Local Heroes 2022

The Independent’s Annual Nod to Our Incredible Neighbors

Local Heroes 2022

The Independent’s Annual Nod
to Our Incredible Neighbors

By Ryan P. Cruz, Leslie Dinaberg, Callie Fausey, Tyler Hayden, Matt Kettmann, Nick Welsh, and Jean Yamamura | Photos by Ingrid Bostrom

Illustration by Alex Drake

A sea captain who untangles whales. A lawyer who supports mothers in need. A woman who offers comfort to those suffering from loss and despair. A boy who sells rubber ducks to save abandoned animals. These are just some of the Local Heroes of 2022. Their stories are tales of compassion, neighborliness, philanthropy, and kindness. 

Every Thanksgiving, since our first issue 36 years ago, the Independent has celebrated outstanding people such as those we are honoring this year. And every year, our readers send us nominations of people whose work makes Santa Barbara County such an amazing place to live. Many of these heroes have never received recognition until today.

The staff of the Independent thanks all our Local Heroes past and present for their work, and our readers for nominating them. We are grateful to all who make Santa Barbara County such an amazing place to live. 

Ana Maya

A Helping Guide to Families 

Ana Maya | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

It is actually surprising that Ana Maya has the same number of hours in the day as everyone else. As director of the Family Resource Center at the Isla Vista Youth Project, Maya does everything from educating local families on different social programs to helping them gain access to essential services during hard times and even providing them with clean diapers. But most importantly, Ana Maya listens.

Born in Guerrero, Mexico, Maya believes that the strength she gained from overcoming the challenges she faced in her own life has helped her develop an empathetic fondness for working with families in need. Maya, a mother of seven children, approaches everything she does with compassion, respect, and a hardworking attitude.

“It is very important to me to build relationships and connections with people in the community. I support families by listening to them, meeting them where they are, and providing resources based on their needs,” she said. 

Maya’s main goal is to lend a helping hand to Santa Barbara’s families, but her job is a balancing act. The many hats she wears include teaching parenting classes (in both English and Spanish), holding immigration seminars, handling data reports, hosting vaccine clinics, and providing free food and diaper distributions for the community. 

She is known for going above and beyond for her clients, and families come from as far as Ventura and Santa Maria to meet with her one-on-one. But Maya emphasizes that she does not do this alone. “I have a great team that works very hard to run all these programs and events with care and passion.”

“This is hard work, and it does actually weigh on me at times, but the beautiful and amazing part  is when people thank you, when you see a smile on their faces, and when you see that they appreciate you,” Maya continued. “Then I say to myself, ‘Yes, this is worth it! This is what I am supposed to be doing.’”

Chuck McPartlin

Ambassador to the Stars

Chuck McPartlin | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Chuck McPartlin was a graduate student at UCSB when he went 50/50 with his buddy on a telescope. The friend wound up hating it, but McPartlin fell in love, so he had the backyard all to himself to “hunt faint fuzzies” in the sky. He had fun, he said, but up to a point. “It was a little like stamp collecting,” he explained. “There was no one to share all these wonderful things with.”

This was the late 1980s. McPartlin considered joining Santa Barbara’s astronomy club at the time, but their meetings interfered with his bowling night. Then he heard from his wife, Pat, about the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit (SBAU) hosted by our Museum of Natural History. When he gave a demonstration at a nearby retirement community, he realized how rewarding it was working with the public. “I had a blast,” McPartlin said.

For more than three decades now, McPartlin has held about a dozen events a month as SBAU’s outreach coordinator, lugging his telescopes to schools, campgrounds, shopping malls, and countless other sites across the county, inspiring curiosity and wonder and no shortage of “oohh”s and “aahh”s as he goes. “It’s fun to see the kids’ faces light up,” McPartlin said. Conversations about current events are also common, whether it’s NASA’s recent mission to redirect an asteroid or the incredible new images being beamed back from the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s no stretch to say McPartlin provides some of the most broadly accessible and exciting science education anywhere in Santa Barbara, with Pat almost always at his side.

