguna Beach.  He’s the one behind those things.  We’re more than happy to help,” says Lis.  She’s also more than happy to keep learning from her mentors.

Learning from the best has been a great experience

“How blessed am I?  Richard and Chris have taught me so much,” says Lis. “So many people want to know how they do what they do.  They’re my mentors and I am so grateful for the opportunity.”  

And she’s not done learning or creating just yet.  “I’m not done at Marine Room, but I think it will get to a point where I will be done,” she says. “I want to do the fun part.  I like to go into businesses that are struggling and help; see something that has potential, and shine it up!”  

Lis says her experience at the Marine Room has been “the best experience for me, because it succeeded. I might feel differently if it had not, but it has been amazing.  

“We are thankful we have the support of the community, and outside the community as well.  We hope to keep it going for another 82 years!”



Jonathan Burke: LCAD’s president and a community leader

By ELIZABETH NUTT

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

2015 was an important year for Jonathan Burke, president of the Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD): he celebrated 35 years of serving the school, and five years of leadership as its president. Burke has played a significant role in transforming LCAD from a small arts school to an accredited, degree-granting institution that offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

 And, along the way, he’s brought student housing to campus, started a summer artist-in-residency program that sponsors internationally recognized artists, and he founded a downtown gallery that brings high-caliber exhibitions to the Laguna Beach community—to name just a few of his accomplishments. 

But when you talk to Jonathan Burke, he’s focused, like all good leaders are, on the future, not the past. 

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Jonathan Burke

“My vision for the future is to be recognized for what we do,” says Burke. “I want LCAD to become the Julliard of art colleges.”

Burke’s beginnings

Burke was born and raised in Kansas City; his father was a Hollywood actor, and his mother was a painter, so the arts have always been a part of his life. But it was his mother’s influences in particular that helped shape Burke’s path.

First, he followed in her footsteps by enrolling in the Kansas City Art Institute, where he earned his B.F.A. in painting. It was his mother, too, who set him up with Linda, Burke’s wife of 40 years. Burke and Linda’s paths crossed one summer in Kansas City while they were both home on a temporary break from pursuing their respective masters degrees in the arts. Their mothers attended high school together.

The two were married shortly after at Cambridge City Hall. Burke was living in Boston while working toward an M.F.A. in painting from Boston University, and he went on to teach for a year at Massachusetts College of Art, which marked the beginning of a decades-long teaching career. 

“Teaching has always been enjoyable to me, and it makes me a better artist,” says Burke. “It doesn’t take away from my creativity; rather, the ideas students have energize me,” he says.

After a year, however, Burke and Linda grew tired of the cold, and longed to be closer to their family, which had started to migrate West. His parents retired in Santa Monica, his sister was in LA. And so, they packed up their car and their two cats, and moved to San Francisco, where Linda got a job at an art gallery, and Burke at a painting conservation lab. 

Burke loved his work in painting conservation, and had even made the decision to pursue a PhD in the field, but he soon made the unfortunate realization that exposure to the lab’s chemicals was poisonous to him, causing health problems. That’s when he took a break, and started thinking about teaching and the next step. 

And that’s also when he and Linda made a visit to Santa Monica. During that trip, Burke’s parents suggested that he and Linda, who share a deep appreciation and love for art, venture down to a little town called Laguna Beach. 

“I remember coming down to Laguna in January, and it was a beautiful, sunny day. Bees were buzzing around the flowers, people were playing basketball at Main Beach, and the Christmas cacti were in bloom,” reflects Burke. “I said to myself, this is the cutest town I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t forget about it.” The year was 1979.

The opportunity of a lifetime

When he returned home to San Francisco, his mother called him, and explained that she’d read in the newspaper about a small art school in Laguna, after there’d been a fire in its administration building, which burned down. She suggested that Burke reach out to the school to see if they were looking for faculty. 

Burke mailed 20 slides from his portfolio, a self-addressed and stamped envelope to get said slides back, and a letter of introduction to the school. He was almost immediately hired as teacher, and soon after, as chair of the school’s drawing and painting department. 

“They told me that I could build the program that I wanted, one that would be the best representational drawing and painting program in the country. It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Burke, whose interest has always been preserving and reinvigorating representational painting as an art form. 

