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Julie Laughton: Committed to the plan


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Julie Laughton is a very busy woman. She starts her days at 4 a.m. and she tries to be in bed by 8 p.m. In between she’s scheduled to the half hour. She’s out the door by 6:30 a.m. and is home every evening at 6 p.m. Dinner is always a home-cooked meal (cooking is one of her passions), and her days, like her meals, are carefully choreographed so that she can be as efficient as possible. “I don’t do anything without a purpose,” she says. “I’ve become very efficient with my time. I don’t waste time on things that aren’t necessary.”

This efficiency is something her clients undoubtedly appreciate. And it is one of the things Laughton believes sets her apart from her competitors in the design/build world. It is not the only thing, however. 

Seeing only benefits of being an outlier

Being a woman in a very heavily male-dominated field is something Laughton seems to relish. “It is a plus for me,” she says. “I can multitask, plus my background blows everyone out of the water. There is no competition for me when it comes to a one-stop shop.”

Julie Laughton close up

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Julie Laughton of Julie Laughton Design

Discovering the significance of interior design

Laughton’s background is in design. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University in Interior Design. She says she started in architecture then moved to landscape architecture and then, finally, found her niche in interior design. “I came to understand it wasn’t only decorating but more about how humans live in their space,” she explains. “It is my passion because your home has to work.”

Leaving the family farm for New York City

Laughton left her family farm (literally) in Iowa and headed to New York City to pursue her career goals. She says when she arrived there she found herself in a very different world. “I had never had a bagel before, or real Italian food. I was green. I was hired immediately because I was the girl from Iowa who worked hard.” 

While there, Laughton worked for two architecture firms and served as the senior designer for an interior design firm. She worked with corporate clients as well as individuals. “I have a very high artistic level,” she says. This makes her a natural for hand-drafting, a skill she relied upon heavily while in New York. Despite becoming “a master of social etiquette and worldly experiences,” the grind of New York finally prompted her to make a change.

New York to LA to Newport to...home

“I came to California to visit a couple of buddies, and after a week at the beach I thought, ‘I need to move here.’” So she came to Los Angeles (“a no brainer”) and got a job selling kitchens. Unfortunately, despite doing very well professionally, she says, “I hated LA.” Her work got her noticed by clients who lived in Newport Beach, so she decided to give that a try. “I hated it even more,” she says with a laugh.

So she decided on Laguna and moved to Solana Way in 1991. An uncle had lived in Laguna many years prior. Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1980. Laughton tried to figure out where he had lived, but couldn’t quite put her finger on it until one night she was having dinner at Dizz’s. Suddenly all the pieces came together and she discovered she was living next door to her uncle’s former home. “Coming to California felt like coming home,” says Laughton. “Laguna Beach is like my small town in Iowa.”

Becoming a contractor changed everything

It didn’t take her long to get comfortable in her new home. “After focusing on kitchens, because I’m a draftsman, I’d watch these contractors make messes of these projects. Their clients would hire me to fix it. I did owner/builder for a while before becoming a general contractor myself. That changed my world.”

Julie Laughton truck

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Julie Laughton with one of her trucks emblazoned with her motto

It changed her world because now she could be in total control, from concept to completion. “I have an architecture, mechanical engineering, interior design and an artistic background in my 25 years professional experience. I have a lot of God-given and hard-earned assets in my arsenal,” explains Laughton. 

“It all starts with a good plan”

Once she became a general contractor, her clients only needed to speak to one person: her. “I don’t like to see people suffer. I like it to be done right the first time,” she says emphatically. That’s why she is such a firm believer that before a project begins there must be a detailed, well-thought-out plan. She has 27 trucks that drive around with “It all starts with a good plan” affixed to them so if it sounds familiar that may be why.

Twenty-seven employees and $7 million in sales last year help explain Laughton’s commitment to her schedule. “I’m regimented, not rigid,” she explains. “I’m regimented because I need to get stuff done, but really, I’m a free spirit. I like change. I don’t get stressed. But nothing stops me from getting the job done.”

Laughton is currently working with her “favorite client” Tony Baxter. Baxter is the former senior vice president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering. The project is in Anaheim, but most of Laughton’s projects are either in Newport or Laguna.

Julie Laughton view

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The view from one of Laughton’s recent remodels

And, not surprisingly, Laughton says there are significant differences as to how her clients in both cities approach their projects. In general, Laughton says that her clients in Laguna are dealing with remodeling older homes and, as a result, they are more constrained by what they can and can’t do. “Their houses are more charming and they really try to fit into the fabric of the community.”

HGTV has made an impact

In Newport, Laughton says, it’s about maxing out space. “I still have many charming homes I’ve done on the peninsula, but there is a difference,” she says. Laughton credits HGTV for clients becoming more savvy as to what’s possible. The downside is, “They think everything can be done in 30 minutes,” she says with a laugh. As for Laughton’s individual style, she says, “I don’t like trends. I like traditional, timeless, clean lines…things that don’t need to be updated because they’re not over-stylized or trendy – ever.”

Whatever the stylistic preferences and differences, Laughton is so committed to her clients that the longest she will be away from them is a long weekend. Vacations any longer than that will have to wait until she’s ready to slow down, which doesn’t seem like any time soon.

Adding more to an already full plate

Laughton is currently writing a book. She is secretive about the title and all she will say about it is she has an agent and the subject is what she does for a living. She schedules her writing for one hour before her regular Sunday massage. Additionally, she speaks to women at AWA+D (Association for Women in Architecture and Design), extolling the virtues and opportunities for involvement in the construction side of things.

And just so you know she’s not just a work machine, Laughton says she is happily married. “He’s my true soul mate for life,” she says enthusiastically. It’s not surprising to learn he, too, is in the contracting business. 

In order to maintain a full work life and a fulfilling home life, Laughton says she is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. “I don’t involve in negative thinking, period. You are what you think. The power of intention works, period.” She definitely practices what she preaches.

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Brandon Ferguson: Making The Den more than just a place for a shave


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It may seem like a no-brainer now, but when Brandon Ferguson decided to make the career change from construction to barbering, it’s very possible not everyone saw it as a sure path to success. However, Ferguson was not to be dissuaded. “I was 25. I was tired of construction. I wanted to do barbering full time. I knew I’d be good at it,” says Ferguson.

He enrolled in an apprenticeship program that required him to go to barber school one day a week and find a barbershop to sponsor him. The Senor Barbers in San Clemente took him on. 

One adventure leads to another

Ferguson worked there for seven years until he and his wife decided to do what so many people only contemplate: they sold everything and, with the intention of never returning home, took off on what they thought was going to be a lifelong adventure.

Of course, their adventure evolved and Ferguson’s barbering career didn’t end there. However, when he and his wife took off, they had no idea how things were going to turn out. They had no idea they would eventually return home and Ferguson would one day open The Den, his very own, very successful barbershop, in Laguna Beach.

First, a devoted customer

But first, before he was a barber and a successful entrepreneur, Ferguson was simply a customer at his favorite barbershop. When he was still in his teens and working construction, he would visit Miller’s Family Barber Shop in Costa Mesa. “I couldn’t wait to go in there,” remembers Ferguson. “Every two weeks I went in there. The smell – the talcum powder, the aftershave – I was infatuated with it. I’d get my hair cut and hang out there. Mike (his barber) was never stressed out. And I thought, ‘Man, it would be fun to be a barber.’”

Brandon Ferguson close up

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Brendon Ferguson, owner of The Den, at work

Cutting hair in his garage leads to a career change

Ferguson began cutting his friends’ hair in his garage while still working construction. Once he decided he was ready to make the change from construction work to barbering, he never looked back. Miller’s Barber Shop is still in business, and Ferguson feels indebted to Mike for making barbering look like a viable career. “I owe my career change to him,” says Ferguson with respect.

If Ferguson’s experience with Mike was the spark, his seven years with Al at The Senor Barbers was the flame. It was with Al that Ferguson learned not just how to be a skilled barber, but a business owner, as well. But before he could put this knowledge to his own use, Ferguson and his wife needed to return from their adventure to begin the next one.

Coming back home with a plan

Ferguson says he and his wife were in Costa Rica, in the midst of their leaving-it-all-behind adventure, when they came up with a new plan: return home and, eventually, open a barber shop. “We came back. I started working for Al again and helped him open his second location. After that I decided it was time to do my own thing, be my own boss.”

Finding the space on Coast Highway

Driving south on Coast Highway through Laguna, Ferguson happened to notice an available space. He instantly felt that would be the place for his new venture. “I stopped in the middle of the street!” he recalls when he saw the signage. “I’d always wanted to put a barber shop in Laguna.” Ferguson and his wife “scraped up every dollar” they had and opened The Den. The original space was next door to their current location (1854 S Coast Hwy, Units 5/6).

Brandon Ferguson chair

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Brendon Ferguson working at his chair in The Den

Believing in his vision

From the get-go, Ferguson says he knew his idea was going to work. “When I opened, I remember thinking that everything was supposed to happen this way.”

