From providing essential supplies to spreading joy through music, Laguna Beach residents have come together to support one another during the coronavirus pandemic.
By Justine Amodeo
While COVID-19 health guidelines change weekly, unemployment is at an all-time high and requirements for getting back to business are often a source of confusion, residents of all ages in Laguna Beach have stepped up to help the community get through this pandemic with generosity, creativity and ingenuity. From delivering and supplying groceries to awarding mini-grants, teachers honoring high school seniors with drive-by cap and gown distribution and others supplying face masks to first responders, Laguna residents have been opening their hearts and pocketbooks to those in need.
In late April, a Laguna COVID-19 Relief Fund was launched by a group of local business owners and community volunteers focused on creating instant financial relief for local residents. At press time, it had raised $440,000.
The fund, created in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach and the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, has made money available to individuals for rent, food, medical bills and other basic needs with an emphasis on those in the restaurant, hospitality, retail, arts and personal service industries.
Emergency assistance mini-grants—in the form of Visa gift cards each worth up to $1,000—have been awarded to 805 people, according to fund co-chair and local resident Bob Mister, who says applicants have ranged from restaurant workers to hotel personnel, dog walkers, day laborers and artists. In mid-June, the Wayne Peterson Foundation Fund offered to match the next $25,000 raised; applications were accepted through the end of June.
“In early April, I was sitting around wondering what I could do to help the restaurant and personal service and hotel workers and retail clerks who have been laid off. Many of them are not eligible for government aid, especially part-time workers, and they need something today,” Mister says. “And Laguna Beach artists have been particularly hard hit, as many summer art festivals have been canceled or delayed. Some of these festival artists have been there for decades and depend on summer trade for their livelihood for the entire year.”
Laguna Beach artists Robert and Marita Holton depend on sales and marketing from the Sawdust Art Festival for 50% of their annual income. Robert has exhibited his pop art at the Sawdust festival for six years, and his wife, Marita, has shown her crowns and tiaras for three years and has had most of her wedding business canceled due to the pandemic. Robert was relieved when he saw a sign on the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach publicizing the fund. “I’ve never asked for assistance before, and that fund was a godsend,” he says. “It’s so great that the local community rallied together to help mankind.”
Eventually, Sawdust organizers announced a scaled-down event, an Outdoor Marketplace, will take place on weekends—Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays—from July 17-Sept. 6 with more than 100 artists rotating through nearly 50 spaces throughout the summer.
Although they may not make as much money as during a full festival season, the Holtons are pleased with the decision. “Marita and I are looking forward to this summer’s rebranding of the Sawdust Festival into the Sawdust Marketplace,” Robert says. “We are hoping the rescheduled dates and times with more personalized visits to the Sawdust will help make up for the lost income.”
Leading up to summer, there have been several months of lost income for many people. One of the first recipients of a grant from the Laguna COVID-19 Relief Fund was Laguna Beach resident Roberto Gutierrez, a father of two who has worked at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in town for 16 years as a server. When the pandemic hit, his hours were reduced to two days a week, three hours a day. “I was one of the lucky ones, because I’ve been there for so long. At least I was able to keep my insurance,” he says. But bills were piling up and he was starting to panic. Then he saw a story about the fund in a local newspaper and applied immediately.
“I got the application and sent it in the same day, hoping for the best. I was surprised to get a call back a few days later telling me I … [had] been approved for the grant. I was so excited.” Gutierrez says he felt a wave of relief when that financial burden was lifted off of him. “This is a great town to live in,” he adds. “I really appreciate what the community has done. I have friends who have received help as well. I hope they realize how grateful we are.”
Mister adds that “the response from our community has been overwhelming.”
Face Mask Philanthropy
Early on in the pandemic, frontline workers in Laguna were supplied with medical-grade masks by local real estate agent Marcus Skenderian of Compass, who, in mid-March, was approached by a client with access to a large number of KN95 masks and asked for help coordinating and distributing them to first responders, municipal workers and essential merchants. Through the generosity of Skenderian’s clients and family friends Eric Kramer and Lisa Griffin, 10,000 masks were delivered within four weeks.
Recipients of masks included Laguna Beach city employees, the Friendship Shelter, Laguna Beach Community Clinic, Mission Hospital Laguna Beach, Hoag Family Medicine on Ocean Avenue, Laguna Family Health Center, Caduceus Medical Group, The Mail Stop, The UPS Store and others. Mayor Bob Whalen, City Manager John Pietig and Fire Chief Michael Garcia assisted with the masks’ distribution.
