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Cpl. Jason Farris: Working for something better

BY SAMANTHA WASHER
Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When I called Community Outreach Officer, Corporal Jason Farris, of the Laguna Beach Police Department, my intent was to write about him receiving the OC Top Cop award from the Angels Baseball organization.  He is the officer in charge of working with Laguna’s homeless population.  Having never met him before, I figured the story surrounding the award would give us a lot to talk about.  After about five minutes, I realized that while we had lot to discuss, the award was not going to be the focus of our conversation. 

The Top Cop Award and Corporal David McGill

Corporal Farris, while appreciative of the award, very candidly and matter-of- factly explained that, “a lot of guys could have gotten it.”  At first, I thought this was just standard modesty, but he continued, “Corporal David McGill was supposed to get the award, but he was on vacation and couldn’t make the ceremony so I was next in line.”  This candor sums up Corporal Farris.  He may not tell you what you want to hear, but he will tell it to you straight. One of the more unnerving things Corporal Farris’ frankness taught me was that the face of homelessness can look a lot like…me. 

The lesson of being mistaken for a homeless person

Back from a week’s vacation with his family, Corporal Farris was all business when we met at the police station.  As he ushered me outside to a bench in front of the station, I could tell he was searching his memory for who I was and why I was there.   He was very business-like.  When I reminded him of the reason for my visit, he changed gears, easing up a bit.  

And then he off-handedly provided me with a very effective lesson on homelessness, explaining,  “One of the people I’ve been working with looks a lot like you.”  I’m sure my face said it all at this point.  Did he just mistake me for a homeless person?  He continued without any embarrassment, “You’d be surprised how many people look like you and are homeless. They fall on hard times, been homeless for a week and need help. So I’ll take them to the ASL (Alternative Sleeping Location) and tell them ‘Come back tomorrow.  Let’s talk and start new’.”  

The challenges and rewards of something new

Starting new is a key component to Corporal Farris’ work.  Whether it’s the person who recently finds themselves on hard times or a veteran of the streets, homeless people come in all packages, even, as I learned, packages resembling my own.  Regardless, Corporal Farris’ job is to help find a new start for those who want it.  However, between limited resources, options and a frequently unwilling population, a new start is very tough to achieve.

Hired by the Laguna Beach Police Department 13 years ago, first as a dispatcher before becoming an officer, Corporal Farris became the Community Outreach Officer five years ago.  Citing the need for a full time officer dedicated solely to the homeless population, and one of 14 recommendations proposed by a task force on homelessness that resulted from an ACLU lawsuit against the city, Farris was urged to apply for the position.   When asked if this was a good career choice, Farris responded, “In all sincerity, none of us went to the Academy to become an Outreach Officer.  But, now I have to say, it’s the best thing I ever did in my career.”  

He continued, “It’s hard to measure success in law enforcement. In law enforcement, we tend to fix problems quickly and move on to the next one.  Outreach takes time.  The victories are built over time. To get someone who doesn’t trust law enforcement to trust me; to get someone reunited with their family; to get them into a detox program; just help them to move on to something better takes time, but when it happens it’s very rewarding.”

Balancing the many needs of the community

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Corporal Jason Farris and longtime Laguna Beach homeless man, Douglas Du Maurier. Du Maurier stopped Cpl. Farris to show him some recent drawings.

Something better.  If only it was that easy. The job is complex. “When I started I had this idea of how this job was going to work. I tried forcing people into getting help.  I eventually learned that if they weren’t ready, it didn’t work.  I had to recalibrate, had to start focusing on little victories.  It wears me down sometimes, but I have learned not to take it personally when they don’t succeed like I want them to.”   

 Tasked with balancing the needs of several groups with often opposing needs, it’s important to understand that Corporal Farris is a police officer, not a social worker.  

“I try and use the laws as an incentive to get the homeless in the city to do something different, if that’s what needs to be done.  I have to strike a balance between law enforcement, what the public wants, what business owners want and what the city wants.” 

All of these different agendas must be managed on a daily basis.  He cites an example: “Panhandling is not illegal.  Business owners don’t like it when it’s in front of their door, which is understandable.  But it’s not illegal.  All I can do is try to work with the person doing it and try to convince them to do something different.  If I succeed, great.  If I don’t, and they’re not breaking the law, there isn’t much I can do,” he explains.  And therein lies one of his many daily challenges.

Waiting for other cities to step up

Another challenge is the lack of accommodations outside the city of Laguna Beach. Because the Alternative Sleeping Location on Laguna Canyon Road is the only non-weather related emergency shelter in Orange County, there is simply not enough room for the many people who show up on a nightly basis.  Designed to cater to the “local homeless” with room for others decided by a lottery, Corporal Farris’ option for someone who doesn’t get in for the night is to offer them a bus ticket somewhere else.  The problem is there’s nowhere “else” for them to go.

As we talked about the surprising lack of facilities elsewhere, Corporal Farris excused himself for “getting fired up.”  “I would like to see other cities stepping up.  We are doing more than our share.  There is always more to be done, of course, but Laguna Beach does a lot.  We live in this wealthy county and their flagship program is a 45 bed facility for the mentally ill.  I mean, that’s great, but 45 beds?  Every other county has something to offer.  I don’t understand it.”

Honestly, I could have happily talked to Corporal Farris for much longer.  The issue of homelessness and what to do about it is so complex one question led to another, which led to another.  However, duty called.  