Not long after opening, Ferguson hired Mike Windhamsmith and then, happily, the space next door became available. “It was perfect timing because I needed a third chair,” explains Ferguson. Now, he has five chairs, a number Ferguson feels is just right. That’s why he’s looking to open another shop in Dana Point, rather than adding more chairs in Laguna. 

The secret is making everyone feel welcome

Besides providing a quality haircut and shave, Ferguson thinks his secret to success is making everyone feel comfortable. “Unless they have long hair,” jokes Windhamsmith. The joke has some basis in fact. The Den is a traditional barbershop. This means they don’t cut long hair. 

No long hair, but you can always have a beer

“If someone comes in and wants a haircut and they have longer hair, we won’t do it. We’re not trained for that and the last thing I want is someone leaving with a bad haircut,” explains Ferguson. However, after directing their long-haired friends to the salon a few doors up (“Those ladies are total pros,” says Ferguson), Ferguson would be delighted if, once properly styled, they’d come back to The Den for a beer. 

Where everybody knows your name

That kind of interaction is exactly what Ferguson says he envisioned when he opened The Den: a place where everyone is welcome, where neighbors run into their neighbors; where, even if you don’t need a haircut, you feel like stopping in to see who’s there. “It’s like ‘Cheers, where everybody knows your name,’” explains Ferguson.

“When this place is hopping, you can feel it,” says Ferguson. “The place links up. Every chair is full and everyone is in on the conversation.” And despite their “no long hair” restrictions, The Den isn’t some testosterone-fueled, hyper-masculine place. When Ferguson says, “all are welcome,” he means it. “Moms come in with their kids all the time and hang out,” he says. “They’ll run into other moms or they’ll see their neighbor getting a cut in the chair,” says Ferguson. 

Brandon Ferguson exterior

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Outside of The Den at 1854 South Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach

Striving for iconic status

“I would love everybody in Laguna to come here,” says Ferguson. And, as a business owner, who doesn’t want everyone in their town to frequent their establishment? But while Ferguson undoubtedly wants the business, he wants more. He wants The Den to be synonymous with the town it’s in. 

“I want The Den to become a staple in Laguna,” he says while listing places like The Marine Room, The White House, Coyote Grill – places that are part of the fabric of this community. This is what Ferguson wants for The Den. And while it may not yet  have the longevity needed to have achieved icon status in Laguna Beach, it certainly appears to be on its way.

“The energy is pretty amazing, pretty rad,” says  Ferguson. “I knew it would work. I knew if I put something cool in this town, where you could come in, have a drink, get a quality product, provide quality service, it would work.” And he was right.

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Arnold Silverman broke his 60-year silence about the Forgotten War. Now Laguna Beach has the opportunity to honor him.


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Arnold (Arnie) Silverman was 80 years old before anyone knew he fought in Korea. He kept his secret for nearly 60 years, even from his wife (a woman he met only a few years after the war, and with whom he’s shared 63 years of marriage). But ten years ago, Arnie decided it was time to shine a light into the shadows and tell his story.

Arnold Silverman close up

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Arnold Silverman, Honored Patriot of the Year for Laguna Beach’s 53rd annual Patriots Day Parade

Like most war stories, it’s full of paradox – fear and bravery, valor and shame, patriotism and anti-Semitism, intense friendships and tragic loss. In some ways, those paradoxes still linger. “When they asked me to be the Patriot of the Year, I was a little intimidated by it,” Arnie says. “I told them, ‘Guys, this is not me.’ I’m not the guy waving a flag in front of my house.”

Despite that, Arnie is the guy who – at 90 years old – still fights for veterans nearly every day. He mentors them at the Orange County Combat Veterans Court in Santa Ana. He regularly volunteers at the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). He assists recovering active-duty Marines at the Wounded Warriors Battalion at Camp Pendleton. In other words, Arnie may be too busy being a patriot to spend time talking about it. 

Arnie is recognized as Patriot of the Year for Laguna’s 53rd annual Patriots Day Parade. It’s an honor he may be reluctant to accept, but proud to have achieved. And it allows us a rare glimpse inside Arnie’s long-hidden story.

Arnold Silverman with Hanke

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Arnie poses with Edward Hanke of the Parade Committee

The reluctant soldier

Arnie never intended to be a soldier. He held a degree in accounting from Rutgers University. He sold shoes in the evenings to pay his tuition, and worked as a waiter in the Catskills during the summers. Arnie was the student who refused to take Military Science as part of his college requirements. War was the last thing on his mind. 

But the draft came for him nonetheless, in 1951, two months after graduation. “I didn’t want to serve,” he says. Arnie even considered graduate school, but who was he kidding?

Initially trained in counterintelligence and sent to Tokyo for what promised to be a relatively safe position, things soon heated up on the front lines. Because Arnie had operational specialization in heavy weaponry, he was a necessary commodity in Korea.

Sentenced to the front lines

In his privately published memoir, My War and Other Stories, Arnie shares a detailed account of how he got a “front row seat” to the action. One night, suffering through a frigid evening of guard duty, Arnie heard a suspicious noise. He found his exceptionally drunk Company Commander lying down in a ditch, covered in his own excrement. Helping the Commander out of the hole and back to his barracks, Arnie soon experienced the old adage “no good deed goes unpunished.” The Commander decided he couldn’t risk his embarrassing night getting retold. Misreading the kind of man Arnie Silverman is – and the ethical code that guides him – and fearing Arnie’s potential disloyalty, the Commander sentenced him to fight on the front lines.

Arnold Silverman with hat

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Arnie was sent to the combat infantry battalion of the 35th Regimental Combat Team of the 25th Division where he was assigned as a forward observer for an 81mm mortar platoon. It was a dangerous job. There, he endured brutal days of bitter cold, the weather as formidable as any enemy. He recounts vicious battles with the North Koreans and Chinese, of severed communications lines, and heavy artillery bombardments. Arnie suffered all the indignities of war, as well as the sting of anti-Semitism from his own men. Throughout those brutal 13 months, Arnie lost many close friends, a good portion of his hearing, and ultimately his youthful innocence. But after seven months of intense battle, he was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge and transferred off the front lines.

The prisoners’ dilemma

Arnie was reassigned to the prison island of Koji Do, south of Pusan, to rebuild a prison camp once seized by North Korean and Chinese prisoners. In his memoir, Arnie provides a harrowing account of one experience the public will never hear elsewhere.

Because American forces feared communist ideas might infect Korean youth, troops were ordered to separate women with children from other women. But enemy propaganda proved efficient. The communists intentionally mischaracterized the operation, leading civilians to believe that Americans planned to separate women from their own children. Once the order came down, the women went insane. 

“We marched in with bayonets drawn. Pandemonium broke out immediately. Screaming hysterically, women with children scattered helter-skelter. Guys were bashing women with their rifle butts, beating them up,” Arnie says. “I told my men, ‘We do not want to be a part of this. Stay away and get out.’” The whole operation, Arnie says, was a disgrace.

For compassionate men like Arnie, forced into acts of brutality, moments like these must be excruciating. Not every mission, even if successful, ends in pride. Arnie’s decision to break his silence and share these experiences is perhaps his most important act of bravery. Telling painful truths allows other vets to feel less alone. Because these are the kinds of events, with all their difficult details, that isolate soldiers and start the cycle of post-traumatic stress.

When Arnie came home in 1953, he buried his past. He took a job as an accountant a week after his return and tried to leave the war behind. “I made a serious error,” he wrote recently. “Not realizing the impact of the Korean experience on me.”

The forgotten war

Because Korea followed so closely on the heels of WWII, and because it had an ambiguous outcome – ending in a truce instead of a decisive victory or defeat – it’s the war many Americans forgot.

The Korean War differed from both the glory of WWII and the shame of Vietnam. “Those Vietnam guys were abused. I never had rocks thrown at me. I never had anybody spit on me. But I was ignored,” says Arnie. “When you go to a Memorial Day service, they’ll talk about World War II, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They always leave out Korea because people forget about it.”

Arnie returned from the war full of ambivalence, not eager to talk about his time. “I never told anyone I was in Korea,” he says. “When I hit 80 – ten years ago – I thought I’d better tell somebody. At that point, I’d been in the VFW. I saw the juxtaposition of North and South Korea, and I thought maybe we did some good.”

Time puts things in perspective, allowing a man to see his past with a certain clarity and context. That’s what those decades did for Arnie and the time he spent in Korea.

Born into a divided place and at a difficult time 

To the extent people are shaped by the time and place they were born, Washington DC and 1929 are a potent mix.

Born a Jewish boy during the Great Depression in what was then considered a small southern town laboring under Jim Crow, Arnie’s interest in politics seemed certain. “In those desperate Depression times, even as a kid, I was very moved by the long lines of people looking for any kind of work, or just lining up for a bowl of soup and bread,” Arnie wrote in a recent piece. “Even as a young boy, I committed myself to helping others in such distress.” 

Arnie’s satisfaction has always come from giving. “I get such pleasure out of helping others succeed,” he says. “That’s probably hurt me financially over the years.” Although enjoying a successful career in sales and marketing – working for over 40 years in software solutions and mainframe computer companies – Arnie’s priority has always been on volunteerism and giving back.

