Laguna Beach Magazine presents its annual showcase of forward-thinking locals whose imagination, positivity and generosity are shaping the community’s future.
By Bria Balliet, Linda Domingo, Tess Eyrich, Ashley Ryan and Alli Tong
The winds of change are blowing through Laguna Beach, inspired by the innovation of a diverse class of homegrown locals and transplants alike. Though Laguna has always been progressive, the city has undeniably reached new heights in recent years due to the work of a dedicated group of people who’ve catalyzed the area’s multidimensional growth.
They are advocates, crusaders, teachers, inventors and, most importantly, friends. From conservationists and creatives to culinary masterminds, this year’s crop of influential Lagunans is affecting all aspects of life in this community for the better. Best of all, they’ve got no plans to stop or slow down, motivating the rest of us to follow suit in the hopes of turning what’s already a great place to live into an unparalleled paradise.
Based on your nominations, though the list is by no means inclusive, here are your top 10 change-makers who are shaping this community.
What he’s known for: Roger is a professional musician and responsible for jazzing up Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School as a part-time music teacher at both institutions. In August 2013, he was named a California All-Star Teacher, an honor that recognizes efforts to promote student success, innovate in the classroom, build relationships with parents and staff and foster a sense of community. He earned the award after being nominated by two of his students.
Lesser-known fact: He’s addicted to stand-up comedy, and his favorite comedians include Louis C.K., Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jim Gaffigan. He admits to attempting to bring that humor into the classroom: “I try to be funny as much as possible,” he says. “My students can tell you that I’m failing at it.”
One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: “I think Laguna is a gem,” Roger says, struggling to find anything he’d alter. “I wish more places were like Laguna. It’s a fantastic place.”
Something he’d like to see change in his profession: Since his high school days, Roger says, the opportunities to both hear and play live music have become more of a rarity. “When you play live music—it could be at a restaurant or a coffee shop, or in a 2,000-seat concert hall—people just appreciate it and respond to it,” he says. “We used to play gigs all the time at coffeehouses and little diners, stuff like that. … [Those opportunities] seem to be gone, or at least dried up a little bit. I think that would be something I’d love to see come back.”
Plans for the future: Roger hopes to expose his students to more musical experiences that transcend the classroom. In 2009, the jazz orchestra took a trip to Orlando to compete in the Disney Jazz Fest, where the group won first place in its division, among other honors. “I’d like to do more trips like that,” Roger says. “I’d also like to bring in more guest artists to play with the band so that the students can learn from the masters.”
What she’s known for: The director of animal care at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) began her tenure at the nonprofit 23 years ago as a weekend volunteer during a stint working at Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters. Since then, she’s graduated from volunteer to supervisor to director, all the while overseeing the expansion of the PMMC’s facilities and programs. This year alone, the PMMC has assisted in the rescue and rehabilitation of 374 marine mammals in distress. “I think saving every life we can is a huge accomplishment,” she says. “We take great pride in that.”
Lesser-known fact: “I love to decorate with the seasons and the holidays,” she says. “And, I can’t go a day without my Starbucks green iced tea. I’ve got to have it every morning.”
One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “I’d like to continue to see more collaboration between various nonprofit organizations and community groups,” she comments. “We have such a great resource of services here in Laguna, and it would be wonderful to see even more of an impact with groups banding together and forming more partnerships.”
Meanwhile, PMMC founder John Cunningham adds, “I would hope that [Laguna] can retain its uniqueness. It’s something you can’t verbalize, sort of a feeling that you have when you visit.”
Something she’d like to see change in her profession: “Members of the public need to be better stewards of the ocean, and that would make our profession as rehabbers a little bit easier.”
Plans for the future: “[I’d like] to continue to inspire ocean stewards through the children that come to our facility,” she says. “And, hopefully, to collaborate with like-minded organizations.”
