Considering the community’s modest size, the number of trailblazers in Laguna Beach is staggering. The town is home to numerous exceptional individuals whose passions inspire them to improve local life. Their varied endeavors are changing diverse aspects of the city, from the culinary offerings to the coastal scene, and while their efforts are ongoing, many have made a marked impact in the last year.
While this list is by no means inclusive, on the following pages we present 2015’s top influencers based on your nominations. From encouraging philanthropy to protecting the environment, we bring you the activists, educators, leaders and more, who are taking our already progressive town to new heights.
The Philanthropy Matchmaker
Day Job: Executive Director of Laguna Beach Community Foundation
Reason for nomination: Within a year after Dan joined the Laguna Beach Community Foundation (LBCF) as its executive director in spring 2014, the organization doubled its funds under management compared to the previous year. While it’s a considerable achievement for the foundation, even more important is the significance for the community: LBCF essentially plays “matchmaker,” connecting donors to local nonprofits that exemplify their philanthropic passions. The number of fund holders increased by more than 30 percent within the same timeframe.
The foundation also set a record in January, when it announced an agreement to manage a $1.1 million endowment and reserve funds for the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach—the largest such agreement in LBCF’s history.
Much of the recent success can be attributed to Dan’s efforts to make it easier for philanthropists to donate. For example, LBCF’s website was revamped and now includes the DonorCentral portal, which gives fund holders 24/7 access to their accounts.
But of all of this year’s accomplishments, he is most excited about the Professional Council toolkit, released in October. This document serves as a resource for the professional community that supports people in their financial planning, helping them understand legacy giving and put together strategic philanthropic plans, among other efforts to give back. “It’s really a way for us to broaden our horizons,” Dan says.
“… We’re really looking forward to now working and meeting with all of the different [professional] individuals in our community to tell them how much more we can support philanthropy in Laguna Beach.”
The City Protector
Day job: Chief of the Laguna Beach Police Department
Reason for nomination: As the first woman to lead the department and reportedly the first openly gay police chief in Orange County, Laura is paving the way for more diversity in local law enforcement and is making strides in community policing—building connections with businesses and residents on a regular basis, rather than just responding when a crime occurs. Community members are invited periodically to chat and ask questions at Coffee with a Cop events. “So they feel they have a voice in their police department and they’re represented here and we understand what their needs are,” Laura says.
Since stepping into the agency’s top job in March, she’s most proud of instituting a downtown foot beat on Thursday through Saturday nights to help deal with rowdy bargoers. The department also started an educational campaign in which officers periodically visit restaurants and bars to remind patrons not to drink and drive, and hand out gift cards donated by Uber for a ride home.
Laura worked up from patrol officer to deputy chief at Long Beach Police Department before taking the helm in Laguna Beach. As for the diversity records she has set here, Laura says she would rather be evaluated based on her skills, but it does help to create a comfort level for minorities to join the department. “We’re better when we’re blended,” she says.
“… If we all sit at the table and see it the same way, we’re never going to move forward. It’s our varying perspectives and experiences that move us forward.”
The Music Educator
Day Job: Director of Education for Laguna Beach Live
Reason for nomination: Sara leads Live Music & Kids, bringing music to children at the local Boys & Girls Club and public schools. She joined the program in 2013, shortly after Laguna Beach Live established it, and under her direction it has grown from a monthly concert at the Boys & Girls Club to a variety of weekly activities, primarily for kids from kindergarten to fifth grade. In addition to coordinating diverse professional music performances and instrument “show and tell” events presented by high school students, she teaches the children about music through an assortment of engaging classes, from a discussion on what makes tunes “scary” (just in time for Halloween) to a combination of art and melodies. “A lot of these kids may not otherwise have any exposure to live music or musicians in any other way,” she says. This year, the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach honored Live Music & Kids with the Program Partner Award.
Live Music & Kids expanded to public schools in 2013. Sara, a trained violinist, joins the string instrument classes each week at Thurston Middle School, providing personalized guidance on things like proper technique, from holding a violin to bowing, tuning and more. “The thing about strings is they’re really one of the hardest instruments to learn to play well,” she says. “I just love watching the kids grow from being barely able to read music to learning to play at a high level.” Sara will soon extend Live Music & Kids to El Morro and Top of the World elementary schools, and she hopes to work more with the high school eventually. “Music is something that everybody can do at some level,” she says. “… It brings so much pleasure and joy.”