Tikkun Olam

If the measure of a man’s life lies in his good deeds, Arnie is a giant among men. Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept, defined by acts of kindness performed to help repair the world. This, Arnie says, is the code that governs his days. “That’s my basic philosophy,” he says. “I live by that. Though I’m not religiously affiliated anymore.”

Arnie joined the VFW and American Legion when he retired from his career at age 70. Since then, he’s held every office in the VFW, including Commander. He visits VA hospitals, assists at the Wounded Warriors Battalion at Camp Pendleton, supports homeless veterans in need, helps Homefront America with its support programs, and various other activities. One of his favorite volunteer posts is reading to elementary school children in Orange County. Let’s just say, it’s not entirely easy for Arnie to fit you into his schedule.

Arnold Silverman with Quilter

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Arnie thanking Charles Quilter for the Patriots Day honor

But perhaps one of his most rewarding roles is working as a mentor at the Orange County Combat Veterans Court in Santa Ana. “It’s a fantastic thing to learn about,” Arnie says. In 2008, Judge Wendy Lindley saw a need to assist veterans who were struggling – with drugs, DUIs, domestic violence convictions, weapon violations, and other crimes – instead of sentencing them to prison terms. After one of Judge Lindley’s cases ended in suicide, she looked for a way to help the problem instead of exacerbate it. The court created a 14-month rehabilitation program for veterans trapped in the system.

“Some men fight it in the beginning,” says Arnie. “But when they graduate, you don’t recognize them. They’re not the same people.” The recidivism rate, Arnie tells me, is only ten percent. Gratifying work, indeed. 

Arnie is also a prolific and talented writer, contributing to the VFW newsletter, local papers (including Stu News), writing his memoir, and poems. He seems busier now, at 90, than most men I know in the prime of life. Perhaps that’s precisely where Arnie is at the moment. 

Family man

Arnie met his wife, Myrna, on a blind date arranged by a friend. This year, they celebrate 63 years of marriage. Myrna, he says, is a mean bridge player. The couple have three successful children. Meryl, their only daughter, is a marketing director for Trojan Battery and lives in Orange County. Robert is an anesthesiologist in Atlanta, and Donald a pilot for Delta Airlines. They also have six grown – and also successful – grandchildren. 

Arnold Silverman Myra

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Arnie and Myrna at their home in Laguna Niguel 

A heart full of poetry, a mind full of memories

Arnie’s memoir is filled with affecting poetry – on war, on aging, on politics. He seems a man at peace with himself, and at peace with his past. He suffers the ails most nonagenarians suffer, but doesn’t let them get him down. He is, after all, still taking care of others more than they’re taking care of him. 

Many of Arnie’s poems stand out. He recounts his first night patrol in Korea, full of fear and braced against the cold. He reflects on the meaning of Memorial Day. Some pieces are filled with ambivalence, others with nostalgia, all of them reflective. But one seems particularly appropriate today.

Passing Parade

He joins those in the passing parade

Who served when call to arms was made;

Who filled their lives with service pride;

Who carried on as comrades died.

His name is called, but silence looms.

Thoughts of his passing fill the room.

As our line falls to precious few,

And bugle sounds for those we knew, 

We stand resolved to remember all

Like him who answered when country called.

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Amy Amaradio proves the power and possibilities of a mother’s love: finding beauty in the unexpected


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Rocco Keller was born five years ago, and diagnosed with Down syndrome, Amy Amaradio and Chris Keller’s friends Mary Kate and Kirk Saunders, who have a special needs child, offered comfort by saying, “So many little angels will come into your life.”

And true to this assurance, they did. Angels in various forms materialized during the ensuing years – friends who freely gave of their time and services, the staff and volunteers at the Early Intervention Program, teachers and therapists at Top of the World Elementary, and strangely, a horse (but more about that later). Even as recently as three days ago, Amaradio’s friend Rebecca made a house call at 7:45 a.m. just to give Rocco a haircut for the photo session.

Although initially friends quickly gathered round, Rocco came into a close-knit and supportive family. Alexis, now 20 years old, welcomed him wholeheartedly (two-year-old sister Gemma arrived later). Amaradio also has the solid foundation and help of family – two sets of parents, here in Monarch Beach and Michigan, as well as siblings and their spouses.

Amaradio gives back

Keller, long embedded in Laguna as owner of the Marine Room, Laguna Beach Lodge and partners in Hotel Casa del Camino, K’ya Bistro, and Rooftop, has a significant presence in the community. 

Amy Amaradio close up

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Amy Amaradio

Now Amaradio is making her own mark as co-founder, along with Mercedes Lara, of Dear Mom, a conference for mothers of children with Down syndrome. It will be held on Saturday, March 9, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the Festival of Arts (FOA). In June of 2018, Amaradio completed the formidable process of becoming a nonprofit. 

The Dear Mom website states the event is, “A dream birthed from a realization that friendship with another mom raising a child with Down syndrome is one of the strongest tools you’ll have in this journey.” 

As one can only imagine, the journey is an arduous one. 

Finding beauty in the unexpected

When Rocco was born, Amaradio says, “I felt broken. I didn’t know what to expect.” When she was pregnant with Rocco, Amaradio says she did the standard preliminary screenings, but didn’t do the more invasive amniocentesis. “We just never even thought about that. We had a typical 15-year-old daughter. We really never thought about it. Plus, we never would have considered terminating the pregnancy.”

Fortunately, they soon found the Early Intervention Program (EIP) through Laguna Beach’s Assistance League. It is the only program in the nation offering early intervention for developmentally delayed infants, prenatal to age one year. Rocco started the program when he was six weeks old and graduated on to the Intervention Center for Early Childhood (ICEC). 

EIP provides counseling to the parents as well. “It helped tremendously. It was such a blessing. They took us through a mourning process,” Amaradio says. “I don’t know where we’d be without them. EIP gave us hope and joy and the promise that everything would be okay. When it was over, we were ready to take on the world.”

Amy Amaradio with Rocco

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Amy and Rocco

That’s where she met future co-founder Mercedes Lara, who was attending with her daughter, and they soon became good friends. After Amaradio’s experiences at EIP and ICEC, she wanted to provide inspiration and connection to other mothers who have faced similar challenges.

The idea for the Dear Mom Conference sparked as the two women were on a flight to a four-day Texas retreat for moms of special needs children put on by Liz Plachta – 

the inspiration for Dear Mom. Rocco was three at the time.

An idea is born

On the trip, Amaradio and Lara envisioned a one-day event in which moms could connect with other moms about the delights and challenges of raising special needs children. This plan came to fruition at the first Dear Mom Conference at the Woman’s Club in March of 2018 with an attendance of 150. Later in the year, the second was held in Orem, Utah with a similar attendance. 

Amaradio says, “Mercedes and I are both visionaries with plenty of ideas. She handles the marketing and creativity, and I handle the business side.”

The Dear Mom website says, “Raising a child with Down syndrome, we want to know you. Because, we are you. We invite you dear mom, to embark on this journey with us. To pave new paths for seeking hope, finding your voice, and leaving your fears behind.”

Amy Amaradio with sign

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(L-R) Amy, Rocco, Gemma, Chris, and Alexis at Festival of Arts

Amaradio admits, “It’s a room full of women who all get each other. There’s never been a dry eye at the conferences. And there has been a lot of feedback from moms who say it changed their lives.”

With the continued focus of both inspiration and connection, this year they have put together a day of incredible speakers, panels, and a Q & A session, allowing time for mingling with other mothers. The schedule includes breakfast, lunch, and cocktails/appetizers provided by Chef Craig Connole of K’ya, who also donated his time to the event last year. There will be an after party at the Marine Room. 

Amaradio enlisted the help of friend and event producer Sophie Mae-Hogan to style the details. “We want to make it as special as possible for moms and create a beautiful space. Sometimes as moms, it’s difficult to put yourself first. Moms of special needs children struggle with self-care. They will also receive a gift.”

Amy Amaradio with Alexis

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Rocco and Alexis

The Festival of Arts venue is ideal for this function. Amaradio discovered that when the FOA renovated, a section was set aside for nonprofit events, and she further persuaded them to let her use the Junior Artists section for a display of works by 35 artists with Down syndrome. Laguna resident Jordan Neufeld will have a piece in the exhibit. The works of art will be up for sale with a percentage of the proceeds going to Dear Mom.

Amaradio says, “Why not art? FOA is all about art. It fits the character of the venue. It’s a chance for people with different abilities to be highlighted and showcase their work and talent.”

This year, the speakers will be: Liz Plachta (co-founder and executive director of Ruby’s Rainbow), Kelle Hampton (author of book Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected, A Memoir), Shauna Amick (director of Radio Ministries and Joni and Friends International Disability Center), and Sandi Ames (Child Advocate/Parent Mentor and Director Parents CAN). Amaradio says, “Sandi’s child was also on A&E Emmy winning docuseries Born this Way (Rocco was on season three and four) and is Rocco’s child advocate and mentor.”