What he’s known for: In 1976, Tex Haines co-founded Victoria Skimboards, a company that has since become the premier name in skimboarding, hosting both its own pro team and an internationally attended annual competition. When he isn’t busy with the company, Tex spends his time fighting to keep the beaches of Laguna clean and urging others to do the same. “I’d like Laguna to be known as the cleanest little beach town in California,” he says.
Lesser-known fact: Tex has always wanted to be a veterinarian, and even has a degree in biology from Stanford University. “I have a big fascination for the study of life,” he explains.
One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: Above all, Tex would like to see his town kept clean. “I would like to see the city hand out trash-pickers,” he says. “We have to improve the city mentality about trash.” He encourages everyone to take responsibility for their city by partnering with groups like ZeroTrash for monthly beach cleanups. “It’s up to us,” he adds, noting that blaming the issue on tourists won’t solve the problem. “It’s actually the locals who do more littering than the tourists from what I see.”
Something he’d like to see change in his profession: “More than anything else, I would like to see the professionals form an association independent of the manufacturers,” he remarks. “I think that’s where we’re really missing it.” Tex believes that such an organization is necessary for skimboarding to continue to bring in more outside sponsors and grow as an industry.
Plans for the future: Tex would like to start easing his way into a more leisurely lifestyle and focus on his mission of helping to save Laguna’s beaches. “There are two schools of thought,” he continues. “One is that you stop working, and you go downhill and fall off the edge really [quickly]. But if you keep working, you kind of keep your youth. And I have to find some balance there.”
The Martial Arts Master
What he’s known for: The co-owner and head taekwondo instructor at Cho’s Academy comes from a family of professional martial artists, beginning with his father, Grandmaster Hee II Cho. In 2009, Jacob opened his own facility to continue the tradition of providing quality martial arts training to children. “It’s a victory every time I help a weak kid grow strong, a shy kid grow confident, a wild child to develop control and focus, an outcast to find a home and, for those passionate about martial arts, a lifetime pursuit,” he says.
Lesser-known fact: “My life includes a little more than just the academy,” he remarks. “Having a balanced life is important and keeps me happy. In addition to taekwondo, I really enjoy yoga, jiujitsu, weight training, surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and guitar.”
One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: “I’d like to make sure we don’t overdevelop,” he notes. “Laguna has a unique natural beauty and history, so it would be nice to have this preserved. It would be great to see small businesses thrive and the spirit of local entrepreneurs supported.”
Something he’d like to see change in his profession: “I don’t pay too close attention to the ‘industry,’ ” he admits. “The martial arts are much more than a business to me.” However, he adds, “I do have issue with dollars taking priority over integrity. The title of ‘master’ or ‘expert’ should come with commensurate experience and certification[s] should be earned [and] not bought. … A martial art is empty without integrity.”
Plans for the future: “In the coming months, our taekwondo competition team will represent Laguna Beach again, sparring at the 21st California Open International Tae Kwon Do Championship … [and] our third annual youth awards and banquet will be taking place to recognize top students for their exceptional efforts and achievements,” he says, noting that the ceremony will include, as it has in the past, awards for academic accomplishments. “It takes discipline and steady efforts to learn and achieve in school. … It is important for me to support and encourage academic achievement.
“Another project I’m very excited about is our youth outreach initiative,” he adds. “The initiative … is designed to educate academy youth students about our responsibility to give back. … For me, the future starts with personal accountability. The better I am, the better my students are.”
What he’s known for: The local entrepreneur is the owner of Madison Square & Garden Cafe as well as a community activist. “I hold a lot of charitable events here,” Jon says of the distinctive cafe, which overflows with flowers and other plants, decorative art and pottery. Earlier this year, he hosted the Assistance League of Laguna Beach’s Friend Raiser, a charitable event that attracted an impressive 300 attendees. “I underwrote the entire event,” he says. “You’d think I had given everybody a bar of gold. They were so thankful and kind and appreciative—it just touched my heart.”
Lesser-known fact: “This is my fourth career,” Jon says. Prior to opening the cafe, he worked as a genetics professor, a landscape architect and an attorney.
