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Coffee, Cash and Kindness for Laguna's Slide Victims

A breakfast fundraiser at a park near the slide site produces $25,000. The city's churches and merchants are also providing aid.

June 05, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Their homes may not be rebuilt for months, if ever, but people devastated by Laguna Beach's landslide tried Saturday to restore their spirits over cinnamon rolls and cafe au lait.

At a breakfast fundraiser in Bluebird Park, near the foot of Wednesday morning's canyon slide that destroyed, damaged or imperiled 48 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 300 others, hundreds gathered to commiserate and offer aid.

Diane Stevens, whose Flamingo Road home cracked in half, wasn't able to walk five steps without someone approaching to offer a hug and a place to stay.

Strangers have given Stevens $100 checks after learning her plight, she said. Classmates of her 14-year-old daughter have lent the teen clothes, telling her they didn't want their friend "to look like a landslide victim."

Stevens herself has poked through offerings at a local church, rejoicing when she found a pair of pants her size.

Recalling when she used to scavenge at thrift stores in high school "for fun," the 48-year-old Irvine Co. marketing executive sighed. "None of us are used to handouts," she said.

Stevens, who had been out of town on a business trip, saw her damaged house for the first time Friday afternoon when she was escorted in by fire officials so she could pick up essentials.

Her son's breakfast pretzel was still in the toaster. An open bag of potato chips sat on the counter, ready to be packed in the kids' lunches. The family's Siamese fighting fish, Swimmie, circled in his bowl. "We've renamed him Survivor," Stevens said.

Businesses throughout the city have joined in the relief effort.

Restaurants donated meals, hotels offered free rooms and clothing stores distributed sweatshirts and shoes. Two churches have filled rooms with donated clothing, and checks have been trickling in to City Hall. No decision has been made about how the aid will be distributed.

The Gas Co. said service has been restored to nearly all of the area's 281 habitable homes.

At the park breakfast, which raised about $25,000, Brian Barwick and fellow Boy Scouts flipped pancakes.

"I wanted to get involved because this is our community," said Brian, 15, who mobilized the Scouts. "Our best friends are homeless now."

Another teen eager to help was Jackson Christy, 13. Jackson and his father, Mark, designed T-shirts to raise funds for the slide victims. Mark Christy, who owns the local Hobie clothing store, had already offered two free items of clothing to each evacuee.

The front of the T-shirt had a picture of a bluebird and read, "And Bluebird shall rise." The back seemed to epitomize Laguna's resilient spirit. "Which disasters can we overcome?" The answer: "All [of them]." And, "Would you consider living elsewhere?" "Never."

Father and son sold all 800 T-shirts and raised $16,000, which was part of the overall total. All the proceeds would go to slide victims, they said.

Around the park, tables displayed frittatas, fresh fruit and box after pink box of pastries. Coolers held juice, soda and fruit. Boys wandered around the tables, debating between doughnuts, bear claws and scones. A roving fiddler provided music.

The support is typical of a city that has sustained several tragedies in three decades, including fires, floods and a 1978 landslide that destroyed 24 homes, said those who came to offer help.

"Laguna always rises to occasions like this," said retired nurse Monika Olson, who lives one canyon over from Bluebird. "We know it could have just as easily been us."

Brief speeches halfway through the breakfast took on the mood of a pep rally. Organizer Denny Freidenrich shouted, "You may be down, but you're not out!"

Freidenrich lives near Bluebird and planned the event Wednesday afternoon with Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider.

That the people of Laguna would pull together shouldn't surprise anyone, the mayor said, addressing the crowd from atop a chair. She deadpanned: "We know how to do a disaster, by God."

But after stepping down, she approached two sobbing men embracing a few feet away. She hugged them.

"We'll never be able to live there again," said one of them, schoolteacher John Gustafson, 54. His Bluebird Canyon Drive home was destroyed.

He said he was overcome by the support.

"We don't want to beg for money, but we need it," he said. Gesturing down at his white polo shirt and jeans, he said, "I never thought I'd ever wear hand-me-down clothes. But when you lose everything, you also lose your shame."

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