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Lynn Gregory: A force for Laguna schools is on to her next adventure


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna Beach schools have benefited greatly from the efforts of countless people. From administrators to teachers to volunteers, in grand initiatives and small daily gestures, so many people have contributed to making Laguna schools a source of pride in the community. And while this is nothing if not a group effort, there are certain individuals who make a singular difference. Lynn Gregory, the Laguna Beach Scholarship Foundation (LBSF) coordinator, is such a person. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, she “has been” such a person, since Gregory is leaving the district she loves, not to mention the country she loves, for Budapest, Hungary. 

A fixture at three of Laguna’s four schools

Gregory has been a fixture at three of Laguna’s four schools for close to 20 years: El Morro, Thurston and LBHS. She and her husband Scott moved here as newlyweds in 1994. They looked at other places – Corona del Mar, Seal Beach – but chose Laguna, even though what they could buy needed some work. “We could afford tar paper and plywood,” she says with a laugh. But they remodeled and started their family. “It has been our home ever since. I’ve never lived in a place where a community becomes your family. Maybe because we didn’t have any family out here…” she muses.

A legacy at El Morro Elementary

When her oldest son started at El Morro Elementary, Gregory began volunteering at the school. “It was Melanie Lewis’ fault,” she laughs. Lewis was El Morro’s PTA president at the time, and she knew a good thing when she saw it. “I just jumped in,” says Gregory. “I loved the connection with the parents. I fell in love.” She began to take on more and more responsibility until she herself was PTA president for two years. And she left a legacy with programs and practices that are still being used today like Character Counts, Strike Team, Spirit Wear, as well as getting a teacher’s lounge, and helping make changes to Boo Blast so that it became a successful fundraiser.

Lynn Gregory closeup

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Lynn Gregory, Laguna Beach Scholarship Coordinator and volunteer extraordinaire, is stepping down. She and her husband will be moving to Budapest, Hungary in November.

Choosing to work for free

 “My husband tells me I have a problem with boundaries,” she says with a laugh. “He’d say, ‘Remember, you’re a volunteer.’” While his hints were acknowledged, they were also ignored. Gregory simply can’t do anything halfway. That’s why she finally retired from her job as a flight attendant when her oldest son was in fourth grade. “I had to choose a paying job or PTA president,” she says, laughing as if there was any other choice she could have made. 

 Leading all the way 

And she continued to make that same choice when her boys moved on to Thurston, again helping to implement PTA programs that are still going strong today like the Epic Challenge and the Sports Swap. And she still wasn’t done, dedicating even more time and energy to SchoolPower by chairing its Dinner Dance for several years and serving as president.

Volunteering is a manifestation of her faith

 Gregory is quick to pile the praise on others. If you talk to her you’d think she was merely a bystander to all of these things. She credits the many people she has worked with and, more importantly, her faith. “I believe that my desire to serve is a direct correlation to do what I am called to do,” she says. Luckily, I have seen Gregory’s effectiveness first hand so I can vouch for her efficacy. 

Beware the double handshake

One of the things that make Gregory so effective is that, not only is she willing to work extremely hard, she is good at getting others to join her. Those of us who have had the pleasure of working with her over the years joke about “the handshake.” 

Gregory is from the south. Despite her years in California, she has not lost her southern charms, and she’s not afraid to use them. If you should find yourself in Gregory’s very elegant, double-handed handshake, there is a very good chance you will find yourself agreeing to do something you had absolutely no intention of agreeing to. And she will make it seem like it’s all your idea.

Lynn Gregory sons

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Lynn Gregory proudly shows off a photo of her two favorite kids, sons Harrison and Thomas

Finding the Laguna Beach Scholarship Foundation

Gregory continued her volunteer efforts even after she got the job with the Scholarship Foundation, but the fact that she got the job to begin with was a bit of a surprise. First, she was made aware of the position on the last day of the job posting. “We were traveling,” she recalls. “I didn’t even have a resume.” But it sounded intriguing enough that while in the airport lounge, she dictated her work achievements to her husband who wrote them down on a napkin and then into a workable resume. 

“Lo and behold, I was hired,” she marvels. She did ask her boys for their blessing. “I didn’t want to encroach on my kids’ territory,” she says. They were unanimous in their support, although looking back Gregory thinks their support was more practical (easy access to lunch money) than selfless. 

Helping students, donors and LBUSD

Regardless, she took the job and has been the LBSF coordinator for the past six years. The LBSF acts as a liaison between scholarship donors, LBHS and its students. In addition, it develops funds, manages the scholarship application process for students and provides oversight of managed funds. It is governed by a Board of 30 volunteer trustees, and anyone is welcome to become a trustee. Gregory works for LBUSD and is tasked with coordinating with the donors and the students.

It’s about more than the money

 ”It’s a community, grass roots organization. They now give over $500,000 to our kids,” marvels Gregory. “But what I’ve noticed is it’s not just about the money. It’s the acknowledgement. The kids like to be recognized. They need to be validated. I’m not someone who thinks everyone should be given a trophy for just showing up, but these kids are working really hard and they need to feel seen.”

Lynn Gregory Lynn and Scott

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Lynn Gregory with her husband Scott at their home in Laguna Beach

That is a mantra, of sorts, for Gregory. She is dismayed at the pressure so many high school kids are under. “There’s so much undo pressure. They don’t deserve it,” she laments. She quotes her co-worker who likes to say, “College is more about the plan than the place. And there are so many plans!”

Sad to leave but happy to go

 However, as much as she loves her job, she is leaving – and soon. “You might as well pull my heart out,” she says. “The Scholarship Foundation has been the pinnacle for me. I think I was meant to be a cheerleader, an encourager for these kids. They strive and they work so hard. Sometimes they need to hear it from someone other than their parents. Being in this position has allowed me to take part in that. I will miss it.”

She will miss it, but she’s looking forward to this new phase in her life. “I’m excited for the adventure,” she tells me. “It’s a perfect time.” Her boys are out of the house and the former flight attendant is one who has always loved an adventure. “My mom used to say ‘Where the wind blew, Lynnie flew,’” she says.

 The wind has come up again, and is blowing the Gregorys halfway across the world. “I’m looking forward to spending time with my husband,” she says. And there is a city to master, cooking classes to take, and a very foreign language barrier to try and overcome. “I suppose I’ll give it a try,” she says gamely of learning Hungarian. “But the street signs are crazy!” And because she is who she is, Gregory has already reached out to several international schools to see if they need any assistance.

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Katie MacDonald: Young, but seasoned in the business of flowers


Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Katie MacDonald’s resume is quite robust, especially when one considers she’s just 23 years old. Over two years ago MacDonald purchased The Flower Stand at the Lumberyard. However, working with flowers was not her first love. “When I graduated from high school, I was really passionate about photography,” she says. She started taking photos for her family, then friends, then friends’ businesses. “I noticed that people always wanted flowers in their shots. I figured I was creative enough that I could do them myself.” 

A family connection leads to a new career

MacDonald’s mother was good friends with Beverly Walker who owned The Flower Stand at the time. “She and my mom were super tight. I ended up having a similar relationship with (Beverly),” explains MacDonald. 

Walker noticed MacDonald’s flair with the arrangements she created for her shoots and offered her a position. Eventually, MacDonald says, “I realized my love of photography was not as strong as my love of flowers.” It wasn’t too much later that Walker asked MacDonald if she would be interested in owning The Flower Stand. For a 21-year-old, this was a very big step. MacDonald consulted with her family and, after deliberating, they all decided to do it. “My family made it happen,” says MacDonald gratefully.

Katie MacDonald with offerings

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Katie MacDonald, owner of The Flower Stand, with some of her fall offerings

The flower business is not for the faint of heart

If her family helped make the purchase possible, it has been MacDonald’s blood, sweat and tears that has made it thrive. Walker stayed on for a year working with MacDonald. Their time together gave MacDonald a good idea of what she had gotten herself into. 

“I knew Bev worked brutal hours,” says MacDonald. So the up at 5 a.m. and to bed at 11 p.m. with the daily mad scramble in between wasn’t a surprise. The constant need to be “on” creatively was also not a surprise. MacDonald says that what posed a significant challenge in the beginning was the business side of things. “The creative aspect was never an issue. I’ve had to grow into the business end.”

Learning to prioritize has been key

Another aspect of the business she has had to learn to manage is her communication with clients. “Being in constant communication with people is a challenge,” she admits. “I’m learning how to prioritize.” MacDonald does a lot of weddings, for example. There are conversations with a client about things that are going to happen in three months and there are conversations with another client about things that need to happen that day. Every conversation is important, so organizing which is the most critical has been a learning process.

The good news is MacDonald learns fast. The first year she says she worked seven days a week without relief. Now, she manages to take a day (or even two!) away from The Flower Stand. This is not to say, however, that when she’s not there she’s not working.

Katie MacDonald working

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Katie MacDonald has a lot of options for her arrangements this time of year

Finding love at the flower market

With such a crazy schedule, it’s even better news to learn that MacDonald has managed to squeeze in some romance. “The first day I went to the flower market, I met my boyfriend,” she says with a smile. His family is one of the top wholesalers in the flower business. “His parents met the same way,” she says happily. “What started as a friendship grew into love.” The fact that he has an intimate understanding of her business is helpful. It’s also helpful that he has to get up even earlier than she does.

