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Women of the Ojai Valley The Ojai Valley offers a wonderful environment for women to lead and participate. Just take a look around at those who own and run local businesses, and who take the reins of so many local nonprofits. The female energy here is palpable, and I find that force inspiring. This Women of the Ojai Valley special section of the Ojai Valley News is created to celebrate our local female dynamism. Inside these pages, we feature seven extraordinary local women. Ojai abounds with women who are powerful mothers, philanthropists, artists, business people, scientists and community leaders, helping shape what our town is and will become. The women leading the Ojai Valley News encourage you to keep doing what you do: create, excel, push farther, rely on each other. Let’s realize our dreams together! All the best,

Ojai Valley News’ first woman publisher in 128 years

2019

HONOREES

Kitty Winn Nancy Hill Yolanda Vega Barbara Kennedy Andrea Neal Ph.d. Emily Ayala Ally Mills


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Nancy Hill

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Ojai native Nancy Hill makes sure veterans know they are honored Perry Van Houten | pvh@ojaivalleynews.com

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or almost 50 years, Nancy Hill has taken on nearly every patriotic and veterans’ event in the Ojai Valley.

But countless hours of community service haven’t slowed this high-energy Ojai native. “I still work for a living,” said the 70-year-old Hill, who owns the Ojai Hair Company. “When you need a job done, you call me.”

‘When you need a job done, you call me.’

Just try to find a local organization that hasn’t benefited from her spirit of volunteerism. “I joined almost every organization in Ojai, so I could get the feel of where the needs were,” Hill said. “You really have to be involved in your community to know your community. We’ve always done things for Ojai.” Hill’s list of contributions is a mile long, starting many years ago with barbecues at St. Joseph’s Health and Retirement Center. She chaired the Ojai Independence Day Committee, sold tritip sandwiches for the Optimist Club at Nordhoff High School, and helped Craig Walker bring back an Ojai tradition, Ojai Day. One of six children, Hill grew up knowing everyone in town. “All my brothers and sisters played sports,” she said, “so we knew everybody. In Ojai, what else is there to do?” For 25 years, Hill organized youth pageants at Libbey Bowl. “We had the largest pageant in the state of California,” she said. She served as president of the Jaycees, vice president of the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club and was a member of the Ojai Lions Club. In 2001, Hill was named an Ojai Living Treasure. She received the Paul Harris Fellow recognition from the Rotary Club and the Carla Bard Award from the Ojai Valley Board of Realtors. But her nearest and dearest projects have always involved

veterans of the United States military. “The veterans, right now, are the biggest need I see. That’s why I’m adamant about trying to let them be heard,” said Hill, who has worked with the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 11461.

Raised during the turbulent Vietnam War years, Hill saw classmates leaving the Ojai Valley to fight. “We were having the time of our lives here, and our boys went over there to fight,” she recalled. While providing leadership for the Ojai Independence Day parade, she pushed for participation and visibility of veterans at the front of the parade. Her favorite event, Memorial Day at Libbey Park, is one she volunteered to plan, organize and direct. She has made hundreds of posters, based on hundreds of interviews, that are displayed at the park on Memorial Day, and at a Veterans Day event at the American Legion Hall. Almost every first and third Friday of the month, you’ll find Hill in the American Legion Hall kitchen, cooking dinner. Proceeds from the dinners are used to buy items for troops overseas. She has also worked with historian David Pressey on compiling a comprehensive list of Ojai Valley veterans. The mother of two children and the grandmother of three, Hill said she is grateful that others in the community are willing to step up. She said there are plenty of opportunities in Ojai to lend a helping hand. “There’s always something here that you can volunteer at,” she said.


Kitty Winn

PHOTO: RICHARD CAMP

Kitty Winn shines spotlight on young filmmakers Austin Widger | awidger@ojaivalleynews.com Winn said that although not all of the students in the program will go on to become filmmakers, the program also teaches ‘I “self-reflection. They learn (to) collaborate, they learn how to schedule their time well and they learn how to always tell a story.” look for a film

O

jai Film Society Board Member Kitty Winn has been instrumental in running the Young Filmmakers Competition since its inception in 2012. This year will be the eighth year of the competition, and Winn has been a part of making it happen since the start.

that has something that can go, not just to the film festival … but it can go out and do some other good in the world.’