One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: “I think I’d like to see more people contribute to the city—people having more open minds, working together, looking for the positive in everything,” he remarks.
Something he’d like to see change in his profession: “I think giving people better wages,” he says, noting that he can’t imagine paying his employees minimum wage and revealing he even pays the premiums for his staff’s health care.
Plans for the future: “Staying alive,” he jokes. “My plans are keeping the property up as though it was yesterday when I opened [it]. I only want one facility. I see myself just improving it, making it better and providing a niche here in Laguna for regular people. I think it’s important to have a place in town where you can go and feel welcome.”
Jon adds that he might consider running for a local political office. “I think a town without progress is a dead town,” he says. “We, the people of Laguna, should determine our progress.”
The Truth Seeker
What she’s known for: Andrea is the editor-in-chief of the Laguna Beach Independent newspaper, where she works to cover the local stories that are most representative of Laguna’s community. “I try really hard to cultivate news stories that are not government driven,” she says. “People inherently make a lot of news on their own, and those are inherently more engaging stories because they’re about your neighbors—they’re about your friends.” She even hires local residents as staffers to act as her eyes and ears in the field.
Lesser-known fact: “I took up paddleboarding a year or so ago,” Andrea says. She also admits to having a slight fear of the water when the surf is particularly high.
One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “I don’t have a wish list for that,” she admits. “I’m not an advocate, you know? There are crusading editors, but I’m not one of them.”
Something she’d like to see change in her profession: Andrea would like to see quality of content, rather than quantity, return to the forefront of journalism. “I think the industry made a pretty big error in … following the trend of other content providers in allowing their content to be used online for free,” she explains. “I’m resentful of the amount of effort people expect us to put into the Web for something that they don’t pay for. … The extra demand for tweets, for blogs, for posts—it’s time consuming. … That is not what matters. What matters is for me to go out and generate a story.”
Plans for the future: “My husband is 63, so he wants to retire in a few years, and I think I’d like to be able to retire when he does,” she adds. “I think that’s the honest truth. Whether that happens or not, I don’t know.”
What he’s known for: Craig joined Montage Laguna Beach as executive chef of Studio in June 2009 and was one of the driving forces behind bringing Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation event, aimed to combat childhood hunger in Orange County, to the resort. In addition, Craig has aided in the realization of the resort’s on-site vegetable and herb garden.
Lesser-known fact: The chef describes himself as open to almost all food, and isn’t above quick, cheap bites. “If I’m in New York, I want to eat food from street vendors,” he says. “When I’m in Hong Kong, I’m eating in noodle shops that have questionable food handling practices. But that’s part of why you’re there, and it’s fun.”
One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: Craig was stumped when asked what he’d like to see change about his city. He lives five minutes from work and the ocean, and his neighbors are all good friends. “I’ve never felt such a sense of community,” he says.
Something he’d like to see change in his profession: When diners can’t make their reservations, Craig says, he’d appreciate a quick call of cancellation. “I understand … life gets in the way,” he says. “Just let us know so that we can take care of other people.”
Plans for the future: Craig has his eyes on an unreachable goal, he explains, especially in the culinary world, where developments and trends keep chefs on their toes. “I’m really proud of what we’re doing here at Studio, but there’s always more you can do,” he says. “That’s what gets you excited to go back to work the next day. … You need to keep pushing to stay on the cutting edge. I don’t think we’re ever going to obtain it. It will always be just a little bit outside my reach.”
What she’s known for: After 30 years of performing as a principal dancer, including at the Joffrey Ballet, Jodie sought a new adventure. In 2005, after recognizing the lack of professional dance performances in Laguna Beach, she founded the Laguna Dance Festival. Jodie was also named vice dean and director of USC’s new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance in August.
Lesser-known fact: “I love spending Sunday afternoons at the beach,” Jodie says. “Whether walking on the sand, looking at the water or sipping a glass of pinot noir and reading The New York Times on the terrace, I need this weekly ritual.”