A creative endeavor in every aspect

MacDonald says the best thing about her job is that she has made great connections. ”I have made so many new friends. It has been great becoming part of the community. And I’ve done it myself. Plus I never have a boring day. Every day is different.” And it definitely fills her creative need. “It’s cool to be creative in every aspect of the business. There’s social media, finding and using new flowers…everything.” 

A vision for the future

But while she enjoys her shop, her long-term goal is to transition to a studio, and hire someone else to manage the shop. “I thought I wanted to open flower shops in high-end beach towns up and down the coast,” she says. Now, the idea of having a warehouse space that houses tables, rentals and, of course, flowers is the direction she’d like to move. It’s a more family friendly environment (for when the time comes) and as there are no walk-ins, it’s a much more focused business.

Katie MacDonald in front

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Katie MacDonald at The Lumberyard in front of her cheery flower shop

The Flower Stand opens other doors

Until then, however, MacDonald will continue running The Flower Stand. “Owning a storefront really sets you up for success,” she says enthusiastically. It opens the door for the other parts of her business, such as weddings and corporate events. “Corporate events are kind of my niche,” explains MacDonald. “I love them. They’re more creative than weddings.” 

A seasoned professional at the age of 23

She’s also partial to this time of year. “l love fall,” she says. “I love foliage. I try to find stuff no one else has, even a particular daisy variety that’s from Holland. Whatever I can find that’s unique.” She’s no longer bound by the constraints of tradition. “When you first learn you use the easiest flowers. You want everything to be ‘pretty’. Now I have confidence to use other things.” Spoken like a true professional. She may only be 23, but she has earned her status as a seasoned veteran, one arrangement at a time.

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Michelle Mercado: Celebrating five years at Sourced


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Michelle Mercado was in high school, she would pack her ’57 Chevy with friends, ditch school in Anaheim and head to Thalia Street beach for a day of fun. “I was drawn to Laguna,” remembers the owner of Sourced.collective, the business Mercado has helmed for the past five years. In a nod to the mysterious workings of the universe, her business is located on Glenneyre at Thalia.

A place for creative people to come to work

Sourced.collective is a place where “creatives come to work, create and play,” according to its website. It is Laguna’s only shared workspace. “It’s natural for us,” explains Mercado. “Real estate prices are high, people are working from home, and there is a craving for people to work together in a shared space.”

And have events, and do yoga and celebrate artisans

In addition to a shared work environment, the space, a charming, shingled beach cottage, is used for events, pop-up markets, artist residency and even yoga classes. If it seems an eclectic mix, it is, but Mercado’s approach to her business is anything but haphazard. However, it would also be incorrect to imply that this has all been part of Mercado’s master plan when she took over the space in 2013.

LLP Michelle closeup

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Michelle Mercado, owner of Sourced.collective, at 950 Glenneyre St

 When she started, “Things weren’t formal enough to create a five-year plan,” she says. Even now, when asked where she sees things going in the next five years Mercado hedges. The only thing she will commit to is to helping the people who are working in her space reach their potential. “At this point, the biggest opportunity is how do we showcase the work that people are doing here?” she says. 

A trip back to Orange County changes her direction

Mercado’s background is in hospitality and event planning. She had been working in San Francisco in what she thought was her “dream job” planning high-end weddings when a trip to Orange County for her grandfather’s funeral changed the course of her career.

Falling for a shingled beach cottage on Glenneyre

A close friend, Rachiel Macalistaire, had found this delightful space on Glenneyre and Thalia. Mercado and Macalistaire shared a love of vintage finds. At the time, Macallistaire already had a shop in south Laguna. “After talking to Rachel, I thought ‘ don’t know what it is, but I want in.’ I was just so drawn to the building,” remembers Mercado. The thought of partnering with Macallistaire was too tempting to pass up, so they embarked on their new venture.

At that time, Sourced offered a retail component in the front that Macallistaire handled and rented office space in the back. The office space sold out in a week’s time. Mercado formed her own event planning company, Sourced Events, and the people who rented the space were mostly involved in various aspects of the wedding business. It was a symbiotic group.

However, after two years, Mercado started to wonder what else she could do. “I dropped the events planning and clicked back into my hospitality days. We became just a ‘creative source.’ People thought we were people who made stuff, but that’s really never been true.”

Adapting and changing to find the right formula

Eventually, McAllistaire moved on to other things, leaving Mercado to take over the retail portion of the business herself. “I just went down another path and then thought ‘How did I get here?’” So she did what everyone should do when faced with life’s big questions, she went to Bali for a month. She closed the store and when she returned, she had a vision. She would create a business that offered office space, co-working memberships and events. “These things supplemented the absence of the retail,” she says. Sourced.collective was born.

LLP Michelle at table

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Mercado is thrilled to be helping creative businesses grow and reach their potential

“This formula totally works,” she says enthusiastically. “The most interesting thing is I get to peer into and support these different businesses. It allows them to go after bigger things. For example, a client comes in for web design, but then they realize they need a graphic designer, and then one person’s client becomes everyone’s client. It’s something you don’t get if you’re working at home by yourself,” she says.

She’s not interested in being the only game in town

Mercado is hopeful that the shared workspace idea will expand in Laguna. “I hope there is more. I’m tapped out. There is no ownership of co-working,” she explains. In the beginning she says the idea was “self-serving,” because she wanted to make her event planning business seem bigger. As the concept grew and developed, she saw the potential of where it could go. 

It may start out as self-serving, but it doesn’t stay that way

The same can be said for the donation-based yoga classes she offers at Sourced. Mercado says she was having trouble finding the time to get some exercise. The idea of bringing the exercise to her was, again, “self-serving,” but it has grown to be a communally beneficial experience that has exceeded her original intentions. And that kind of sums up Sourced.collective. 

LLP Michelle party

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Sourced.collective celebrates five years with an office party “for people who don’t have office parties”

The theme for Friday’s anniversary party was “Something in the Middle.” “It’s where the future meets the past,” explains Mercado. “Our building is a testament to time, but we’re doing something new here.” Using her party planning skills, Mercado blended spaceships and paper airplanes, and other past/present motifs, but the event was not her singular vision. True to the business being celebrated, Mercado says the party planning was collaborative in all aspects. Of course, Mercado could have done it all herself, but that is no longer the point.

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Ketta Brown: A long run with Laguna’s schools comes to an end


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Ketta Brown, LBUSD School Board member, has just four meetings left before her term expires. Choosing not to seek re-election after 12 years of what she says is “the best job (she) ever had” is bittersweet. However, after countless hours of dedication to Laguna schools and other local nonprofits, starting with Laguna Presbyterian Preschool, the Friendship Shelter, Top of the World Elementary then Thurston and LBHS, it’s understandable why, with her three kids now out of the house, the time has finally come for her to step back. 

Jeb’s schedule finally comes first

Brown says she decided not to run for re-election because after so many years of being beholden to the school calendar, it was time to put her husband Jeb’s schedule first. Jeb is a doctor and, “All of his partners are younger with younger kids so he gets last dibs on vacations,” Brown explains. 

With no kids tying them to the school calendar, the only constraint was Brown’s school board duties. “If I do something I need to be 100 percent invested. I can’t miss meetings without being wracked with guilt,” she explains. The only workable solution for her was to step away.

Running for School Board to right a perceived wrong

The decision was not an easy one because of Brown’s deep connection to the schools. “What these administrators and teachers and everyone involved does…it matters. And they matter. It has been such a gift to be able to participate,” she says. These warm feelings were not, however, what motivated her to run for School Board originally.

ketta brown close up

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Ketta Brown, four-term LBUSD Board member, retires this year

“The school board happened because I thought they treated Nancy Blade abominably,” Brown explains with her usual candor. Nancy Blade was the principal at Top of the World Elementary, then Laguna Beach High School before resigning in 2006. “I thought she had been treated horribly, and I was angry. You can disagree with someone but you can’t treat people like that.” Brown was elected to the School Board in 2006.

Change comes, just not immediately

Being front and center is not Brown’s preferred location. “I’m a great back office worker,” she says. “But when you feel you must step into the breach then you have to do it. I felt like it was one of those times.” Once elected, Brown says there was a “steep learning curve.” One of the things she learned was that, while change was definitely possible, it was not instantaneous. “You are one of five people,” she says simply. 

School board members are tasked with setting the direction of the school district. It is an important job and one Brown, and the other members, take very seriously. Passions can run high. Just ask parents their thoughts on the proposed school year calendar change and you’ll see what I mean.

