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Meet The NEXTies

cover01NewIn the first awards ceremony of its kind, Santa Cruz Next honors Danny Keith, Marina Sousa, Reyna Ruiz and Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz  for their standout creative efforts.

Somebody once said, “What you focus on grows,” to which I immediately wondered: “Well, what am I focusing on … internally … and how is that growing—manifesting—on the outside?” For the four individuals spotlighted on the following pages— Danny Keith, Reyna Ruiz, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz Owner and Marina Sousa—their inner callings not only led them to follow their heart’s desires but to find a way where their hearts’ desires could somehow spill back into the community and make a positive difference. It’s one of the reasons why these locals are each being awarded a NEXTie Award on Saturday, Jan. 23 in Santa Cruz. The first annual endeavor of its kind, a ceremony honoring locals whose contributions to the community boldly stand out, was birthed by Santa Cruz Next, the local organization that “seeks to enhance the quality of life” of its members and “the community at large.” There are a number of ways SCN does that but by illuminating and, perhaps, actively advancing the development of economic, social and cultural opportunities locally, it seems to strive to connect the town’s “next” generation to the greater community.  The folks on the following pages are being honored for championing such amazing efforts. Keith, who is owner of Santa Cruz Skate and Surf Shop, has been vigilantly raising the level of awareness on local hunger issues.

cover02Ruiz, program director for Beach Flats Community Center, took bold steps to keep that center—and a community—alive. Ramirez-Ruiz’s work as an astronomy professor—and more—at UC Santa Cruz, brilliantly offers new clues to what lies in the heavens. Sousa proved “there is no place like home”—because it was “home” (Santa Cruz) that helped fuel her entrepreneurial efforts and thrust her into the limelight as a reality TV star and  the owner/designer of Just Cake. So, what’s left? Celebration. The festive evening (7 p.m. to midnight Jan. 23 at the former Wrigley Building in Santa Cruz: 2810 Mission Street) promises to be a festive affair—local wines, brews, cocktails and fantastic cuisine by Santa Cruz's top foodies. Dancing follows the awards presentation with live music by Persephone's Bees. Tickets are $35 per person, $60 for two. $45 at the door. Learn more about all that at NEXTies.Eventbright.com or by visiting santacruznext.org. In the meantime, behold the NEXTie winners on the following pages. | Greg Archer  Note: This event is sold out


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Danny Keith

Grind Out Hunger champion

Danny Keith is hungry for change. Sure, the guy lives and breathes surf and skate culture—two ever-evolving mediums—in Santa Cruz, but the kind of transformation Keith is seeking actually moves through deeper waters.

Keith has been garnering attention for his philanthropic efforts in Grind Out Hunger, which the 40-year-old launched in 2004 after teaming with Second Harvest Food Bank. The idea was to speak to kids at local schools and “encourage youth in helping peers” with the issue of hunger. 

How Keith, who has been at the helm of Santa Cruz Skate and Surf Shop since the early ’90s, arrived at that point is interesting to note. After receiving several food barrels from Second Harvest, he noticed that the barrels just weren’t being filled up.

“We came to realize that moms weren’t traveling around with five pounds of food they can donate when their kids wanted to buy a skateboard,” Keith recalls. “Typically there would be 20 to 30 kids hanging out, playing pool, playing video games [in the shop]—they’re not walking around with cans of food in their pocket. So, I thought, if I can’t get them to bring in the food, then I’ll bring it to them.”

In a wild move, Keith decided to hit local elementary, middle and high schools during their traditional holiday food drives. An easy thing to do would have been to simply drop off some food barrels, but Keith opted to go one step further. He decided to actually talk to the students himself. And so, in a series of spirited discussions during assemblies, he began educating students about the importance of thwarting hunger locally.

He also offered incentives for schools to raise the most pounds per student. “I wanted to reward that [winning] school with a gift certificate, which they could give to winning students however they saw fit,” he says.

In the beginning, the idea sparked the interests of smaller niches—the AP Club, the school band and the like.

“Only about 5 percent of the school was involved and I saw that there needed to be a wide-spread peer pressure effect,” Keith adds. So he tossed in a prize of $600. Instantly, student interest surpassed just the AP club, to include the entire school.

So now, over the course of five years, Keith’s motivational work with students and their posses has lured in hundreds of thousands of pounds of food. 2009’s total: 100,000 pounds, nearly double the amount at the beginning of the mission.

But you’d really have to witness the Keith’s amazing zest in person to know just how infectious his personality is. His look is modern skate-surf. He appears carefree in sneakers but is insanely focused, creative and passionate about giving back—his brown hair is, at times shoulder-length before its cut off for Locks of Love, which provides real-hair wigs for those struggling from cancer. He now boasts more than 20 speaking engagements a year at local schools. In 2008, he nabbed the Generation Next Award from Second Harvest.