“When I called the community clinic and told the woman on the phone what I was wanting to do, there was a long pause, followed by some tears,” Skenderian says. “Their supplies were running low and they were making do with what they had.
“There is much coronavirus-related tragedy occurring daily, yet there are also blessings and lessons to be learned,” he continues. “By the time we finished, there was a surplus of donations. We met the cost—a little over $25,000—nobody lost money.”
Wanting to ensure a dearth of masks never happens again in Laguna Beach, resident Nicholas Coda founded facemasks4all.org in an effort to build a stockpile of face coverings. His goal is to raise $275,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to make 24,000 reusable, adjustable cotton masks from ethically sourced cotton for all Laguna residents, including children. “Having a stockpile of face masks means we will not need to worry about shortages during a second wave of COVID-19, or any other future pandemics for that matter,” Coda says. “If we want to keep the beaches open, and open the town back up for business, then we need to demonstrate responsibility. We are all going to need face masks.”
The plan is to employ at least 44 out-of-work residents with fair wages and performance-based bonuses. “The goal is to build a reserve and stockpile and then switch gears and manufacture retail masks after the initial 24,000,” he says. “I know, as an artist myself, there are a lot of people who can pick up sewing. Putting a mask together is not the hardest thing in the world.”
Filling the Shelves
Masks weren’t the only things in low supply. Lindsay Smith, chef and owner of Nirvana Grille, had noticed the grocery shelves were practically empty in the beginning of the pandemic, so she put out a message on Facebook telling the community that if people were having trouble getting certain items, she was happy to help by starting a co-op at the restaurant. “I was flooded with 250 messages and 2,000 people shared it. A lot of people wanted to get on the list,” she says. Smith got to work speaking to her vendors about what was available, and with her assistant, set up an online store on Shopify, which was live within a few days.
While originally fulfilling orders in 24 hours, they are now able to prepare them for same-day pickup if ordered by 2 p.m. “Popular items have been yeast, flour, blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, baby romaine lettuce, broccolini, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, avocado, canned beans, fresh pastas, 2% milk, eggs, our meats such as 12 chicken breasts, rack of lamb, filets, crabcakes, grass-fed meatballs, salmon, … swordfish and prawns,” Smith says. Staples such as toilet paper, paper towels, handmade masks from Tight Assets, bleach powder for cleaning and Nirvana’s own handmade sanitizer are also available. Even though the restaurant has reopened, curbside pickup remains with three designated parking spots, and a whole station with refrigeration and to-go orders. “We’ll keep the co-op as long as there is a need,” Smith says.
The need appears to be great. Laguna-based senior outreach program Sally’s Fund has delivered hundreds of bags of food from the Laguna Food Pantry to the community’s most vulnerable seniors. According to Laguna Food Pantry Executive Director Anne Belyea, pantry volunteers have not only been working with Sally’s Fund to deliver food to seniors, but also with the Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver food to military vets.
“Without a doubt, there is more of a need now,” she says. “Up to 220 people come [to the pantry] in a 2 ½-hour period; we were averaging 100 to 120 before the outbreak, but because people who were already struggling are out of work, sheltering in place and afraid to go out and grocery shop, we have a lot more in need.”
Since the pandemic began, the food pantry has been distributing dry, pre-bagged and pre-boxed goods in the parking lot in a drive-through system so customers don’t need to get out of their cars. “Just recently, we started a new program with farmers from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program through the USDA who are working to provide magnificent produce, not rescued items,” Belyea says. Rescued food means items from grocery stores that are overstocked, aren’t selling well or are nearing their expiration dates.
Lending a Hand
It can be difficult to gather food and supplies when you don’t feel comfortable leaving your home. Such is the case for senior citizens and those with compromised immune systems, who are at greater risk of contracting coronavirus. In addition to efforts by Sally’s Fund, a group of Laguna Beach High School seniors started a group called Helping Hands to deliver groceries and meals and run errands for elderly residents quarantined at home. Led by Grace Houlahan and Brooks Hogenauer, the group has been picking up and delivering groceries and prescriptions, among other errands, for those in need.
“My girlfriend, Grace, and I were thinking that it has to be scary for older citizens to go out,” Hogenauer says. “Supermarkets were creating time for them to go on their own, but we felt that because we were not doing much as [high school] seniors, why not help?” So, the couple sent out a flyer and recruited five or six of their friends. “We … got a good response back,” he says. “One man didn’t feel comfortable hiring a person to help with gardening, so I helped with that, and we’ve done a bunch of grocery runs for families. We will continue as long as we get calls. I don’t see any reason to end. We are there to help them.”