Keeping things in perspective

After 12 years, Brown says she can still be surprised by how impassioned some people get about certain things. She likes to run through her rhetorical checklist in order to keep things in perspective: “Did anyone die? Did anyone’s house burn down?” Sadly, Brown has endured both of these tragedies so she comes to her perspective the hardest way possible. 

ketta brown TOW

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Top of the World Elementary School, where Ketta Brown dedicated many of her years with the PTA and taught a cooking class

However, this is not to imply that she fails to see the importance or gravity of the Board’s decisions. Her perspective simply gives her a framework for approaching things. Because the issues she and the Board must contend with do not rise to the level of life’s most horrible tragedies, they can and should be dealt with some composure, she feels. However, when things get personal or slide away from polite discourse, Brown is equipped to handle it. “I’m bulletproof,” she says. 

Midwestern roots paved the way to a long road of civic duty

Brown’s dedication to Laguna started just about when she and Jeb moved here in 1990. Both are from the Midwest and when they arrived in Orange County it was Brown’s job to find the place they wanted to settle. “We looked at Irvine and I thought, ‘I’ll die here.’ Newport…not happening, then we looked here and I felt like I just couldn’t live anywhere else.” In the small town where she grew up getting involved was just something that was expected of you. “You had a civic duty to become involved. It was ingrained,” she says.

She even cooked with the kids

Not only did Brown become deeply entrenched in the local PTA, she also ran an after school cooking class at Top of the World for nine years. “It was so much fun!” she enthuses. “We did everything. We’d cook fish and the parents would ask me ‘How did you ever get them to eat that?!’”

Committed to the idea of public education

Whatever her role, Brown has a deep, emotional connection to Laguna schools. “When I got elected I realized that public education is the greatest opportunity that most people will ever have. It deserves the same attention as other things, like public finance.” And so she very much appreciates when the community is engaged in what the schools are doing.

Trying to be creative in a tight box

Nevertheless, there are some things she wishes the general public was aware of. “We are very constrained by federal regulations and the education code. We have a very small box in which we can maneuver. We’d love to invent our own car, but we can’t. The best we can do is maybe choose the upholstery and whether or not there’s a sunroof,” she explains. 

Size matters

Laguna’s small size, while a plus in so many ways, can also be a hindrance in terms of programs that can be offered. “It’s subtraction by addition,” she says. “We’d love to add every AP class offered, but we just can’t.” So, it’s not necessarily that school leaders are ignoring the great ideas people send them; many times it’s simply a matter of not having the bodies to fill the classes that these great ideas would take place in.

ketta brown ketta

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Ketta Brown at one of her happy places, TOW Elementary

However, Laguna schools are not in a position to complain. “We are well-funded. We can do things like add a social/emotional program where we have counselors at every school. That’s unheard of. We heard parents’ concerns and we were able to create a top notch structure built around measurable outcomes,” she explains proudly.

Finally, educating the “whole child”

In her twelve years on the Board, Brown says one of the things she’s proudest of is the district’s commitment to educating the “whole child.” “We always talk about the ‘whole child,’” she says. “I felt that we gave that idea lip service, honestly, but now I feel like we’re walking the talk. We have a great administration team, incredible teachers at all levels…I can say that with complete candor, and I don’t know any other districts that can say that.”

Laguna really is different

Brown is fiercely loyal to the people she works with. “I am with them 100 percent. The schools in this town are my family. People should treat my family well,” she says smiling. And for the most part, they do, which is why she and her family came to Laguna in the first place.

“If you choose to live here and you feel like you can breathe, those are the people who stay. It’s a feeling of community. I do think Laguna is different. Maybe it’s what’s in the water. There is an importance placed on character,” says Brown. She lists the programs each school has in place to foster good character and kindness. “We are trying to raise socially conscious, socially aware kids,” she says. 

She is also an advocate for letting kids make mistakes. “Everybody has to make a bad choice sometime,” she says. “Did you learn something? Then that’s ok. Life is lived one way: forward.” For Brown, “forward” means taking a step back from the schools she has dedicated herself to for so many years – and being able to take a vacation whenever she wants.

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Laguna gave him roots, Canada gave him wings:

The soaring heights of Ballet Star Skylar Campbell


Ballet may be coded into Skylar Campbell’s DNA. His mother, Kelly Uygan (neé Leonardi), was a noted ballerina for 15 years, performing with Laguna Beach’s Ballet Pacifica and as a principal dancer for the Hartford Ballet Company. Skylar’s stepfather, Viktor Uygan, also reached international recognition as a danseur in both the United States and abroad.

Laguna gave black tights

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Photo by Rick Guest

Before ballet, there was music, skateboarding, and the Pacific

But for whatever impact nature and nurture had on him, Skylar still came surprisingly late to ballet. At the ancient age of nearly 14, after expressing little interest in pursuing his mother’s profession, Skylar announced – on the steps of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York – that he had his sights set on ballet. And he had the drive, determination, and ability to achieve it. 

After a mere two years, he was awarded a coveted Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) scholarship and a chance to dance in Switzerland at the Prix de Lausanne at the age of 17. The very next year, in 2009, Skylar was offered a prestigious apprenticeship with the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) in Toronto. This year, less than a decade later, he became one of their principal dancers. This quick success is unprecedented in the ballet world. He came up so quickly, his mother says, that when offered the opportunity at the impossible Prix de Lausanne, he’d never even heard of it.

While it could have been nature (with a ballerina’s blood flowing through his veins) or nurture (growing up around dance studios and stages), Skylar’s innate talent is something all his own. His rhythm is rooted in a deep appreciation for musicality. He retains amazing command over his body, able to execute complicated movements with consistent fluidity and grace. And he has an instinctive ability to wholly inhabit his characters. All this makes Skylar’s stage presence nothing less than extraordinary. 

Laguna gave on one foot

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Photo by Karolina Kuras

Skylar’s drive, determination, and innate talent led him to rapid success

Growing up Laguna

Born in Laguna, Skylar attended Top of the World Elementary from first through fifth grades. Typical of a Laguna Beach boy, he couldn’t get enough of the great outdoors, preferring ocean sports and skateboards to ballet slippers in his younger years. “I was jumbling drums and skateboarding and doing water sports,” he says. “Dance came into the picture much later.” 

Laguna gave drums

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

Skylar shows early and avid interest in the drums

His paternal grandmother, the late Lida Lenney, was a former mayor of Laguna Beach. An outspoken environmental activist, Mayor Lenney served during the devastating 1993 fire. The Laguna fire destroyed Skylar’s childhood home on Canyon Acres, and caused his mother to move to Connecticut to dance with the Hartford Ballet before moving back to Laguna when Skylar started first grade.

“I had this kind of duality of two different worlds,” says Skylar. “I bounced between, and was able to pick and choose what I liked of both. I loved the lifestyle of hanging out at the beach.”

Skylar’s maternal grandmother is Carol Leonardi, who was instrumental in helping manage Ballet Pacifica. From 1962 to 2007, Ballet Pacifica was an Orange County institution, nationally recognized for its innovative program. Even if he didn’t yet dance himself, Skylar had a ballet upbringing. His mother took him to countless performances. He brought bouquets to her on stage. Ballet Pacifica became something of a second home.

Laguna gave with mom

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

A young Skylar with his mother, Ballerina Kelly Uygan Leonardi

“Throughout late middle school, seventh or eighth grade, I got the taste for what it meant to be a professional dancer,” says Skylar. “I tried hip-hop, jazz, and ballet. Ballet took over all of those other mediums of dance.” He went on to train with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky in Laguna Hills before launching his professional career in Canada.

But first there was music

For Skylar, music always came first. “Even in the womb,” his mother says, “I would play Mozart piano concertos and I could feel him relax. He was always interested in music, even at the youngest age. On snow days, I would find him watching the symphony rehearse in our building. That musicality has crossed over to ballet. It’s a quality that he’s often noted for in his dancing now.”

Laguna gave piano

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

Even in the womb, Skylar was soothed by music

 Skylar took up both the baritone and the drums at a young age. He’s still an avid drummer. In fact, his company allows him to keep a drum set in the dance studio to play when he’s not rehearsing.

 “Music was the driving force in me from the very beginning,” says Skylar. “I’ll find nuances in the steps, but it’s important to have this natural ability to feel the music. The music is what makes you dance. It’s such a human quality.”

Skylar’s many starring roles

Skylar’s roles are nearly too numerous to recount. But there are some recent stunning performances worthy of note. Skylar created the title role in the world premiere of Pinocchio by Will Tuckett, described by the Toronto Star as “a heartbreakingly poignant portrayal of wooden wannabe boy from fairy tale.” 

Watching videos of his performance, it’s clear Skylar’s heart and head are as invested in portraying the character as his body. He once said in a 2014 interview with My Theatre Award’s Kelly Bedard, “The most important thing I have learned in dancing these roles is to always keep a dialogue running through your mind. We do not have words to express our feelings, so we have to emote these feelings with our bodies. A story or emotion will not transmit to an audience if you are not keeping specific intention running through your mind.” 

That’s how his performances feel – intentional. I wonder if he calls upon a time before he danced, still the wooden boy without the benefit of ballet, to bring this character so intimately to life. As though ballet itself breathed life into Skylar, giving him the ability to transmit that emotion to the stage.