Asked why he’s so passionate about combating hunger, Keith pauses to reflect before noting that it has a great deal to with kids and the elderly, two groups of people, he says, “that really can’t really make a change happen [in regards to not having food].”

“I think there is a misnomer of who gets fed by food banks,” he quickly adds. “A lot of people think it’s mainly going to homeless shelters and people not pulling their weight, and that’s not really the case. Second Harvest services 40,000-plus people a month. Half of those are kids!"

But, he points out, it’s not like going to Safeway where you can pick out the food you want.

“You go there and you are handed a bag. It’s a very humbling experience. For me, I never went hungry growing up, but we were strapped as a family. Both my parents were injured and there were times when we’d eat a lot of hot dogs and beans—whatever, we were still eating, but I thoroughly believe that if we feed people and educated them, we’d have a better society and spend less money incarcerating people and trying to rehabilitate them.”

Keith is a Salinas native. He says he fell in love with surfing at an early age and moved to Santa Cruz in his late teens. He now has three children, 18, 16 and an 20-year old. He believes in “paying it forward” because “you never know where you are going to be.”

Next on the agenda, aside from nabbing a NEXTie: Teaming with Second Harvest on “packaging” the model he uses when speaking to kids, which would allow other food banks to utilize his program through media kits and DVDs.  He also sees the importance of being a social networking titan. Other than his ties at Santa Cruz Skate and Surf, he oversees other enterprises, such as skateboards.com, surfboards.com and snowboards.com. There’s more—Keith is also a morning on-air personality (6-11 a.m.) on KDON’s festive “Morning Madhouse”—you can often spot the man at a bunch of local events the station covers, too.

All this exposure, Keith notes, only helps him get the word out about hunger issues locally.

“There’s no reason anybody in this country should go hungry—period!” | Greg Archer


Learn more about Danny Keith and Grind Out Hunger at www.facebook.com/l/63a91;www.grindouthunger.org . Visit Santa Cruz Skate and Surf Shop at 912 41st Ave., Santa Cruz. Log on at www.facebook.com/l/63a91;skateboards.com. Watch live www.skateboard.com shows at noon, Friday at www.justin.tv/skateboards. Visit www.thefoodbank.org for more information on Second Harvest Food Bank.


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Reyna Ruiz

Beach Flats Community Center chief and ‘community designer’

“Some things happen by chance,” says Reyna Ruiz, program director of the Beach Flats Community Center (BFCC).

It was by chance that when the BFCC opened in 2000, Ruiz was looking to leave her job as a juvenile probation counselor for something more family-friendly—she was pregnant with her first. It was by chance, she says, that she lived directly across from the original BFCC on Raymond Street in Santa Cruz, and it was by chance that she was hired by the city to run it. 

Whether it was, in fact, all chance or rather an orchestrated instance of serendipity, what Ruiz brought to the job was far from random: a lifelong, pointed passion for bettering her community. As a fourth grader in South Central Los Angeles, she spent her recesses reading to kindergartners. In high school she organized dance-a-thons and AIDS Walks to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. Her volunteering and activism continued through her years at UC Santa Cruz in the early ’90s, and after when she moved home to LA to work with homeless.

It was her dedication to community that brought her back to Santa Cruz in 1998, where she felt her roots were now embedded. “I missed Santa Cruz,” she says. “It kept calling to me.”

The neighborhood was facing a lot of problems when the center opened, Ruiz recalls. Its initial focus was addressing gang violence and drugs, and it has since blossomed into the central gathering space for the community, providing a place for birthday parties, baby showers and public meetings. The BFCC also offers many non-fee based programs geared at early childhood education and parent engagement.
After all she’d been through with the center, Ruiz never would have guessed that the greatest hardship would come around the nine year mark: in December 2008, the City of Santa Cruz cut funding for the center, along with a handful of other local services, in an attempt to close its growing multi-million dollar budget deficit.

But closing the doors was never an option for Ruiz. “When I first started here, there were kids who were on probation and strung out on heroin, and I thought, ‘We’re not going back, we’ve worked too hard,’” she remembers, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. She blots her eyes with a tissue, “I said, ‘We’re not going to let it go.’”

Instead of feel defeated, Beach Flats neighbors said, “OK, what can we do?” The children held bake sales and sold painted rocks (a large yellow one of which now adorns Ruiz’s office desk), and the adults organized benefits, fundraisers and auctions. Most importantly, says Ruiz, they reached out to the larger Santa Cruz community for allies and formed an advisory board of prominent local figures. The necessary $122,000 came more quickly than expected. The BFCC is now partnered with Community Bridges, a 32-year old non-profit that supports dozens of other local programs.

