NewLeftHeader

clear sky

57.5°F

Laguna Beach


Robin Rounaghi: A passion for Laguna Beach schools

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

Robin Rounaghi, SchoolPower Executive Director

A family history in public education

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

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

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

An interest in education but a career in law 

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

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

A random act determines a home

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Materials used to increase SchoolPower’s outreach

Paid work resumes while the volunteer work continues

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

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

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

Adding to an already full plate 

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

A chance to make a change

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

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

Bringing people together through a common cause

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

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

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

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

And our schools are the better for it.


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

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

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

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

She is a multi-talented multi-tasker!

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Mike Altishin

Shaena Stabler

Shaena News Laguna 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

At “the office” and always on-line

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

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

Stay

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mike Altishin

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Performing live at the Blue water Festival

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

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

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

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

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

A difficult look back

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

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

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

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

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

Her mother continues to live in a locked mental facility.

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

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

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

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

Submitted photo

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Shaena with “Daddio”, at long last

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

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

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

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

Smartypants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping heart and mind open through music

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

Photo by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

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


Scott Brashier: Seeing Laguna’s beauty everywhere  

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

The accidental professional

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

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

A six-month vacation turns into mini-retirement

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

Photo by Scott Brashier

An invitation he could not refuse

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

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

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

The photographer’s eyes had been reawakened.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Technology helps reignite a passion

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Taking his craft to the next level

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

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

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


Chris Keller looks at life going forward in Laguna

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

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

Laguna’s business opportunities

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An ambitious paperboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up on the Roof

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

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

Life, learning, and family

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Alexis, Rocco, Chris, and Amy

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

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

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

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

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


Ruben Flores: Bringing new life to Laguna Nursery

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

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

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

An historic nursery needs saving

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

Social media, concerts and, of course, plants

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

An interest leads to a fast start for his business

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Smart business leads to civic involvement

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

A gift for revitalization

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

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

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

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


Scott Alan, living in the here and now

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Scott Alan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laguna Bound 

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

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Amber, Scott’s other half

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted photo

Click on photo for a larger image

 

The original Virgin of Guadalupe extra-terrestrial VW

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

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

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

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

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Scott and Amber with the Galactic Please Patrol car

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

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

Being an outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Faye Chapman: Making many people’s lives better

By SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by MARY HURLBUT

There is a passage in Faye Chapman’s book of photos, Faces of the Shadows: Life on the Street that says, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.”  To hear Chapman talk about the homeless, a cause that she is deeply committed to, is to understand how much she takes those words to heart -- and how much she wishes others would, as well.

Faye Chapman was homeless for a brief time, many years ago before she came to Laguna.  She didn’t think of herself as homeless, but technically she and her daughter were without a home of their own one summer and, therefore, “homeless.” Chapman sent her daughter to stay with her grandparents in Indiana while she slept on friends’ couches, worked two part time jobs, took photos for the local paper, sat on the Board of the American Heart Association and volunteered with the PTA. The volunteer work was required so she could get food from the local church.  

“That was a great program.  You felt like you earned your food instead of it just being a handout.”  Eventually, she saved the money she needed, her daughter returned for school and life resumed.  Her “homelessness” was over.

Talking to Chapman about this time in her life, one marvels at the stamina she needed to do what she did.  She says that when she thinks about it she’s a little surprised at what she was able to do, as well.  “How did I do all that?! Now I can’t seem to get anything done!” she says laughing. Hardly. While she may not be working three jobs anymore, Faye Chapman gets quite a lot done, especially for the projects she believes in.

A chance encounter’s surprising impact

It would be easy to assume her interest in homelessness was brought on by that summer so long ago. While that experience may have opened her up to the frailty of stability, it was not as significant as another event that happened years later.  She says that what started her down this path of working with the homeless was a chance encounter with a homeless woman who accidentally walked into a picture she was taking while at Venice Beach.  

At first, Chapman says she thought, “Oh shoot. She just ruined my shot.  But I took one picture.  And this woman was so drawn in, almost like she was hiding from the world.  Then she saw I was looking at her and her whole being changed.  It was like she was embarrassed…I got up and walked away.  But it started me thinking, ‘Why is this woman homeless?’ I started looking for her, but it was like she’d vanished. This is what started me on my journey.”