Laguna gave Giselle

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Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

Skylar Campbell in the role of Hilarion in Giselle, National Ballet of Canada, 2016

Other recent performances include the title roles of Le Petit Prince and Nijinsky. “His is a Nijinsky of childlike innocence, conveyed in dancing of unaffected, almost angelic purity,” said the Toronto Star. “He simply breaks your heart.” 

“Performing is why we do what we do,” says Skylar. “There’s something transformative about being on stage. It’s an infectious feeling. I never could imagine living without it now. It’s quite crazy. And it’s a little consuming.” 

For a young man so full of focus and mindfulness, Skylar says it’s still difficult for him to remain in the present. “But being on stage gives you those moments of serenity, those moments of feeling present,” he says. “You feel like you’re doing what you need to be doing. Having the ability to move people by feeling this complete abandonment in certain things is wonderful.” 

Other roles from his online biography include Peter/The Nutcracker in The Nutcracker, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Hilarion in Giselle, Gurn in La Sylphide, White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and Alan in A Streetcar Named Desire. Skylar has also danced roles in Swan Lake, Onegin, Cinderella, Manon, A Month in the Country, Don Quixote, Hamlet, The Seagull, Theme and Variations, Tarantella, The Four Seasons, Emergence, Chroma, Being and Nothingness, Symphony # 9, The Second Detail, Genus, Cacti, Paz de la Jolla and The Dreamers Ever Leave You. He also danced in the world premiere of Frame by Frame by Guillaume Côté and Robert Lepage.

Advice from backstage

There are three things Skylar says during our talk that strike me as particularly insightful. First, he says, he wants to challenge the stereotype that ballet is primarily an athletic endeavor. “What we’re doing is more than physical,” he says. “We have to move the audience with our acting, musicality, dynamics. That’s what makes ballet interesting. That’s why people love it.”


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Photo by Rick Guest

“Ballet requires both athleticism and artistry. That’s what audiences love.”

 He also urges artists to expose themselves to as many different types of art as possible. “Don’t trap yourself into your niche,” he says. “Don’t only watch shows if you’re a performer, or movies if you’re an actor.” 

Skylar’s insistence of diversifying himself as an audience member enriches his own art. It also deepens his curiosity. “I would never want to do what these [other artists] are doing, but I can apply [what they’re doing] to my craft.” It also allows him to bounce around ideas of possibility outside the structured framework of ballet. By expanding his artistic repertoire, it brings depth to his own performance.

His final advice? He urges people to attend the theater, not simply substitute the experience on their screens. “You’re not going into the theater when you’re on Instagram. Instant gratification posts glorify dancers in a way. But there’s a real push and pull with people living on their phones instead of inside the theater.” Social media, he says, has had an enormous impact on the arts. It portrays the extremes of the art form as consumers ogle over photos, or watch YouTube videos, instead of attending live performances. 

“Ballet is an art that only exists with the bodies that it has. Dancing isn’t like a painting or sculpture that can be viewed for hundreds of years. It’s only alive within the people who are alive right now. It’s important to transport yourself in the theater – go see any live art. It’s enriching.” 

But, he admits, it’s also become expensive. “Ballet’s golden days were in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In those days, dancers were celebrities. Attending the theater was a regular occurrence for the general public. Now it’s become an elitist art form. It’s an extremely costly business that limits our audience. We’re not appreciated as much as we were before, because we don’t have this world popularity, or national popularity, as individuals.” But, he says, dancers now tend to look at the bigger picture – they love what they have at the moment, and they trust there will be something for them after their careers end. 

That’s a worry Skylar needn’t tackle for a long time. His place on the international stage seems secure.

Skylar’s return to his hometown

On Saturday and Sunday, Oct 6 and 7, Skylar will return to Laguna Beach to perform onstage at the Laguna Playhouse for the Stars of Dance Festival. 

A particularly meaningful performance, says his mother, because he’s dancing on the centennial celebration of Ballet Pacifica founder Lila Zali’s 100th birthday. “It’s a neat thing that he’s dancing in the Playhouse where my first shows as a young professional were performed,” says Kelly. “That’s a big tie for him to the community – Laguna, Lila, Ballet Pacifica. Dancing on her centennial, and performing the Flower Festival, which is an old classic she loved – Lila would have appreciated that.” 

Skylar will join principal ballerina and Breaking Pointe TV reality series star Beckanne Sisk and soloist Chase O’Connell of Ballet West, as well as his colleague at NBC Jordana Daumec. Dores André and Joseph Walsh of San Francisco Ballet will also perform. The Stars of Dance shows will run on Saturday, Oct 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct 7, at 2 p.m. More information and tickets for the event can be found at the Laguna Playhouse website at

Michael Crabb, in Dance Magazine, may have summed Skylar up best: “Incandescent onstage, Campbell’s laid-back demeanor disguises a burning desire to succeed – and a work ethic that’s enabled him to accomplish it.”

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The Alchemy of Mike Beanan: Transforming trauma into comfort for Vietnam Veterans


Mike Beanan may be one of Laguna’s great alchemists. For all his many talents, this could be his best – a gift for converting darkness into light, and suffering into solace. There are a lot of ugly truths about Vietnam, but one of them is this: you can take the soldier out of the war, but you’ll never take the war out of the soldier. 

What that soldier does in its aftermath is the challenge. 

The Alchemy two men

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Photo by Chip Maury

Navy SEAL Mike Beanan (left) with an M60 in Vietnam

When the opportunity to spend time with Mike arose, I embraced it. In fact, I stole the assignment away from one of my colleagues. My own father was a Vietnam vet who carried the demons of war particularly close his whole life. Since his death last year, I’ve sought out men like Mike who give me the chance to look down all those post-war roads not taken, imagining brighter outcomes. He represents a different and positive path – 

one of hope and strength and resilience.

Mike has spent most of his adult life finding ways to turn the brutal lessons he learned in Vietnam into forces for positive change at home by applying his many passions and talents to important causes. As an activist and environmentalist, Mike makes the ocean his second home. “The ocean,” he says “is my underwater church.” There, his alchemy isn’t just philosophical. Mike is working with the City on a water reclamation and treatment facility, turning dirty water into clean. With a degree in Biology from UCI, he’s also interested in the science behind converting human waste into energy.

The Alchemy Mike closeup

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Beanan standing beside his second home and his spiritual sanctuary

As a skilled carpenter, Mike not only builds beautiful homes from nothing (doing every part of the construction himself), he also teaches his trade to others – giving men a sense of purpose and pride. And, if he finds a man particularly down on his luck, Mike opens his home to him, sharing his experience and wisdom, meals and books, until he can get back on his feet. Mike calls it his “burnout bin.”

What, I wondered, pulls a man out of the psychological trenches? What alchemy allowed Mike to turn his own demons into angels? This is what I learned…

A military-style upbringing

Mike’s childhood might have been one long preparation for the military. His parents raised five kids, close in age, on a butcher’s salary. Survival was a skill taught early. Mike grew up siphoning gas out of cars, dumpster diving, and scavenging for the next meal. “It was all survival,” he says. “It wasn’t like we were wolf children,” he says, “but we were raised to be incredibly self reliant.” 

Brought up on the shores of the northern California coast, Mike was the oldest of four sons (his only sister is a year older). The boys lived in a converted garage behind the house and, though his father was the WWII veteran, his mother insisted on military cleanliness. “My mom was in the Women’s Army Corp (WAC). She came in for inspection every Saturday with a white glove. We learned to work hard and have fun.” 

He grew up surfing the frigid waters of the Pacific and camping in the rugged terrain of the California and Oregon wilderness. Using stars, maps and compasses, Mike quickly became adept at navigation, a skill that would soon serve him well. “I could look at a map and tell you where the hills are – the vegetation, the houses and water. I could tell you where we could slip through quietly. Growing up surfing, we had to trespass through farms to get to the water. The farmers carried shotguns and we were carrying nine-foot white surfboards. So we became very good at sneaking down arroyos. We learned Spanish to speak to the braceros so they wouldn’t turn us over to the farmers.”

At age 17, Mike struggled to survive on his own as an emancipated minor, spending time in jail because of it, and deciding, when the draft board came for him – however much he wanted to avoid the horrors of war – he couldn’t go to prison. When Mike got to the military, it was like his whole life had trained him for that experience.

Vietnam: innocence lost and disillusionment found

With Mike’s skillset, intelligence, and work ethic, he quickly moved through the ranks. He was navigating an aircraft carrier by the age of 18, and soon became a sergeant. Then he was scouted as a frogman, completing training, and loving his time back “home” – in the water. “I was so happy to be in the water again. I aced the training. I outswam everyone, outran everyone. I felt free.” To put this time in perspective, two men died during training. It was that dangerous.

From there, Mike was recruited into a secret organization led by the CIA – Navy SEAL Team I. “It was a clandestine, surreptitious operation to kidnap village chiefs. We’d sneak in and sneak out. No one saw us or heard us. Everything was done at night.” 

Mike soon understood these Vietnamese chiefs weren’t a threat to anyone. “It was wrong,” he says. “What we were doing was wrong.” The SEALS were forced into a terror campaign, gutting and dismembering villagers as an act of psychological warfare. In 1981, Mike contributed a chapter for the book Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Al Santoli. He writes: “Not only had [these villagers] died very violently and horribly, but [they] wouldn’t even be able to enter nirvana intact, and that impact was just incredible.” 