Amy Amaradio with Chris

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Amy and Chris, her biggest cheerleader

Amaradio says of Hampton’s book Bloom, “We had similar experiences in that we both had surprise diagnoses. At the time, I didn’t know how I was going to do life. It was all unknown. Then I read her book, and it justified my feelings and that it was okay I felt that way. This is the first time we’re meeting. We’ve only been friends on Instagram. I can’t wait to give her a hug.”

Dear Mom has a considerable presence on social media, including a nice following on Facebook. On Instagram, @dearmomconference has over 4,000 followers and is home of #dearmomletters which offers moms all over the world the opportunity to connect and share via social media. The message is – “We’d love for you to share, from one mom to the next. Below leave a letter of encouragement, some hope, or empathy that we can share with more moms just like you.”

The Dear Mom Conference is very much a family affair for both Amaradio and Lara. Lara’s husband Andy does the branding and designed the logo. 

“Chris has been an incredible supporter. I’ve taken a lot of time from the family. This is the first time I’ve done something for me, and I really love it,” Amaradio says. “Even though Rocco is five, I still need the connection too. It makes me feel good to give back, I like it better than receiving.”

What the Amaradio-Keller Family is up to now

To say the Amaradio-Keller family is a busy one is a monumental understatement. Amaradio’s days are full and so are Rocco’s. He’s a happy pre-kindergartener in Miss Lana’s class at Top of the World Elementary School. Amaradio commends Irene White, the head of special education, and Rocco’s team of therapists and teachers. “We are so thankful and blessed the have them.”

Amy Amaradio family

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The Amaradio-Keller family is thriving

Added to the schedule is the possibility of Born This Way getting picked up for the fifth season. Since it’s a strong advocate for Down syndrome, the family would love to do another season.

And now the part about the horse, one of the angels in disguise that touched Rocco’s life. Once a week for the past two years, Rocco travels to J. F. Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding in San Juan Capistrano for hippotherapy (horseback riding as therapeutic treatment). 

Amaradio says, “Since he started, there’s been a great improvement in his strength. He loved it from the very first time he got on the horse. That day, I went back to the car and cried. It was magical.” 

A full schedule

Rocco also participates in the pre-competition section of Special Olympics Orange County until he’s eight years old and becomes a Young Athlete. Alexis and her boyfriend Anthony volunteer with the program. Former Mayor Kelly Boyd has been a donor of the organization.

From all accounts, the family is thriving. Rocco has a special bond with Alexis and Gemma, who he calls “Mema.” Alexis is “Cupcake.” Alexis is off to college in the fall, and Gemma will be starting pre-school at some point in the future and eventually will go to TOW. Amaradio says, “He’ll still have someone closer to his age to be buddies with.”

City of angels

Consistently threaded throughout Amaradio’s conversations about Dear Mom and her family are comments about how grateful she is to be in such a supportive and caring community.

“I feel so humbled to live here in Laguna,” she says. “All the love and encouragement is so amazing. I’m the luckiest mom in the world to have Rocco. I don’t grieve the life he didn’t have. He’s supposed to have the life he has, he’s living his best life.”

Rocco’s Instagram handle is @roccosradlife, and it appears to be his well-earned motto. Rocco’s rad life. It couldn’t be more true. 

For more information about the Dear Mom Conference, go to and follow on Instagram at @dearmomconference.

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The Unbelievable Backstory Behind Michael Minutoli,

Laguna’s gregarious greeter


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

June 20, 2011 began like any other day for Michael Minutoli. He went to work at Marbella Farmers Market in San Juan Capistrano, where he called himself a delitician, slicing meats and making sandwiches. He entertained his customers with fantastic stories and free samples, because Michael tries to make every day fun. 

Once he got off work that afternoon, he met his two buddies – a street preacher from Connecticut and a homeless guitarist from Boston – at the Main Beach Starbucks, a bag of the day’s unsold paninis in hand. After finishing his coffee, Michael stood up and said, “I’m going to start saying hi to the city.” His pals looked confused. Michael walked out to the juncture of Forest and Park Avenues and PCH, in front of Chantilly Ice Cream, and began to wave as the cars whooshed past. That day marked the birth of Laguna’s fourth greeter. 

Michael Minutoli greeter

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Laguna’s fourth greeter, Michael Minutoli

Some folks around town doubted Michael’s resolve. “I’ll give you ‘til lunchtime,” a local postman told him. A policeman threatened to cite him several times. “I don’t like what you’re doing here,” he told Michael. A stranger assaulted him, coming up from behind and dealing a significant blow to the top of Michael’s head. Michael took it all in stride. His two friends followed him, supporting him from the sidelines every day, telling him, “Go for it, Michael!” So he kept waving at passing cars, shaking pedestrians’ hands, and dancing to his own beat.

There are many things most people don’t know about Michael. The dancing man on the corner, with his wild costumes and sometimes striking face paint, has a story you might not believe.

Growing up Minutoli

Michael was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, the tenth of 10 children – three sisters and six brothers – on December 2, 1959. With a family so large, there wasn’t an abundance of time or money, and Michael wasn’t burdened by a lot of supervision. As the last kid, he spent the most time with his dad. “I grew up in barrooms, laundromats, and racetracks,” he says. His dad liked to gamble – dogs or horses, it didn’t matter much. Michael describes his mother as a creative eccentric, a beauty and a natural entertainer. His father, Michael says, looked like Humphrey Bogart. “I probably got my social skills from my dad,” he says. “And my personality from my mother.”

But before Michael could come of age, tragedy struck. When he was only 11, Michael lost his brother, Anthony. What his family mistook for seizures were actually a series of small heart attacks. The doctor gave surgery 50/50 odds. His parents opted out. Anthony would suffer his final heart attack at age 12, while playing with his friends. “I should have been there,” Michael says. 

Michael Minutoli close up

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Michael’s difficult childhood may have informed the man he became

Anthony’s memory lives on in Michael’s own son, who’s named after Anthony, as well as Michael’s grandson – also Anthony. 

What losing a sibling does to a child, and his family, is impossible to calculate. Michael’s father spiraled in grief. His mother would live only another seven years. Whether those experiences taught Michael to embrace life, take risks, seize opportunities, and live big – who can say? But loss rarely comes without consequence.

The red carpet crasher

When Michael mentioned his hobby was crashing parties, I pictured local shindigs – beach barbeques or pool parties, swiping hotdogs and beer. I didn’t imagine Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, celebrity post-parties, and movie premieres. 

In 1989, Michael made his way backstage at a Madonna concert. He hobnobbed with the singer and got his picture with her. Since then, crashing celebrity parties became an obsession. He has photos of himself with over 1,200 stars (that count, taken over a decade ago, is surely stale). A quick Google search shows Michael posing with Barbra Streisand, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, Ben Stiller, Henry Kissinger, Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Jackson, Bono…you get the point. 

Michael shared the stage with Grammy winner André 3000 of OutKast, holding the golden statue while André accepted the award. He jumped on top of Billy Joel’s piano as Joel performed with Elton John. Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor both kissed him.

Michael became notorious enough to earn himself profiles in The New York Times, L.A. Times, OC Weekly, and a spot on The Today Show.

Michael Minutoli hi sign

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Michael infuses everything he does with unstoppable energy

The 2008 documentary Crash Artist: Beyond the Red Carpet tells Michael’s tale. It’s a film in equal measure entertaining and tragic, portraying a fun-loving guy brimming with stories, star sightings, and celebrity photos, but who also lost a great deal in the process. 

Unlike Laguna’s previous greeters, Michael was once a family man. In ninth grade, he met his one life love, Debbie, at a church social in Attleboro. They moved together from Massachusetts to Orange County on Valentine’s Day, 1980. Here they had their two children. 

Anthony and Ashley grew up shadowing their dad. They posed with stars, and saw all the latest movies before their friends.

Now that Michael’s children are grown, they sometimes struggle to understand their dad’s choices, according to Minutoli. But their faces light up talking about all those fantastic childhood memories too, he says.

Michael’s unconventional lifestyle – his obsession with crashing parties, his difficulty holding steady employment, and his decision to live homeless – ultimately cost him his marriage and access to much of his family, he says. But Michael sees this as choice, instead of loss. For him, homelessness is a decision and one that he accepts. He’s neither panhandler nor substance abuser. But he’s happily traded conformity, security, and material possessions for life lived on his own terms and the impact he can make on the street. 

While that might mean losing touch with family, he’s in constant contact with the everyman. That’s a theme that unites Laguna’s greeters.

The making of a greeter

Are Laguna’s greeters born or made? The question, though never overtly addressed, nonetheless underlies the 2015 documentary The Greeter

The film traces the nearly 130-year history of greeters – four men united by their eccentricities and a passion for making people smile. Old Joe Lucas, Laguna’s first, was a Portuguese fisherman who greeted stagecoaches instead of cars. He began in 1880, the year after Orange County was incorporated, holding a trident instead of a staff. Eiler Larsen, the most iconic and celebrated of the bunch, didn’t arrive in Laguna until 1942. He came from Denmark to pursue his “mission of friendliness,” which lasted until his death in 1975. No. 1 Unnamed Archer got his name for being the firstborn twin (his brother, No. 2). He was known for telling people they were “perfect.” Michael assumed the mantle two years after No. 1’s passing, in 2011, and has held it since.