As we sat on the bench, a man rode up on his bike.  Clearly, he and Corporal Farris were well acquainted.  And the man was mad.  Corporal Farris calmly convinced the man to wait for him and not bust into the station, all riled up.  I took this as my cue to wrap things up.  Clearly, Corporal Farris had work to do. 

As I walked to my car I saw the two men talking.  The man was no longer as agitated.  

Corporal Farris might not have convinced him to try something new, but he was definitely working on something different.


Jean Paul’s Goodies:

Au Revoir to a true institution

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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When Jean Paul closes his doors to his self-named bakery and café on Saturday, August 9, it will truly be the end of an era.  To his loyal, in some cases fanatical, customers an integral part of their daily routine will be forever changed.  They will, as the farewell poster created by longtime customer, Carrie Reynolds, and hanging in the window laments, “…be forced to purchase coffee somewhere else and actually have to order it the way THEY like it.” 

But, of course, the closing of Jean Paul’s means more to his customers than finding a new place to get a cup of coffee.  The place that brought them together, day after day, to converse about all things, lofty and mundane, will no longer be.  And the man who really did kick out well-meaning, cash-holding customers for “insulting” him by ordering a non-fat latte, will finally be able to sleep past 4 a.m.

A new take on customer service

Much has been made of Jean Paul’s interesting spin on customer service.  Unlike an urban myth, something that happened once or twice and the legend grew; Jean Paul can be seen sending people away on a somewhat regular basis.  However, there is much more to the man than just that.  Although, trying to get it out of him is a task not for the faint of heart.

After finally accepting that I really wasn’t leaving without something he finally granted me some of his time.  Having frequented Jean Paul’s for at least 15 years, I took this as a major coup.  Since he has been at the same spot for over 30 (30!) years, my history with him was helpful, but certainly not impressive, especially when one considers he has been there so long he now has three generations of families as customers, something that he takes great pride in. How many places can say that?  

From racecar driver to diplomat to…baker?

The first time I went in to talk to him (and he realized I was not going to be deterred), he was ultimately engaging, funny and sincere.  To say, however, that he was reluctant would be an understatement.  He wasn’t trying to be difficult.  He just kept saying over and over “Why is anyone interested in this?”  He truly did not understand why anyone would care about his story. 

If, like me, you assumed Jean Paul had been a lifelong student of French pastry, you would be totally wrong.  I found out that in his youth, he studied medicine.  His studies ended when he broke 22 bones in his body in a car racing accident. After marrying his doctor, and eventually divorcing (“We were not a match,” he explained simply.), he went to work on the negotiations between the North and South Vietnamese after the war.  He excelled in this and was sent to Quantico, VA for further training in things such as telecommunications.  Now a State Department employee, his French passport was considered an asset for this line of work, allowing him to enter countries much more feely than with an American one.  During all this, he was approached by three men he’d met from the CIA who decided they wanted to open a bakery.  Since Jean Paul was French and an incredibly fast learner, they asked him if he would get it going.  He accepted, calling “his” baker from France and getting him set up, purchasing all the equipment and while doing so, getting very well paid for it all. “Money was no object.  I even negotiated my own contract,” he explained.  

They called it Vie de France, a name Jean Paul was not a big fan of (“It doesn’t mean anything…life of France?”). One bakery turned into a chain of 3,000.  He eventually left his work with Vie de France for a State Department mission in South America. He stayed there on and off for three years. 

We have John Wayne to thank

When he returned to the US, his travels between coasts brought him in contact with John Wayne.  In conversations about what Jean Paul’s plans were, Wayne suggested he look into Newport Beach to open his business.  Liking the climate in southern California, Jean Paul took his advice. Wayne also told Jean Paul if he moved to Newport, to look up his ex-wife, Pilar.  She became an important business associate who, with her own restaurant in Corona del Mar at the time, sent customers his way, helping him get established.  

He became familiar with some of Newport’s more familiar families, saying he was friends with the Nelsons (of Ozzie and Harriet fame), and even mentioning that he got in a fight with Ricky Nelson when “Ricky was drunk.” He then brought out a large tin of caviar to show me.  “I used to sell four cans of this a week to a Saudi Arabian prince.  Eventually he got kicked out of the country for living on caviar and coke,” he explained, rolling his eyes.  (I understood that we were not talking soda. This was back in the ‘80’s, after all.)  When the building in Corona del Mar sold he relocated to Laguna where he has been for the past 30 years.

George Allen makes a conversion

As if all of this wasn’t surprising enough, I found out that Jean Paul is a Redskins fan.  Who’d have guessed that?  Apparently, while at a bar in Washington DC, Jean Paul was introduced to the Redskins coach, George Allen.  When he asked Jean Paul what he thought of American football, Jean Paul replied, “Not much.”  Two weeks later a limo arrived for Jean Paul with tickets for the game, sideline passes and two assistant coaches assigned to educate him on the nuances of American football.  

After that, a fan was born. “I just didn’t understand the game,” he said smiling. 

It’s all in the name of respect

What is understood, particularly of late, is how much Jean Paul means to his regular customers.  “I wanted to respect the people who are so nice.  So many people here have been so, so nice to me…The people who are a son of a bitch, well, for me they have been the best advertising,” he tells me with a Gallic shrug. 