Just recently, after McPartlin gave a talk at Carpinteria State Beach, a young woman approached him. She said she remembered his jokes from a stargazing event when she was 8 years old. She’s now studying astrophysics in college.

Eleni Pantages

San Marcos Choir Director

Eleni Pantages | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Like all gifted music teachers, Eleni Pantages admits she’s a bit of a dictator, albeit a benign one. Every year for the past five years, Pantages has directed the different choral ensembles at San Marcos High School, coaxing, cajoling, and inspiring the very best from her students. That’s the same school Pantages herself attended. It was there she was turned on to the subtle magic of vocal ensembles. Her own instructor, Carolyn Teraoka-Brady, prodded her musical charges. “She never let us just get by,” Pantages recalled. “She had really high expectations. And I responded well to it.” Indeed she did. 

Pantages also grew up in a musical family. One grandfather was an opera singer who sang “God Bless America” at a San Francisco Giants game in his eighties. Her father sang in the Santa Barbara Choral Society. Extended family gatherings, she recalled, resembled huge jam sessions. Pantages started off playing violin at age 6 but shifted to voice — choral music, choirs, and madrigals — in high school. By college — USC — she was performing regularly. As an alto, Pantages can move serious air, as her list of film credits attest. She sang in two Star Wars films — VIII and IX — and still expresses pinch-me excitement about performing under the baton of John Williams, a composer famous for the epic sweep of his cinematic scores. As a musical director, Pantages takes issue with the nostrum that some people can sing and others just can’t. “If you want to sing,” she insists, “you can learn.” 

As a vocal director with 80 students under her tutelage, Pantages is famous for her beaming smile and exuberant enthusiasm. Every Friday, her singers take turns expressing something good and something not so good that happened in the past week. This exercise, known as “Rose and Thorn,” helps foster a closeness that’s reflected in performance. “Every person is important; we’re all part of a team,” Pantages says. “No one is sitting on the bench.”

Dave Beezer

Angel to the Whales

Dave Beezer | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Dave Beezer knows whales. And many of them know him. 

Beezer, the longtime captain of the Condor Express, Santa Barbara’s premier whale-watching boat, is one of a handful of people in California who are federally trained and certified to disentangle the big cetaceans when they get wrapped up in marine debris. After conducting hundreds of these rescue operations, Beezer is able to recognize many of the whales he’s helped save, often by the crisscross of scars on their bodies. “It’s really cool to see them swimming back through the Channel,” he said. “Especially moms with calves.”

Untangling a whale is even harder than it sounds. And it’s dangerous. Just a few years ago, a man was struck and killed off New Brunswick, Canada, moments after he cut one free. Beezer and his team of volunteers approach each case cautiously. Before they make their cuts, they follow the whale and, with the help of a drone, study the configuration of the tangle. Ideally, it will take just one or two. 

The whales are stressed and scared, Beezer explained, and try to evade the rescuers. Gray whales are especially wary; humpbacks are a little more accepting. Once a plan is in place, they launch an inflatable boat from a “mothership” — locally, it’s NOAA’s Shearwater research vessel — and use carbon-fiber poles fixed with specially designed knives to snip the lines. Up to a few dozen people may be involved. Not every rescue attempt is successful, but many are. And then the reward is great. “These are highly intelligent mammals dying a slow, painful death,” Beezer said. “It’s only right we try to help them.”

Someday soon, Beezer hopes to transition to saving whales full-time, perhaps even forming a rapid response nonprofit with a boat on a trailer, always at the ready. “I’ve been lucky enough to make a living on the water,” he said. “This is my way of giving back.”