Michael Minutoli with statue

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Michael, posing with a statue of Eiler Larsen, has made the job his own

Uniting these unlikely men are a few commonalities. They’re all a little eccentric. They all desired connection, and wanted to shake people out of their monotonous routines to see each other in a different light. They all felt called to the position.

Changing lives – one smile and wave at a time

Michael says he’s learned a lot about humanity in the past eight years. “Humans love to love, and they love to be loved,” he says. “You have no idea what a smile and a wave can do for a stranger.” Three stories stand out among the many. 

One Newport Beach woman had been on the receiving end of Michael’s waves for a long time. One day, she handed him an envelope and asked him not to open it until she’d gone. The woman confessed she’d been going through difficult times, and had considered taking her life, but it was her connection to Michael that stopped her. 

Another couple gave Michael a bird colonel coin of recognition (an honor usually reserved for military men).

Timothy Vorenkamp, an 18-year-old Laguna volleyball star who died of a rare bone cancer in 2016, put lunch with Michael on his short bucket list. He wanted to understand Michael’s unwavering positivity, and “what made him tick.” It wasn’t a wish Tim could fulfill, but Michael still does a fundraiser for Tim’s “Live for Others” foundation each year.

Michael Minutoli reflection

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Michael captured in a quiet moment of reflection

But then there are the cruel. “Some people like to humiliate me,” he says. “They throw things, sometimes they hit me. I don’t react.” Michael recently met with Father O’Gorman – who both baptized and married Michael and Debbie in 1984 – to help him through the hostility he experiences on the street. “You’ve taken on a very mystical, spiritual, symbolic thing in this town,” Father O’Gorman told Michael, offering a prayer of protection. “Don’t you worry. You were chosen to do this.” 

Michael grew up Catholic. He describes himself as mystical and spiritual, and says he’s accepted Jesus as his savior. He sees meaning in dates and numbers. He’s no believer in coincidence, and quick to draw cosmic connections. Father O’Gorman’s observations were what Michael needed. 

“That helped me with the opposition,” says Michael. “I read somewhere that the more opposition you have, it means you’re important and doing something very special. It doesn’t come without [consequences].”

The next morning, Michael felt like a new man. “I don’t do this for fame,” he says. “I give it all I’ve got. I don’t wear sunglasses because I want to look people in the eyes. I’ve got to be real on that corner. I deal with families, the elderly, and everything in between. I’m overwhelmed by it.” At least one encounter causes Michael to cry every day. He’s a sensitive guy, and the job takes an emotional toll.

Is that dancing or Russian roulette?

If you’ve lived in Laguna long enough, you might remember Michael as the man who danced with waves down on Main Beach. For years, he took long runs in the wet sand with his Walkman, jumping – fully clothed and frenetic – into the ocean. He favored full moons. His shadow, as one local described it, looked like it was dancing on the water. “On warm nights, the shore breaks are really big,” Michael says in the The Greeter. “I follow the high tides and play Russian roulette with the shore breaks.”

Did Michael dance with the waves or play Russian roulette with them? That tension seems present in everything he does. Did Michael party with Hollywood’s stars, or tempt the event staff to bust him? Did he lose his family or gain a whole town? Is he greeting or gambling as he draws cheers and occasional scorn? 

Michael Minutoli pointing

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Greeter or gambler, Michael has fun playing with his audience

Recently, someone threw a takeout container from a moving car at Michael – an untouched burger sealed inside a clear plastic carton. It hit the curb and exploded at his feet. But as Michael describes it, the scene was beautiful. The plastic caught the streetlight, illuminating the lettuce and tomato. “It would have made such a beautiful picture,” he says, “if someone was there to capture it.” 

That sums Michael up – a man who chooses to turn ugly moments into beautiful ones, and sees light in other people’s darkness. One person’s risk is another man’s reward. 

The greeters’ Rorschach test

Maybe Laguna’s greeters are Rorschach tests for our town. They reflect our joys and they mirror our fears. Laguna is either a small town of bohemians and eccentrics, or we’re a swanky city on California’s golden coast. We’re an artistic mecca or a quaint throwback. We’re hippies and entrepreneurs. We’re homeless. We’re billionaires. We’re idealists and we’re jaded. We’re beach bums. We’re celebrities. We’re accepting and we’re suspicious.

It’s hard to look at Michael and not be impacted – he’s that kind of guy. Most of us, once we’ve watched Michael a few times, are endeared by his charms, won over by his warmth, and uplifted by his energy. He’s quintessential Laguna – beautiful and baffling and complicated. 

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Carol Carlson: Opening the doors at Laguna’s youth shelter


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Waymakers Laguna Beach Youth Shelter (formerly Community Services Programs) will celebrate 40 years of service this year. The six-bed shelter for youths between the ages of 11 and 17 supports youths and their families who are in crisis. Carol Carlson is the shelter’s Program Director, Children’s Crisis Residential Program, a position she has held for the last 10 years. That she spends her days (and sometimes nights) working with youths in crisis is still somewhat surprising to this former banker whose involvement with the shelter began as a volunteer over 20 years ago. “If you had told me then that I’d be doing this now, I would not have believed it,” says Carlson energetically. And yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point,” she adds. 

A first ever open house for the youth shelter on March 14th

I was fortunate enough to visit Carlson at the Laguna Beach shelter. For obvious reasons, it isn’t a place that is generally open to the public to tour. However, to celebrate their 40 years and as a thank you to the community for their support, Carlson is hosting an open house at the shelter on March 14 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is the first time such an event will be held at the shelter. There will be a shuttle running from the Neighborhood Congregational Church all day as parking is tight. “We work really hard to be a good neighbor,” says Carlson.

Over the shelter’s 40 years, the mission has never changed

While being a good neighbor is important to Carlson and staff, their primary mission is to help youths in crisis. In its 40 years that mission has not changed. However, the crises the kids face have definitely evolved, according to Carlson. She handed me a sheet of paper documenting the changes over the last four decades. 

Carol Carlson close up

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Carol Carlson has been with the Waymakers Laguna Beach youth shelter for 20 years. She is currently the Program Director, Children’s Crisis and Residential Program.

Same mission, different issues

From 1979-89, the shelter’s clients were split 50/50 boys and girls. Most were runaways referred by law enforcement and cigarette smoking was the substance of choice. After two weeks, 91 percent of the kids were reunited with their parents.

From 1990-2000, the shelter served more kids coming from single-family households. There was still a 50/50 split between boys and girls, and it was middle schools and high schools that were making the majority of the referrals. Drug education became a bigger part of the group topics, yet still 90 percent of the children were reunited with their families after two weeks.

Dealing with a rise in mental illness

As Carlson writes, “The millennium brought about new challenges.” By 2006 most referrals were for children with mental illnesses. Another shelter was opened in Huntington Beach to help accommodate the growing wait list. A shift in the balance began to occur with 65 percent female and 35 percent male referrals. The length of stay grew to three weeks with a 94 percent success rate (defined as reunification with families).

By 2010 referrals grew even more, prompting the opening of a third shelter in Tustin. Most of the children, now a 75 percent/25 percent split in favor of girls, have been diagnosed with depression and have either attempted or threatened to attempt suicide. Carlson explains that the gender shift does not indicate that girls are faring worse than boys. “Girls are more likely to seek help,” she says. “And males use more lethal means.” 

Carol Carlson bike

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The Laguna Beach shelter will be opening its doors to the public for the first time in 40 years

The importance of asking for help

Carlson states this harrowing piece of information in the matter of fact manner of someone who deals with these tragedies on a daily basis. The good news is that when help is asked for, the end result is 90 percent positive at all three shelters run by Waymakers. This means that over 300 kids and 800 of their family members are positively impacted by this intervention. And that’s what keeps Carlson going. “It gives me a lot of personal growth,” she says of her work at the shelter. “As long as the kids are out there, I want to keep doing this.”

Helping families feel stronger

So, why this alarming trend to depression and suicide? It’s a nation-wide problem and much has been written and debated on the subject. Carlson refers to Dr. Bruce Perry, “one of my rock stars,” as she describes him, to help explain the alarming trend. “He talks about how lonely people are these days,” she explains. “We came from tribes. It used to be that one child was surrounded by four adults. Now it’s the other way around. People move away from family for different reasons. When you’re alone with a teenager who’s struggling, it’s really tough. I have a lot of empathy. We have to help them feel strong.”

And that’s what the shelter does. The children are there on a voluntary basis and they must abide by very strict rules. Carlson says that most of the kids thrive under the rules. However, sometimes they prove too onerous and those kids leave before their three-week time is up. There is a mandatory family component as well with family session twice a week. “Sometimes the parents see their kids more when they’re here than they did when they were at home,” says Carlson.

These kids crave structure

Simple things, like group dinners around the shelter’s sturdy wooden table, can be transformative, explains Carlson. For a lot of different reasons a lot of the kids aren’t getting that kind of interaction at home and they crave it. “I’m amazed by how many kids want a copy of our schedule and rules when they leave. They thrive with that kind of structure.”