An interest turns into a cause

By then, Chapman and her daughter had moved to Laguna Beach and Chapman was working for the local paper, at the time run by Stu Saffer.  “I asked Stu if I could take pictures of the homeless.  He said, ‘OK.’  Every city I went to I wanted to find out about the people there. You can’t generalize.  Everyone has their own journey and story: medical bills, a divorce, mental illness, no family.  I found that most of the time these were good people who had bad things happen to them.”  She published her book of photos in 2007.  Getting to know their stories prompted Chapman to want to do something to help.

“It’s hard.  When you get to that level it’s really, really hard.  Your basic needs aren’t being met.  No shower.  No phone. How can you get a job? You need someone helping you and pulling you along.  If we don’t help them they will die on our streets.” 

So Chapman joined what was then the Laguna Beach Resource Center (now the Laguna Beach Food Pantry).  When Chapman joined the Resource Center they had three areas of focus: the homeless, the food pantry and disaster preparedness.  A few years ago, the group decided to focus solely on the food pantry so Chapman left to continue her focus on homelessness. 

The Hunger Bowl delivers necessities

“I was on the [city’s] Housing and Human Services Committee, still am, actually.  Six years ago I came up with the Hunger Bowl.  I get bowls donated from all over the world and they’re used as silent auction items.  I get restaurants to donate food; local kids make bowls that we give to every guest. It gives us the chance to go out and talk to the kids about homelessness, tell them to look them in the eye, be kind, don’t be afraid of them.  So it’s great that way, and it has turned into a very fun event,” explains Chapman.  

Last year the event raised $20,000 and she hopes to double that this year.  She’s still accepting bowls if anyone, artists in particular, would like to donate. Tickets are $45 for five tastes of soup, one dessert and a keepsake bowl made by students at LBHS, Woodbridge High School or Trabuco High School.  

“There is a Board that decides how to spend the money we raise.  Last year the money went to help paying for prescriptions, a huge need.”  She detailed how a new program, organized with the help of Dr. Tom Bent of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, provides $10 prescriptions at Laguna Drug.  “This is huge! I’m very excited about this program,” says Chapman.  The old process for getting prescriptions filled for homeless people, she explains, required them to navigate via public bus to Wal-Mart.  For a population already facing so many challenges, this extra complication meant that many did not get the medicine they needed.  Getting them access to medication close by is a small, but extremely meaningful improvement, for many of Laguna’s homeless.

National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week Month

A year prior to the Hunger Bowl Chapman says, “I asked the city to proclaim National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.  This year it’s for a month.”  There are several citywide projects to get involved in.  One is a food drive.  Last year’s food drive added 50,000 lbs. of food to the Food Pantry. 

“It brings in the whole community,” says Chapman.  There is also “Meal-less Monday” where we are all encouraged to go without lunch, buying someone in need lunch instead.  

With such dedication to improving the lives of others, it is not surprising that Chapman has recently created her own non-profit: Changing Souls.  She explains that the group’s mission is “to help the hungry, the homeless and the poor.  We are starting off slow, helping people on an individual basis.  We help get prescriptions filled, buy bus passes to help people see their families.  We are working with the Laguna Beach Networks Church and putting together a homeless work program where they can work for food gift cards. It will help give them a sense of pride and purpose.  It’s a little way of helping them have something to look forward to.  They love something to do.”

An original painting by a homeless person

 

“Treat homeless people as people.”

The same can be said of Faye Chapman.  She has a lot on her plate (or in her bowl), but it all seems to come back to the same starting point: compassion. Instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by the hugeness of an issue like homeless she focuses on what she can do to make people’s lives better -- here.  I asked her when we were done talking if she had anything she wanted to make sure got included in this piece.  What she said was not what I was expected, but I should have.  She thought for a moment and said, “Treat homeless people as people.  Be kind.”  These are words that Faye Chapman certainly lives by.


Siblings giving: Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Aaron and Shira had a plan about the money gifted to them at their B’nai Mitzvah.

They are brother and sister, and since they are so close in age they celebrated their coming-of-age in the Jewish faith jointly. 

Together, they were greater than the sum of the parts, as they both wanted to use the money, as well as their every available minute making a difference in the lives of Laguna’s most desperate and impoverished population. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Aaron and Shira Alcouloumre

Aaron, now 17, is a senior at Laguna Beach High School, and Shira, 16, is a junior. What they started four years ago has now blossomed into a philanthropic club at the high school called “Friends in Need”.

Giving a hand up

They started with helping the homeless. Ambitiously, they got Panera Bread’s acceptance, and began regularly picking up day-old and other gifts from the Panera restaurant in Aliso Viejo. They thought it would be great to bring it to Main Beach for the homeless people there.