Esther Jacobsen Bates

Museum Visionary

Esther Jacobsen Bates | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Elevating the art offerings at Elverhøj Museum of History and Art in Solvang has been one of the highlights of Esther Jacobsen Bates’s almost 20-year tenure at the helm of this charming gem of a museum, which has remained free to the public since it opened in 1988. “I’m very proud of the way the museum has been able to support local artists,” said Bates, who has featured a very broad spectrum of work, ranging from artists who reside in the community, such as sculptor Wesley Anderegg and painter Seyburn Zorthian, to contemporary international artists, as well as renowned historical artists, including Rembrandt, the original Dutch Master himself.

“What really energizes me is each exhibition has its own kind of energy. It brings in different people with every exhibition we present at the museum. It creates a sense of place and a sense of connectedness,” said the Santa Ynez Valley native, who worked with Ann Dittmer for more than a decade of exhaustive genealogical research to co-author an extensive historical book called The Spirit of Solvang, which came out in 2020.

“What I feel like has been one of my bigger accomplishments at the museum is growing the awareness of all that Elverhøj has to offer. And that certainly is now shown in our visitor numbers, which are very robust,” said Bates, who enjoys sharing the town’s history and culture.

Her contributions to making Solvang proud were bumped up even further recently, when Elverhøj achieved a “triple green” milestone by transitioning to solar power, earning California Green Business certification, and becoming one of only 10 businesses in the Central Coast region to meet the Sustainable Business challenge. 

She encourages people to come and check out the museum’s beautiful new community gathering space, including showcasing local artisans and crafters at the holiday makers markets on December 10 and December 17.

Elsa Granados

First Responder to Sexual Assaults 

Elsa Granados | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

When Elsa Granados took over what was formerly known as the Rape Crisis Center, she and her team received about 300 to 400 calls a year. That was 25 years ago. Since then, Granados reckons the organization now gets 600 calls a year. Most people are dealing with assaults that took place two, five, even 20 years ago. “They wanted to just move on, to put things behind them,” but that, Granados said, is much easier said than done. To help, the organization has three paid counselors and two volunteers to assist survivors — and their partners —in  addressing stubborn reverberations from past trauma. Granados has another four certified crisis counselors who act as advocates for those going through the forensic journey of reporting an assault, having their bodies swabbed, and answering questions from law enforcement officers. “We are first responders,” she said. “We work directly with nurses and law enforcement officers.” 

Only 12-15 percent of all sexual assaults are reported, she noted. “What matters most to survivors is how other survivors are treated in the media,” she said, “whether their character is impugned and their mental health questioned.” Several years ago, the Rape Crisis Center opted to change its name to Standing Together to End Sexual Assault (STESA) at the same time it was moving from its original Milpas Street location. The landlord at a possible new building refused to even put the name on the door. Then another landlord refused — even after they had signed the lease. Worse yet, he made a rape joke in the process. “No one was going to lease to us.” Hence the name change. The mission, however, remains the same. So too does the secondary trauma experienced by people in Granados’s line of work. “Self-care is extremely important,” she said. “For me, I get out in nature as much as I can. I look at the beauty of nature.” 

Jina Carvalho

Lifesaving Helper

Jina Carvalho | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

When Jina Carvalho helped found the Santa Barbara Response Network in 2009 after a rash of local suicides, she leaned on her experience with the Glendon Association in providing truly lifesaving resources when people of Santa Barbara are at their lowest points.

“It’s okay to not be okay,” Carvalho said.

Whether it be natural disasters, homicide, or suicide, the nonprofits both respond to incidents in the community where it is important to provide “psychological first aid” and help individuals address trauma through a coalition of local resources.

“Deaths and other traumatic events trigger tremendous stress and anguish, not only among immediate family and friends, but also across the entire community,” she said.

In recent years, the S.B. Response Network, where Carvalho is the executive director, has helped provide services during the 2014 I.V. shootings, Thomas Fire, 1/9 Debris Flow, and the COVID-19 pandemic, distributing masks to farmworkers and helping address the growing effects of mental health during isolation.

“Keep people hopeful, because the thing about isolation is it kills hope,” she said. “The most important thing is that people feel a sense of belonging.”