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The devotion to Jean Paul goes well beyond his coffee and croissants. One of his regulars gave him a round trip ticket to France as a farewell gift. Another had just given him $2,000 “to buy something nice.”  These are not your everyday day gifts of appreciation.  They speak to a deep relationship built on mutual respect.  But even his favorites can’t escape his frustration and disdain.

I received countless emails from Jean Paul regulars who were delighted to share amusing anecdotes about their run-ins with him. Story after story of his crotchety behavior, told with delight and affection.   Also included were stories of his generosity, his devotion to his friends and his incredible work ethic.  A long time customer, Jay Rubin, summed it up when he said, “So even though he appears tough on the outside, those of us who really know him know otherwise.” 

Customers, friends and those who get asked to leave

I witnessed this “otherwise” firsthand.  As Jean Paul and I chatted, a man came in to say goodbye.  He reached over the counter and shook Jean Paul’s hand.  “I just wanted to come in and say good-bye.  You will be missed.”  It was brief and to the point, but after he left Jean Paul had tears in his eyes.  I was caught off guard by this show of emotion.  But I felt his deep appreciation for his customers, some true friends, as he packed up 30 years of memories.  He’s still kicking people out of his shop, to be sure, but he’s more focused on the people he will miss.  But even they can’t escape a parting rant.

Carrie Reynolds, who has so many Jean Paul stories she could fill a book, relayed how recently when she went to put her son’s Orangina bottle in the croissant bag Jean Paul began to “fume, ‘You are going to make the warm pain chocolat cold…ugh…why don’t you just eat FROZEN FOOD!’” No one is immune.  

Another long time customer, Mari Barton, told me “Laguna will miss Jean Paul, the caustic curmudgeon who really wasn’t either.” 

I’m not sure what Jean Paul would think of that description.  Sadly, we’ll probably never know.  Once his doors close on August 9th, he will be taking an incredibly well-deserved vacation while the rest of us will have to get used to ordering half-caff, non-fat, no foam lattes – and be relegated to receiving them with a smile.

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The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut and Maggi

The team effort in Steve Sogo’s Advanced Chemical Research (ACR) class at Laguna Beach High School has produced remarkable, even published results.

The team-based research program has been around since 2007, when Sogo wanted to offer an enhanced version of the Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry class. “I wanted to teach a class that rewarded curiosity, experimentation, and the risk of failure,” he said. “The idea was to create a real research lab.”

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Room 61, chemistry’s homeroom

LBHS is pretty unique in its sciences classes. There are many chemistry classes throughout the country where the students never even work in a lab. 

With a grant that Sogo received from a local foundation, he developed the ACR  class as an inquiry-based program modeled after his own graduate experience at Caltech. It’s a tough class, to be sure, but the students have demonstrated passion enough to be selected, and many have gone on to pursue graduate work and careers in the sciences.

“ACR is about engaging the students in the scientific process,” Sogo said. “Nobody knows what the answer is. You’re trying to get to that point where you say, ‘I think I know the answer!’” Sogo is there to help steer the ship, but even he doesn’t know the solution until they work it out together.

Each year there are approximately 24 students in his ACR class. The class is an elective, made up of high school seniors who have completed Chemistry and Physics, and either they approach Sogo, or get recruited from his AP Chemistry class. In the fall, the class is divided into teams of four people to collaborate in chemical research. Then they switch up the teams two more times for a total of three research projects. In the spring semester they focus on one project as a whole.

In 2010 there was a particularly noteworthy project that became a published paper. It was the result of the work of two students, Samantha Piszkiewicz and Nicolai Doreng-Stearns, (both LBHS class of 2010). 

The appeal of venom

“I’ve always felt that snakes are misunderstood,” Piszkiewicz says. 

When she was a teenager she adopted a pet snake. While watching an episode on the channel, Animal Planet, she learned about cobra venom, and became hooked. “I was just so fascinated by the mechanics of how it worked. I wanted to know more. So on my application to chemistry class, I said, ‘I want to study snake venom.’” 

She was surprised by how quickly her teacher, Mr. Sogo, responded, and how intensely interested he was in the idea.

Sogo had a colleague at UCI doing some exciting work in synthetic chemistry, and the ACR class was then able, and today still does use UCI’s analytical facility.

Purchasing some real snake venom to work with was expensive enough for a high school lab (5 ml. cost $220), but access to the UCI equipment such as the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, and Mass Spectrometry machines is a veritable goldmine.

What they made was the first-ever synthetic snake anti-venom.

Sogo explained that until this research, the theoretical research at ACR had not produced that aha moment. Investigations into the unknown will usually produce unforeseen and even unwanted results. But this time they got it all right. 

Chemically speaking, the synthetic antibodies they produced snuffed out the destructive toxins.

“The first result we got was so beautiful and encouraging,” Piszkiewicz says. “We saw 85 percent to 95 percent inhibition of cell destruction.”

Piszkiewicz and Doreng-Stearns documented their work and submitted it to the Siemens Competition, one of the largest and most prestigious science competitions in the country. And then they made it to the regionals, held at Caltech.

“Here I was – just a kid – presenting to a dozen Caltech professors. It was intimidating,” she said. “But they spoke to us like peers.”

Submitted photo

 

Samantha Piskiewicz

The experience made such an impression on Piszkiewicz that she went on to enroll at Caltech, where she majored in chemistry. She graduated this year, and is already pursuing her PhD in biophysics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She plans to go into academia, and become a professor.

