Photos by Ted Reckas
The Laguna Beach High School’s Honors Convocation makes visible the community’s dedication to inspiring, empowering and supporting their youth.
If the success of Laguna’s 2011 graduating class has any correlation to the gifts and good wishes rained upon them at last Friday’s ceremony, they are off to a great start. A grand total of $302,525 in scholarships was distributed to 122 students.
The mood of community solidarity was already palpable even before the first award was handed out at the LBHS Scholarship Foundation’s pre-convocation dinner for donors. Graduates Dylan Metzler (‘03) and Katrina Carras (’09) both gratefully described the boost scholarships gave them in launching their respective careers.
Metzler, now a UC Riverside graduate, works as a Costa Mesa police detective and is the youngest gang expert in the county.
“Thank you for what you have done for me, for my life,” said Carras in an exuberant and heartfelt speech. “I would not be studying at Laguna College of Art and Design if not for you.”
Though she was accepted by her preferred college, she realized her family couldn’t afford tuition until her “fairy godparents” awarded 10 scholarships totaling almost $20,000. She is now studying to become an animation director.
Another grateful scholarship recipient was retiring LBHS art teacher and foundation honoree Peter Tiner, who owes his career to a 1968 Festival of Arts’ scholarship. “I am one lucky guy to have done what I’ve done here,” he said. “It’s been amazing.”
Tiner eventually joined the high school staff in 1990, helping students pursue similar dreams.
As the subsequent awards ceremony got underway, it was hard to tell who felt more privileged to take the stage, donors awarding the scholarships or the students receiving them.
A highlight of the evening that exemplified the town’s generosity came in an unscripted moment.
Local Jay Blahnik arrived on stage to award his Driven to the Max scholarship of $1,000 each to the surprised recipients Nile Koegel and Bianca Sganga. Unlike most grants that require an application, recipients of Driven to the Max are selected solely by the scholarship committee.
But Blahnik had another surprise. He asked each student to choose another student who had inspired them. He later admitted to a moment’s panic that they might not know whom to select. Without hesitation Bianca named Jordan Glenn and Nile identified Dylan Somerset, who would each receive $1,000 scholarships of their own. First stunned, the audience cheered.
“It was an amazing moment of generosity,” said foundation president Marsha Aronoff. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I just wanted to give them a chance to pay it forward in the spirit of what inspired me to pay for Max’s scholarship,” said Blahnik, referring to the 2006 award to Max Mullender, who overcame personal hardships to excel academically and as a cross-country running star.
While waiting his turn as a presenter, Blahnik was inspired by the stories he heard underlying why awards were created and decided on the spot that he wanted to give a little more. So he did.
Blahnik has continued the scholarship in succeeding years, offering $1,000 each to two students, a boy and a girl, with the stipulation that the scholarship committee would select two students they thought best exemplified what Max is all about — “really good kids” with a true need for the money who were active in community service.
Not all deserving students write the best essays for applications or look great on paper, said Blahnik. Having the committee select recipients based on their knowledge of students would be “a way for them to find someone who might have fallen through the gaps,” he said.
Since the Ebell Club handed out the first scholarship at the high school in 1947, the program has continued to flourish. In 1988, the foundation received non-profit status as an affiliate of Dollars for Scholars, a nationwide program of Scholarship America.
The foundation’s devoted trustees maintain relationships with current donors and also recruit new donors. “There are cases where you know of somebody notable who should not be forgotten,” said Marge Earl, the foundation’s past president, citing the newly established scholarship in memory of local hotelier Claes Andersen, who died last year.
Other donors simply show up, such as retired educators Steve and Lor Speach, who wanted to continue a tradition they began in Redlands in their new hometown. Each year, they make $500 awards to students who will attend community college and request help. This year they handed out six; last year they awarded 14.
“Community college is the best value,” said Lor, who got her own start at community college. “It’s a stepping stone and one that is not intimidating.”
As Tiner noted when he was honored by the foundation, “This town really pulls together and takes care of its own.”