Carvalho said one of the projects she was most proud to help with was the addition to life-saving barriers on the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in 2012, which she said have saved countless lives in the years since.

Working so closely with tragedy can take a toll on one’s own mental health, and she tries to stay balanced by writing poetry, practicing yoga, or meditating daily.

“It’s really important to take care of yourself doing that work,” she said.

The S.B. Response Network can be contacted at (805) 699-5608. Anyone concerned about someone who may be suicidal can contact the national lifeline at (800) 272-TALK.

Julissa Peña

Julissa Peña | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

The miserable U.S. policy of separating children from parents at the southern border galvanized Santa Barbara attorneys and humanitarians to form the Immigrant Legal Defense Center (ILDC) in 2017. Immigration law is an exacting specialty, and bringing together the needed experts has not been easy. Qualified attorneys were in short supply. Many among the ILDC community say it is Executive Director Julissa Peña who’s made all the difference in making the organization a strong and effective defender of those seeking asylum in the United States.

Peña, who graduated from UCSB, previously worked as a paralegal and translator. “I often carried the burden of bad news to kindhearted and hardworking families that they didn’t qualify for asylum. I heard the attorneys say over and over again to stay under the radar in the hope the immigration laws would change.”

Since she joined the ILDC in June 2019, federal laws haven’t changed, but COVID exacerbated the situation, especially for children, Peña said, many of whom had been left with grandparents who passed away or are otherwise unprotected. “We have a huge sense of urgency to reach these children. They only have so much time to respond to the immigration court; otherwise, they will be removed in absentia.” As many as 1,100 children are on the ILDC’s radar in the tri-counties. Over the years, ILDC, with the help of a hardworking fundraising committee, has been able to add experienced attorneys and immigrations experts, but the workload is still enormous. 

“Most of the people on our waitlist are women and children,” Peña said. Many women have fled to the United States to escape domestic violence. “We are forced to decide who is the most vulnerable and who needs the most protection.”

Katie Davis

Climate Guardian 

Katie Davis | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Katie Davis and her family moved to Summerland in 1970, where the first offshore oil wells in the nation were drilled. She was just a baby at the time, one year after the infamous 1969 oil spill, but by 2012, she was training with Al Gore on the reality of climate change. Her name has now become synonymous with Santa Barbara progressives’ fight to end fossil-fuel production in the county.

Davis worked for a Santa Barbara start-up in the 1990s and was grateful for the company’s flex-time options, as she had two kids who crystalized for her what the future held.

She and her husband did everything they could to decrease their carbon footprint. “We put solar panels on our house,” she recalled. “I think I bought the 7,000th Nissan Leaf produced. I advocated at our co-working space and organized volunteers to work on a website with NOAA on ocean acidification.”

Davis began offering her climate change presentation to groups in Santa Barbara, including the Sierra Club. “That gradually took over my life,” she said. The Sierra Club went from being a hiking group to an essential partner for nonprofits like the Community Environmental Council (CEC) and the Environmental Defense Center.

She recalled visiting every city councilmember with Michael Chiacos of the CEC to talk about 100 percent sustainable energy. “The nice thing about that approach was as cities began to do it, California saw the momentum. Now we have President Biden saying the national goal is for 100 percent clean energy.”

Meeting climate goals this decade is important, she said. “There is a pathway, but it matters a lot what we do now. Will the atmosphere warm in a way we can deal with or will it spiral out of control? The next decade really matters.”

Kelly Cottrell

Bringing Heart to Art

Kelly Cottrell | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Goleta native Kelly Cottrell started volunteering at Alpha Resource Center when she was still a college student, starting full-time in 2012. In January 2020, she took over the management of the nonprofit’s Slingshot/Alpha Art Studio, a dedicated space for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have access to an art studio and the world of fine art.

Soon after she began running Slingshot, “The whole pandemic kind of came crashing through,” Cottrell said. “I was really getting a feel for my role and the program, then all of a sudden it came to a screeching halt, and I had to change gears.”