In the meantime, Sogo continued to work on the snake-venom project. 

Over four years, new classes of LBHS students carefully refined the procedures from the original experiments, documented their findings, and submitted them in to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal, Chem Comm. Last summer, Sogo received word that it had been accepted – a significant achievement for any lab and a rare honor for a team of high school researchers. Piszkiewicz was listed as lead author.

“It’s still hard to imagine that my first published project as lead author is for work I did when I was 16,” Piszkiewicz says. 

She confesses she owes it all to the ACR class. “I couldn’t be more proud. I wouldn’t be the researcher – or the person – that I am today without that class.” 

Making choices

You wouldn’t think that you’d find a chemistry class at Starbucks on a Friday evening in the middle of the summer. But that’s where we caught up with Sogo, working on his next project, along with five students. 

The team of in-coming high school seniors is embarking on a yearlong competition. They are part of a program called InvenTeams, which is something started by MIT and the Lemelson Foundation to inspire the next generation of inventors.

Sogo applied last March, and this summer he was selected as one of only 39 educators invited to the training program, “Eureka Fest”. The idea is to light the spark of discovery in young people by showing them how to make inventions and how to work in teams. Then they work for a year on their invention and present at next summer’ Eureka Fest.

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InvenTeam members (l to r), Aviva Meyers, Charlotte Andrews, Andrew Couse, Nolan Gunsolley, and Jeremy Sogo discuss with teacher Steve Sogo

The InvenTeam enjoying chemistry with their lattes included Aviva Meyers, Andrew Couse, Charlotte Andrews, Nolan Gunsolley, and Jeremy Sogo. Collectively, they are working on an invention to turn dirty river water used for drinking by the natives of the Masai Mara, in Kenya. They will be working on a system to purify the water with hydrogen peroxide made and activated with solar power. The “green” and sustainable invention could have wide-reaching results, applicable to many nations with unfit drinking water.

The students will be checking in with a teacher in Kenya that Aviva knew about through her teacher’s connection with the Model UN program. The Kenyan teacher will be their “feet on the ground’ in the Masai Mara. 

At this beginning stage of the invention, the students tend to be working in alignment with their individual desires. According to Sogo, Aviva is doing the writing, Nolan and Jeremy are designing the mechanical engineering parts, Andrew is working with the budget figuring what gadgets they’ll need, and Charlotte is researching in dialog with other scientists. “In the end, they’ll all work together,” he said. 

The whole is greater than the parts.

It’s all about change and the joy of discovery in the chemistry lab at the high school. And these bright students are actually looking forward to the first day of school.


Art and soul flow through Karen Petty like a river 

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“There is no choice to create art,” says Karen Petty. “You do it or you would die.”

She would know. Art exists inside her, all through her, and is everything in her world. That sensibility drives the motto of her life, “A river runs through it!”

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Painter Karen Petty

After 25 years of showing at the Sawdust she has lost none of the passion for the artful life. 

HEART

Her cool and relatively spacious gallery on the hilly side of the arts grounds is like an other-wordly oasis. Stop in and she’ll get you thinking about the universe and love and freedom of expression. It’s a thought inducing, liberating space filled with Karen’s laughter.

Her joy and enthusiasm is infectious, and quite possibly inspiring. 

I witnessed a couple come by, drawn in by Karen’s voice, “It’s okay to be naked! It’s okay to bare our souls!” Yeah, they agreed, as they looked at the images on the walls; mostly naked figures embracing, reaching out, or closing in together. They stayed to talk about all kinds of things in the stream of consciousness fashion of Karen’s conversations. 

The gallery walls are filled to the brim with natural and human forms. There are solo figures, hand-drawn, painted on canvas, then layered thick with the glossy brilliance of resin. There are stacks of giclee prints in smaller format. They all reflect this year’s theme, Be Loved

 

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Works from the “Falling Stars” series (left), and “Be Loved” (right)

Every year the art that pours from her soul is an outward expression of her life experience, so that the body of work she brings to the Sawdust becomes the message. 

Last year’s theme was a tribute to her husband who had unexpectedly passed away. Her grief, combined with the joy of having known the kind of love they shared, helped her to create Falling Stars; canvases dotted with gold-leafed beach stones.

This year’s theme, Be Loved, carries the message of love forward through images of devotion.

ART

It all started when she was a little girl who liked to draw horses. Karen was eight years old, and living in Illinois when she sent a drawing of an Appaloosa in to the “Appaloosa News” magazine. That was her first published work of art. By the time she was 23, the Art Institute of Chicago represented her. 

As she says, “You either love my work or you hate it. There is no gray area with Karen Petty!”

She’s a summer and winter Sawdust artist, she sells on her website, karenpetty.com, and locally she’s represented at Laguna’s LGOCA gallery.  This year Karen is looking to branch out across the country as well. “Don’t you think it’s time I grew up?” she says with a wink. “I think I should see some of the country!” 

Well, time for travel would also mean time away from her other passion - the politics that are involved with selling art in one collective gallery. Karen is the Secretary for the by-laws at the Sawdust, and the Chairman of the Digital Guild Guidelines. She believes in fairness and equality, and works to assure those rights, likely in the same vein as Lady Godiva. “I have a bone of justice to pick,” she says. “I’m there naked on a horse to right the wrongs!”