Worse than the realization that the war was wrong came the awareness that the military was taking glorified photos of the SEALS to bolster their campaign. “It was all made up,” he says. 

The Alchemy Seals group

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Photo by Chip Maury

Mike Beanan – bottom row, second from the left – flashes a peace sign as a signal that the SEALS wanted out of this war

“They took a picture of us holding a Vietnam flag we’d captured. We hung the flag upside down, which means we’re in distress, then flashed the peace sign. We were trying to send the message back: This war is screwed up and we want peace. Instead, these pictures became the iconic photos of SEAL team because our nation loves war.”

Climbing out of the trenches

Mike returned from Vietnam in 1969, physically intact but psychologically damaged. He transferred to UC Irvine from community college in 1971 as a Biology and Psychology major and went on to graduate work in Social Ecology. 

He drove a school bus for handicapped kids. He helped lead several veterans’ initiatives and programs, including the Handicapped SCUBA Project at UCI, the countywide Veterans’ Split Job Program, the “Amnesty Psychodrama” program, and the Veterans’ Conspiracy model. He soon discovered universities were designed (with all their research and funding) to support the military – not the men who fought in the war, and certainly not the veterans who came home.

“I took all my training from the military and reversed it. How to you unassassinate somebody? We called it guerilla goodness.” Mike trained veterans to empower themselves. He used military tactics against a government trying to deny veterans their rights – payment, employment, treatment. He’d ambush administrators at their meetings. And, of course, he participated in plenty of protests.

Around this time, Mike found transcendental meditation. It’s a practice he’s kept for years. It allows him to get by on little sleep and still feel refreshed. 

Not only did Mike pull himself out of the trenches, but he stretched his hand back and lifted others up as well. For 30 years, he atoned for his time in the war. Then he decided to devote himself to the ocean.

From Navy SEAL to protecting Laguna’s sea life

Perhaps Mike’s most profound impact, and the one he’s most rightfully proud of, is his work with his first love – the Pacific Ocean. As co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, Mike and his colleagues have made significant strides in protecting Laguna’s most precious resource. Now our coastline is recognized as a marine protected area and no-take zone. Our water quality has improved. Our marine life and estuary wildlife are not only surviving, but thriving.

Fish and marine mammals are rebounding. Whales, particularly gray whales and their calves, are present in Laguna’s shallow coves. Surveys suggest abalone is also making a comeback. In simple terms, Mike’s many efforts are working wonders in our ocean.

Mike is a member of the Laguna Beach Environmental and Sustainability Committee, and co-founder of the KelpFest Laguna Beach regional Earth Day event. In 2012, he won the Orange County Cox Conserves Hero Award, given in partnership with The Trust for Public Land and Cox Enterprises.

The Alchemy on beach

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Beanan sports his “business suit” while working at the office

“We are the only citywide marine protected area and the only city in the U.S. with a contiguous bluebelt and greenbelt,” he told the Orange County Register last May. “What’s important is that we have a rocky bottom. Because of that, you have tide pools and hundreds of caves that function as nurseries for fish and shellfish. Offshore we have kelp forests equivalent to underwater redwood forests. They can grow to 120 feet high and grow at a rate of two feet a day. Rather than a ‘no fish’ zone, we have a ‘grow fish’ zone.”

Mike’s enthusiasm for the environment, and ocean protection, is infectious. It’s hard not to be moved to action while listening to him talk. 

The Alchemy estuary

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Aliso Creek estuary and sand berm provide a habitat for protected species

 such as the tidewater goby and southern steelhead trout
Mike’s mysterious alchemy

Mike’s journey feels both miraculous and inevitable. A rugged childhood created a natural leader. A broken soldier became an instinctive healer. A former frogman evolved into the ocean’s biggest advocate. But all that could have gone a different way. 

Whether or not Agent Orange caused my father’s eventual brain tumor, I don’t know. But I’m certain the war fueled his lifelong addiction to alcohol. Mike, though, traded alcohol for meditation and medical marijuana. He prefers sea life over life as a Navy SEAL. He didn’t let his demons conquer him. Instead, he used his experiences to help others out of the dark.

Some of his old war stories sound familiar to me (enough to make me tear up while we talked). But Mike’s post-war life feels entirely foreign. What allows one man to thrive while another merely survives? Why did one guy make it home when his buddy didn’t? Impossible to know. Like alchemy, some things remain a mystery.

Mike tells me he didn’t have children in large part because of the war. “I knew I couldn’t protect a kid from the war machine in this country,” he says. “And I knew I’d been exposed to something really bad, and it would permeate everything.” Instead, Mike became a father figure to some and a role model to many. He’s lived his life as an example – an activist, a leader, and a steadfast steward of the environment. 

“You could be my niece,” he tells me as our time wraps up, inviting me out to swim sometime. 

I don’t tell him I’m afraid of the ocean and that, in my 20 years of living in Laguna, I’ve barely swum at all. Instead I say yes. Because Mike is the kind of man that makes people trust him. He makes people feel safe enough to take risks, brave enough to give it their all, and inspired to make a difference.

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Hans Laroche: Committed to kids


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

If you have a child in Laguna Beach, there is a very good chance they know Hans Laroche. Laroche has been with the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach (The Club) since 2002. Through his work at the Boys and Girls Club and his subsequent visits to Laguna’s schools, LaRoche is known – and adored – by Club members and non-Club members alike.

With the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach since 2002

Hired as The Club’s Athletic Director in 2002, Laroche’s basketball leagues have become an almost ubiquitous part of growing up in Laguna. With a thoughtful commitment to balancing competition and fun, something Laroche has brought to all of his sporting ventures, the kids flock to The Club to participate in his sports programs. 

However, Laroche has had to leave the day to day running of his beloved gym to someone else. In April he was promoted to Canyon Branch Manager. Now, he gets to spread his influence to all areas of the Club. It is a change he welcomes, and one he sought out.

Working with kids is his calling

Laroche came to Orange County from Los Angeles where he worked at the YMCA, first as a camp counselor and then ultimately as its executive director. “When I was younger, in middle school, I volunteered to work in the cafeteria, play games with other kids…from day one I realized this was my calling, it was more rewarding for me. From that day on, it has always been about working with the youth,” he says.

LLP Hans close up

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Hans Laroche, formerly the Athletic Director, now the Branch Manager at the Boys and Girls Club

Laroche and his wife moved to Orange County because she got a job teaching at George White Elementary in the Capo Valley Unified School District where she still teaches today. Laroche took a job at the Capo Valley Boys and Girls Club, even though he says his first choice was Laguna. “I had an idea about the Boys and Girls Club. I saw kids were more free than at the YMCA. The Boys and Girls Club is more kid focused. It was different,” he explains.

Jumping at the chance to work in Laguna Beach

Laroche became friends with the Laguna Beach branch’s former athletic director. When he was ready to leave, he gave Laroche a call. “He knew I wanted to work in Laguna so he gave me the first opportunity.” Laroche made the most of it, becoming a beloved part of the club over the last 15 years.

Making a strong connection with “his” kids

I don’t use the word “beloved” lightly. When Laroche makes appearances at the local elementary schools, he is treated like a celebrity. The kids rush over to say “hi” and then just hang around him, happy to be in his presence. The kids can sense that when he says working with them is his calling, he means it.

From Haiti to Canada to the US

Born in Haiti, Laroche and his family emigrated to Canada where he stayed through high school. After that, he says his parents wanted him to go to college in the US. “Your future is brighter in the US than in Canada,” he says. So the family moved south. Laroche went to college, found the YMCA and then, eventually, The Boys and Girls Club.

Starting a culture shift at The Club

When he took over as athletic director, Laroche says he wanted to make some changes. “First thing I realized was that the atmosphere was a little cold. I wanted to make it fun. It didn’t take long. I saw smiles and joy. I started a culture shift with the kids,” he explains.

LLP Hans in gym

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Hans Laroche in Boys and Girls Club gym, his home away from home for 15 years

Making an impact in the gym was a natural fit for Laroche. “Sports was my first love,” he says. “It was always sports.” His enjoyment of sport was infectious. He added games like floor hockey, golf and roller hockey. He added all-star games and kept standings to make the basketball leagues more exciting. With 120 kids coming through The Club a day, there needs to be a lot of variety.

Making it fun for everyone, no matter their skill level

Something Laroche says he sees as an “opportunity” is how to create an environment where kids who aren’t superstars can feel comfortable participating with kids who are. “The kids want to have a good experience. You need to give them a secure feeling that they don’t have to excel.” For those who want more intense competition, there are plenty of places for them to play. It’s much harder to give the kids who just want to experience the enjoyment of sport in a competitive (but not too competitive) of an environment.

Embracing the idea of being a leader

For 15 years, LaRoche focused his attention on the sports programs at The Club. However, his insight into other areas was sought out. “Scott (the former branch manager) told me, ‘I wish you’d speak up more.” So when Scott announced he was leaving after three years, Laroche saw an opportunity. If he were to take Scott’s place, he would be in a position to not only speak, but be listened to. “I decided to try and be more of a leader. I thought if I were to be chosen (as manager) I could probably have an impact. That was my motivation.” After what he describes as a “rigorous” interview process, he was given the position.