Rather than having everyone come to the studio, Cottrell and her team began delivering art supplies and meeting individually with the 35 artists currently enrolled, outdoors or on Zoom, and providing support in any way they could.

“I guess the blessing in disguise is that through all that, I got to know the individuals a lot better. And I was able to build some relationships with families that I might not have otherwise, being in their houses. … That’s not typically what we do, but we really came out stronger for it,” said Cottrell. 

While things are getting back to normal programmatically, Cottrell recently took on another huge task: moving Slingshot and all of its equipment to a new location.

But the new building will allow Slingshot to serve a larger number of artists with a wider variety of abilities. “Long-term, one of my personal goals is to bring in more artists with more significant, more noticeable, more severe disabilities, and get them included as well,” said Cottrell. “And I’m really excited to see how we address that need.” 

The public is invited to visit the new Slingshot studio on Saturday, December 10, from 1-5 p.m. at 1911 De la Vina St., Suite B.

Marco DiPadova

The Budding Entrepreneur

Marco DiPadova | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Marco DiPadova was just 11 years old, a student at the small but mighty Anacapa School, when he came up with a rather brilliant way to help animal shelters. It was the early days of the pandemic, and rescue organizations were among those hit hardest by the lockdowns and a sudden stop in giving. DiPadova decided to design and sell rubber ducks — because who can resist a rubber duck? — and donate 100 percent of the profits to places like Santa Barbara’s BUNS (Bunnies Urgently  Needing Shelter), ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and WWF (World Wildlife Fund). 

But here’s where DiPadova’s knack for entrepreneurship really kicked in — he gave the ducks a backstory and included a game. The ducks’ home world of Quackzar is attacked by the evil Snake King, and it’s up to the player to save the day. There’s a fold-out “board” on which to play with colorful illustrations of the PG-rated space opera. Hence the name of his company — Planet Duck. DiPadova’s total sales have topped $50,000, nearly $10,000 of which has gone straight to the animal organizations. The rest goes back into the company. It took about three hours of work a day for six months to build the website and integrate its marketplace with Amazon, he explained. 

His dad, Albert, is a  successful businessman himself who operates the Riviera Towel Company. DiPadova’s grandpa was in sales, and his great-grandfather was a tailor. “Business is in our blood,” he beamed. In May, he won first place and $1,000 cash for his business plan in Santa Barbara City College’s Scheinfeld Center New Venture Challenge. 

Now he’s trying to convince Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman to bring his giant inflatable “Rubber Duck” to Santa Barbara to raise awareness for animal shelters. “It feels like I can definitely do much more.”


Child Advocate

McKenna | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

As a Senior Advocate Supervisor at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Santa Barbara County, McKenna, who wishes to be identified only by her surname, has spent the past five years as the voice for abused and neglected children in court, helping guide them through the often chaotic world of foster care, court proceedings, and the child welfare system.

Hundreds of children are removed from abusive homes or neglectful guardians in Santa Barbara County each year, and often the child is at the center of the competing interests of parents, lawyers, and social workers. That’s where McKenna and CASA’s team of volunteer  steps in to speak in the child’s best interest and ensure they find a safe, permanent, and loving home.

Often, children with court-appointed advocates are placed in new homes or reunited with family members with mended relationships.

“That’s the best thing that can happen,” McKenna says. “That’s the best we could wish for.”

After serving as an advocate for years, McKenna now supervises a team of volunteer advocates — known as “CASAs” — out of the Lompoc office, training them in the delicate art of finding each child’s “best-case scenario” and being there with them along every step of the way.

McKenna said she was honored to be considered a Local Hero, but she pointed to the team of volunteers as the true magic behind the nonprofit’s success.

“When I think of a true hero, it’s the CASAs that I supervise,” she said.

Coworkers that nominated McKenna said she has shown herself to be committed to both the volunteers she supervises and the children they are supporting, no matter the situation, and she will remain dedicated to ensuring each abused or neglected child feels as if they have somebody they can always count on during their time of need.