Burke moved up the ranks quickly, becoming dean and then VP of student affairs. Shortly after he started at LCAD, the school became an accredited, degree-granting college of the arts, and it’s seen only upward movement and tremendous growth, especially since Burke took over as president in 2010.  

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The North Campus at Big Bend

“I’ve had a habit of never saying no, because I’ve always been curious about how the next thing would affect my life,” says Burke. 

No matter his role, his mission from the beginning was to find passionate young artists and to help them understand their places in the world and their voices as artists, and to educate them so that they’ll become masters of their talents. To accomplish this, Burke established a masters program at LCAD, as well as game art, digital media, design and animation majors, and a figurative sculpture program. 

He has recruited some of the world’s most talented students, and brought in some of the most revered professionals to teach master classes in their respective media. 

Art school oasis 

Burke credits some of LCAD’s success to its location, explaining that only in a town that has that reverence and respect for art can artists—and their community—truly thrive and grow. But he insists that nature has a lot to do with it, too. 

“We’re in this absolutely beautiful, inspiring place, the best location of any art college in the country, and I can tell you because I’ve been to all of them,” says Burke.

He believes that being surrounded by the soothing qualities of nature plays a significant role in student happiness and creativity. Establishing housing for freshman students or those students beyond commuting range just blocks from the beach, and exponentially growing the campus itself are some of his proudest accomplishments.

But he’s also proud of the fact that he’s built a college whose resources extend far beyond campus. Really, it’s a school for the Laguna Beach community, too. 

He’s worked with Laguna Art Museum to co-brand exhibitions, created a series of Saturday and summer courses—such as stone carving and live drawing—for community members, and he founded LCAD’s pre-college program, for curious and passionate high school artists who wish to take college-level art classes over the summer to gain experience and build their portfolios. 

He also started an art teacher appreciation program that provides free summer art classes for local art teachers to help them remain creative and to reward them for their work during the school year. 

Burke himself continues to teach fundamentals of drawing at LCAD today—one class per semester, to be exact, but he says he’d teach more if he could. 

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Burke greets prospective students on a tour of the college

One of Burke’s New Year’s resolutions is to drive home to Laguna residents the fact that the college is open and available to the community, and that everyone should make an effort to visit LCAD’s campus. And he has every reason to be an eager host. “I want to encourage people to come and take a tour and to see what’s happening here,” he says proudly. 

“The four words I hear most often from visitors are: “I. Had. No. Idea.”


Mary Blanton: A gifted El Morro teacher pays it forward and back

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Eight years ago, my son, a student at El Morro Elementary School since kindergarten, showed up for his 3rd grade year. His teacher, a woman named Mary Blanton. The sign on her door read “Club 54.” I had no idea then, but figured it out pretty quickly, that he was going to have one of the best scholastic years of his life. 

In need of some confidence, Mrs. Blanton swooped him up, bestowed her incredible generosity of spirit on him, energized his mind and, after nine months in her care, was almost unrecognizable. The unsure, reticent boy who entered her class, left it a confident, curious 4th grader. Thank you, Mrs. Blanton!  

Mary Blanton, El Morro Teacher and 2012 LBUSD Teacher of the Year

I mention this not because my child’s academic life is of such interest, but because you might as well know that I am as biased as one can get in regards to Mary Blanton.  However, I know I’m not alone in my fandom.  Blanton was recognized as LBUSD Teacher of the Year in 2012.  In this school district, that kind of recognition means a lot.  So when we sat down together I assumed we would talk about her career and teaching.  I learned, however, that there is a lot more to Blanton’s story than her countless hours spent in a classroom.  

Mary Blanton embodies the kind of community spirit Laguna is known for. And as she has swept up so many with her loving spirit, when she needed it most, the favor was returned.

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An appropriate motto for all teachers

A family tradition of giving back

“I just wanted to help,” says Blanton of her days after graduating from CSULB with a teaching credential.  She credits her parents who thought it “more important how I’m helping than what I do.”  

Blanton and her husband, Everett, have passed those same values on to their three sons: Bryce, Noah and Aiden. “When you start to give back, the reward in that is tremendous,” said Blanton. “You tend to want to gravitate to that.” 