The City didn’t agree. 

There was already the Alternative Sleeping Location in place in the canyon, and the idea was to keep meal donations centered there. On one of his return trips from the ASL, Aaron was moved by the sight of countless day laborers anxiously waiting in the sun for a car to drive up and offer them a day of work and wages. 

The Day Laborer site is perhaps a scary unknown to many residents of Laguna Beach. For many others it is also a source of competent, ready, and willing workers for a day of difficult tasks at fair or below normal wages.  

How could he pass by without a care? Answer: he couldn’t.

A site for opportunity

Aaron and Shira started to visit the day laborers. 

“They are hungry, tired, and standing in the dirt all day,” said Aaron. “They’re here in our community, but they live way below the poverty line.”

At first the men there were wary, but slowly they built a relationship of trust with the teenagers. “We treat them with dignity,” explained Aaron. “They’ve opened up to us, they’ve lived some incredible lives. 

“I trust all of them. They’re just great human beings.”

Beyond food, Aaron and Shira have stepped in to fill needs where they might not even be evident.

“One day a guy was there and we’d brought bagels,” said Shira. “But he couldn’t eat because his teeth hurt.” They brought a dentist to the site, and a hygienist to help educate the workers with proper dental care. “One day there was a guy with an eye infection,” Aaron chimed in. “His eye was swollen completely shut.” They brought him to Sleepy Hollow Urgent Care and paid for his care with their own money.

The gratitude bestowed on these kids is heart-warming. 

We joined Aaron and Shira at the site, workmen clamoring to get to the car as we pulled in. Once they knew we were there to talk about what Aaron and Shira are doing they were all smiles and handshakes.

“They are so great,” one said of the teens. Another showed us the best thing that they did to improve the dry and dusty site, where sometimes a hundred men will be sweating in the heat: a water fountain.

“I asked the guys, ‘What else do you need?’” said Aaron. “They just said ‘water’.” 

Instead of bringing in cases of wasteful plastic bottles, Aaron and Shira decided on a better plan; they’d get them a water fountain. Using their B’nai Mitzvah money, and what friends would help with donations, they raised the $3,000 for a permanent water fountain.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

On installation day, four years ago, the kids went across the street to Ganahl and got some shovels and supplies, then the workers did the work. “The guys installed it,” said Shira. “Everyone put their name in the cement.”

Meanwhile the teens fund-raised for more projects. 

They called on friends and family, and started the club at the high school to broaden their reach.

Friends in Need

The Friends in Need club doubles as Santa during the holiday season. They do a winter coat drive, and their Christmas project is to get all the day laborer names, their spouses and kids, and where they live. Then they raise money, go to Target to purchase gifts, and host wrapping parties at the high school. On Christmas Eve they’ve gone out and delivered presents to every single family.

It was quite shocking at first, to see the conditions in which many of the day laborers live. 

“We went one house to the next,” said Aaron. “We saw people living four families in an apartment, and living in garages. But we’ve always found everybody.”

They have also just installed a retractable awning at the Day Laborer site, to provide shade, or relief from rain. “The guys who get the jobs are the least wet,” said Shira. 

Also the guy who can speak English.

The biggest effort for the club these days is to provide the tools for learning English. Two years ago, the students got 40 vocabulary textbooks donated. They are kept in the little trailer on-site, but the workers can use them during the day, or purchase them at a nominal cost to share at home. The teens help teach and practice English with the workers.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

“We come out to the site on Saturdays,” explains Shira. “We usually have three or four people to teach.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

“This project is building relationships,” adds Aaron. “My mom had a contractor at the house, and he said, ‘I know your son. He taught me English!’”

There are now 65 students from the high school who have joined Friends in Need. Their long-term goals include a permanent bathroom at the site, a gutter for the trailer building so rain doesn’t come in, and one day to have a classroom building.

Besides that

And then there are the other things that lie in the hearts of these two caring and compassionate teens. They are both deeply committed to the arts.

Shira began dancing when she was a little girl, with Miss Linda’s Castle, and Kyne Dance Academy. She’s now in the LBHS varsity dance program daily, with a seventh period enrollment in a second dance class. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Aaron is musically gifted all around, playing piccolo, piano, guitar, and ukulele. But that’s all trumped by the trumpet. He’s earned All State, and All Southern auditions, and he plays the trumpet with the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra. His college plans include music, but he’d like to go for a pre-med major. He’d like to be an ER doc, like his dad. 

We doubt there’s any stopping these two heartfelt, high-achievers.