Karen Petty, a champion for truth, justice, and art every day

Karen oversees the Sawdust by-laws to make sure that everybody plays by the same rules. “I want to keep the Sawdust fair to everyone, I want democracy to run through it,” she said. “I’m a crusader in art, and I’m a crusader in justice.”

She’s presently working on that message with a painting called Scales of Justice.

SOUL

While she once was a portraitist, the thoroughly modern Karen Petty remembers that was boring. “It’s so easy to paint something that’s in front of you,” she says. “The hardest, the challenge, is when you’re painting something that’s inside of you.”

Creating art is a cathartic experience, an emotional expression of one’s self, but it also speaks to other people in a language completely its own.

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Fellow Sawdust artists recognized Karen’s talent when she was voted Artist of the Year in 2012, by the jury of her peers. And judging by sales this summer, it looks like patrons of the arts relate to her work as well. Just yesterday someone came in and bought six pieces. 

“The show is good this year,” she says. “I think people are coming into a sense of being different.” She could be onto something: yes, it is okay to be naked!

With Karen Petty, the connection between the artist and the viewer is a magical alchemy of fine art and soulful insight. With inspiration, enthusiasm, and approachable repartee, Karen simply draws you into her colorful world.

What’s she going to do when the Sawdust closes in a couple of weeks? She laughs, “I hear there’s a beach in town! Someone told me that.”


Robin Rounaghi: A passion for Laguna Beach schools

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Waking up every morning to do something personally important to me is a gift,” explains SchoolPower Executive Director, Robin Rounaghi.  And if our meeting time was any indication, she wakes up very early these days. With school starting in a week, there is much to be done. 

Robin Rounaghi, SchoolPower Executive Director

A family history in public education

Anyone who knows Robin (and, in the name of full disclosure, I have known her and worked with her as a SchoolPower trustee for more than a few years) knows of her enthusiasm for SchoolPower and her commitment to bettering Laguna’s public schools.  Long before she was paid for her time, she was an active volunteer with PTA as well as SchoolPower.  And it makes sense.  

She is the product of twenty years of public education. Both her parents started out as public school teachers with her father going on to become the Chancellor of Community Colleges of California.  Public education, and all the things that go with it – policy, finance, lobbying—were regular topics of conversation around the dinner table. 

“I admire my parents very much and they instilled in me a great respect for the importance of education.” 

An interest in education but a career in law 

While interested in education, one obvious path, becoming a teacher, was never considered. “That takes a very special person and I know I’m not it,” she explains, laughing at the idea.  So after graduating from UC Berkeley, she went to Hastings College of the Law.  “Law came naturally to me and I loved the study of it.” 

After law school she took a job at a Los Angeles law firm, thinking she would stay there for a few years and then return to the Bay Area. Things did not turn out that way.  She got engaged to her now husband, Ali, whose printing business was already established in Orange County. So where to live became an active point of conversation.

A random act determines a home

“We came to Laguna where Ali’s parents lived and for the first time anywhere in Orange County, I thought ‘I could live here.’  I was drawn by the interesting people and, of course, the beautiful trails and beaches.” 

But nothing had been decided until, while on a hike with Ali, her Labrador decided to relieve himself on the front yard of a beach cottage in south Laguna.  Robin says she told Ali, “This is the kind of house that would be perfect for us.”  While she untangled the mandatory pick up bag, the owners came out of the house, offering the use of their pooper-scooper.  Robin complimented the couple on their home, a pleasant conversation ensued and the hike continued.

Days later, the couple tracked Robin and Ali down, explaining they had to move and offered the Rounaghis their home.  A deal was reached and they have lived there ever since.  She laughs, “It’s a true story.  We owe it all to … well, you know!” 

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Materials used to increase SchoolPower’s outreach

Paid work resumes while the volunteer work continues

Once her oldest son was born, Robin stopped working as a lawyer.  Being home with her boys (she now has three) provided the opportunity to get involved in their schools.  “I’m pretty much an all or nothing kind of person,” she explains.  “I jumped in and loved it.”

In 2008, with an uncertain economy and her youngest in Kindergarten, Robin went back to work part-time as a lawyer.  “For the first few weeks, it felt a little bit like an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode. It had been 13 years since I’d been in a law office or courtroom!  Thankfully, I had an excellent mentor and got back into the swing of it quickly.”  

Rather than park her increasingly significant SchoolPower duties (she was then SchoolPower president) she just added it to an already full plate.  The following year, SchoolPower trustees asked her to serve a second term, a rare but not unprecedented event.

Adding to an already full plate 

During those years, SchoolPower underwent some important changes, some visible to the community (i.e. a community event that eventually became the Dodgeball tournament), others not so much (like a thorough revision of the organization’s bylaws). 

“The weak economy gave our leadership team an opportunity to focus on areas that may not have been very sexy but were important for our growth, like board recruitment, donation stewardship, branding, donor participation and strategic planning.” 

With her two terms finally complete, Robin stayed on, taking the lead with SchoolPower Endowment to run the teacher grant program, as well as accepting a new position made just for her, the VP of Development Relations. For someone who likes to be “all in”, however, Robin’s roles were still divided into family, work and volunteering. 

