By Greg Mellen, Special to the Independent
Liz Hurst, a self-employed massage therapist in Laguna Beach for the past 15 years, has been burning through credit cards and had to move out of her Laguna Beach apartment for more affordable housing in Aliso Viejo.
Dante De La Rosa, a restaurant worker in the area for more than 25 years, had to decide between health insurance, shelter, and food for his family of four. Guess which one he decided to forego?
They tell stories that have become all too common for local residents and employees facing tough circumstances in COVID-19 hammered professions over the past year.
Hurst and De La Rosa are among more than 1,000 needy workers in the gig, hospitality and service industries who could benefit from the Laguna COVID-19 Relief Fund. Laguna Beach residents experiencing financial hardship were also able to apply for grants.
A grassroots effort started by Laguna Beach resident Bob Mister and local business members under the auspices of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, the fund has provided emergency assistance to those under severe economic pressure.
Mister is appealing to the community to raise another $100,000 to match a $150,000 grant passed by the City Council in January. If this goal is reached, the local relief fund will have marshaled $1 million since the pandemic’s start.
Laguna Beach’s matching donation, the second phase of a $300,000 appropriated to help residents and local workers, is part of its overall $2 million COVID-19 relief package.
“We’re saying, ‘Hey, Laguna, reach into your wallets,’” Mister said of the appeal to residents who are lucky enough to ride out the pandemic with relatively little financial hardship. “We’ve kind of stalled. This is our last-ditch effort.”
More than 40 employees of the Ranch at Laguna Beach have already received $500 grants, said Lisa Rosecrans, director of human resources at The Ranch. Waiters, stewards, bartenders, cooks, other employees who usually work weddings and other events are still unable to get back to work because of the pan-demic. State and county health orders forced the resort to layoff more than 200 employees last year.
“For us here, honestly, the generosity of Laguna Beach residents and the city government has shown bright during this pandemic,” Rosecrans said. “With us being hospitality, it’s definitely been heart-felt and it means more than you can know.”
The Ranch is keeping some banquet employees working by using them in facility maintenance, house-keeping, and at Lost Pier Cafe.
In a classic, pay-it-back show of appreciation, after Hurst was given a $500 award last year, she asked her benefactors, “What can I do to help?”
Soon she was working the phones to help verify eligibility for new applicants. The application process is now closed.
Hurst knew as well as anyone the debilitating financial toll of the virus. She said her client base, many of whom were elderly, completely vanished during the worst of the pandemic leaving her “zero” income.
“A lot of us self-employed people work hard to provide for ourselves, and when that goes away it’s hard,” she said.
When Hurst received the grant, it wasn’t just about the $500, although the money was a big help.
“It was more the feeling, you know, that someone cared,” she said.
As a volunteer, Hurst received a different form of payment—joy in helping others.
“Some people I talked to, it was extremely emotional. Even though it wouldn’t pay the rent, it made a huge difference,” she said. “One woman burst into tears when she heard she was getting a grant.”
Hurst’s anxiety also skyrocketed because of her profession’s uncertain future
“I didn’t even know if I’d be able to do what I love to do. It broke my heart,” she said.
An Aliso Viejo resident, De La Rosa has been a staple in some of the finer Mexican eateries in Laguna and Irvine, with stints at Las Brisas and Javier’s. Lately, he has also been working at Dizz’s As Is in Laguna Beach. As a waiter, De La Rosa said the bulk of his earnings come from tips. When the customers left, so did his paycheck. He was one of the early applicants, when the fund had more cash than clients.
“I was blessed. They gave me $1,000. To me it was like $1 million,” he said.
De La Rossa’s $1,000 was the sum of two grants he applied for over the last year.
“I am very grateful to them,” De La Rosa said of donors. “I am able to breathe a little more.”
In April 2020, Ed Sauls and Mister signed on to be the COVID-19 Relief Fund co-chairs, the duo then contacted local attorney Tom Davis, president and chair of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, who was able to quickly integrate the foundation’s 501c3 status to get the new relief fund approved.
“I was sitting around wondering what I could do,” said Mister, who is no stranger to philanthropic endeavors. In 1993, he supported Sauls’ campaign to aid families who had lost their homes in the fires that swept through Laguna.
In about four months, Mister says, the project raised about $475,000 and gave grants to 852 people. Shortly before Christmas, Mister said, the campaign was revived due at the suggestion of Mayor Bob Whalen and boosted by a donation of $50,000 from the estate of the late former Mayor Wayne Peterson and his partner, Terry Smith.
Word spread quickly about the second campaign and Mister said he received 1,300 applications before closing the process on Feb. 8.
After winnowing ineligible entries, more than 1,000 applications have been approved. The Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach is helping distribute payments in the form of Visa gift cards. About half have been distributed so far.
“Hearing the desperation of people that are calling, you can just sense how much the $500 means to them,” Mister told the Independent in January. “They’re appreciative of the fact the community has stepped up.”
De La Rosa echoes the sentiment saying the benefits go two ways.
“I think they are people with great hearts,” he said of donors. “And the donation is not just financial. If you help us, you feel great.”
Hurst still faces struggles and obstacles. She is slowly starting to get back clients and she is buoyed to know there are people willing to help those in need.
To find information or donate to the Relief Fund visit lagunacovid19relief.com. Checks can be sent by mail made out to LBCF Laguna COVID-19 Relief Fund, 580 Broadway, Suite 204, Laguna Beach, CA, 92651.
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