Pedro ‘Pete’ Jimenez

Barber with a Heart

Pedro Jimenez | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

When Pedro Jimenez, known by his friends and clients as Pete, took over as owner of Goleta Barbers in 2002, he says he sort of stumbled into the situation. At the time, he was still in barber school and looking for a chair to rent and get his career started; instead, he was offered the entire shop.

Twenty years later, his barbershop is now a staple of the Old Town community, and Jimenez has become a neighborhood hero in his own right with his dedication to supply drives and local fundraising.

“We just started noticing there were people around the area that were struggling to make ends meet,” he said, describing the shop’s early efforts of toy/canned food drives and fundraisers.

Eventually, one of the barbers at the shop suggested a turkey drive, and the event became an annual tradition — bring a turkey or a donation, get a free haircut — with the proceeds going toward local families in need or charities, or to support youth sports in the area.

Coworkers and Old Town residents describe Jimenez as selfless, giving up countless hours of personal time to help translate for families that can’t read or write English, driving elderly neighbors to doctor’s appointments, or giving out a free cut for somebody who needs a cleanup for a job interview. On Wednesdays, he lets a local youth outreach group use his shop for meetings.

But even when nominated as a Local Hero, Jimenez’s modesty takes over. He gives the credit to the employees at his shop, whom he describes as family, and his actual family — his wife, Corina; daughter, Natalia; and new baby boy, Xavier.

“She has been the backbone to a lot of the stuff,” he says of his wife. “She always has the right thing to say at the right moment.”

Robin Unander-La Berge

Helper of All Who Need Help

Robin Unander-La Berge | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

While all attorneys are adjured to “love the law,” what is evident about Robin Unander-La Berge is that what she loves are people — and dogs. She started Law for Paws in September and Mothers’ Helpers in 2009.

Her animal rescue work and advocacy with the Isla Vista Tenants Union dovetailed into Law for Paws when she heard many pets were in shelters because of evictions. She learned of one student whose serious funk kept her in bed all the time, spiraling downward, until a friend suggested she get a cat. “The kitten gave her something to focus on, to get out of bed, feed the cat, change the litter box, take her to the vet,” Unander-La Berge said. But her landlord didn’t understand. She and her roommates were served eviction papers, but Unander-La Berge was able to advise them on how to prove the cat was an emotional support animal.

Mothers’ Helpers began after Unander-La Berge saw online an unanswered plea from another mother for a crib. She finally couldn’t stand it any longer, found a crib, and brought it to the new mom along with a load of supplies. “And not all mothers have space for a crib,” she noted, which she and her volunteers have learned over the years.

“When it comes to donating baby stuff, there’s an emotional attachment. Sometimes these are beloved items a mom is saying goodbye to,” Unander-La Berge said, tears welling up in her voice. After one woman dropped off a bag of brand-new everything, Unander-La Berge soon learned it was because she had lost her baby.

“What we do is so much more than just giving clothes to a new baby. When you’re pregnant, that nesting feeling is real, and not everyone has the support from a family or a partner. They get support from us, people who don’t even know them, unconditionally.”

Rick Boller

Santa Barbara Bowl Boss

Rick Boller | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

The name Rick Boller and the Santa Barbara Bowl, in some ways, were destined to come together. Boller grew up here, went to Santa Barbara High, and even did a stint as an usher back in the day when the venue was known as the County Bowl. 

“Like many of my peers when I was growing up who were musicians, and who went off and became really well-known, one of the things they always mentioned was hoping they would be able to come back and play on the Santa Barbara Bowl stage,” said Boller. “That is a big moment of arrival, at least in their minds, so yeah, I think about it for myself. Every day, I get to be associated with the Bowl — that’s pretty cool.”

With more than 40 shows completed in the 2022 Bowl season — a record number thanks to a special variance from the Board of Supervisors to help make up revenue from almost two years of pandemic closures — Boller has a lot to be proud of, but he is quick to share credit with the board and the rest of the team. “It’s such an important thing for our organization to be a part of this community, and the team deserves as many accolades as I do in this.”