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A chance to make a change

Then an opportunity arose. The SchoolPower trustees decided the organization was ready to take a big step and hire an Executive Director.  Seeing this as a chance to merge her professional life with her passion, Robin applied for the job. After an extensive selection process, she was hired. “It was a big shift for me career-wise but I was at a point in my life where I thought, ‘what am I waiting for?’ Being able to devote myself fully to a cause that I love outweighed other considerations.”

During her first year as Executive Director, the SchoolPower team, which Robin is quick to credit, transitioned beautifully. After being on the job less than a month, Robin recommended a new team approach to the organization’s Community Campaign where parent volunteers call every family in the school district and ask for donations for the schools. Donor participation increased by 27%.   As longtime SchoolPower trustee, Kristin Winter, explains, “Robin is the best kind of leader.  She sees the big picture which really inspires people to jump in and help.”

Bringing people together through a common cause

Other big picture ideas include SchoolPower forging new relationships, upgrading its communication efforts, adding a Real Estate Sponsorship program and initiating a revitalization of the Laguna Locals Card discount program.  That’s a lot for one year.  

What really gets her excited, though, is bringing people together.  

“One of the best things about my role is helping to create win/win opportunities for businesses, the community and the schools. The success of our schools is important to everyone, not just our students and their families. I’d love to see SchoolPower become a unifying force for the whole town; something that everyone can rally around and support.”

With the news of the beloved Dr. Joanne Culverhouse’s departure, I asked Robin her thoughts. “It’s a huge loss for our district. In the educator world, she’s as close to a rock star as you come. Dr. C’s contributions will continue to benefit us for some time, but finding the right successor will be incredibly important.” And with that, I could tell Robin’s thoughts were starting to drift to her long to do list. Having one’s passion as one’s job is a great thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not work. “I’m lucky I get to work with amazing people every day.  When I’ve reached my coffee quota (which these days is quite high), all I need is a conversation with a teacher or a volunteer or a generous supporter and I am inspired.”  

And our schools are the better for it.


The one and only Shaena Stabler: mind, music, and media

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

To meet Shaena is to be completely accepted and brought into the fold of her warm spirit. Besides being a big part in the success and growth of Stu News Laguna, Shaena has gathered the community around her as her musical self has blossomed.

The first-ever album of Shaena’s original music debuts this month, and as many who have seen the teaser videos know, there’s a lot of Laguna in there. Filmed at Aliso beach, and in Laguna Canyon you might likely see a few familiar faces in the videos too.

She is a multi-talented multi-tasker!

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Photo by Mike Altishin

Shaena Stabler

Shaena News Laguna 

Shaena’s first job in sales was with the Orange County Business Journal. She then worked for Firebrand Media for another year and a half. She was a natural at sales, and understood many aspects of the media business. But she sensed something was afoot in Laguna.

“I’d go to sell an ad and people would ask about Stu News. I felt it was the most read news in town,” she said. “Stu News was all they wanted to talk about!” And she sensed there was a way to capitalize on that. “I thought, ‘low overhead; this is a brilliant concept, no one else is doing this!’” She knew Stu was onto something, and more than that, she could tell he shared her same heart for Laguna Beach. 

She says, “Stu has the trust of the community.”

She met Stu Saffer at a fundraising event for victims of the Haiti earthquake, held at Mozambique. “I asked Stu to emcee, and he did. He publicized it and supported it,” she said. “He gives so much to non-profits, so much to this community.”

They got together for coffee and she told Stu she was looking around, and was interested in his business model. They had a good rapport, with the same ideas, and the same strategy. Pretty much then and there he offered her half of the business. 

“He put tremendous faith and trust in me, and we went on this ride together. I never thought I’d be doing this, but it just took off.”

One might think that a 20-something would not be as focused and directed at business, but trust me, Shaena is. She is the hard-driving, yet cheerful director of advertising revenue, and advertising layout. She’s the one tuning in every Tuesday and Friday morning at five a.m. to review the headlines going to press. She’s the one driving the social media. And she’s Stu’s corporate right arm. 

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

At “the office” and always on-line

Theirs is a fine balancing act of maintaining two different sides of the business of putting out the news. Watching each other’s backs, Shaena keeps her eye on the bottom line, while Stu pursues politics, humor, baseball, and all those interesting stories in Laguna that show up on the editorial side of things. Together they keep this here publication moving forward.

Stu News Laguna is more than a day job, as Shaena’s on it most of the week, sun-up to sundown. But her world also rocks to another rhythm.

Stay

It wasn’t that long ago that we were enjoying Shaena and her musical partner, Denny, playing at the Royal Hawaiian. 

“I actually started by doing karaoke,” she laughs. “I thought singers only had two ways - either you’re a karaoke singer or you’re Lady Gaga. Then I realized you have to work really hard to be Lady Gaga!” 

If you happen to be one of her Facebook friends, you’ll have witnessed how hard Shaena has worked, and what a long and rewarding musical journey it’s been.  

She started moving on up to bigger venues and performing with all sorts of talented musicians. But when she started to write her own songs it became a musical and emotional catharsis. 

Photo by Mike Altishin

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Performing live at the Blue water Festival

With musical influences such as Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Annie Lennox, and her favorite, Stevie Nicks, Shaena Stabler’s music similarly evokes an earthy rock style with messages of love, healing and positivity.