Winn is a former theater and movie actress. Upon moving to Ojai 12 years ago from Los Angeles, she was asked if she would join the Ojai Film Society. “At that time, they were doing two important things for the community,” Winn said. “They were putting on films on Sunday afternoons in the Playhouse, which was a great thing for Ojai. They also had a Young Filmmakers Competition.” Winn was asked if she would run the competition, along with fellow board member and documentary filmmaker Jim Whitney. “Every fall, we would go to the schools in the valley, both lower schools, public, private schools and talk to either the photography class or the media class about entering a contest which would be in the spring,” Winn said. “The films could be no more than 15 minutes.” In May, the films are gathered and shown to a panel of judges who are either cinematographers, directors or actors. The public is welcome to attend as well. This year, the competition will be held May 11 at 2 p.m. at the Ojai Art Center. Prizes are given out for the grand, first, second, third and honorable mentions. The grand prize-winner takes home $500. In addition to the competition, Winn has helped instigate two other programs for young filmmakers. The first is a mentoring program at Nordhoff High School. “The first year we had two writers because we all believed after viewing the films that a script is the most important element of a film … we’ve had producers come in, directors, actors,” Winn said.

There has also been a grant program started from the mentoring program. Last year, there were 17 submissions and the winner was awarded a $10,000 grant to make a film based on a script approved by the society. This year, another $5,000 grant will be awarded.

The top films at the Young Filmmakers Competition, along with the honorable mentions, also are shown at the Ojai Film Festival. Beyond the film festival, Winn says there are some films that just have a greater impact. “It will happen every year that we receive a film that I and others feel can be placed somewhere so that it can be seen by a larger audience,” Winn said. “It struck me about two or three years ago, we had three film submissions, and I thought, there are people out there who should see them, because they address certain subjects in our society.” One of these was a film done by a young man about water in the valley. “It was almost like a poem, a visual poem,” Winn said. “I thought this should be seen, and I happened to be with a group of people who were talking about this man named Tom Ash, who is a water expert here in California and he was coming to talk.” When Ash came to give the presentation, the short film was shown at the beginning. It helped lead into the story of the lack of water in the valley. Another one was done by a young woman runner. “She had a lung problem, but she persisted and got as far as the state trials,” Winn said. Winn contacted the American Lung Association in California and they put it on their website so that other kids could see the courage that it took to do that. “I always look for a film that has something that can go, not just to the film festival … but it can go out and do some other good in the world,” Winn said.


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Yolanda Vega

PHOTO: KIMBERLY RIVERS

La Fuente restaurants — where Mom cooks from scratch and ‘from the heart’

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Kimberly Rivers

or 10 years, Yolanda Vega’s family has owned and run La Fuente Mexican restaurants in the Ojai Valley, serving up delicious, authentic Mexican food. Not only do they manage the typical issues of business and restaurant ownership, they also deal with some unique obstacles.

‘We concentrate on what we have and we make it happen’.

“When people come and ask for the owner, they expect to see a man,” Vega said. “They don’t expect to see a woman as the owner and not a lot of businesses (in Ojai) are owned by Hispanic women. That can add to the challenges. My mom thought folks might not think our place is fancy enough, but it is food for everyone. She cooks from the heart. The last five years, we have focused on the business, and things are going well.”

Vega tells about her mother, Angelina Canelo, always cooking and learning to cook mole when she was growing up in Mexico. “Her dream was to have a little place to cook her food,” said Vega, about the roots of La Fuente. Canelo would come to visit her daughter in Ojai and talked about how it might be a good place to have a restaurant. “She is very sensitive about what she eats and cooks; it must be real food and healthy,” Vega said. Canelo bought a restaurant in Ojai in 2009 and they have built the business now with two thriving locations, one at 423 E. Ojai Ave., No. 108, Ojai, and one at 107 E. El Roblar Drive, Meiners Oaks. Vega runs the Ojai location and her sister, Maria Vega, manages the Meiners Oaks location, with Mom moving back and forth, overseeing the cooking and operations. “At first, it was just the small side with two tables outside,” said Vega. “We worried and thought, what if they don’t like the food? And we were scared they would like it too much because we didn’t have a big enough place and at first people would eat standing up. We thought what are we going to do? Five years ago, the space next to us opened up and we got our dining room.” Vega learned to cook when she was 8 years old. “My favorite at home is mole with chicken. In Mexico, it is only cooked on birthdays

or Christmas because it is too expensive.” Some people think it is easy to make Mexican dishes. “Mexican food is time-consuming; even beans and rice take hours to cook,” Vega said. At La Fuente, they cook from scratch. Vega said it is sad to her when some places use ingredients from a can because the basic flavors are lost.