That desire to give back makes the fact that Blanton is in Laguna at all a rather happy accident. “I wanted to teach inner-city kids; work at places where it’s harder to find teachers,” she said.  However, in the late 80’s when she was looking for a job, teaching positions were hard to find.  So, right after college she went on a mission trip and helped build a runway and medical clinic on an island adjacent to Papua New Guinea. 

Talking her way into a job of almost 30 years

An Orange County native, when she returned home she took a job as a substitute teacher at El Morro. At the time, El Morro was also hiring full-time teachers.  “I was so naïve.  I got paper-screened out!” says Blanton, meaning they had looked at her resume – and put it in the “no” pile. Not realizing this, Blanton introduced herself to the principal and, next thing you know, she was hired.  

“We didn’t get paid very much,” says Blanton with a laugh.  “I had to keep working at Laura Ashley for clothes so I had something to wear to class.  My intention was to stay until I could get a position in the inner-city, but seeing what a caring, loving community Laguna Beach is…”  

Almost thirty years later she’s still here.

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In class with some of her kindergarteners

Her first year, Blanton was charged with 33 first graders.  “I would come home so exhausted!  I wondered if I should even be a teacher,” she says.  “But there was such an incredible esprit de corps with the staff. It was this great community. I didn’t want to leave. They came to my wedding, held my babies…”  

Most of that original staff has since retired. “I’m so thrilled when I see them now.”

Blanton brought her desire to give back into the classroom. There were sock drives, coat drives, and a project where several of the classes got together and made Valentines Day gift bags for the children at CHOC Hospital.  “We filled them with crayons and stickers…things like that,” she remembers. 

An accident changes everything

As much as Blanton loved teaching, when she and Everett began their family, the plan was for Mary to eventually stay home with the kids and for Everett to keep working as a graphic designer. However, those plans changed when their oldest son, Bryce, who was three at the time, knocked himself out on the playground.  As a precautionary measure, he was sent to the hospital to get a scan and make sure he didn’t have a concussion. What they found was so much worse.  

Bryce had a brain tumor. And, after many agonizing tests, they were told his life expectancy was eight years old.  In an example of how things can come full circle, when Bryce checked into CHOC to begin his treatment, he received one of those special gift bags made by his mother’s class. 

Too many people to name help carry them through

It’s at this point in Mary Blanton’s story that the names of the many people who helped their family cope with what is surely every parent’s nightmare pop up: Virginia Healy, a mom at El Morro, Michael Muhonen, their neurosurgeon at CHOC, Lee Drucker (aka Lee Rocker), a parent of one of Blanton’s students who put on a concert on Bryce’s floor that had the doctors and nurses swing dancing in the halls, friends who left groceries, dinners, and countless other kindnesses she named – but my fingers couldn’t keep up.  

“The outpouring was amazing. Teachers giving me their sick days… the school district was great…People come along side you and carry you through.”  

At this point in our interview, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

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Mary with her husband, Everett Blanton

Because Bryce’s tumor was not presenting in the usual fashion, the Blantons had to make a lot of choices without a lot of concrete information.  When it came time to choose a treatment, there were two in the clinical trial stage.  They rolled the dice and the one they chose, thankfully, is now the protocol for this kind of tumor.  After two long, hard years of chemotherapy, the tumor began to shrink.  Even his optic nerve, which was damaged by the tumor, miraculously repaired itself.  

Bryce Blanton celebrated his eighth birthday, and his ninth… and this year he’s celebrating his 21st.  He was on the student council at LBHS, played on the basketball team, and was voted Laguna Beach “Junior Citizen of the Year” at the Patriot’s Day Parade for all of his good works on campus.  Bryce is now a college student.

A faith in bigger forces

During all of this, Blanton continued teaching.  “I had really good insurance,” she confides. She also had a toddler who got dragged to a lot of doctor appointments.  “I think that’s why Noah is so under the radar,” she says of her middle son, a basketball star at LBHS who now plays for Westmont.  

When I asked her how she continued to teach, to do a job that requires so much emotional energy, she says, “There are bigger forces. It really is my faith in God. I knew that, no matter what happened, God was with Bryce.” Then she adds, “I hope my teaching didn’t suffer. I guess you’d have to ask parents of the kids in my class.”  

If it did suffer, that would be expected.  However, knowing Mary Blanton, it’s extremely unlikely.