His longevity has helped him know what families need

His longevity at The Club has served him well. “I got to work under a lot of different branch managers,” he says. “I got to see how they did things. I had an almost inside look at what the kids want and what the families need.” And changes have been made already.

Leading by example to highlight the importance of The Club’s work

“I started to lead by example,” he says. “We’re not doing the kids a favor by working here. It’s the other way around. Working here is important work. It is serious work. Whether it’s in the gym, the art room or playing games, it doesn’t matter. It needs to be taken seriously. I’ve definitely seen a shift in culture,” he says.

LLP Hans BGC Staff

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Hans Laroche and some of the committed staff at the Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach

He and the staff at The Club have worked to create new and exciting programs for fall. And while there is always something The Club needs, when asked what he would do if he were presented with a blank check, he doesn’t think of buying more “stuff.” Instead, he says he’d just like to be able to reach more kids. 

The Club provides a unique experience

“We can handle more kids,” he says. “What has happened throughout the years is there are more groups providing more things. There are more choices. Here, kids can make up their own mind. They can make their own friendships in their own environment. It’s different from an AYSO practice.” And that is why he is so committed to The Club and its mission. If run well, it provides a unique experience for its members that he wholeheartedly believes in.

And while he has only been a manager for a short while, he wouldn’t be opposed to continuing to work his way up the ladder of command. “I would like to have an even bigger impact,” he says. 

Running The Club is a team sport

In the meantime, he is pleased with how things are going in his new position. “I’m pleasantly surprised to see how things are so easy,” he says. “The support I have from kids and families, I’ve earned respect throughout my years here so there has been no conflict.” Laroche mentions more than once that he is just part of a larger group committed to serving the kids. There is no room for anything that might diminish The Club’s mission. “This is a team effort. We all have to leave the politics behind and come here with the sole purpose to serve our kids,” he says. Despite his gentle manner and soothing accent, it is clear that nothing less than that will do.

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The Guitar Shoppe: A true Laguna Beach institution


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

The Guitar Shoppe has stood on the corner of Fairview and PCH since 1972. Now expanded to four suites from its original one, it is an anomaly: an independent storefront that has managed to survive – even thrive – in a brutal retail climate. 

Finding an infinite “rabbit hole”

Owners Jim Matthews and Kirk Sand have owned The Guitar Shoppe since the beginning. Sand came to California from Illinois in 1972 to study classical guitar at the University of Redlands. Coincidentally, 1972 is the year Matthews opened the Guitar Shoppe (Sand joined as an owner in 1974). “I fell down that rabbit hole of guitar. Once you get the bug as a kid you pretty much don’t want to do anything else,” explains Sand.

He was a fixture at the local guitar shop in Illinois and learned much of the business there. When he first came to California he worked at the Fender Guitar Factory. Eventually, he found the Guitar Shoppe, and that was it.

Is that snow?

“I came to Laguna and walked down to Shaws Cove – remember, I’m from Illinois, everything is muddy bottoms and crawfish. When I saw that water I thought ‘I’m not going anywhere. This is my spot,’” remembers Sand. California was so delightfully foreign to him that he thought the “L” that sits in the hills above Laguna Beach High School, painted white at the time, was a patch of snow. 

Elvis and The Beatles are to blame

Matthews, on the other hand, was much more familiar with the ways of California. “I was an Air Force brat. I went to high school in Riverside and college in Long Beach,” he explains. 

We were on the path to finding out how he came to his involvement in The Guitar Shoppe when the conversation took a turn to Elvis. Sand is very gregarious. Matthews, on the other hand, is happy to let the conversation shift from him to another topic, especially if it’s music.

the guitar shoppe both

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Kirk Sand and Jim Matthews, owners of The Guitar Shoppe, work the counter

Elvis comes up quite a bit in our conversation. He and The Beatles feature prominently in the musical biographies of both men. “I wanted to be a Beatle. He wanted to be Elvis,” says Sand of his and Matthews’ early musical inspirations. ”You always want to be a rock star. I mean, let’s face it, most guitar players start because girls like it.” 

Matthews elaborates, “In the ‘50s it was Elvis. I got my first guitar. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got the knee moving, the sneer…” Sands interjects, “He has an incredible singing voice.” Matthews accepts the compliment, “Why, thank you.” It’s a brief exchange but it shows a little of how these two men have survived such a lengthy partnership: a deep amount of respect for one another mixed with a good sense of humor.

Rock star dreams give way to an incredible legacy

It is fortunate for guitar aficionados everywhere that the rock star thing ultimately didn’t pan out for these two. From their once small, now greatly expanded storefront, they have touched the lives of countless musicians, both known and unknown. 

A true School of Guitar, in all ways

“We have a “School of Guitar,” says Sand. “Not to brag, but we have some pretty incredible guitar players coming in here: Sting, Richie Sambora, Jose Feliciano.” Adds Matthews, “Some of our students have won Grammys.” 

Of course, the majority of students are not guitar gods. But whatever their level, the instructors at The Guitar Shoppe are total pros with a long history of teaching. “Two of our teachers, Randy and Peter, have been here for 40 years. We select our teachers. They have to be good teachers, not just good players. Randy has had students for 20 years!” says Sand proudly.

the guitar shoppe guitars

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There is something for everyone at The Guitar Shoppe, including custom guitars

The six studios were all full with students when we met. The shop was bustling with activity and there are guitars everywhere. The shop sells $10,000 guitars and $100 guitars. They even have private label guitars. This is how they have adapted to what has become the latest scourge. 

According to the partners there have been two big “storms” to hit their business. The first was the emergence of the big guitar stores like Guitar Center. The second, and latest, is a problem all retail stores, not just guitar shops, are having to contend with: e-commerce.

Adapting to the times to stay relevant

So, Sand and Matthews had to adapt. “Now, everybody is selling guitars,” laments Sand. However, one of the reasons The Guitar Shoppe survived the big store inundation is the same reason it is making a formidable stand against cheap guitars on the internet: service. 

It may sound cliché but, as Matthews explains, “Guitars aren’t like a VCR. They’re individual. Even guitars that are the same make and model can be different.” For that reason, everyone who works at The Guitar Shoppe must know their way around guitars. In fact, they all know how to build them. Because an important part of making guitars sound good is the set up, it’s something The Guitar Shoppe prides itself on. However, not every place that sells guitars offers that service. The big super stores would, for example, send their customers to The Guitar Shoppe for that service. Once their customer came in, they would almost never go back to the big store, and The Guitar Shoppe would gain another customer.

The importance – and enjoyment – of repairs

“I’ve always been heavy on repairs,” says Sand. “They’re paramount.” Matthews agrees, adding, “It’s a diversion. It’s enjoyable, for certain people, to work on guitars. They get the satisfaction of working with their hands. It makes some people happy.” Clearly, Matthews and Sands are those people. “There are always three to four guys working on guitars here,” says Sand.

Making a name in custom guitars

Taking the business of repairing guitars a step further, Sands began making custom guitars years ago. To date he has made 780, developing such a reputation he is back-ordered two years. He made guitars for Chet Atkins (“Mr. Guitar”) and that really jump-started his business. “When you make something for someone like Chet Atkins, everyone takes notice,” he says. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be rich and famous to order a custom guitar. “Just rich,” laughs Sand.

Making the most out of inexpensive guitars

And you don’t even need to be rich to buy a regularly manufactured guitar at The Guitar Shoppe. They sell their privately labeled guitars starting around $100. “We sell a lot more inexpensive guitars than expensive guitars,” says Matthews. “It’s kind of counterintuitive. We don’t recommend a beginner buy an expensive guitar. You have to become sophisticated to be able to know what you want.” 

And since Matthews and Sand know what they want, they say they “cherry pick” the inexpensive Chinese imported guitars they sell. Matthews says, “We make them better, and if you have a problem with it, we fix it.”

Not enough time for actual playing

All of this, the repairing, the custom making, the running of the store, means surprisingly little time for the thing that got them both in the business to start with. “I wish I had more time to play the guitar,” says Matthews. “I still love it. When I’m at home and I pick up the guitar I think, ‘Why don’t I do this constantly?’” Sand still manages to attend conferences like one for fingerstyle guitar, a la Chet Atkins. “It’s the rhythm and the melody at the same time. It’s like a mini-orchestra,” explains Matthews.

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The Guitar Shoppe manager and luthier Ben Wagner shows how it’s done

That is a very apt description. I can say that because during our interview Sand and Matthews called Ben Wagner, one of the managers, over, and asked him to play. He grabbed a guitar, sat down and played a lively yet extremely complicated song so effortlessly that even to my uneducated ears it sounded ridiculously impressive. This spawned a conversation about music from country (they are impressed with many of country’s new musicians) to rap (“How can you hum to that?!” wonders Matthews.).