Jeffrey Kongslie, chair of the Santa Cruz Next Board, says that Ruiz was selected for a NEXTie because of her inspiring story of transcending an obstacle that threatened her community. “She was faced with a huge task,” he says. “The city was no longer able to support that program and she could’ve walked away, she had other great opportunities—she could’ve gone to grad school—instead she said ‘I’m going to do this.’
“She didn’t have any experience in raising money, or doing the things that would be required for this [task] to be successful,” he adds. “The odds were against her. But she rallied, she gathered supporters. When you look at that, it’s such an inspiring achievement. She did it, and that is a story that this community should hear and it is a story they should celebrate and be proud of.”

At her office, just about one year after she received the bad news from the city, Ruiz pulls out her “Family Book,” a scrapbook parents make at the center. She flips through the pages of magazine clippings, drawings and photographs in search for something, finally pulling out a loose photograph. Twelve grinning 5-year-olds look up from the photo, each in a gold graduation cap and gown. This group is the first graduating class of the BFCC preschool program, she tells me. “These little ones,” she points out three boys, “are running around bike riding now. And this guy, Felipe, he comes to our after school program.” Ten years later, she remembers each of them by name and continues to keep tabs on them as teenagers.

The center is more than a workplace to Ruiz, and the neighborhood more than a residence. It’s a community, in the best sense of the word—and one she’s responsible for shaping. Still misty eyed, she says, “I design community. That’s what I do.” | Elizabeth Limbach


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Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz

Celestial observer and astro-genius

“I like things that explode,” Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz tells me. “The violent universe. If you really want to understand the internal parts of structures, then you collide them.” Black holes pulling apart stars, two white dwarfs smashing together, immeasurable supernovae. Though the assistant professor in UC Santa Cruz’s top-ranking Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is an expert on destructive celestial forces—and hopes to someday be able to predict such occurrences, the charismatic, young Mexican immigrant is also good at bringing people and things together. Ramirez-Ruiz is building scientific and socio-economic bridges closer to home.  

We chat in his office, where bare white walls focus my attention to the corner in which his computer screen flashes bursts of colors that morph into different images of stellar phenomena. His doorway showcases the other treasured source of color in his office—finger paintings by his two young kids, pinned up on the wall beneath a sepia photo of Einstein.
“My grandfather used to say, ‘Being lucky is just taking advantage of the opportunities you have,’” the 34-year-old says. “I was given earth-shattering opportunities in my own life, and now I want to give those same opportunities to others.”

Born and raised in Mexico City, where he received his undergraduate degree in physics, the esteemed scholar earned his PhD at Cambridge and continued his postdoctoral research at Princeton, before becoming a member of UCSC faculty in 2007. In 2006 he was named one of the 10 Best Young Mexican Scientists by a premier Mexican science magazine.

Early on, however, it was a life-changing internship that helped Ramirez-Ruiz discover astronomy as the ultimate test-bed to put the ideas of math and physics to work, and he now specializes in high-energy astrophysics. He’s a self-described “stellar mortician” studying the remnants of the death of stars and gamma-ray bursts, and has been awarded a Packard Fellowship, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and, now, a NEXTie. During his short time at UCSC he’s already spearheaded groundbreaking programs sensitive to cultural needs in addition to science.

Dr. Sandra Faber, the chair of his department, says that Ramirez-Ruiz is the “embodiment of the vital socially aware and energetic young faculty that UCSC is trying to hire.”

Nearly three years ago, when he first came to Santa Cruz, Ramirez-Ruiz gave a public lecture introducing himself to students at Salinas’ Hartnell Community College. The experience, he remembers, was transformative.

“I had this completely erroneous idea that Hispanics in the U.S. were much better off than the Hispanics in Mexico,” he says. “When I went to Salinas I realized the few opportunities people had and I was saddened by how segregated the educational system was.”

After his talk, a group of 18-year-old students felt an instant rapport with the guest speaker and spontaneously took him out to lunch. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so overwhelmed in my life,” he says of the encounter. “The students told me that they’d never met a Mexican with a PhD before. They immediately recognized me as someone who grew up in the same way as they did, and I thought I should use that fact to try to help and guide them.”

Soon after, he created the Lamat Program. With “Lamat” meaning “star” in Mayan, it’s an internship that selects two Hartnell students to research with Ramirez-Ruiz and his team of graduate students each summer. It’s already successfully funneled Hartnell students into four-year universities in scientific fields, and helped them publish their work along the way. Meanwhile, Ramirez-Ruiz continues to nurture an enthusiasm for science in Salinas by creating a dialogue not only with students but also with parents, and by bringing in myriad guest speakers to Hartnell each month.
In addition to his critical role in a UC-Mexico partnership to build a revolutionary 6.5-meter infrared telescope (in the league of Magellan) near Ensenada, Baja, that is expected to discover new objects—and some of the furthest objects in the universe, last August Ramirez-Ruiz also instituted the John Bahcall Award to further solidify that UC-Mexico relationship. Named in memory of his mentor at Princeton, the award brings the top undergraduate physics student from Mexico to work closely with him in Santa Cruz.  