A Bowl staff member for more than 25 years and Executive Director since 2010, Boller also played a key role in the facility’s $42 million restoration and renovation project. Although there is still work to be done, the focus is now on giving back to the community, which includes “continuing to have the best possible venue that we can for the artists to come to town and play,” he said.

For him, the heart and soul of it all is the community, and, of course, the music, which includes supporting the community’s budding artists, performers, and music lovers through the Bowl’s outreach program. As Boller said, “Each and every time we get one of these amazing artists in our small community, those are all really proud moments for me personally.”

SBCC Promise

Realizing the Dream

From left, former SBCC Promise director Lucille Boss, SBCC Foundation Chief Program Officer Rachel Johnson, SBCC Promise alum Leslie Marin Juarez, SBCC Foundation CEO Geoff Green, SBCC Promise intern Gandhy Jimenez, and SBCC Promise Director Sergio Lagunas | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Sergio Lagunas was born in Mexico and grew up in Oxnard. Though he’s never lived on the North Pole, Lagunas has been playing Santa Claus to about 1,300 recent high school graduates annually, offering them free tuition, books, and materials so they can attend Santa Barbara Community College for zero dollars a year. “There’s a magic to it,” Lagunas said, speaking of his work running the SBCC Promise project, which was first launched six years ago by Geoff Green, executive director of the SBCC Foundation.

The Promise has now provided up to two years’ worth of free tuition — and all the hard costs of going to college — for roughly 6,510 seniors graduating from high schools from Carpinteria to Gaviota. That’s thanks to $10 million in private donations raised by Green and the Foundation. Like about one-quarter of all Promise recipients, Lagunas was the first in his family to graduate from college. He knows the difficulties of the journey. Promise students have to take a full course load, consult with campus academic advisors, and maintain a 2.0 grade point average. Lagunas calls these requirements “milestones,” designed to maximize success. So far, the program has been both ridiculously successful and highly ambitious. The SBCC Promise project is the only community college in the country that is exclusively privately funded; it’s also one of the few to cover two years’ costs, including summer school. And it’s 100 percent accessible to every recent graduate, regardless of high school performance or financial ability. Lagunas has come to love the number zero. “If students see that zero,” he said, “they can really focus and commit to their academic goals.” And all this translates to less student debt, higher grade point averages, higher graduation rates, and shorter completion times. What’s not to love? 

Steve Junak

Native Plant Champion 

Steve Junak | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

About 50 years ago, eager to learn about native plants, Steve Junak began leading hikes for SBCC’s Adult Education program. The UCSB grad turned that passion into a botany career, becoming an expert in the native plants of California, particularly those on the Channel Islands. 

For nearly 40 years, Junak worked in the herbarium of the S.B. Botanic Garden, where he was hired in 1976. “The pandemic showed how important it is for the community to have that safe place to explore the outdoors so close to town,” said Junak, who caught the nature bug from his hunter-fisherman father. “It’s just an amazing opportunity for people to get away from the stress of everyday life.”

Though he retired in 2014, Junak continues to teach classes and lead trips for the Garden. “My goal has always been storytelling,” he said. “The more that somebody knows about a particular environment, the more likely that they are to want to preserve it.”

His scouring of the Channel Islands to identify native and invasive species — and subsequent publishing of books about the flora of San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz islands — is so legendary that there’s even a plant, Junak’s Island Chicory, named for him on Anacapa. He’s even been instrumental in habitat restoration for Baja California’s islands. Junak also sold handmade belts and leather goods at the Cabrillo Boulevard Arts & Crafts Show from 1971 until the pandemic. 

He now lives in the Purisima Hills near Lompoc, where he’s preserving land for endangered tiger salamanders. “The older I get, the more I realize that if we don’t save habitat for these species to be able to survive over long periods of time, it doesn’t matter what you do to conserve individual populations,” said Junak. “It’s a futile effort.”


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