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Philanthropy Lives, But Grim Times End Good Works of Some

A look back over developments in Laguna’s nonprofit sector for 2009 proves that our community’s philanthropic activities are as vibrant as ever. The year marked new beginnings, milestones and farewells. A sour economy put a strain on personal pocket books; the state’s budget crises and consequent raid on local government coffers reduced grants for nonprofits; and at the same time the number of people in need of aid increased. Yet the community rallied and often helped bridge the gap where resources fell short.

As for new beginnings, the brick and mortar proof of locals’ generosity was visible in the much-anticipated opening of the new Susi Q Senior Center/Community Center in February. Laguna Beach Seniors funded the Susi Q Center on their own over a four-year effort. The four sons of Susi Quilter, after whom the center was named, kicked things off with a gift of $750,000. Chris Quilter and his sister-in-law Ann then led the $2.5 million capital fund-raising effort, and according to Bea Field, executive director of Laguna Beach Seniors, the vast majority of funds raised came from donations made by Laguna Beach residents.

Two umbrella organizations catering to local nonprofits entered the scene in 2009. The Laguna Beach Community Foundation was formed to encourage philanthropy by residents for local charitable organizations and to nurture existing nonprofits. And, with the help of a community services grant from the city, the Woman’s Club spearheaded an Internet-based effort to increase communication about community groups and their work. This led to the formation of the Laguna Beach Community Alliance and its online calendar, where all local groups, including non-profits, service groups, religious groups, neighborhood associations, and small clubs are invited to post event information publicly.

On the milestone front, the landmark Hortense Miller Garden celebrated its 50th anniversary. Friends of the Hortense Miller Garden, the nonprofit group that maintains the house and grounds planted with 1,200 Mediterranean-climate species, marked the occasion with a well-attended public open house event in September.

The year will also be remembered as the end of the Big Splash, the phenomenally successful party-fundraiser put on by Ken Jillson and Al Roberts to benefit AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County. The 24th annual Big Splash, held on Sept. 25 and 26 was the last hurrah. The event that began as a backyard pool party at the partners’ home in 1985, evolved over the years into a major theatrical production, along the way becoming a Laguna tradition. But the increase in effort required to mount the show each year was commensurate with its growing success, and Jillson and Roberts have decided to concentrate those efforts instead on the administration of ASF.

A number of nonprofits, however, were hard hit by the economy in 2009 and appealed to the community for help.

The Boys and Girls Club of Laguna Beach suffered from diminishing foundation support in 2009, while experiencing a fourfold increase in the number of families unable to pay the club’s nominal fees, a trend that is expected to continue.

Since it is the club’s policy to never refuse a child from attending after-school care because of their family’s inability to pay, they redoubled their fundraising efforts and appealed to the community for donations from individuals.

In March, the Laguna Resource Center, which supplies food to low-income families, was slammed by a three-fold increase in aid requests from families that was unmatched by an increase in food supplies, a trend echoed elsewhere in the county, according to Mark Lowry, director of the Orange County Food Bank. The problem was still severe in July when the Woman’s Club launched a special food drive. In September, the Laguna Beach Interfaith Council set up a rolling food drive, so that each month a different member church would hold out the open basket.

The failing economy and ubiquitous budget cuts took their toll on Laguna Beach’s Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Michelle Rodriguez, the county’s Relay for Life manager, said that many of their usual sponsorships didn’t come through this year and that the ones who did came in with about half the funding as compared to last year. But local organizers persevered with the August event and volunteers like team captain and Laguna Beach resident Cynthia Phelps did their best to drum up support.

Despite local support, one organization failed to overcome its financial difficulties. ACTION (AIDS Care Teams In Our Neighborhood) closed its doors at year’s end after 13 years of providing practical and emotional support to men and women living with HIV/AIDS by training volunteer supporters.

Julio Rodriguez, ACTION’s executive director, hoped fundraising events would make up for the loss of foundation grants and the shortfall from this year’s OC AIDS Walk, which had supplied half its budget.

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