Playing it Forward
Aside from keeping people fed and protected, creative community members found ways to entertain and lift each other up during the stay-at-home order.
Laguna Beach is a musical town, which, pre-pandemic, had live music available every night of the week at bars and restaurants. Believing in the power of music to bring people together, Craig McKessar sent a note to neighbors in Bluebird Canyon telling them to step outside May 16 to listen to a jazz performance by professional saxophone player Henry Alexander, who was invited by McKessar and his wife to play in their backyard for all to hear. With more than 20 years of experience, Alexander shared his talents, playing both traditional and modern jazz that echoed through the canyon as residents sat on decks sipping wine and hooting and howling.
“It’s a tough, horrible time,” McKessar says. “We’ve lived in Bluebird Canyon [for] 20 years and there are a lot of cool, nice people that live here and are crammed in their homes,” he says. “They can’t listen to live music and everyone is isolated. Musicians aren’t working. So we hired Henry and, honestly, we didn’t know how cool it was going to be.
“We handed out flyers to neighbors to do something fun and social distance and made sure our neighbors were OK with it and we got messages during and prior giving us immense thanks—way more than I could have expected. People were sending videos of what they were hearing through the trees with the sound coming through the canyon. I was so happy to see and hear videos from above and below us. It was really rewarding.”
Due to the overwhelming support for the event, McKessar formed a Bluebird Music in the Canyon Team and sent a message to neighbors informing them that on May 30, canyon residents Steve and TuRae Fazio would host musicians at their home for another event—this one dedicated to the Laguna Beach High School graduates of 2020. From 5-7 p.m., performers from The Trip and 90s Rockshow bands serenaded the canyon.
“With this generous offer, Bluebird Canyon neighbors can continue experiencing live music in the canyon,” McKessar says. “The goal is to ‘play it forward’ to support professional musicians during these challenging times.”
A private Facebook page, Bluebird Music in the Canyon, was created to post pictures, share ideas and view a calendar in case others wish to donate live music.
While the quarantine has been a difficult time for everyone, graduating high school and college students, especially, suffered a loss when their final year was cut short: Spring sports seasons, senior prom and graduation in the Irvine Bowl are once-in-a-lifetime experiences that can never be replaced.
Laguna Beach High School Principal Jason Allemann, the father of a senior at Dana Hills High School, says the pandemic has been challenging both personally and professionally. “We all know that aside from a traditional graduation ceremony, everything falls short,” he says. “But we have done some super nice consolations.”
In late May, more than 40 LBHS staff members voluntarily showed their support by holding up signs for a drive-by cap and gown pickup for the 250 senior class members who drove up and down the hill on Park Avenue. “The leadership team was handing them out in the district parking lot,” Allemann says. In addition, all seniors who played spring sports or were members of the dance and theater departments and had their seasons or productions interrupted have been honored with posters of their likeness on banners hanging at the tennis courts on Park Avenue.
And, on May 26, as requested by Allemann, the Laguna Beach City Council passed a proclamation stating that from June 1-11, at 8:20 p.m., businesses and residents should turn their porch lights on for a minimum of 20 minutes to “recognize the Laguna Beach High School senior class of 2020” and designating the date of June 11, 2020, “as the official day of the Laguna Beach High School Senior Class of 2020.”
Regarding graduation, on June 11, there was a drive-through ceremony where diplomas were handed out to seniors on the high school athletic field, “followed by a virtual graduation with speeches streamed [online] later that evening,” Allemann says. “… Maybe, if allowed, later in July we will have an in-person celebration.”
Also, in conjunction with SchoolPower, a nonprofit education foundation, placards were delivered to every senior (and sixth and eighth grader) congratulating them on their graduations. Another group prepared and handed out inspiration bags for seniors with a letter from Congressman Harley Rouda (CA-48) and some goodies, he says.
Distance learning for the rest of the high school “has been a steep learning curve for students and teachers,” Allemann says, “but it’s been going well compared to surrounding districts. The level of commitment the teachers and staff have to the students has been pretty impressive. Their work ethic during this challenging time has been really helpful.”
On the 2020 article: In typical Laguna fashion, when quarantine kept everyone isolated during the pandemic, the community rallied together to help each other and lift one another up, from making masks to delivering groceries. It’s heart-warming stories like this that capture how giving this town truly is.