One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “I’m always surprised that people in the community don’t know about [the festival],” she says. “We’re more than just a dance gig in town. … If I had a dream, it would be to build the audience in the next five years tenfold.”
Something she’d like to see change in her profession: “I hope that in my lifetime we can see the importance of what the dance profession can bring to our lives. … I hope to continue to [raise] awareness of the organization.”
Plans for the future: On her new role as vice dean and director of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance: “It only makes sense that I involve [my dance majors and get them involved] in the festival, whether it be gallery events or potential choreographers for various projects. … Since I’m directing both programs, I feel like there’s going to be some sort of marriage.
“Reinvent who you are because you have the tools,” Jodie adds. “Also, don’t be afraid to dream, and dream big.”
VALERIE VAN CLEAVE
The Ocean Advocate
What she’s known for: The 20-year Laguna Beach resident is the co-founder, along with Julie Hill, of the annual SeaChange gala (now in its sixth year) in Laguna Beach, which attracts hundreds of ocean conservationists and celebrities. The fundraiser benefits Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization. This year, the event raised more than $900,000 for ocean conservation and, over the past six years, has raised $6 million.
Lesser-known fact: “Secret Cove [by Table Rock Beach is probably my favorite beach in Laguna]. That’s what I call it. There’s oftentimes no people, and I like the rock formations,” Valarie says. “I’m [also] pretty much a golf-a-holic.”
One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “I think that … [we] could be more mindful of the runoff situation, really. I think that has profound consequences. … What’s happening offshore may look like a calm, beautiful ocean, but there [are] commercial practices that need to be fine-tuned,” she says. “But I think Laguna Beach has made great leaps forward. Just banning the plastic bag … that has a direct impact on the ocean.”
Something she’d like to see change in her profession: “I’d like to see more people get involved, and I think sometimes people think, ‘There’s nothing I can do to help,’ but I would really encourage people to get involved with an organization. [Oceana] is strictly a nonprofit organization … so I’d love to see our organization and other ocean conservation organizations better funded.”
Plans for the future: “Locally, we’re really continuing wonderful work that’s been done on establishing rain-protected areas … and continuing that and policy work to address what’s happening offshore here and to build public awareness in Orange County,” Valarie says. “ … Those are really the key things to reverse the downward spiral. … It’s a labor of love, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t feel that Oceana was being as effective as they are … both here and [in] California and around the world.”
To learn more about Valarie’s cause, visit oceana.org.
What he’s known for: His life-size murals are recognized the world over, but marine artist Wyland remains incredibly accomplished at blending his passion for art with his passion for ocean conservation. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Wyland Galleries as well as the 20th anniversary of the Wyland Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and protecting the ocean and its inhabitants.
Lesser-known fact: “I’ve never had a job,” he jokes. “This isn’t really a job—it’s more like a hobby that got out of control.” The artist also owns a 49-year-old pet turtle he adopted from an animal rescue about 10 years ago. “The shelter named him Wyland, so I call him Junior,” he explains.
One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: “Laguna is probably the most beautiful small town on earth. … It needs to stay exactly like it is,” he says. However, he does note that one positive change he has witnessed recently is the increased effort to protect local oceans, “not just from Laguna, but all of California.”
Something he’d like to see change in his profession: It’s hardly a surprise that protecting art education is a cause very close to Wyland’s heart. “The idea that anybody … thinks it’s OK to take art out of our schools and deny our kids the opportunity to have a full education doesn’t make any sense,” he says. He hopes that his upcoming documentary, “Saving Art Education in America,” will convince others of the severity of the issue.
Plans for the future: Finishing 100 life-size murals in 27 years seems like an exhausting task, but Wyland has no plans to slow down. “Now, I’m planning to do 100 monumental sculptures in 100 cities in the world in the next 25 years,” he continues, noting that 10 of the sculptures will be underwater. “I’m thinking really big.”