Bree Burgess Rosen vividly remembers an encounter during a walk on Main Beach that occurred not long after she moved to town 30 years ago. She met Sande St. John, who was handing out sandwiches to homeless people.
Today, Rosen relies heavily on St. John to provide concessions for patrons of No Square Theater productions and her manpower to round up ushers for shows and auction items for fundraisers. “She gets things done,” said the theater’s founding director. “She’s extraordinary.”
Over the years, St. John willingly shouldered similar organizational tasks for other community groups from Laguna Beach Live! to the police department, tapping her community knowledge and persuasive powers to summon large and small events to life.
This week, St. John’s extraordinary volunteerism earned her entry onto the floor of the state legislature, awarded woman of the year for the 74th Assembly District by state Assemblyman Matthew Harper of Huntington Beach.
“Whether it was volunteering at a senior center, cleaning up after a disaster, or promoting the arts in our community, you can always count on Sande to lend a helping hand,” Harper said in a statement.
Council member Steve Dicterow said Harper’s staff tapped him to recommend a deserving nominee for the award. “I don’t know anyone, man or woman, who deserves it more,” said Dicterow. He described St. John as “someone who gives up every minute helping every charitable organization in town and never has anything to gain by it. She is just pure.”
And while St. John enjoyed the accolades in the state Capitol, she expressed her pleasure at also being a role model to her granddaughter, Camryn Ostrander, of San Clemente, who accompanied her. The 17-year-old could experience how approachable are elected officials. St. John said too many citizens “don’t know we can go and ask” for help and be heard.
Asking others to aid the causes St. John embraces plays a powerful role in her success as a volunteer. “She’s someone you don’t say ‘no’ to,” said Laguna Beach Live! President Cindy Prewitt, who relies on St. John to drum up volunteers and often refreshments for music presentations.
St. John, who is the mother of three adult children, worked professionally as a representative in Los Angeles for the clothing maker Warnaco, which sold brands such as Hathaway shirts and Pringle cashmere. For the last two decades, she’s put together various part-time jobs for pay, such as work for the Chamber of Commerce. “Nothing illegal,” she joked.
But her volunteer work leaves little time for a dinner with friends. Take last Saturday as an example. She organized a 6 a.m. breakfast for all the extra police in town staffing the parade before hopping into a limo to pick up parade honorees. She arranged lunch for the Marine Corps band that marched in the parade before racing off to pick up and layout dinner for patrons of No Square Theater’s show, “School of Rock.”
Someone once asked St. John about her antic volunteerism. “I don’t think it’s up to you,” a former priest told her.
That explanation is enough for St. John. “Someone’s leading me,” she said.
Along the way, St. John’s involvement has evolved from delivering brown bag lunches to hosting al fresco breakfasts that benefit foster children to helping flood victims reassemble entire households.
“She refers many seniors (most low-income) who could benefit from our services,” said Nadia Babayi, director of the Susi Q Center. “Our social workers love working with her.” St. John was one of the earliest advocates for a senior center, and organized the kickoff party for the Laguna Beach Seniors capital campaign. In 2013, when the seniors honoured her, Marsha Bode, a frequent collaborator with St. John, said “she gets more things done than any person I’ve ever met.”
St. John remains devoted to No Square, where she is a founding member, because she’s seen youth who don’t fit in elsewhere blossom with confidence through its training. Her own grandchildren are involved and help her. St. John’s other passion is for law enforcement personnel, where for years she’s orchestrated annual award events and more recently memorial fundraisers dedicated to Officer Jon Coutchie, who died on duty. St. John believes police and fire employees deserve more respect for going into harm’s way.
St. John acknowledges her own role as a “connector” with an aptitude for knitting together and strengthening the good intentions of others into a safety net that supports the town’s most vulnerable. “I know how to fix it. So how can I not do it?”