From music to teaching, local teens are using their special skills to make Laguna—and the world—a better place.
By Sally Eastwood
Today’s kids are busy: Between school, homework, sports, music and many other activities, they (and their parents) are constantly on the go. And yet, many of them are carving out time to fit in even more—seeking out opportunities to get involved with the community, give back and support others, both within Laguna Beach and far beyond.
Their talents range from art to photography, music, teaching and more, but these standout kids and teens share a common passion for what they do, and a sense of humility about their gifted abilities. Here are several young Lagunans who are truly making a difference.
Fourteen-year-old twins Kyle and Benjamin Sharp have been making music together since the age of 5. Nowadays, however, the up-and-coming musicians perform as The Sharp Brothers, with Kyle on guitar and Benjamin on piano and vocals. Growing up in Austin, Texas, they listened to and played tunes by The Eagles and Sheryl Crow. “Now, we do more Maroon 5, OneRepublic and Jason Mraz,” Benjamin says.
The clean-cut duo, who moved to Laguna with their family in 2009, have played at the Sawdust Art Festival and Hennessey’s Tavern, and are regulars at Irvine Spectrum Center. “We’ve played there about 45 times,” Kyle says. These regular appearances have gained the brothers a following among teenage girls, affectionately nicknamed “Sharpies.” “They are great, supportive fans, and it’s enabled the boys to play bigger venues,” mom Carla says.
Kyle and Benjamin also give back by performing at fundraisers, including the Rock Gala For Hope in 2013, which raised money for families in the Philippines, and Children’s Hospital of Orange County’s Día del Niño (Children’s Day) celebration in April this year.
The duo is especially looking forward to a December concert at Mariners Church in Irvine to celebrate the return of soldiers from Afghanistan. “We’ll be playing for the soldiers and their families, and there will be around a thousand people there,” Benjamin says.
Amid these charity gigs, the Sharps’ music has been gaining recognition. Their first original song—“California Ain’t That Far”—won Best Teen Folk Song and Best Teen Folk Artist awards at the 2013 Indie Music Channel Awards, and they just released an EP with five original songs. Even with their success, the brothers remain grounded teens who also enjoy sports like basketball, tennis and golf. “We’re just regular kids and we like to do regular stuff,” Kyle says. So what does the future hold for these talented twins? Kyle jumps straight in: “I’d love to tour.” Benjamin considers the question thoughtfully, and then responds: “I’d like to continue our music as long as we can still go to school.” As Kyle says, “We just have to see what happens.” And, no doubt, Laguna residents will be watching to see just how far these two go.
As all parents know, kids go through growth spurts, meaning clothes and shoes that fit perfectly well last week are suddenly unusable. Such was the case for 17-year-old Laguna Beach High School student Ethan Schlatter.
“During freshman year, I had 10 pairs of shoes that were too small, so I Googled charities to see what I could do with them,” Ethan says. Initially, he looked at sending the shoes to the American Red Cross, but the shipping costs were too high. Then he came across a nonprofit called Donate Your Old Shoes, started by a family in San Diego, where he could drop off the shoes. The organization collects shoes to send to the needy in Central America and Africa.
At that point, the light bulb went off and Ethan realized he could collect even more shoes, so he started spreading the word. “I put up fliers at school, sent emails and ‘harassed’ my friends with multiple text messages,” he says.
His parents, who are lawyers, also got in on the act, sending out memos to their colleagues, and Ethan eventually ended up with around 550 pairs of shoes that he patiently bagged in individual pairs, loaded into the back seat of his car and drove down to San Diego. “The family waits until there are enough shoes to fill a large container and that gets shipped wherever it’s needed,” Ethan explains.
This busy teen makes giving back a priority, even with his other activities—he’s a pianist and an actor, having starred in Laguna Beach High School’s productions of “Grease” and “The Sound of Music.” In July of this year, he drove down to San Diego again, his car packed to the brim with footwear. “This time more people knew about it and there was more publicity at school, as well as at my parents’ law firms,” Ethan says. “… It’s always interesting to see how many pairs of shoes people have. We got three large bags from just one person.”
Indeed. Maybe it’s time to rummage through those closets for sneakers, sandals and other shoes that are collecting dust and could make a difference for someone in need.