The Arts Education Leader
Day Job: President of Laguna College of Art & Design (LCAD)
Reason for nomination: This year marks Jonathan’s 35th anniversary with LCAD, a legacy that has seen the launch of an animation major and Master of Fine Art in painting, as well as the initiation of student housing and purchase of East Campus. “It always has felt like it’s been two-and-a-half years; it’s never felt like 35,” he says. Since Jonathan was initially hired to chair the drawing and painting major, LCAD has evolved from a small art school to a dually accredited undergraduate and graduate degree college focused on numerous mediums including drawing, painting, sculpture, digital media, game art and feature animation.
His milestone at the campus was celebrated with the creation of the Jonathan Burke Endowed Presidential Scholarship and a dinner party; at Jonathan’s request, all the funds raised from the event, totaling approximately $50,000, went to the scholarship fund.
“The most gratifying accomplishment is actually the alums,” says Jonathan, who has also overseen the development of a pre-college program for gifted high school students. “It comes back to how we prepare students for a sustainable creative career, because that’s the goal. It’s not that I did this or that. It’s that everyone is focused on … [making their four years] productive [and] meaningful. We provide the resources and curriculum, and we challenge and open their minds and hearts to tremendous possibilities so they can continue as artists and prosper and achieve success.”
The Festival Facade Pioneer
Day Job: President of the Board of Directors at Festival of Arts
Reason for nomination: Fred was responsible for leading the Festival of Arts’ board, staff, architects and community in the creation of the new facade and entryway, which debuted this year. While it improved the experience for attendees during festival season, the more than $3.5 million makeover also adds to the community’s artistic appearance year-round. “It’s the first step in the beautification of the village entrance,” says Fred, whose 10-year tenure on the board of directors includes the past five as president. “For too long, … the entrance from the north to Laguna Beach has not lived up to what the city is.”
For his efforts, Fred received the Arts Leadership award at Laguna Beach Alliance for the Arts’ Art Star Awards in April. The facade design also received recognition—before construction even began: Newport Beach-based Bauer Architects, the firm behind the new look, won an award of merit from the American Institute of Architects’ Orange County Chapter for its thoughtful innovation.
“What was designed was not merely a fence,” Fred says. “The rammed earth wall … far exceeded my expectations both for its functionality and the beauty and the striations and the artistic way that [it] was put together. It looks natural and really does reflect the canyon setting. … Secondly, the welcoming entrance: We opened it up, we’ve repositioned it, so now you’re oriented to the center of the grounds. It’s wide, it’s inviting; it pulls you in.”
The Environmental Champion
Day Job: Founder of The Eco-Warrior Foundation and former professional surfer
Reason for nomination: Almost 20 years ago, James developed a potentially fatal skin infection after teaching a surfing lesson in water that turned out to be polluted. That experience changed his perspective on the ocean and he became involved in environmental activism around the globe, but his focus shifted when a fan asked what he was doing about this own backyard.
James transitioned his Eco-Warrior Project, started in 2006, to The Eco-Warrior Foundation, which became a nonprofit in 2014 and aims to protect and preserve oceans, beaches and waterways through education and local beach clean-ups. “[It’s] an old-fashioned approach: boots on the ground, getting our hands dirty,” James says. “I’m like a glamorized trash man and I’m good with that.” In November, James organized a trash collection at Aliso Creek and nearby waterways with OC Parks and other partners in a proactive effort to keep litter from reaching the ocean. His work will go global in January, when he travels to Morocco to lead a beach clean-up and establish an Adopt-a-Beach program there.
James’ ongoing efforts were recognized in May when he was named a finalist for California’s Cox Conserves Heroes award and Orange County’s winner, receiving $5,000 for his foundation, and he was also featured in The My Hero Project’s recent “Laguna Beach Eco Heroes” documentary.
Now developing educational handouts, James plans to increase his public speaking at schools in hopes of passing the torch to younger generations. “There’s got to be a point in one’s life where you have to stop caring and you have to start acting,” James says. “… And if we all do our part, we’re going to enjoy a better world.”
The Veteran Restaurateur
Day Job: Owner of Mozambique and Skyloft
Reason for nomination: This year marks Ivan Spiers’ tenth of bringing unique cuisine to Laguna Beach through Mozambique, his restaurant on South Coast Highway known for South African-inspired dishes and live music. “We’ve added flavors that nobody else [in town] has ever served and we’ve tried to make people understand what they are—the flavors that I grew up with, from the samoosas to the peri peris to the curries from Africa, which are totally different from what you’d find in Indian curries,” he says.