Carlson helps the kids and, in turn, they have helped her

Such lessons have helped Carlson in her own parenting life. “Everything I learned, I learned from these kids,” she says. In addition to teaching her a lot, working at the shelter also helped her own children learn compassion. “They learned that no one would choose this. My children developed a compassion for people who are struggling.”

Carol Carlson crafts

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With all electronics banned, except computers for schoolwork, things like crafts are an important activity at the shelter

Ultimately, Carlson says, whether it’s her kids or the kids who arrive at the shelter, they all want the same thing. “They just want to feel loved. A lot of kids tell me they feel very lonely. When they’re teens, they push you away, but they don’t really want you to go. It’s a push/pull.” And that’s why the shelter doesn’t allow any electronics – at all – and there are a lot of group activities, in addition to helping families learn how to reconnect with one another.

Avoiding burnout after 20 years

The programs in place have proven effective, but it’s the people behind the programs that make Waymakers the success it is. Front and center to that success is Carlson. She talks fast and with passion. She is matter of fact but compassionate. And she has managed to avoid burnout after 20 years. Her approach is telling.

Celebrating the challenges

“I celebrate when I see a challenging kid,” says Carlson. “We’ve served thousands of kids,” she explains. “Some are tough. Some are sweet. Most are in between. They are all in crisis. Our job is to get them to breathe.” The rules, the break from things like social media, the counseling, and just being out of what has become a tense home environment works 90 percent of the time. For the other 10 percent Carlson says that, for the most part, the kids just aren’t ready yet. She will be there when they are.

Carol Carlson games

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The kids at the shelter have access to a lot of games, musical instruments, and crafts to help them learn to “breathe”

Waymakers is funded through grants, public funding, donations, and fundraising. As for creating public awareness, it’s a tricky balancing act for Carlson. She is torn between wanting people to know about the shelters and the important work they do while also maintaining the strict confidentiality such facilities require.

“I don’t want people showing up on our doorstep,” she says. “However, I want people to know about us. I always say we’re the best kept secret in Laguna.” 

Well, that secret is opening its doors on March 14. To read about the shelters’ good work is one thing. To come see the place that kids in crisis call home for a few precious weeks is definitely something else.

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All in the Family: Mother/Daughter duo purchases 

Laguna Coffee Company 


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Tomi Miller moved to Laguna Beach four years ago to be closer to her mother, Rene, little did she know just how close they would soon become. Tomi had no intention of working alongside her mom. She certainly couldn’t foresee someday co-owning Laguna Coffee Company with her. But life – like a strong cup of coffee – has a way of waking us up to new ideas.

Laguna Coffee in front

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Rene and Tomi Miller in front of Laguna Coffee Company, now officially their own

Tomi sold real estate in Phoenix, and planned to continue her business here. She was a single mother of two. Coffee had been her mother’s passion, not hers. “I specifically told my mom I would not be working in the coffee shop,” Tomi says. “Within three months, she was in a tight spot and put me on the schedule. I told her again I wasn’t going to work here. She said, ‘I need you.’” That was all it took. “I ended up loving the coffee shop and the people,” Tomi says. “That’s the magical power of this special place.”

Rene, on the other hand, had long fantasized about owning a coffeehouse. By the time Tomi arrived, Rene had managed Laguna Coffee Company for several years, and quickly became its heart and soul. Local clients felt like family, and tourists like fast friends.

Rene, too, had come from Phoenix, where she raised her three daughters. For 12 years, she worked at a coffee shop in Gilbert, Arizona. There, her love of the business grew, and when she came to Laguna Coffee Company, she knew she’d found a home.

A perfect partnership

Last October, Rene’s distant dream was realized. Now she and Tomi are not only mother and daughter, but best friends and business partners. “We’re in control of a healthy menu we both believe in. We’ve created the atmosphere we want. The vibes we put out are 100 percent from our hearts,” says Tomi. “I never thought I’d be a part of that.” 

Laguna Coffee mother and daughter

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Mother and daughter owners Rene and Tomi Miller

Like any strong partnership, Rene and Tomi balance each other out. “We both have different strengths,” says Tomi. “My mom is the anchor. “She’s the heart and soul of this place. People love her.” Here, Tomi laughs: “I do payroll and the books. She would not be able to do that without me.” 

But their one strong commonality is their love for this community, and their customers. They’re both passionate about making, and keeping, those close connections. 

It’s not just them, but everyone on staff at Laguna Coffee. It’s what they look for when hiring. “It’s important to look customers in the eye and ask how they are,” says Tomi. “We want that connection to show in everything we do here.” 

“One barista is a singer, another a world traveler,” Rene says. “They each bring their own passions, which makes the place really fun.” 

“Where everybody knows your name”

Imagine if Sam Malone – the famed fictional bartender from Cheers – were instead a barista. Picture Laguna’s cast of characters sitting in for Norm Peterson, Cliff Clavin, and Frasier Crane. At separate times, both Rene and Tomi describe Laguna Coffee Company as our town’s caffeinated Cheers. No one walks in unwelcomed. Nearly every customer approaches Tomi or Rene, wanting to share stories or photos, and – almost all of them – a fist bump.

Not only do Rene and Tomi know everyone’s name, they know everyone’s taste in coffee – by heart. Rene has memorized over 500 drink orders. “That’s not just the drink,” she says. “There’s also the temperature, how much sugar, what kind of milk.” Rene can go two years without seeing a customer and still recall, with perfect precision, what they order. I ask if she has that kind of memory for anything else. “Nothing,” she answers. “I just love coffee.”

Laguna Coffee serving

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Tomi Miller serves up the perfect cup

More important, though, is the community atmosphere created by this kind of hub, which is palpably different from a corporate Starbucks or even a new and trendy spot. People not only know each other by name, but they know each other’s stories. They celebrate engagements, marriages, and births. They mourn illnesses and tragedies. “If someone doesn’t come in for a day or two, we worry,” says Tomi. “We’re all looking out for each other. And we adore each other.”

Examples of this abound. When the October fires ravaged our state last year, folks gathered at the coffee shop to donate money, goods, and clothes. In 2017, when Tomi – passionate about helping children in African orphanages – decided to journey to Nigeria, Laguna Coffee’s customers financially supported her trip. “This community took me by the hand and made my dream happen,” Tomi says. “Laguna Beach is the very definition of good people.”

The customers also contribute to Rene’s Centurion bike rides that benefit Multiple Sclerosis. (Yes, that means Rene rides 100 miles in one stretch. Not bad for a mother of three and grandma to eight.) “The community has been so generous,” says Rene. “As much as we try giving to them, they give right back to us.”

But maybe this is one of the strongest testaments to Laguna Coffee’s friendly atmosphere – several couples have met, and even gotten engaged, inside the shop. I ask Rene how many. The answer: “Oh my god. A lot!” The coffeehouse represents one of those touch points in town that binds its neighbors together. People may come for the superb coffee, but they probably keep returning for the friendships – even marriages – and deep ties. The town’s tourists, too, return year after year.

So what about that superb coffee?

If you’re a client who takes your coffee seriously, this is certainly the spot for you. Laguna Coffee Company micro roasts their beans a few times each week in a roaster that’s on site. Batches are small and carefully chosen from the best organic farms around the world  Rwanda, Brazil, Honduras. “Our roaster works with the importers to select batches from the freshest crops,” says Tomi. “He’s passionate about coffee and does a lot of research.” 

Laguna Coffee roasting

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Randy Warner roasts coffee beans onsite in 2016. Randy was the roaster until two years ago when he moved to Colorado. Canaan Bellinghausen has been the roaster ever since.

Rene, with her extensive knowledge of coffee recipes, says her current favorite is the “bullet proof” – an Americano with organic ghee butter and coconut oil, perfect for the lactose intolerant. “We have a lot of originality on our menu,” Tomi says. “We even serve collagen in some of the drinks.” 

Health is the goal. The tuna salad is sweetened with apples, the chicken pesto crunches with walnuts. “Because we get to choose everything, we try to be as healthy and fresh as we can.”

Rene seconds that, adding how important it is to support other business and local farms. “I go to the farmers markets to collect produce, or I bring bone broth out of San Diego. It gives other small businesses an opportunity to present their products. People helping each other. That’s what it’s about,” Rene says.

Supporting the arts and local artists

The mother/daughter team is committed to helping local artists, as well. From jazz concerts to poetry readings, the coffeehouse is a hub where people tend to gather. “People share the mic,” Rene says. “One night this guy said, ‘I have a violin back in my room, can I play with you guys?’ He ran to get it and they played another hour.”

Rene and Tomi also change out the art on the walls every six weeks, giving struggling artists a place to showcase their work. 

They’re in the process of getting their liquor and music licenses transferred over (due to the change in ownership). But soon, beer and wine will again be served in the evenings, along with more music. So stay tuned…

Mothering secrets for success

What accounts for this strong mother/daughter bond? “I’m a big believer in being present in my children’s lives. Through the good and the bad,” says Rene. “I have a lot of empathy for people. You never know what shoes they’ve walked in. Most of us would be surprised if they knew what people go through.”