“Enrico understands the need to cultivate mentors and advocates around the world, not just in our department,” Faber says. “Our graduate students are much more energized than they used to be.” She continues, “We’re trained as scientists to do research and teach in the classroom, but outreach is tricky. Enrico creates ties with so many people and places. He’s concerned not just with the ivory tower on campus but with where the university sits in the world. He connects us.”

Making it even more obvious why he’s been chosen to receive an inaugural NEXTie, Ramirez-Ruiz is humble about the nod and is starry-eyed by all that he still hopes to achieve. “To be honest with you, I was surprised I was awarded the honor,” he admits. “I feel like my efforts are only just starting.” | Linda Koffman


Learn more about Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz and his work at ucolick.org/~enrico

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Marina Sousa

Reality TV star, cake maven and more

“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” Marina Sousa says gracefully. Sousa is sitting in her Capitola office, surrounded by the almost impossibly gorgeous cake models she’s made to show potential clients, each bedecked with fondant pearls or delicately wrought birds, flowers and geometric icing designs, tiered three and four layers high. She’s remembering the spur-of-the-moment decision she made nearly 10 years ago to quit her entertainment industry job in Los Angeles and go work for a Beverly Hills bakery.  Following another whim, she soon left L.A. for Napa Valley to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), despite the fact that, at that point, she barely knew how to bake at all.

“I could make a mean batch of brownies, but that was about it,” she admits, laughing. “I had no experience.”
Not yet, anyway.

When Sousa returned to southern California a year later, freshly certified, she was ready to launch her own business. But after being in the wine country for a year, she found it virtually impossible to go back to Los Angeles.

“I tried,” she admits. “I was there for two weeks and was ready to jump out of my skin.”

Instead she moved back home to Santa Cruz. “I thought it was just going to be for a summer, just to figure out what my next move was going to be,” she recalls. “I honestly wasn’t convinced there was a market in this area for high-end wedding cakes.”

But she was decided to give it a try; her old Catholic elementary, Salesian Sisters School in Corralitos, allowed her use their kitchen to start her baking. “It was so great to have that connection to the community,” she says, adding with a grin, “The nun who was my principal was always around. She would come in and pray the rosary while I was baking.”
Friends suggested she test the market by making a few display cakes and taking them to area bridal shows; the morning after a show in Monterey, she received 38 phone calls. “And it’s just snowballed ever since,” she says.

That’s putting it mildly. Sousa has become a bona fide TV personality, participating in more than half a dozen Food Network baking challenges. Then, last October, she returned from lunch one afternoon to find a message from The Oprah Winfrey Show, asking if she wanted to participate in a “cake-off” against fellow Food Network celebrities Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes and Mary & Brenda Maher of Cake Girls. The challenge was to create the most unique Oprah-themed cake; Sousa’s cake was more than 10 feet high, so tall that the production crew had to cut down the base they’d made to support the cake so it wouldn’t tower over the wall of the studio. “That was the biggest cake I’ve ever made, and, as far as I know, the biggest cake anybody’s ever made on TV. It was crazy,” she says. Though the Cake Girls used their home-court advantage to win the studio audience vote, Sousa’s cake won an online poll by more than 60 percent. But for her, the excitement of being on Oprah was prize enough. “The nuns were all so excited,” she says, smiling. “I got a letter from them.”

Now that she’s hit the big time, people keep asking her when she is going to leave and go to L.A. or San Francisco or New York.

“Honestly, I feel like I’ve been there, done that,” she says. “I’ve lived in big cities. They’re great to visit, but I feel like [Santa Cruz] is, by far, one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been.”
One perk is that she has access to fresh, local ingredients. “In southern California, it was ordering from these big massive companies,” she says. “Here, I literally go out to these ranches and get my eggs and berries myself. I make everything from scratch. Most ingredients come from a 60 to 100-mile radius.”

Sousa feels “incredibly grateful” for the serendipity that brought her home to Santa Cruz and allowed her business to flourish. “Everything is just falling into place,” she says.
And for her, that’s the sweetest thing of all.  | Anna Merlan

Learn more about Marina Sousa at justcake.com.

Comments (1)Add Comment
Tickets are officially sold out, none available at the door!
written by Mike Brogan, January 21, 2010
Due to overwhelming demand, the NEXTies are officially sold out, and (contrary to the article) there will be no tickets available at the door. More details and ways to connect with NEXT are on our website at www.santacruznext.org

Thanks to everyone for the interest!

--Mike Brogan
Santa Cruz NEXT Tech Director

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