Survival depends on creating an experience

In their 46 years, they have seen a lot of music trends, but people’s love for guitars has, thankfully, not wavered. “If we could have gone out of business, we would have,” laughs Sands. Matthews adds, “When we started we never looked that far into the future. Back then, five, six years is a long time when you’re young.” 

Now, they may not be quite so young, and 46 years through the lens of hindsight undoubtedly seems like the blink of an eye, but they’re still here. “If we can get through this current internet-thing…” sighs Matthews, “Stores like ours that create an experience will survive.” Judging by the number of people I saw coming and going through The Guitar Shoppe doors, he looks to be right.

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From Novelist to Ghostwriter to Stu News Editor:
Lynette Brasfield Prepares to

Take Another Leap of Faith


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Lynette Brasfield embraces the great unknown. Mysteries intrigue her, change excites her, and uncertainty inspires her. That kind of curiosity – coupled with a writer’s eye for detail, an editor’s ear for language, and an immigrant’s taste for adventure – make for rich writing. It also makes for a fascinating life. Lynette sees the world through a unique lens and has been sharing her perspective with Stu News readers for the past two and a half years. But, as with all good things, her time with the paper is coming to a close. 

From Novelist stained glass

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Decades before making her home here, 

Lynette fell in love with Laguna and now happily calls it home

Writers rarely relish the spotlight. They tend to be introspective. They observe and listen, scouting out stories and tracking down leads. Then they spend a lot of solitary time behind the screen, distilling all they’ve learned. Lynette is no exception. But today we have the chance to crawl behind Lynette’s computer and sit beside her for a while, hearing her own childhood tales, early influences, life’s surprises and hardships.

A South African diamond in the rough

Heat, pressure and time – the three necessary elements for producing South African diamonds. They’re also a potent combination for creating an artful writer. Born in Durban, South Africa in 1955, Lynette grew up under the heat of apartheid. “Blacks were not allowed to live in the same areas as whites,” she says. “It’s not like they sat at the back of the bus. They had an entirely separate bus.” It was like that for everything –

beaches, schools, even language. 

It wasn’t until the year before Lynette left for university that the government permitted televisions inside people’s homes. “As a teenager, I knew apartheid was a terrible, inhumane policy. But the government allowed no television and censored all news, realizing that the truth would whip up a bloody revolution. We knew by osmosis that bad things were going on. We didn’t know specifics. No excuse really. And I was caught up in my own dramas.” 

Apartheid wasn’t the only the silent, and somewhat benign, at least for white people, backdrop behind Lynette’s early life. The real war raged inside her home. Three months after her parents divorced, her father died of an unexpected heart attack at age 39, leaving behind little money and an ex-wife who suffered from mental illness, including paranoid delusions. Lynette was only nine. She and her sister found themselves trapped inside their mother’s escalating nightmare. 

From Novelist by gate

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Living now in the place of her dreams

“Most of my childhood was about survival,” she says. “All I ever did was go to school, lapping up the praise, the one area of my life I could control, and I read a lot. Escaping into books was my way of saving myself from home life.” 

While institutionalized for a short period of time, Lynette’s mother received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), an experience that only intensified her paranoia. “Every time she got a new job (she was a shorthand typist), she thought her bosses were taping her or putting drugs in her tea,” Lynette says. “There was a painting on the wall that she decided was causing hallucinations. So she would confront her boss and of course be fired.” 

Her mother believed the government was conspiring with family members against her, so her family members were banished from her life. She believed her light fixtures were bugged and Lynette’s friends were brainwashed. 

As a result, her mother was unable to hold a job and ran up mountains of debt. “I still remember the horror of waking up in the morning and realizing she wasn’t getting ready for work, which meant she’d been fired again.”

Lynette flourished once she escaped her childhood home with its poverty and paranoia. She attended Rhodes University in the Cape, emerging with a first-class Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History, and earned a graduate degree in English Literature from Natal University.

What came of those dark years was a love of reading and an appreciation for logic. “I kept trying to reason with my mother,” she says. “To this day, when something’s illogical, I feel this physical reaction and a need to fight against it.”

Life lessons, writing lessons, and “Nature Lessons”

Difficult childhoods are good fodder for fiction. Sometimes, the best way to process an impossible experience is to invent new characters, modify events, and find emotional truths in fiction. Thirty-five years after her father’s death, after a zig-zag career in fields including sales, teaching, and finally public relations, Lynette found her voice and began telling the story only she could tell.

Nature Lessons was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2003, astonishing readers with its emotional depth, complexity and honesty. The novel evolved from a short story, “Suits, Spines and Spikes.” “Nature Lessons refers to the way this little girl protected herself from her mother’s barrage, much like animals do. You either run away or put out your spikes.” Those instincts, Lynette says, stay with you for a lifetime. 

From Novelist Nature Lessons

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“Nature Lessons” was published in 2003 by St. Martin’s Press

Although Nature Lessons is her one published novel to date, Lynette never lost her love of the written word. “I’m naturally a writer who writes from experience,” she says. “Other novels I’ve worked on lack the authenticity of Nature Lessons, which was based on my life. It wasn’t easy to write, but there was a lot of great material there.” She pauses and laughs, “As a few would-be novelists have noted with some envy!”

After fiction, Lynette turned her experienced pen onto ghostwriting and, of course, journalism. 

Stu News: A chance to have her way with words

In 2016, Lynette brought all those lessons with her to Stu News. She began as an Associate Editor and, when editor and co-owner Stu Saffer was hospitalized in 2017, she moved to Managing Editor. By 2018, burned out from the demands of producing several original stories a week and editing many more, plus interviewing people and attending events, she scaled back to become Features Editor.

The job allows her to showcase her many passions – animals, nature, and travel to name only a few. An avid cat lover, Lynette highlighted the wonderful work of the Blue Bell Foundation for Cats. She’s profiled a pig, a therapy cat, and a feline movie star. She took readers with her on an Alaskan cruise, Utah’s Red Mountain resort, and to Chile, as well as countless local adventures and stay-cations. She meditates often on trees and hiking trails. She even gave of her face for the sake of a story, writing about her experience at Laguna Beach Aesthetics.

“Lynette is the epitome of grace and determination,” says staff writer Samantha Washer. “These qualities don’t always coexist, especially in an editor, but she’s that rare person that manages to make everything look easy.”

What readers may appreciate most is Lynette’s fantastic sense of humor. A lover of the pun, Lynette’s wit and intelligence elevate every story. “When she wrote her first stories for Stu News, I was laughing,” says Contributing Editor Maggi Henrikson. “I love her writing style and the sense of humor that works its way in.”

Tough topics ignite intrigue

For all of Lynette’s humor and whimsy, the deeper and more fraught themes seem to pique her interest – hidden pain, secret shame, and life outside the mainstream. When asked about her favorite projects over the past few years, some difficult topics appear as common threads: aging, homelessness, misunderstood religions and discrimination against sexual orientation. Sometimes several of these subjects can blend together at once. 

She toured two Orange County mosques with Hoffy Tours to gain a greater understanding of Islam. “What is it about Islam,” some participants wanted to know, “that breeds terrorism? How do women feel about wearing the hijab? How can women snorkel while maintaining their modesty?” Lynette never skims the surface in her work. She dives beneath, seeking answers to hard questions and accessing the hearts that lie below the stories. In other words, Lynette is a writer’s writer.

She’s sat down with homeless men to hear about their lives and look for concrete solutions to many of their common problems. She’s tackled discrimination issues against the aging LGBTQ community. In several of her stories, Lynette looked at the isolation that comes with aging, and wrote about how LifeLong Laguna, Laguna Seniors’ program, can help.

“There are no words to properly acknowledge or thank Lynette for her contributions to Stu News Laguna these past two and a half years,” says Shaena Stabler, Owner, Publisher, and Editor of Stu News. “It has been such a privilege to work side-by-side with her, in the trenches together, to put Stu News out and to honor Stu’s memory every day with what we do. Our readership has grown over 30 percent in the last year. Lynette has been critical to our growth.”

Global perspectives on local life

Lynette’s curiosity about the world also compels her love of travel, specifically travel that incorporates wildlife. During her time at the University of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), working as a library assistant, Lynette and a friend hitchhiked to Victoria Falls, a roughly 450-mile journey they took in the center of a civil war, not to mention a lot of lions. 

In the years that followed, she’s made her way through Turkey, Borneo, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Tanzania, Greece, Mexico, New Zealand and Patagonia. She’s spent time with family and friends in Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and, of course, Africa. She’s been to countless countries, and several U.S. States. 

It gives her perspective, an appreciation for other cultures, and leaves her in awe of all the hidden treasures tucked around the world. She’s swum in the Pastaza River, a tributary of the Amazon, along with pink dolphins and piranha. She’s seen the boiling mud pond in Rotorua that looked like a thousand brown frogs jumping. And she’s watched a mother hippo defend her son from an adult male in Ngorogoro Crater. The world, it turns out, is full of infinite wonders.

From Novelist books and boot

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Even a travel writer needs a few travel guides.

For all that travel, Lynette loves calling Laguna Beach home. She moved here from Irvine in 2013, and still celebrates the day every year. 