Ricky Figueroa: Respecting the night shift

BY SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Everyone should have the pleasure of meeting Ricky Figueroa.   Why? Because it never hurts to meet someone who genuinely cares about others.  It also never hurts to meet someone who can teach you something you didn’t think you needed to learn. So, while it may be a difficult prospect to schedule lunch with a man who works from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. (longer on weekends) six days a week, if the opportunity should present itself – jump on it.

For the last five years, Ricky Figueroa has worked the night shift at the Stop-N-Go in north Laguna.  Prior to that he worked at the Mobil station downtown for four years, also the night shift. So he’s certainly adapted to those long, late night and early morning hours.  “I like the night.  Everybody is happy to be off school or off work, plus after 10 it gets very quiet.  I feel safe,” he explains.

Ricky Figueroa 

Finding an after hours community

The fact that he prefers working at night is not what made such an impression on me (although, it does seem incredibly challenging for a non-night owl like myself).  What affected me so profoundly was the true enjoyment he derives from his job.  As he explains it, “When I’m working it’s when I feel like I’m home.  It’s more of a social life.  Friends come in and visit.  People come by after work.  I can help people if they need something.  I feel very blessed.”   The Mobil station did not provide quite the same experience.  It didn’t have the sense of community the Stop-n-Go does.  And after listening to Figueroa discuss the people, particularly the kids, who frequent the store it is obvious how important community is to him.

Getting his first job when he was about 12, Figueroa worked at a relative’s construction site in his hometown of Puebla, near Mexico City.  He decided he liked working, liked having money in his pocket to buy candy and things.  When he went to college he was still working, this time at a nightclub in Tijuana.  “I didn’t finish college.  I was working too much.  My job was from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and my first class was at 7.  I realized I’m not learning anything,” he says with a laugh.  A friend convinced him to move to Chicago.  Once he got to the States, however, they lost contact so he ended up living with his cousins in Laguna Hills.  A quick stay in St. George, Utah installing air conditioning units ended and “I was supposed to go back to Mexico with my 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Ricky Figueroa with some of his North Laguna “peeps”

family, but my cousin asked me to stay.  I found a job so I did.”  His first job in Laguna was at the Inn at Laguna, then he moved right across Coast Hwy to the Mobil station.  “I love Laguna Beach. There is such a good spirit here.”  

When I ask him how many times he has actually been to the beach he laughs again, “Only about six times.”  It’s not surprising considering his hours, plus he works another job part-time buying and selling computer parts online.  That doesn’t leave a lot of time for beach going.

Paying it forward at Stop-n-Go

Figueroa’s boss, the owner of Stop-n-Go is “really nice,” according to Figueroa, allowing him and his co-workers to eat free of charge while on duty, for example.  It’s a little thing, but to Figueroa it’s a sign of respect and trust from his boss.  He says none of the guys who work there would dream of taking advantage of their boss’ generosity because they appreciate the gesture.  Plus it sets a kind of precedent.  The owner is generous, he allows his workers to be generous (short a few cents at the register? Not a problem), and frequently customers tell the guys who work there to “keep the change.” 

The store is its own tiny microcosm of paying it forward.  The idea of treating others how you would like to be treated is an important one to Figueroa and one he takes very seriously.

The Stop-n-Go in north Laguna, 1390 N. Coast Highway

Trust and respect build relationships

“My parents trusted me when I was a kid. When you trust a kid they feel it and give it back to you. I give my mom and dad a lot of thanks.  They let me do what I want because they trusted me,” he explains.  This philosophy is something Ricky puts into practice everyday at work.  He sees the people who come in as more than customers. And most of his regular customers see him as more than the guy who rings up their order.  It is with a fair amount of pride that Ricky tells me how customers he has seen grown up will come in to Stop-n-Go to buy their first beer on their 21st birthday, not because they really want a beer, but because they are so happy to show him their ID.  But the ID better be real.  

Figueroa has a pretty good idea of how old his customers really are, plus he very likely knows their parents, and will give the parents a head’s up if he thinks it’s necessary. After a few of his tales of thwarted teen purchases, I felt compelled to whip out my phone, show him a photo of my two teenagers (whom he recognized) and grill him as to their purchases and general behavior.  I must say I feel better knowing he’s there, keeping an eye on things.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Ricky Figueroa behind the counter with a smile

A clerk becomes a hero

“I think he likes how I treat him with respect. It’s important to hear what kids say.  Being a child is not easy, for me either, “ says Figueroa with a laugh. “I had someone behind me showing me the way.  That is something all kids need.”  The “he” Ricky is referring to is a boy named Monty.  According to Figueroa, Monty was a frequent Stop-n-Go customer and the two built up a friendship.  When he was about 14 Monty told Figueroa that he needed to choose a hero for a class project.  He chose Figueroa. 