While everyday household items such as shampoo and soap may not seem important to us, Niva Razin understands that for some people, they mean more than just clean hair or skin—they’re a luxury.
She first began collecting toiletries for the homeless through the Laguna Relief and Resource Center as part of the PAL (Peer Assistance Leadership) program at Thurston Middle School. Then, she went a step further and contacted local hotels such as Montage Laguna Beach and Surf & Sand Resort to request donations of leftover shampoo, conditioner and soap.
“They had an existing program to send their toiletries to Africa, and when I asked if we could use them here, they said ‘yes,’ ” adds Niva, 13. When gathering items for the resource center, she was surprised by the request for socks. “It’s amazing that people can feel more human just by having cloth on their feet,” she says. “It’s such an easy thing to pick up a pair of socks when you’re shopping.”
Her other altruistic endeavors include donating her hair for Locks of Love, and putting her photography skills to good use. Niva’s love of photography started during a family vacation to France when she was in sixth grade. When Niva printed out her photos, her mom suggested that she sell them at the artists’ boutique organized by the Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach. Niva decided she would donate proceeds to the Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA tests to help exonerate wrongly convicted people, a cause that resonates with her. “Just to know that people are going to be executed for a crime they didn’t commit, and you can prevent that, is so important,” Niva says.
She also enjoys sewing, baking and playing guitar, and tries to make a difference whenever she can.
Her advice to others who want to get involved? “Just Google causes you’re interested in,” she suggests. “And if you call to ask if you can do something and people say ‘no,’ keep trying because eventually someone will say ‘yes.’ ”
The Alcouloumre siblings—Aaron, 16, and Shira, 15—have been active in the Laguna Beach community since embarking on a service project as part of their b’nai mitzvah in 2009. This Jewish “coming-of-age” tradition set them on a journey that started with collecting day-old bread to distribute to the homeless, with overflow being given to workers at the day labor site in Laguna Canyon.
This started an ongoing relationship with the day laborers, who soon got to know the teens through their efforts to assist with dental and medical care, building a water fountain at the site, and buying Christmas presents for their families who rarely received such “luxuries.” “These people live only 20 minutes away, yet we don’t know anything about their living conditions,” Shira says.
Aaron and Shira’s philanthropy led to their current project: teaching English to the day laborers to help them get more jobs. While the hiring process uses a number system—designed to be equitable—in practice, the Alcouloumres noticed that workers with better English were always picked, whereas those with poor grasp of the language were left behind.
“We worked with the city and bought English/Spanish books that are really easy to use,” Aaron explains. Three mornings a week in summer 2013, the sister-and-brother team went to the day labor site. “It was a little awkward at first, but we just sat down and one or two guys came over,” Shira says. “After two to three weeks, three tables were set up with people chiming in to answer questions.”
Workers are now taking books home to teach their kids English and are hired more often. Aaron and Shira volunteered at the site again this summer, and encourage others to get involved through their Laguna Friends in Need page on Facebook.
Aaron, also an accomplished trumpeter, recently was recognized by the Pacific Symphony for his community service efforts. It may be the first public recognition these siblings have received, but it certainly won’t be the last.
At only 8 years old, Sydney Ford of Laguna Beach is already flexing her philanthropic muscles.
Last year, while a first-grader at Top of the World Elementary School, Sydney entered an art contest at the Boys & Girls Club with a picture of sea horses. The judges were impressed and asked Sydney to submit her drawing to the Laguna Beach County Water District’s annual Roll Out the Rain Barrel competition, which promotes the use of rain barrels under gutter spouts to catch rainwater that would otherwise be lost down storm drains.
To her delight, Sydney was chosen as a finalist. “I had to draw all the sea horses and the bubbles on the barrel first,” she explains. “I kept looking at my picture to see if I got them all right.”
Sydney’s barrel was then put on display at Laguna Beach City Hall, along with the other finalists’ painted rain barrels, and she was awarded a certificate for her thoughtful efforts in making Laguna not only a more sustainable community but also capturing its artistic essence.
While Sydney has proven quite successful with her artistic endeavors, her talents don’t stop there. She also participates in ZeroTrash Laguna each month with her older sister and mother to help keep the community clean.
When asked her favorite school subject, she confidently replies, “Math.” And what does she like to paint right now? “Pandas,” she says with a smile. “They’re my favorite animals.”