Ivan says that Mozambique had a tough beginning and then struggled again during the recession in 2008 and 2009. But he made a series of improvements, including the addition of diverse dining atmospheres, and today it’s a favorite spot for locals and tourists alike. “With a name like Mozambique, at first people didn’t know what we were. … But now they come in for all of the foods that they’ve learned to love,” he says. In January, the restaurant was named Business of the Year during the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Spirit of Laguna Awards.
In addition to celebrating Mozambique’s anniversary this year, Ivan opened a new restaurant—Skyloft—in November, introducing another flavor that’s been missing from the local culinary scene: Texas-style barbecue. “We [are] totally different from anybody else downtown,” he says of the eatery. “Barbecue is a learning process. … The pit was built in Texas, and it has to cook at such a low temperature … that’s the art.”
The Community Promoter
Day job: Manager at Main Street Bar & Cabaret
Reason for nomination: When Craig offered to revamp the website for Laguna’s only remaining gay bar, the owners quickly invited him to run the place. For nearly a year, he has worked tirelessly to revive the South Coast Highway establishment, upgrading the space, entertainment lineup and branding.
Craig, who brings 30 years of hospitality industry experience to the job, understood the challenge ahead but could also envision the possibilities. “I am gay and I knew that it was the last bastion of gay culture in southern Orange County. … I didn’t want to see it go away,” he says. Since taking over in February, Craig has breathed new life into the joint.
“Our mantra has become bringing the gay back to Laguna,” he says. The town once was home to gay bars like the Boom Boom Room, Little Shrimp and Woody’s. Main Street Bar & Cabaret was known simply as Main Street Bar in the 1970s and, more recently, Club Bounce. Now, what Craig calls “gay culture 2.0” is flourishing with a packed schedule of cabaret shows with singers dressed in drag, karaoke, bingo games, go-go boys and disc jockeys playing dance music. And Main Street was selected to host the final party of OC Pride Week, a summer celebration of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Craig aims to create an inclusive environment and entertainment option for both gay and straight locals and visitors. “My hope is that this really becomes a vibrant, thriving component of the community,” he says.
Shira & Aaron Alcouloumre
The Young Activists
Day Job: Founders of Laguna Friends in Need
Reason for nomination: For six years, these siblings have assisted migrant workers at the Laguna Day Worker Center in the canyon, offering weekly English classes and providing meals, clothing, medical care and holiday presents since establishing Laguna Friends in Need. “[The workers have] gotten better jobs, they’re more confident with the English language and it’s kind of giving them a more comfortable place in society, which has been my favorite part,” Shira says.
The effort began as an offshoot of a service project for Aaron and Shira’s b’nai mitzvah, a Jewish “coming of age” tradition. Their organization has raised more than $20,000 in cash and in-kind donations to build a shade cover, install a drinking fountain and make other improvements to the workers’ waiting area.
Aaron is now a freshman at Colorado College and Shira is a senior at Laguna Beach High School. She plans to dedicate much of a $36,000 scholarship from the Helen Diller Family Foundation to further assist the workers; Aaron and Shira want to bring a classroom building to the site, but it’s not allowed under current zoning, so they’re weighing the options. Through a club on campus, Shira hopes her classmates will keep the effort going once she leaves for college next year, though she and her brother plan to remain as involved as they can.
Sue & Bill Gross
The Health Care Patrons
Day Job: Sue is president of the Gross Family Foundation; Bill is a portfolio manager at Janus Capital Group and the co-founder of PIMCO
Reason for nomination: Local philanthropists Sue and Bill Gross donated $10 million to Mission Hospital Laguna Beach in December; in honor of the gift, the emergency department was renamed The Sue and Bill Gross Emergency Department. As the only one with 24/7 access in close proximity to the town, it plays a crucial role in providing immediate medical care to the community, serving an average of 12,000 patients each year.
The money allowed the hospital to initiate a plan that includes a variety of improvements. It will fund new imaging technology, including a portable X-ray machine, portable C-arm and open MRI, which will improve patient comfort and convenience, treatment efficiency and encourage optimal healing. The mobile equipment is essential, as it can be taken directly to patients’ bedsides when they are too fragile to be moved. In addition to the technology advancements, the donation will support a reconfiguration of the department to accommodate higher volumes of patients and the creation of individual treatment areas, increasing the amount of functional space and ensuring privacy for those receiving care.
The facility, previously South Coast Medical Center, joined the Mission Hospital network in 2009. This gift brings Mission Hospital even closer to completing a $200 million donation campaign focused on growth in technology, advanced programs and services, nursing training and more.
—Written by Katherine Duncan, Kristin Lee Jensen and Sharon Stello | Photos by Jody Tiongco