Making the most of every minute with family

Blanton tells me of how she spent this past New Year’s Eve. The Blantons – all of them – and two other families, made the trek to Westmont to spend the night with Noah. “He’s in college…I’m sure he had a lot of other things he could have been doing,” says Blanton, laughing. But they all spent the night crammed in adjoining rooms, playing board games and eating pizza. “I just want to hold onto every last minute. As much as I miss the young side, when you see the men they’re growing into…when you realize ‘I would want to be friends with these people’…that’s very special.”

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Tools of the trade for a kindergarten teacher’s “amazing classroom”

The value of engaged parents

Blanton has taught every single grade at El Morro, but spent the bulk of her career teaching third grade.  For the past two years she has taught kindergarten as well as helmed the ESL (English as a Second Language) program.  While her true love may be third grade, her eyes light up when she talks about her “kinders” (“Those days when they wrap their arms around you…” she says smiling) and especially her ESL classes.

“I love what I do. I’m passionate about what I do. I think it is so important for all kids to be provided with a good education.”  

Blanton credits the strong community partnership with the school district, specifically mentioning PTA and SchoolPower.  “If you look around this classroom; it’s an amazing classroom. I used to have to buy pencils with my own money! This weekend, for instance, I just painted and magnetized a wall in my classroom. No more chart paper – yay!”  

But, she adds, “If you strip it all away and just give me parents who want to work with their kids, that’s a game changer.” 

How do you want to change the world?

Mary Blanton is also a game changer.  She tells me that “Bryce and Everett are the two best examples I know of how to live life well.”  While I don’t dispute that at all, I would like to amend the list to make sure her name gets added, as well.    

“We should be letting the people closest to us know that we love them. Teenage boys, newly adult boys, they need to hear it, too. Putting words of encouragement over kids, really seeing what their gifts are. Letting them know that they’re enough. 

“Maybe instead of asking ‘What do you want to do?’ ask them, ‘How do you want to change the world?’ That’s the question I would pose.”  

Later, Blanton sends me an email to let me know she was not the originator of these ideas.  Regardless of who articulated these ideas first, Mary Blanton brings them to life every day. Just ask anyone who knows her.


Katie Bond: a caring heart in Laguna – and Africa

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Katie Bond lives with her feet firmly planted in two worlds. Here on U.S. soil, she manages to keep grounded with her practice of yoga. On the other side of the world, she connects through The Peace Exchange, her non-profit creating fair trade business opportunities for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are the two worlds Katie has a deep connection with, body and soul. 

Katie Bond

There was a time when Katie Bond was a small-town, Midwestern farm girl. Her family still operates the Ohio farm, Bond Family Cattle, and they’ve raised grand champion cows and pigs. Most of her family were also teachers: Dad, a school principal, mom and brother both teachers. She became smitten with the west coast, though, because of great uncle Noah. He was the Deputy Sheriff of Orange County.

“Mom and dad couldn’t afford [to live here], but loved road trips to visit him for summer vacation,” Katie remembers. “Ride horses… go to Disneyland… I thought California was magical!”

When she had an opportunity to transfer from college in Ohio to Cal State Fullerton, she took it. Despite leaving familiar surroundings, Katie was drawn to the sunny side of life.

“We had just come out for Christmas, and the sun was out at Balboa Island, and I thought, wow, I’m at the beach!”

At Fullerton, Katie majored in Communication, and went on to grad school at Azusa, where she was made an offer to teach. After almost seven years of teaching, though, she realized that wasn’t her passion.

“I thought, I’m 29 and I have a great job, but I never wanted to be a school teacher,” she said. 

“I wanted to move to Laguna and teach yoga!”

Feeling the lightness in Laguna

Katie acknowledges having “always been into fitness” (she was even on the cheer team at university), but yoga was something else altogether. She learned the practice of yoga when she moved to California (of course!), and it just took hold of her – body and spirit. Being able to teach yoga was a dream come true, but folks back home thought it was a little weird, like some kind of cult.

Katie laughs, “Friends sent letters, ‘Are you okay? We’re worried about you!’”

She’s now in her eighth year of teaching yoga at The Art of Fitness, in Laguna, as well as spin classes. 