What lies ahead

What does life look like when ten more hours suddenly open up in your day? Lynette’s not worried. She has an exciting travel schedule planned – Death Valley this December, and Costa Rica next year. She looks forward to freelancing for a few publications, maybe doing some PR here and there, as well as teaching a fiction workshop this fall through the City of Laguna Beach’s Literary Laureate program. Her feet (usually clad in tennis shoes or hiking boots) rarely stop moving.

“For Lynette, nothing seems to be out of the realm of possibility,” says Associate Editor Dianne Russell. “She jumps into each new endeavor with enthusiasm, savvy, and an incredible amount of talent.”

Lynette also looks forward to more time with her husband, Bill. Married now for 22 years with four children between them (two sons who are both professors, for Lynette, and two daughters for Bill), family life keeps them both busy.

From Novelist and Bill

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Lynette and Bill Brasfield in their Laguna Beach home

The circuitous journey continues

Life’s road rarely runs straight. From her time in South Africa, it would have been impossible to predict the future – a lost girl trapped beneath a mentally ill mother’s thumb in a country full of oppression. Who would imagine she’d emerge so successful? Looking back, maybe it feels inevitable. 

Whatever treasures the future holds, they will be endlessly interesting and wholly authentic. We at Stu News, and the greater Laguna community, wish you well on your next leap, Lynette. We can’t wait to hear the stories!

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Kai Bond: Junior lifeguard grows up to be Captain of Marine Safety


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Captain Kai Bond says, “I started my career at eight.” 

And that’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might imagine. Even at such a young age, Bond had already developed a special attachment to the sea. That’s when he enrolled in Laguna’s Junior Lifeguard Program. Fast forward to 2018, and he’s now Captain of Marine Safety and has been employed by the City for 23 years. 

Although Bond wasn’t born in Laguna, he grew up here, and the ocean has always played a major role in his life, so the journey from Junior Lifeguard to Captain of Marine Safety isn’t unexpected, but it took a while. 

Love for the ocean started as a child

From the time he was a small child, Bond and his family spent a lot of time at the beach. He and his dad surfed at San Onofre and, of that time, he says, “I loved the ocean environment. Everything about it was exciting and fun. And the ocean is in a constant state of change.”

Bond participated in the Junior Lifeguard Program every year (from 8) until he was 15. I ask if there’s anyone from those days still around?

“Mike Guest,” he says. “He’s worked here for 40 years. He’s still out in the field making things happen.”

Logical step from Junior Lifeguard to Lifeguard

Not surprisingly, after the Junior Lifeguard Program, Bond tried out for lifeguard. “I was very excited about it. It was the natural next step. I found I had a passion for public service, I like to interact with the public, and I understand the beach is a place you’re supposed to have fun, but be safe.”

He was hired as a full-time lifeguard in 1995, and in June of 2006, he became an officer with Marine Safety. In November of 2017, he was appointed Captain of Marine Safety.

Kai Bond closeup

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Bond became Captain of Marine Safety in November of 2017

However, while growing up, he couldn’t spend all of his time in the water. 

Bond attended Top of the World Elementary, Thurston Middle School, and Laguna Beach High School. Then he continued on at Orange Coast College and Long Beach State, where he earned a degree in Film and Electronic Medium Management, which turned into being a production assistant on films. 

This work translated into long days in Los Angeles, but he was still deeply entrenched in Laguna. 

“I was commuting from Orange County to work. I always had a connection to both jobs. I would work a few days up in LA, then come back and lifeguard. There was never really a clear-cut separation. But I realized happiness was in location.” 

Happiness is in location

Currently, he lives in Laguna Hills with his wife Tonya, and daughters, six-year-old Ruby and five-year-old Penny. He met his wife through mutual friends, and although he excels in interacting with the public, he says, “It took four to five years to get up the courage to ask her out.”

With his new position as Captain of Marine Safety, comes a tremendous amount of responsibility – public service and education, overseeing lifeguards, interaction with City staff, contact with community members and visitors – there are many plates to keep in the air, and his training as a production manager serves him well. Because isn’t that exactly what production managers do, make sure everything is running correctly, and I mean everything? And the challenges are increasing.

Kai Bond inside tower

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View from the lifeguard tower

“The number of beachgoers is up, there has been a significant increase. We had 6,000,000 visitors last year,” Bond says.

That’s a substantial number of people to keep an eye on.

He continues, “There are a lot of factors that contribute to beach attendance. Laguna is a beautiful place to be, it’s a year-round resort. With the continuous building in Irvine, residents want to drive down the 133 and put their feet in the sand. It’s easy and fairly inexpensive. And social media is another big factor, people posting pictures and commenting, ‘come down to the beach, it’s beautiful.’”

Emphasis on safety

Of course, an increase in visitor attendance means an increased emphasis on safety, and that’s uppermost on his mind. As Watch Commander, Bond handles all the daily operations, critical rescues, and major medical situations. He oversees a minimum staff of 60 people, although he says, “We can bring on a few more depending on the conditions.”

Training is critical

“There is a huge emphasis on training. We are putting lifeguards out there without immediate direct supervision, and they have to perform at a very high level. They could be anywhere from Main Beach to an isolated area with rocks and reefs.”

Bond explains that they are on a continuous vigil without letup, constantly executing the “z scan.”

He expands, “Lifeguards scan the coastline by looking from the horizon to the beach in a “z” formation. This occurs in their area between their neighboring towers. I believe it gives beachgoers a sense of comfort to see that type of vigilance from a lifeguard.”

Additionally, they have rigorous criteria that must be met. Current lifeguards must requalify every year in order to return. They must be able to swim 1,000 meters in under 20 minutes and have recertification in CPR and first aid.

Kai Bond lifeguard

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Lifeguards scan coastline from the horizon to the beach in a “z” formation

Bond says, “My first day as a lifeguard was the longest day. I was nervous and hypervigilant. I’ll never forget it. Scanning for eight hours a day for a 16-year-old is difficult, but it gets better with more experience. We train to a very high standard.”

In addition to his operational duties, Bond also must attend a fair amount of administrative and City Council meetings, and he works closely with the Fire Department and the Police Department.

“I’m lucky to be able to interact with the Police and Firefighters and the City personnel. The people I work with make this job great. We have a lot of outstanding people here in the community,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to be a part of this community and to work with our city. Growing up during the time I did was definitely a privilege. My goal was to be in the Marine Safety Department. I’m honored and proud to be at this point in my life.”

Facing daily challenges 

It’s clear Bond loves his job.

“I get to work with great like-minded people in public service and safety. I’m fortunate to wake up every morning and want to go to work. I see every day as a new and exciting challenge.” 

What is his biggest challenge?

Bond says, ”We have more and more people every day, and the number is going to increase. This year has been different than in years past. People are coming at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. at night, which is the time they would usually be going home, and the crowds are staying a lot longer.”

The summer is now not the only busy time of year. “Spring breaks are at different times now, so the spring break is longer. It feels like summertime all year round.”

However, dealing with the public must be frustrating at times to lifeguards.

Bond says, “They learn to be very patient and direct if needed. Everything we do, and all of our actions, are based on public safety. And it’s difficult for a beachgoer to argue against the safety of the public. Hopefully, they understand that safety and the interest of the public are the lifeguard’s focus, and that they go hand-in-hand. Usually 99 percent of the time, beachgoers are compliant.”

Kai Bond with car

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Summer all year long now in Laguna 

Bond spends a considerable amount of time educating the public, and as result, he’s been to all the schools in town. He lectures on beach safety, and the kids are able to come to the lifeguard station as well for more interaction. 

His sister, Brett Dick, is a first grade teacher at Top of the World. Bond says, “One of the wonderful things I get to do in the education portion of my job is giving back. I got to read Dr. Seuss to her class. I sat in the same classroom that I had been in when I went there. It was a full circle moment.”

Other things have come full circle as well. Does Bond still surf? The answer is yes, and now he’s sharing his love for the ocean with his girls.

Viewing safety from a parent’s perspective

“Now, with my daughters, the big thing is family beach day. At their ages, they’re getting acclimated and in a comfort zone. They’re certainly enjoying the warm days and water. They’re starting to body board. It’s fun to see their first experiences in the water.”

Even though safety has always been prominent in his mind, he says, “It’s different now that I have little girls, it heightens the importance of preventing accidents. Being a parent gives me a different perspective.” 

When asked what’s the best part of his job, Bond says, “I’m always drawn back here, knowing that this was a community and organization where I wanted to work. I really love this career. It’s challenging mentally, and I love the physical aspects, especially making a critical rescue with a good outcome. And I get an opportunity to train staff and see them execute critical rescues as well. That’s why we’re here.”

Given the number of people flocking to our beaches, ensuring their safety appears to be a Herculean task, but if anyone can do it, it’s Captain Bond and his staff of lifeguards. 

Without a doubt, the journey from Junior Lifeguard to Captain of Marine Safety took some time, but it appears as if Bond was destined for this position from his very first swim in Laguna waters.

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO -

Lana Johnson, Editor -

Tom Johnson, Publisher -

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Suzie Harrison and Theresa Keegan are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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