That philosophy must have rubbed off on Tomi, because she reflects her mother’s life lessons in her own parenting. Her two children are her first priority, and she’ll sacrifice anything to spend time with them. “I know our time together is short,” she says. “I’m trying to take advantage of all of it.”

The high point of Rene’s year is her October birthday, when she goes away with her three daughters (and no one else) to a place they’ve never been – Tulum and San Miguel (Mexico), Austin, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and even Catalina. “By January, we already have our next trip planned,” she says. “It just gives me a deep sense of joy.”

Empathy and joy may lie at the foundation of Laguna Coffee Company’s success, as well. It’s a safe and friendly place, full of positivity and compassion. That genuine sense of caring for each other might feel even better than the coffee tastes.

The power of transformation

On Rene’s right wrist is a tattoo of a butterfly, wide-winged and color rich, inspired by an art installation of real butterflies that once hung in the store. It’s meant to represent transformation, and an evolution of becoming – the perfect symbol for Rene’s new phase of life. If buying and owning a new business isn’t enough, Rene also recently announced her engagement. Where did she meet her fiancé? I’ll give you one guess.

Rene’s life advice is simple, though not always easy to implement. “We all go through things,” she says. “But it’s the diligence of not giving up that makes the difference. Press forward with your dreams.”

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Troy Lee: Still striving to do it better


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

In case there was any doubt as to whether or not Troy Lee is still fully immersed in his products, the answer is unequivocally that he is. I can say that with complete surety because the morning we met the skies over Laguna were dumping rain. As I was peeling off my rain gear inside his self-named shop on Glenneyre, Lee rode up on his bike – that he rode from his home – in the pouring rain to test out a new pair of his cold weather gloves. While wet, Lee was a little disappointed that the morning was not sufficiently cold enough to test the gloves’ efficacy. I have no doubt he’ll keep trying until he’s satisfied.

Troy Lee Designs is a store and so much more

Troy Lee is the founder of Troy Lee Designs. The company makes mountain bike and dirt bike gear, helmets for almost any sport that uses one and many other things that don’t necessarily fall into any of those categories. The company’s flagship store is in Laguna and, as Lee’s assistant and Laguna Beach Chamber Board of Directors member Carmelit Greene explains, “It’s part store part museum.” 

Troy Lee close up

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Troy Lee, founder of Troy Lee Designs, at his shop in Laguna Beach

And it’s an apt description because amongst the jerseys and helmets (in addition to Levi’s and other stylish casual wear), there is a winners’ autographed Indianapolis 500 helmet, a beautiful Triumph motorcycle, and a painting by Steve McQueen to name only a few items that fill the store. “I don’t put something in here if I don’t love it,” says Lee when asked which item is his favorite. “The coolest thing is I’m just so proud to have a store here in Laguna Beach. When I was a kid I would have never thought that was something…” he says.

Same basic business, much larger quantities

Before he had his beautiful store, Lee made his name painting (and making) bike helmets. He raced and painted his own helmets, as well as making his own leathers, and his designs caught on with his fellow racers. The business continued to grow and now Troy Lee Designs are sold in at least 31 countries. “The only thing that’s really changed is the quantity,” says Lee of how the growth has affected his business.

As committed to safety as to design

While his design work is, perhaps, the sexier part of his business, Lee says he is very committed to safety and making products that keep riders riding their bikes. “I’m really proud of that,” he says. 

Lee’s commitment to safety is undoubtedly part of why riders love his gear. However, it may have taken on greater significance since his son started racing (Lee says all of his kids ride, but his oldest son Max is riding competitively). “I’m telling him not to jump stuff, but we have to let him chase his dreams. My wife lets me chase mine, she’s a good sport,” says Lee with appreciation. 

Still racing, but on a limited basis

Safety also may have taken on a new meaning when Lee himself ended up in a wheelchair after a horrible motorcycle accident several years ago. “It was by far the worst one I’ve had,” he says. He promised his wife he would stop racing. However, he says watching his son race was tough. “Sitting on the tailgate is hard,” he says. He has since recovered and returned to racing, but it is limited to once a month. “At my age, motorcycle racing is a little bit dangerous,” he says with his pattern of understatement.

Troy Lee shop

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At Troy Lee Designs, hanging out is strongly encouraged

But racing is in Lee’s blood. If he has lost any passion over the years for the sport he is immersed in, it is imperceptible. “I really live for racing,” he says. “You bring together this little group. I love seeing everyone doing their thing. It pushes everybody.” He’s speaking of the racing team, of course, but he could just a easily be talking about his business.

Still painting helmets every week

“I still do 15 custom helmets a week,” he says. “We have an amazing group. I’m so fortunate to have an amazing group of employees that follow me down this crazy path. They are so good at what they do. We have 81 employees and every single one of them contributes something fantastic.”

Committed to creating a retail experience

And while his employees allow Lee to focus on the part he likes the most – the creative part – he is still totally engaged in growing and protecting his business. He is very worried about the state of brick and mortar retail. He praises Amazon but worries that its reach will make stores like his, and the other bike stores that sell his gear, obsolete. “You have to make it an experience,” he says. Hence the artifacts, the big screen TV, the hanging out…all part of the plan to keep the community together. “We try to plan a party once a month,” he says.

Troy Lee helmet

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One of Lee’s special projects: helmets for the Notre Dame football team

Notre Dame football gets new helmets

While Lee’s primary business is in the biking worlds, he has a broad reach beyond. For someone who says, “I like the hardest projects,” he supposedly found that when he was approached to redesign Notre Dame’s football helmets for their Shamrock Series in 2012, he’d found one. Lee says he was told they were going to be an extremely challenging client, so steeped were they in their tradition. However, when Lee presented them with his 24-karat gold leaf creation they were “super excited.” Apparently, not so tough, after all.

Always something new to work on

“There are always unusual projects,” he says. Like the helmet and rocket Lee did for Eddie Braun when he jumped Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. A movie about the jump, Stuntman, is coming out soon. When the subject came up, Lee and Carmelit start riffing on how it would be great to rent out the movie theater downtown and screen the film. “We do this a lot,” he says of their banter. “We just start talking…”

A true fan of sport

With a business that has so many moving parts, the thing that seems to be the grounding center, besides his family who Lee consistently praises throughout our talk, is the athletes he works with. 

“That’s what’s most gratifying,” says Lee. “I tried to become a pro racer but never made it to that level. I idolize them. It’s a privilege to sit down with someone who’s a god in their world.” I’m sure there are a lot of people in Lee’s world who would say the same thing about sitting down with him and yet he seems completely oblivious to that fact. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just a fan. 

A constant desire to do things better

He’s a fan who has built a worldwide reputation that has expanded beyond the world in which he started. And yet, his heart is here in Laguna. “I love riding mountain bikes in Laguna,” he says. “I do a lot of traveling so I say my vacation home is in Laguna. I don’t like to leave it. I feel super fortunate to have a store here. It’s our little lab. It’s nice to fit everyone with equipment and look into figuring out what I can do better.” 

So if you see a guy riding his bike in Laguna and it’s raining, snowing, or any other manner of inhospitable weather, chances are it’s Troy Lee simply doing some product testing, all in the name of doing it better.

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An Abstract Life: Artist Paul Ecke pens a memoir that will hearten you, inspire you & maybe shock you


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“Every painting unravels a story,” says local artist and Black Iris co-founder Paul Ecke, whose works, mostly abstract paintings, are displayed in high-end galleries all over the world. Several are slated to be part of an endowment of contemporary paintings and graphic art to the Tate Museum of Contemporary Art in London.

“I start with 20 - 30 layers of paint and media and then carefully strip them away with brush, hand, and sometimes trowel, to create texture and depth,” Ecke explains. “In good abstract art, each element, or fractal, of a piece should convey meaning.” And, smartly, Ecke has used the same approach in fashioning his newly released, evocative memoir, Boy Dreamer: An artist’s memoir of identity, awakening, and beating the odds. 

A mélange of moments shot through with triumph

Just as Ecke’s paintings contain repeating patterns and interconnections, so his memoir picks out the common threads within some of the most formative and traumatic – as well as happy – events of his life, creating an integrated whole, a mélange of dark moments shot through with blazing triumph.

LLP Paul Ecke smile

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Paul Ecke, artist and author

Boy Dreamer took me four years to write,” he says. “I had a script of sorts in mind, about how I had beaten the odds in so many ways, and the importance of imagination and dreams, but I knew I needed to pare down the layers, so I carved out certain vignettes that I felt truly revealed the color and texture of my life.”

Among other things, the book tells of his time in foster care as a young boy, his identity crisis as a gay man during a less tolerant time, and explains his positive approach to his Stage 4 prostate cancer, diagnosed 12 years ago.

Yes, there have been many challenges in Ecke’s life, and some shocking choices made, but much brightness and love, too, as the book explores. 

Oh, and there are wonderful touches of humor, too.