“Mom is picky about what she sells,” said Vega. They still go south to the best sellers of good masa for the tortillas they hand-make. “We make them from scratch; and the Sopes huaraches — thick oval tortillas with black beans in the middle, salsa and cheese, onions; and delicious street-style tacos, pozole, chili relleno — all homemade.” Vega came to the United States from Mexico City when she was 12. Her father had immigrated to the United State three years before that because he was unable to find enough work at home to support the family. After her mother visited the United States, it was decided that the family would move. “It is really hard there, hard to have a job, a house, cover even basic needs,” said Vega. “It was a big struggle when I was 12, learning the language, it took about three or four years of going to regular classes. It was hard to come here as a kid. I didn’t fully understand and didn’t have a choice.” Vega went to Pierce College and then earned a degree in Spanish literature and culture from California State University at Northridge. She moved to Ojai in 2002, first working at the Ojai Valley Inn. “We really try to do the best we can, make the sacrifice worth it, of leaving everyone behind — our family, our friends, that is part of the struggle,” Vega said. “Our business provides a secure and steady income and we are home with our kids every night, even after a 12-hour day, six days a week. It is about helping our family, a responsibility. That kind of mentality brought us together. We concentrate on what we have and we make it happen.”


Barbara

SUBMITTED PHOTO

Kennedy Honorary Oak View mayor helped save school as a community resource Austin Widger | awidger@ojaivalleynews.com

The unofficial mayor of Oak View, Barbara Kennedy, was the key person guiding the process of converting Sunset Elementary school into the Oak View Park and Resource Center. Today, she is the facility’s director.

‘The group was said. “We have anywhere from 150 to 300, 400 able to obtain a kids here a day,” Kennedy said. “Picture an old park bond grant of elementary school and we turned the rooms $495,000 to help convert into tenant spaces.” the facility into the There are a wide variety of organizations that Oak View Park and use the property throughout the week. The Resource Center.’ Boys and Girls Club uses the space, and also has

Kennedy is a lifelong resident of Oak View. In 1999, a group called Save Our School formed after the Ventura Unified School District deemed the Sunset Elementary property surplus. The district had decided it only needed one school in Oak View, so the two were combined. Kennedy said: “The community got together as a grassroots organization, at that point … it was called Save our School and then Community Works, to find out what the community wanted to do with the property. It was zoned for 26 residential lots, and they didn’t want to see the growth in Oak View. They had been using the space for a park for 60 years … they (the community) wanted to save it for community use. In 2002, a special tax assessment district was founded to fund the property through a special property tax.” At this time, Kennedy was the honorary mayor and president of the Oak View Civic Council. Oak View Elementary School was her former elementary school, so she joined in the effort to save it. “There was no park for five miles either direction, either into Ojai or into Ventura,” Kennedy said. “When it’s not school time, of course, the community had been using the green space here as a park for 60 years. So for the school to get rid of it and turn it into housing, we’d be losing that.” The group was able to obtain a park bond grant of $495,000 to help convert the facility into the Oak View Park and Resource Center. The impact of the facility has been tremendous, Kennedy

a teen center in another classroom. The Oak View branch of the Ventura County Library, Nan Tolbert, Ojai Valley Little League, Ojai Valley Girls’ Softball and Ojai AYSO use the site as well. There are multipurpose rooms, an art studio and a certified kitchen available for rent.

The kitchen is utilized by several outside chefs who cook there and sell their products elsewhere. Wild At Heart foods and The Ojai Retreat are a couple of these places. “It’s crazy because if you come by here during the daytime at certain hours you’ll think there’s nothing going on here.” Kennedy said. “Then you come by an hour later and it’s crazy (busy).” As facility director, Kennedy manages the scheduling, space use, leases, collecting rent and day-use fees, groundskeeping and upkeep. All of that is done as a part-time job. Kennedy said, “We’ve had to bring everything up to code in the process. The school was built in 1947 originally. Some changes were made in 1952. so we had to bring in air conditioning, and making sure things were up to fire standards now, and things like that. Quite amazing … the windows were literally boarded up when I got here. We’ve done a lot.” Recently, Casitas Municipal Water District gave the park and resource center a grant to take out some sprinklers in the field and put in a walking path. “That was about a three-month project actually to get that done,” Kennedy said. “It was about a $12,000 grant from the water district. It was pretty amazing.”


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Emily Ayala

PHOTO: PERRY VAN HOUTEN

Emily Ayala nurtures her family’s slice of paradise Perry Van Houten | pvh@ojaivalleynews.com A typical day for Emily Ayala starts very early in the morning. Most days, she’s up before the sun, checking emails and taking orders for citrus packed at Friend’s Ranches, where she’s co-owner and vice president. “The wholesale produce business starts at 3 a.m. and goes until noon,” Ayala said. “Most produce managers are stocking shelves and making orders in the early morning.”

‘The next 10 years are really going to be telling for California citrus.’