She attracted the attention of the highly regarded record producer, Ken Caillat, and together they’ve been fine-tuning her own original songs, soon to be released in her debut album, Stay (pre-orders available on-line at shaenastabler.bandcamp.com, and hitting the shelves and iTunes on September 18).

 “I work better with having lots of discipline. With music and business, I have to be smart about my time,” she says. “Stu News is my German side; very exact and demanding. I also have a sensitive artist side. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be as effective in both sides. They go hand in hand.”

Music adds creative balance to her business life, and her lyrics, like poetry, speak from heartfelt experience. 

In her young life, Shaena has experienced hardships, heartbreak, and a fragile family network.

A difficult look back

One of Shaena’s earliest memories was living in the car with her mother and sister. Her mother was a free spirit, seeming to enjoy life on the road with her two toddlers, without a care in the world. They travelled across the country.

“My mom was a hippie before hippie was cool,” she remembers. “She was an artist and a poet.” Her mother’s poems were published in Hallmark cards when she was just twelve. But, shortly thereafter things started to go bad; she was beginning to inhabit another world of the mind. 

Already somewhat delusional, after the tragic death of her sister, she started hearing voices.

Shaena’s parents met, had the two girls, Shaena and her younger sister Stacia, along with Shaena’s older half-sister Ericka, before each of them spiraled into mental illness.

It would be 20 years before her father was competent to live in a group home. 

Her mother continues to live in a locked mental facility.

“My song, Angel, was inspired by my mother,” Shaena says. “It’s really a collaboration. It’s her poem about the death of her sister.” 

Shaena feels a special bond with her mother, especially after songwriting. She says simply, “I healed.”

Shaena will visit with her mother when she’s in the Portland area, and calls to talk with her a couple of times every week. “I think mental illness is so misunderstood,” she said. “My mom lives in a dimension I don’t understand… But we’ll put on music and dance together.”

Her dad recently moved to a group home in Southern California, so Shaena has re-established the long-missing ties that bind. She enjoys visiting with him, and going out to eat, or for picnics, hiking, and talks. It is a renewed relationship that has given Shaena the gift of bonding, and forgiveness.

Submitted photo

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Shaena with “Daddio”, at long last

“The amount of time we’ve spent together this year has been tremendous,” she says. “He’s a special cause to me.”

Since it was evident that neither her mom nor dad would be fitting parents to their children, Shaena’s grandmother took Stacia and Shaena in while they were still young girls. With plenty of love and devotion, Grammy clearly raised them to be fine young women.

Shaena’s songs bare her soul now, and are a means of releasing emotion. “I share them so that others might get something out of them too. There’s comfort in the words,” she says. For kids who grew up like her, there’s hope. 

“I want to tell kids, ‘your past doesn’t have to be your story. You’re not a victim. Do you want to tell a story of your past? Or write your own?’”

Smartypants

The Shaena that grew up with grandma and grandpa in a relatively small pond in Oregon was a pretty big fish.

She loved school and was, admittedly, the teacher’s pet. She loved basketball and baseball, and was the only girl to play on the boy’s baseball team until age 13. Then she went on to softball and became an Athletic Scholar, and All-State player. 

“High School was like stability and structure for me,” she says. “My grandma was great, but school was like a bigger network of support.” 

She needed to drive herself to improve. “I was always hard on myself. I thought, ‘If I’m really good, things will get better.’” And improve she did.

She was class valedictorian, and received 100% grant money for tuition during her college career at Colgate. There she majored in History, with a Minor in Film and Media Studies.

Now on tour, Shaena will take her band to the Pacific Northwest next month, for performances in Portland and Astoria. While there, she’ll visit the old alma mater and be inducted into her high school Hall of Fame.

Keeping heart and mind open through music

Shaena’s love of music was given a boost in Oregon too, as she played in the high school band (French horn), sang a cappella, and studied piano for six years.

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Now that’s all coming to fruition as she performs with her band all original music.

“I have an amazing band!” she says. “I saw Gabriel Gordon play (lead guitar) with Natalie Merchant, and I thought, ‘one day when I write music, he’s going to play with me’, and now he is!”

This week she’s in New York City, playing for the first time there. The band debuted at Pianos earlier this week, and will be at The Delancey this Friday. If you can’t catch Shaena Stabler in NYC, there’ll be a show coming up on September 20 in LA (The Hotel Café, Hollywood). Shaena loves to invite the community for bus trips to her shows. From first-hand experience, they are fun, and inclusive of all ages. 

“It’s all about inclusivity!” she says. “It’s great meeting new people, and coming together.”

Shaena epitomizes the concept of coming together. She integrates the many different facets of her busy life, while maintaining a collected persona, and endlessly gives of her warmth and talent to the world. 


Scott Brashier: Seeing Laguna’s beauty everywhere  

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I’m left-handed, right-brained and a Pisces.  I want to be passionate about what I do.  I’ve tried to live by that,” explains photographer, Scott Brashier.  

Those passions have created an interesting path, leading him away from Laguna and back again, even away from photography and back again, but he is and has been back for quite awhile now - more excited and more ambitious about those two things in particular than ever before. 

The accidental professional

The interest in photography goes way back.  “My dad was into photography.  He wasn’t a very good photographer, but he bought good equipment that he would pass down to my brother and me.  We were always the guys taking the pictures.” Then, by chance, the hobby turned into a profession.  