Imagination provides an escape from early adversity

First let’s look at early adversity: 

Imagine this – you are four years old, about to turn five. You’re in a foster home with your two sisters, having been wrenched from your mother’s arms a few months earlier. 

(Later you will find out that she suffered a nervous breakdown after your father abandoned the family after multiple infidelities. But at this young age, you don’t understand why you can’t be with your mom.)

Your foster parents make a point of giving their own daughter delicious food while you are provided the most basic of meals. 

On Christmas Day, when you wake up expecting to see presents under the tree, they laugh and tell you that “Santa doesn’t bring gifts for kids like you.”

So it is a special thrill to find out that your foster mother is actually making a chocolate cake for your birthday.

Until, that is, unable to bear the suspense, you sneak into the kitchen and swipe a tasty fingerful of icing from the cake.

And you are caught.

You are confined to your room for three days and only given slabs of cake to eat, nothing else, until you feel sick. You are not allowed to leave to go to the bathroom for any reason. You are told to use the trash can instead.

The mortification will stay with you for the rest of your life.

LLP Paul Ecke swing

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To this day, Paul Ecke finds joy in swinging high and free

To escape such cruelty, little Paul Ecke uses his imagination to create and live virtually in happier worlds. He loves to swing high, to feel the breeze across his face, to feel free. 

(This is something, swinging in a playground, that he will continue to enjoy throughout his life, even at the age of 65.) 

He makes friends with the frogs in the garden.

Little Paul will return to live with his mother, but future challenges will test his happiness. 

Those myriad challenges are at the heart of this appealing, brutally honest, fascinating memoir. 

Now, humor: The teenage Paul Ecke tries his very best to enjoy sexual contact with a girl, but as he so eloquently puts it: As the inhibitions fell away, we started to kiss …She squirmed with pleasure, but something felt off. Even high, I could sense that I was trying to make a floral jacket go with plaid pants. They just didn’t go together in anyone’s definition…

Beautifully, Ecke’s love for his mother shines throughout the book. “She was incredibly loving,” he says.

Love for his mother leads to a shocking decision

In Ecke’s early twenties, when his mother was dying of terminal breast cancer, the young man made the shocking decision to become a male prostitute while working, of all places, at Disneyland Hotel as a bellboy. (Oh, and he was a kindergarten teacher at the time also. For ten years, he would thrive as an educator and administrator.)

“I wanted to be able to give her the finer things in life that she’d never enjoyed – dining out in restaurants, lovely clothes…” Ecke’s voice trembles. “I adored her.”

I ask Paul if it is okay to include some of his more controversial life choices in this article. 

He shrugs. “Of course. I don’t regret a moment in my life, because they are part of who I am now. I kept these things close to the vest for many years, but now it’s all out there in the book.” 

Boy Dreamer is also a love story about Ecke and his partner of 40 years, Bill Merrill, describing their relationship, and explaining how serendipity and hard work built the success of their Black Iris florist business.

“Each flower had to dance. Every arrangement had to tell a story,” Ecke says, clearly born to play with petals as well as paint.

LLP Paul Ecke book

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Boy Dreamer is an inspiring and brutally honest memoir

His memoir certainly doesn’t shy away from hard truths, even as it inspires.

“Lots of people don’t know about my Stage 4 cancer, but they will now,” he says. “I’m fine with it, I’m ready for the questions.

“One of my goals with the book is to encourage people to stay positive about their cancer, to inspire them to believe it can be overcome. I’m the poster boy at USC for resisting the disease. Each day is a new day, a beautiful day. I hope people can find comfort in that.”

If our lives can be compared to abstract paintings, then Paul Ecke’s is an intriguing, inspiring one to behold. Tested by adversity in so many ways, but always ready to take on new challenges with heart, imagination, and gratitude, his life is one for, well, the books.

Boy Dreamer is available at Laguna Beach Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble online. Some of the proceeds will go to a fund to research prostate cancer.

Ecke has also authored a children’s book about impatient “rootlings” longing to burst through the soil. Appropriately, it is due out in the spring, He’s also working on another children’s book at this time, called Swing High, Little Boy.

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Lojo Simon: One of Laguna’s Literary Laureates


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Lojo Simon is one of Laguna Beach’s two Literary Laureates. It’s an impressive title with an even more impressive list of responsibilities. Since receiving the honor earlier this year (the city’s website says the term runs May 2018-April 2019), Simon has taught a series of classes at the Boys and Girls Club, as well as the Susi Q. She is tasked with writing a play that is “Laguna-centric,” and she has created a multi-disciplinary project with the Laguna Art Museum set to open in 2020. In short, it is a full plate of responsibilities.

“It is a lot more work than I thought,” she says smiling. Her comment is decidedly more observation than complaint. As someone who discovered her passion for playwriting later in life, Simon doesn’t take her work for granted.

A journalist finds a hobby

A lifelong writer, Simon is nevertheless relatively new to playwriting. “I had been a journalist for years,” she explains. She was introduced to a theater’s inner-workings when her eldest daughter became an active participant in their local San Diego theater. Simon volunteered to paint sets and sew costumes, the usual ways parents lend a hand. But the overall process intrigued her. “So I started writing plays for fun.” 

A hobby turns into a passion

She took classes, went to workshops and during one of these classes, a play she wrote was produced. “It did really well at a community college,” says Simon. That success, combined with her youngest child heading off to college and her life partner working on his PhD, motivated Simon to pursue her Masters degree in playwriting – at 50.

Lojo Simon close up

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Lojo Simon, a playwright and one of Laguna’s two Literary Laureates

 “It seemed like that was what everyone was doing – following their passion,” she recalls. Three years after she began, in 2012, Simon had her degree. And it is a degree she values. “I have to attribute my success to grad school,” she says. “It gave me the opportunity to learn the craft as well as to network with people. But you have to write. (School) was about devoting the time to doing that.”

Finding an artistic home away from home

Her years working as a journalist also helped. “Journalism trained me well,” she explains. “I understand dialogue. I understand character. It was not difficult in that sense.” While she may underplay the difficulty of mastering the art of playwriting, she does not minimize the good fortune she has had in finding work. 

Acknowledging that playwriting can be “erratic,” Simon is, in addition to her Laguna Literary Laureate duties, also in her third year as a commissioned playwright for the Creede Repertory Theatre Young Audience Outreach Tour. This year’s production is called “Best Foot Forward.”

While Simon spends the bulk of her time in Laguna, Creede has become her “artistic home” away from home, both literally (she spends her summers in Creede, CO) and figuratively. Simon is commissioned to write a children’s musical that tours around the country to underserved populations. “We see 35,000 plus kids, and it’s an original musical every year. It is one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever done.” 

Lojo Simon typing

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In her position as Literary Laureate, Simon is tasked to create Laguna-centric works, among other responsibilities

In addition to finding the actual project meaningful, Simon’s work in Creede offers her a community that she is deeply appreciative of. “Writing is solitary work,” she explains. “It’s really nice to be with people who appreciate your work and contribute to the creative process. It helps to have interactions with people. I’m fortunate to have this commission,” she says. “That’s been the biggest blessing.”

An ambitious project as Literary Laureate

Creating community, or at least tapping into it, is something Simon hopes to achieve in one of her ambitious Literary Laureate projects for Laguna Beach. The project is titled “Word and Image in Dialogue.” It is a collaboration between Laguna Art Museum and Simon and “seeks to explore and enhance the intersection of literary arts with visual and fine arts by recruiting artists and writers to use both the visual arts and literature as inspiration for the creation of a new work.”

Showcasing collaboration and the creative process

Ten artists will be chosen to create new works based on curated works of literature. On the flip side, qualified writers will be selected to create new works based on curated artworks in the Laguna Art Museum collection. Additionally, there will be at least two public lectures/workshops to educate the public about artistic collaboration and the creative process. The project will be completed in 2020. “I’m very interested in the creative process and cross pollination in the arts,” explains Simon. “I’m hoping to showcase the creative process with this project.”

Can we say it all started in Laguna?

The city’s website for the Literary Laureate position states that the person selected is to “serve as an official ambassador for Laguna Beach’s vibrant creative scene.” Clearly, Simon has taken her responsibilities seriously. And it’s fitting that she was selected. After living and raising her children in San Diego, it was a job at the Laguna Playhouse that ultimately brought her to Laguna. 

Lojo Simon walking

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Simon says one of the things she really enjoys is walking in Laguna

An informal meeting with Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann Wareham eventually led to Wareham offering Simon a job as Artistic Associate, a position she held for three years. “It was really fortuitous,” says Simon of her meeting with Wareham. 

And while good fortune is always helpful, Simon’s success falls more in the category of hard work plus talent. Her list of produced plays is formidable. She is also a three-time winner of the Laguna Beach Poetry Contest and curator of the Bare Bones Theatre’s new play reading series. 

All of this, in addition to her other achievements, makes Simon a perfect person to offer advice to any aspiring writers out there. “Be persistent. Success is fleeting. Education is great, but listen to your voice, don’t let it be compromised too much by the system,” says Simon. “You have to be courageous and you have to be willing to fail.”

Clearly, Simon practices what she preaches; her success is testament to that. It is also an inspiration. 

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