For Ayala, agriculture runs in the family. Both her parents, Tony Thacher and Anne Friend, are Ojai natives whose families have been in the valley since the late-1800s. Both families were involved in growing citrus, though “… the Thacher family became better educators than farmers.” Ayala spent her childhood in Matilija Canyon. “I grew up running around the hills and the orchards, and going to the world’s greatest schools,” she said. Her alma maters include Monica Ros, Topa Topa Elementary, Ojai Valley School and The Thacher School. After high school, Ayala headed north to Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., where the climate was highly conducive to learning. “It rains a lot and it makes you stay inside and study,” she said. Following graduation, Ayala lived in Central America for three years. There, she taught biology and became interested in insects. “You either love the insects in Central America or you don’t live in Central America,” she explained. Next, Ayala went to graduate school at UC Davis and studied entomology, with her focus on pest management. She worked for UC Cooperative Extension in Ventura and for an insectary in Santa Paula, where she sold ladybugs and biological controls to the Getty Museum, the city of Irvine and the Playboy mansion.

of part-timers. It’s a small operation, she said, facing bigger challenges each year. “Last year was tricky with the fire and the drought. We’ve had less crop, less income,” she said.

Another complication is the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads the bacterial disease Huanglongbing. Ayala said she believes the threat of HLB is real. “We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do in the future; if we can keep going or not. The price of water and labor is squeezing us big time. The next five to 10 years are really going to be telling for California citrus. It’s scary. It’s really scary,” she said. Ayala has immersed herself in local water issues. She serves on the board of directors for the Ojai Water Conservation District. She’s also an agricultural stakeholder for the Upper Ventura River Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Agriculture needs a voice in local water issues, according to Ayala. “We no longer have a farmer on the board of Casitas. There’s always been a farmer on the board, which is worrisome,” she said. In 2006, Emily married Tony Ayala, a U.S. Forest Service employee who retired and now helps out in the packinghouse. They have two children: 11-year-old Oliver and 9-year-old Celeste. Emily is unsure if the kids will follow their parents’ career path. “They’re definitely carrying on the family tradition of eating a lot of citrus,” she said. Ayala’s “social day,” or day off, is anything but. On Sundays, she sells fruit at the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market. “It’s gotten too busy for me to do by myself, in recent years. But somehow it gets done,” she said.

But she couldn’t stay away from the little packinghouse in Ojai for very long. “I kept coming back and helping out on the ranch, and I ended up liking this job a whole lot more than working for other people,” Ayala said.

Her busiest season is March and April, the start of Pixie tangerine season. “I just know that I can’t get sick and I can’t do anything in those months,” she said. “It’s frustrating, because those are the months when the hiking is the best. The days are longer and you want to stay up late and hang out with friends.”

At the Friends Ranches packinghouse, 15150 Maricopa Highway, Ayala manages a staff of only three full-time employees and a couple

Ayala said she cherishes the long, lazy days of summer. “I relish that time when my kids are home,” she said.


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Andrea

Neal, Ph.D. Ojai scientist Andrea Neal is working to heal oceans Kimberly Rivers

“People always think of how big problems in the ‘We have a ocean are,” Neal said. “I think in many ways it special nexus in the makes it seem too big for an individual to make Ojai Valley that can lead an impact.” She pointed to several ways to full self-sustainability, individuals can make a difference. “These ean-Michel Cousteau once introwhich includes people who changes can be as simple as deciding to duced her as a “broken scientist” and care, resources that we can always bring a reusable cup when getting Andrea Neal, Ph.D., relishes that label leverage, and knowledge within coffee, using reusable bags at the grocery because it identifies her as taking the scithe community to make it store or choosing food produced with happen. That is something ence a step farther, turning it into action fewer harmful chemicals. These all seem that is really unique in to “help fix the world.” like pretty small steps but when a large group the modern world “I come from a different background than of people do these things, it has a massive we live in.”

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most Ph.D. scientists,” said Neal about the different way of thinking she brings to her career and volunteer work. Her experience in the academic world, former nonprofit work and, today, developing a strong environmentally based business give her a unique perspective and different approach. “It takes rounded experiences and people to create solutions for the problems we face due to climate change because changes in our environment not only impact us physically, they impact our economic stability as well,” she said. Neal’s undergraduate studies at Purdue University combined the disciplines of biological science with physics and engineering. Her doctorate in agriculture from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences focused on work in molecular genetics and lipid biochemistry. Her volunteer work has focused on protecting the oceans and led her to head up environmental groups as the science adviser for three years with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. In 2011, she was a principal investigator with the Lone Ranger Transatlantic Investigation of Marine Pollutants with the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Last year, she was part of the media planning committee for the global March for the Ocean (M4O) event and this year is volunteering with a group of local women to plan an M4O event in Ventura.

positive impact on the ocean and our terrestrial environments.”