“The other day when I was a little down I remembered that and it picked me up.  That was nice.  I also had one of the kids ask me how much I make to work here. I just laughed and he told me that when ‘I get big I’m going to buy this store and give it to you.’ These are things that make you feel good.  I feel blessed.” And he really does.  

That’s why the chance to chat with Ricky Figueroa should not be squandered.  Gratitude. Trust. Respect. These words carry a lot of weight with him and when you talk to him it’s easy to feel like maybe they should carry a little more weight with you.  There’s feeling these things and there’s living by these things. I thought I was the former until I met Figueroa.  That’s where I learned my lesson.  If I use Figueroa as my standard, I’ve got some room for improvement.  So, if you’re driving by and you need a bag of ice or you’re craving some chips, stop in.  

I’m pretty sure you will get more than you thought you needed.


Creighton Wall knows, it’s character that counts

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Everyone says he’s a character, and sure enough, the first time I see Creighton Wall he is actually in character: Captain America.

“I love superheroes,” he says, and that’s an understatement. “I like to make people smile.”

Arriving on the beach

Creighton and his brother Spencer grew up in Nebraska, and they were always close. So when Spencer moved and started a life in Laguna, Creighton seized every opportunity to come out and visit, along with their parents. 

Back in the flatlands of Nebraska, Creighton was something of a big fish in a small pond. Just about everyone knew everyone, but especially so in the community of individuals with Down Syndrome. 

They would get together socially, often for movies, their bowling club, and regional events like the Special Olympics. 

Creighton was also known around town by his bright red VW. He would drive to his custodial job at the YMCA. 

It took him five years, but he was very determined to learn to drive, Spencer told us. “He’s a very slow, careful driver. He’s cautious, and really good.” 

“But, it’s too busy here. Too dangerous,” chimes in Creighton. He lives along Coast Highway now, and has seen his fair share of dangers. “I see people cross the street - not at a crosswalk. And ambulances. I’m not going to drive here.”

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Brothers, Spencer and Creighton Wall

That’s a relatively easy trade-off for the life of independence he’s found at Glennwood House. 

Creighton moved here six months ago to make his home at Glennwood, within a caring and safe community, where the sun shines, and people say hello. “I love it here. I don’t have to shovel snow! I love the staff, I love the food,” he says. “But not chicken salad.” 

He’s not a fan of chicken salad. 

“My buddy Carter,” he continues, “we’re the ‘dynamic duo’ of Glennwood.” They share a love of movies.

It’s an independent life no one in his family might have imagined for Creighton. Now even his parents have been smitten with Laguna, and recently bought a home here. “It’s everything I ever dreamed of,” adds his brother, Spencer.

It started with a bang

Creighton loved the beach and when he’d come for visits, he’d swim out to the buoy off Main Beach. He would meet people, and make sure they’d smile. He’d make knotted bracelets and sell them on the sidewalk during Art Walk. And he always loved Disneyland. 

“California is my wonderland,” he says.

One day Creighton’s brother gave him a birthday dream come true. He took him to L.A., to a live taping of his favorite TV show, The Big Bang Theory. “It’s my addiction,” said Creighton. “I have a life-size cutout of Sheldon Cooper in my room!” 

They had cupcakes and he even got to meet the whole cast. “They love comics, and I’m getting into them,” he said. “Because I like superheroes!” 

Creighton is perfecting his superhero persona with different costumes, and appearances on Main Beach. He’s going to be Batman for Halloween. As he knows, “It’s fun. It makes people happy.”

Books and more books

While Creighton was growing up in Nebraska, he reached that particular age and point of realization that he couldn’t eat everything he wanted. It was a tough lesson, because he has a special fondness for Cheetos and other non-healthy snacks, but his weight was climbing and he didn’t feel good about it.

 As part of the plan, he documented his journey in fitness and weight-loss in his own book, I Used to be Down, but Now I Love My Life.

He wraps up the book, stating: “The reason why I wrote this book is to share the success story of my health. I like to tell people my new way of how to look at life and how precious it is. Live on my brothers and sisters. I wrote this book for you, too. …I love my life. I want you to love it too. A healthy body is a good body. Please take care of it people. God gives us one body, treat it well.”