“I love the yin and yang of spin and yoga. They’re opposite,” says Katie. “It’s about good music, creating a feeling of lightness, sharing some good energy.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

On her way to yoga, by the beach. What could be better?

In addition to yoga, Katie’s mind was opened to another world once she moved to California. She was working at a store at the same time she was teaching, to make ends meet. The store, called 10,000 Villages, introduced her to the concept of Fair Trade. And in addition to being a lifelong active-fitness person, she is also a lifelong do-good-things person. Fair trade became the motto for her next phase of life.

Fair Trade makes a difference

“I always wanted to encourage people, and work internationally,” Katie said. “Fair trade makes it all come together. You’re helping people in extreme poverty – you’re getting at their basic needs. Education helps get people out of poverty. Fair trade businesses enable them to have money to send their kids to school.”

For businesses to be accredited as Fair Trade they must be certified by three different governing bodies. In this way it is ensured that workers are paid directly a fair wage, without corruption, abuse, and graft. 

“Fair Trade has to have less than five middle men. There are usually eighteen,” explains Katie. “You’re working in the poorest of the poor places and making an opportunity the people wouldn’t otherwise have.” 

One day while working at the 10,000 Villages store, an invited speaker came to talk about life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was it: the thing that resonated with her heart.

“Congo chose me,” she states simply.

The Peace Exchange – global and local

“Congo is poor, and known as the sexual violence capitol of the world. With that knowledge you can’t not do something,” Katie says. “Education is powerful!”

She thought, how can we help?

Katie started The Peace Exchange. Raising money and raising awareness, she found like-minded people to partner with, and set up sewing centers in the Congo to provide local women with economic opportunities.  

“We provide resources, pay shipping, and pay workers a fair wage,” says Katie. “The women there are victims of sexual violence. We have guarded, gated – protected sewing centers.” 

The danger of sexual assault is an every day fear for the women of the Congo. According to Katie, the first conviction of a rapist only happened five years ago. Women are regarded with very little respect, but the sewing centers created by The Peace Exchange have opened a window for change. The women work only in the daylight hours so they will be safely home before dark. (Laguna’s non-profit, Wheels for Life, has recently given them a grant so that the women can have bikes to ride to their work as well).

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Photo by The Peace Exchange

Seamstresses at work at one of the three Peace Exchange sewing centers

The employed seamstresses not only have money to provide for their families, but they have a newfound sense of respect and dignity.

“It’s about connecting with people,” says Katie. “I talk with a woman about her rape, and then a year later she tells me how she’s a breadwinner, and sending her kids to school. I feel I owe it to them to have the opportunity to succeed.

“It’s something I feel born to do. I love Africa.” 

Katie had an affinity for Africa ever since she was little. She smiles, “I’d ask my parents every year at Christmas for an African brother or sister.” Now she has them.

“Thirty-three sisters in the Congo who count on me!”

Products to market

The Peace Exchange products, including tote bags, yoga bags, and clothes are handmade with colorful African fabrics. They are shipped to distribution centers, such as the one Katie set up in her hometown in Ohio, staffed with volunteers, retired teachers and friends (“They’re still not sure about yoga!”). Presently, The Peace Exchange is getting their products into stores in the U.S. and the U.K, where they are doing a fashion show this year with models from Congo included.

The products can often be found at the Farmer’s Market here in Laguna, and in local stores such as Laguna Coffee Co.

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Some of The Peace Exchange’s African-made products

Katie is not one to be daunted by the giant scope of her passion project, not to mention the endless fundraising needed. “It’s like conducting an orchestra – keeping it all in harmony,” she says. “Sometimes a string pops, but I call it ‘failing forward!’ We’ve been fortunate. We’re not giving up.

“My bad day is never a bad day when you’re doing this kind of work. Many times it seems too hard. There’s pressure to pay the women – and yoga can’t afford that. But I set out to do good work. It’s hard… humanitarian work is hard but good things happen.”

Somehow her Christmas wish and dream of international work has come together like pieces in a puzzle. And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

“Sweat equity, I’ve put in a ton, but now it’s worth it. I get paid to do yoga and spin, which I love, and I get to help people. I’ve wanted that all my life – I just didn’t know what that looked like!”

Good things happen for a reason – and with the dedication of good people like Katie Bond.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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