Today, Neal’s work with Ojai-based Primary Water Resources, a company building sustainable and safe water resources for communities, brings the approach of using science to solve environmental problems to her own back yard. She is also building a nonprofit organization called the Ojai Island Foundation, aimed at being a catalyst to make Ojai sustainable by 2030. “We have a special nexus in the Ojai Valley that can lead to full self-sustainability, which includes people who care, resources that we can leverage, and knowledge within the community to make it happen,” Neal said. “That is something that is really unique in the modern world we live in.” Neal lives in Ojai and is raising her son as a single mom. “I chose to live in Ojai and to start my businesses here because I fell in love with the community. It is an amazing place to live and raise a kid,” she said. Neal said she is excited about working in the community on sustainability issues and building the groundswell of people working locally to protect the oceans: “Currently, our oceans are having trouble being the life-support system that we need. By taking these small steps at home, as a community, and all over the globe, we can help protect and preserve not only what we love, but what we need to survive.”


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Andra Belknap | andra.belknap@gmail.com

uring the spring of 2016, the remains of a deceased homeless man were found near South Montgomery ‘When Street. It took months for the medical examiner to you’ve been identify him. As a full-time reporter at the time, I had a down that path, grisly recurring reminder on my calendar during that you kind of know, period: “Follow up with coroner.”

particular, her smiling broadly next to a middle-aged it’s the little things man. Ally Mills, the paper’s circulation manager, knew his that make people identity immediately — though it took months to feel a little more “One of my favorite people wasn’t around this last confirm her suspicion. I came to learn that Ally knows season, I was like, ‘Where is he?’” He found housing. human’. most of the homeless people in town. She knows their camp spots. And she takes note when regulars stop showing The man did turn up at the shelter again, this time as an up to the community’s homeless shelter. overnight host. “The first night that I saw him there in his official capacity, as a host, I just ….” she trailed off, distracted by a ringing phone During the winter season, Ally’s Thursday evenings typically begin at on her desk. “Look, I’ve got goosebumps,” she said, extending her arm Ojai’s Presbyterian Church. From Dec. 1 to March 31 of each year, Ojai’s to me. homeless community is invited to eat dinner and spend the night at one Saturday morning, Ally and Gator take their work to St. Andrew’s of the Ojai Valley Family Shelter’s locations, which rotate each night of Church, where Ally manages the shelter’s “shower trailer” — an RV in the week. which Ojai’s homeless can take a hot shower in 20 minute shifts. Dinner is served by the shelter staff and volunteers; Ally, joined by her While Ally manages the shower, another devoted shelter volunteer, “pleasantly plump” miniature dachshund, Gator, spends the night at Gerry Schwanke, makes breakfast in the St. Andrew’s kitchen. He the shelter as an overnight host. At daybreak Friday, the duo get back proudly recites his menu as he cooks: homemade sausage, home fries, to work. Ally manages the delivery of the weekly newspaper and, with eggs, fruit and fresh coffee. Gator in her passenger seat, delivers newspapers herself to about 100 homes. Ally’s latest mission is to add another shower day into her “tetrised” She began volunteering with the homeless shelter more than four years ago.

schedule: she wants the homeless community to have access to more than one shower per week.

“The first night I went just to feel it out, I think I passed out socks,” she recalled. “You know, these are all people that I’ve known. I’ve been on the streets with them at times.”

“When you’ve been down that path, you kind of know, it’s just the little things that make people feel a little more human, like taking a shower,” she said.

Ally, an Ojai native, struggled with homelessness and addiction during her 20s. She’ll celebrate seven years of sobriety at the end of the month.

I’ve reported for the Ojai Valley News for more than two years. The most profound lesson I gained in that time is about people like Ally. While her story is unique, her devotion to the community is not uncommon.

“The next week I went and spent the night. You just spend the night. It’s just sleeping,” she said with characteristic humility, as if everyone is willing to spend the night at a shelter.

I often find myself heartbroken at the national news, at local injustices. And then I look to people like Ally, who give so freely of themselves.

She befriends many of her clients, while maintaining her role as a “rules person,” she explained. “I’m a narc now,” she said with a big laugh. As we talk, she scrolls through photos on her phone, showing me her collection of selfies with some of her favorite clients. She stops at one photo in

I asked what keeps her motivated. “If I keep myself busy, then I stay out of trouble,” she replied winkingly. Visit www.ovfs.org for more information about the Ojai Valley Family Shelter.


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