Now he adheres to a one-bag-of-Cheetos-a-week plan.

“I want to get my book made into a movie!” Creighton offers up, hopefully.

 His love of writing and reading also includes a huge love of libraries. He spends all his free time hanging out at libraries. “I like the Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel, and Dana Point libraries …it’s peaceful,” he says. “I don’t like negativity and stress. I’m a positive person.” 

Enthusiastically, next he plans to write a book about recycling.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Heavy lifting and sorting: Creighton is passionate about recycling

Creighton looks at life in terms of what he can do, which is a lot, what he wants to do which is even more, and what is most important: spreading happiness. 

It’s fun at the YMCA

On the road to fitness, Creighton did a lot of swimming and working out at the YMCA, in Nebraska. He enjoyed it so much there, that he started volunteering. And he was so good at it, and so dedicated, that they hired him on for custodial work. He worked from 5:00 a.m. till noon every day. He’s proud to say that he was named “Employee of the Year”.

He’s hoping for a similar path since discovering the Laguna Niguel YMCA. 

“Jimmy works at the front desk at the Y, and gives tours,” said Creighton. “We’re buddies. I told him I’d mention him. He’s a great guy. Jimmy, like Jimmy Olsen with Superman!” 

Jimmy is happy for Creighton’s friendship, and for his volunteerism. He takes the bus there at least twice a week, and helps out at the facility, also with their custodial duties. “It’s my stress reliever. But I won’t do toilets,” Creighton said, laughing. 

He likes to swim and hopes to be in the Special Olympics again. “I’m big on competing a lot,” he says. “I got that from my dad.” 

We look forward to following his progress in the Special Olympics, in all the sports he likes: swimming, boxing, weight lifting, and bowling.

A worldwide family

The Wall family has joined with the National Down Syndrome Congress every summer, an event that brings them all over the country to raise awareness, and foster friendships. 

The annual convention attracts thousands of people from around the globe. As the NDSC website states, “For most, it’s to hear the latest information from world-renowned experts. For others, it’s a great vacation. But, for nearly all there’s that one-of-a-kind NDSC family reunion feeling that permeates the convention weekend.” 

Creighton’s family has been enjoying the event almost every year of his life.

“There are about 200 Down Syndrome kids in our hotel, the Congress refers to as ‘self advocates’,” Spencer explains. “They share their strengths and skills, and have fun. Every summer it’s like a reunion.” 

Creighton has become close with a girl from Atlanta through this event, and they continue their friendship via Facebook. “I want to get her to move here too,” he says.

Awareness Month

Spencer Wall has a tight bond with his brother and, by association, a special commitment to the Down Syndrome community. He brought Stu News together with Creighton, in honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, this month. We couldn’t have been happier to get to know this charming young man, and share his story at this special time. 

Click on photo for a larger image

 

Creighton Wall

Spencer started working in Laguna, and even met his future wife through a connection to the Down Syndrome community as well. When they met, she was a nanny for a family in Laguna with a Down Syndrome child.

 Spencer is not only Creighton’s brother, he’s his biggest fan - and the feeling is mutual. 

 “I want to be more like my brother,” says Creighton. “But I’m not getting married.”

Meanwhile, Spencer is married, and has a son he named for Creighton. It’s his middle name: Samuel.

Creighton is close to his brother and sister-in-law, and is the proud uncle of their son, Sam. Along with his sister’s children, Creighton has even more bragging rights. “I am an uncle to three beautiful kids,” he says, beaming.

Thanks to Spencer’s good friend, Chris Keller, himself a father to a Down Syndrome child, Creighton has also found a new purpose; he is downright passionate for recycling. 

He goes to Keller’s Rooftop restaurant often with other Glennwood residents every Thursday to sort their recyclables. Then on Fridays, they take them in to the recycling center in Dana Point.

Click on photo for a larger image

 

He’s a “regular” at The Rooftop restaurant. Regularly helping out!

Creighton has made new friends with his same high level of abilities at Glennwood, and has been embraced by Laguna as he gives back to the community.

And his brother appreciates him in ways he may not even know. “Creighton tells it like it is,” said Spencer. “If I have learned anything from my younger brother it is to be real with yourself and others.” 

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

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

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

We all love Laguna and we love what we do.

Email: Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com for questions about advertising

949.315.0259

Email: Editor@StuNewsLaguna.com with news releases, letters, etc.

949.315.0259

© 2019 Stu News Laguna - All Rights Reserved.