“Around 1988 I had a friend who worked at Surfer Magazine.  Snow boarding had just taken off.  My friend invited me to go with him and Bert Lamar who was world champion at the time.  He asked, would I take some pictures? I took three.  The first one I shot became the back cover for Sims snowboards.  And so I found myself a professional photographer overnight.”  The Sims shot led to a Coors beer poster, a Swatch poster and an Op poster.  Eventually, he was photographing AVP tour events, pro snowboarding, pro surfing and pro skiing events. And this was a second job.  His main job was working for a surf wear accessory company.  

A six-month vacation turns into mini-retirement

Then in 1991 it all went away.  “The recession hit.  It killed the accessory business.  Advertising money dried up.  No more photos,” remembers Scott.  Things were looking bleak until a friend and former mentor offered him a position at an ad agency he was starting – in six months.  So Scott decided he would indulge in another of his passions, skiing, while he waited. 

Heading to out to Vail, Colorado, six months turned into seven years.  “I like to call it my early retirement years.  The ski business in the winter, the golf business in the summer…everyone should get to do that.”  

He says he didn’t take one picture the entire time he was there.

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Photo by Scott Brashier

An invitation he could not refuse

Who knows how long his “retirement” would have lasted if Scott hadn’t received a compelling invitation from his brother, Craig, who was still in Laguna, married and about to have his first child.  Though the brothers were close in age, they were not, at that time, otherwise close – until Craig reached out and “invited me to be part of his life and his family’s life,” explains Scott.  With no kids of his own Scott saw this invitation to be an uncle as “an important gift in my life.  I decided it was time to go back to Laguna.”

He got a job doing Internet marketing for a surf company that made coming back a lot easier.  “Then the tech bubble burst.  My timing in my business life has been really good,” he says laughing.  “So scramble, scramble, scramble.  Next thing you know I’m in the car business.”  

In order to get in shape and let off steam, Scott took up jogging.  To make it interesting he set a goal to run every street in Laguna Beach.  He was amazed by what he saw.  “I grew up in this town.  I’ve driven, skateboarded all over it.  But running, everything slows down.  Everywhere I ran I saw something new, something beautiful.” 

The photographer’s eyes had been reawakened.

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Technology helps reignite a passion

“One of the reasons I stopped taking pictures was that it was so expensive.  I figured it was about a dollar a shot when you factored in the slides, the prints, etc.  I didn’t have the drive to shoot a bunch of stuff I wasn’t going to do anything with,” he explains.  Then came the Canon SD600.  “The game changed when I got my first digital camera.  It was the size of a deck of cards and you could just shoot and shoot and shoot.”  The very portable camera was perfect to take on his runs. If he saw something that moved him, he would take a picture.  Soon he started emailing his shots to family and friends who started forwarding them to their family and friends and the Brashier POD (Photo of the Day) was born.  

Scott explains, “The mantra of the POD is to celebrate the beauty that surrounds us that we lose sight of getting caught up in everyday life.”  His audience expanded when a friend, Tom Burns, asked if Scott would add Stu Saffer to his email list.  Shortly after that, StuNews and Scott began working together and Brashier, once again, found himself a professional photographer.

Still, photography was a side business.  When the last great recession hit, Scott left the car business to explore another one of his passions: tennis.  No one is more enthusiastic about the game of tennis than Brashier.  Deciding he needed to bring tennis to underprivileged kids in Costa Mesa, he got to work.  

“I really wanted to give back to my community and enhance the lives of young people through tennis.” However, even his abundant enthusiasm could not overcome a lack of facilities. “You don’t need a tennis court to teach tennis at first, but you do need one eventually,” he explains with a laugh. Without tennis courts for his program he realized “pretty quickly” he needed to come up with another plan. “I’d teach tennis for free if I could afford it,” he says.  Since that was not an option, “I went back to the car business, selling Shelby Cobras and classic replica race cars.  Selling really expensive cars is fun.  They’re cars every guy wants, nobody needs and fewer can afford.  That’s a fact,” he says smiling.

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Taking his craft to the next level

Another fact is that Scott has taken his commitment to photography to the next level.  “I’ve committed, after years of artistic insecurity, to commercialize my photography.  I’ve done family sittings, product photography…I’m even selling my first art piece.”  But he hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for Laguna and the bounty of images he sees as he goes about his day. 

The small pocket camera hasn’t been replaced, but a full professional set up has been added to the arsenal. “I carry a camera everywhere.  If I see a photo unfolding, I capture it.  I’m always prepared.”  

With a commitment to seeing – and sharing – the beauty he sees everywhere, he has to be.


Chris Keller looks at life going forward in Laguna

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

Laguna’s business opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An ambitious paperboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up on the Roof

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

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

Life, learning, and family

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

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Alexis, Rocco, Chris, and Amy

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

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

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

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

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


Ruben Flores: Bringing new life to Laguna Nursery

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

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

An historic nursery needs saving

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

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

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

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Social media, concerts and, of course, plants

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

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

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

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An interest leads to a fast start for his business

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

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

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Smart business leads to civic involvement

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

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

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

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

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A gift for revitalization

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

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

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

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


Scott Alan, living in the here and now

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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Scott Alan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laguna Bound 

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Amber, Scott’s other half

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted photo

Click on photo for a larger image

 

The original Virgin of Guadalupe extra-terrestrial VW

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Scott and Amber with the Galactic Please Patrol car

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

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

Being an outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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