9 FOR 2009

Don’t look behind you. It’s dark back there. But there’s light ahead, and that’s what these young people represent—forward movement within our community. Looking into 2009, what do you see? We see open road with a lot of dangerous curves fading behind. And that’s the direction these nine lives are heading. Culture still thrives in Ventura County—in dance and theater and all forms of art—albeit less profitable for the time being. Young entrepreneurs are rising from the rubble of a wounded economy. Education and volunteerism continue to flourish. And as we welcome the first vibrant, young president since Kennedy in ‘61, we enter into a level of universal dialogue unlike anything that could have been imagined in the sixties, thanks to the Internet. It takes time to rebuild a broken house. Meanwhile we live amidst the detritus of a construction zone. And people like your neighbors on the pages ahead just keep moving. And the world will catch up. Perhaps in 2009.



Photo by Marion Witte.

When Theater 150 artistic directors Chris (the brains) and Deb (the heart) decided to move the nonprofit theater into roomier surrounds, a Ford dealership, an old church, and a funeral home were among the contenders. The funeral home won. The engaged couple that work by the words of Orson Wells—“Don’t give them what you think they want; give them what they never thought was possible”—considered it a fitting venue. “They’ve done a remarkable job revitalizing the best theater in Ojai,” says local actor Peter Fox, echoing the words of many theater lovers in the community. Now with twice as many seats to fill, Chris and Deb are looking toward the future. They plan on working with Ojai schools to offer more classes for kids, as well as improving the quality of their already topnotch productions. In a poignant act of serendipity, the duo met at Theater 150. That was seven years ago, when actor Chris read for a part in Deb’s playwright debut. Nowadays they work together seamlessly, utilizing distinct talents to strengthen their working relationship.




Photo by Brian Stethem.

At barely 36, Dr. Adina Nack’s list of accomplishments reads like a how-to guide to successful social activism. An associate professor of sociology at CLU, she was the founding director of the school’s Center for Equality & Justice. She is the 2008 Ventura County Community Member of the Year, as awarded by Planned Parenthood of Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. 2008 also saw publication of Nack’s first book, “Damaged Goods,” which highlights years of women’s health research and has already been featured in two MTV documentaries. Known for using a sociological perspective to discuss taboo topics, Dr. Nack recently launched an interactive website (see below) to increase dialogue about living with medically incurable STDs—a fact of life for over 15 million Americans. A proponent of community-based action research, Nack was a co-principal investigator for Ventura County’s two recent studies of Latinos/as receiving HIV/AIDS services. She has played the lead role in collaborating with community groups to organize Ventura County’s annual World AIDS Day events and has won everything from local teaching awards to national research awards. Nack’s compelling speeches have inspired countless people—particularly women. And the best part is: she’s just getting started.

Look for Adina Nack’s “Damaged Goods,” published by Temple University Press, at all major bookstores. Her website, launched to create community, includes an online blog where readers can post anonymous questions, as well as a contact form for personal questions. See



Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

After two Pennsylvania winters studying at Bucknell University, this fifth generation Venturan transferred to Pepperdine and eventually settled in Ventura County to work at Merrill Lynch as a financial advisor. Determined to give back to his community, John serves on the Young Professionals Network of the Oxnard Boys and Girls Club and is a Board Member of the Oxnard Rotary Club.

Describe a specific project you’ve worked on that benefits the community? Last year was the first year that I helped chair the Rotary Basketball Tournament in Oxnard. We had the largest number of teams participating ever.

Why do you choose to work with youths? You notice that the kids understand hard work has its rewards, and that there are many people out there for them, cheering for them, and wanting them to succeed.

What do you hope to achieve through your public service? I hope that children in the community will learn what it means to be part of a team, to stay healthy and exercise regularly, and that hard work can make any dream come closer to reality.

What do you love about Ventura County? The people. Since we are a small farm and family-oriented community, you know your neighbors and people do genuinely care. For example, the other day my neighbor called before I went to bed to inform me that my garage door was still open.

What is one of your greatest fears? I am too young to have any fears. Give me three years.



Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

This 28-year-old artist, founder of the Red Brick Gallery and winner of a 2008 Mayor’s Arts Award, has done more than her fair share to build the relationship between art and the community. She works closely with the Downtown Ventura Organization, promoting local events, and somehow finds time to teach art classes for children.

What do you hope to achieve with your gallery? I want to bring art to the community in an accessible, comfortable atmosphere. I feel that the more the public sees what amazing art is created in their community, the more they’ll want to support the arts and buy pieces locally.

What’s on the horizon for your gallery? I am hoping to continue making an impact in the community with more outreach and collaboration with local nonprofits. We are planning a series of monthly workshops for 2009 that are taught by local artists, including myself.

Any new projects in the works? I’m currently working on a new series. I’m also working on an art fundraiser for “Kids’ Arts” and Bell Arts Factory’s youth art program.

How are you able to manage your activities? I have very little social life. I love all of the things I do, so I spend my time balancing them. Organization is the key.

What is one of your greatest fears? I have nightmares that no one shows up to one of my artist receptions. I know it sounds silly, but I don't want to disappoint my artists.




Photo by Gary and Pierre Silva.

While on a football scholarship at Stanford, Ventura native Sam Benner walked onto the field at the Rose Bowl in 2000 ready to take care of business. As defensive end, he did just that. And now he’s back, doing the same locally as an award-winning volunteer and Internet consultant. In 2008 he was inducted into the St. Bonaventure High School Hall of Fame and named the Ventura Chamber of Commerce Volunteer of the Year.

Why did you choose to work in the Internet marketing industry? I majored in Communications at Stanford because I loved the combination of studying people and how they process media. Working in Internet marketing gives me the opportunity to continue to pursue those interests.

What are some community projects you’ve worked on? I’ve volunteered with the Ventura County Educators’ Hall of Fame, Housing Opportunities Made Easier, Ventura County AIDS Partnership, and the Museum of Ventura County, working with the principles of these organizations to help them use the Internet to promote their causes.

What would you change about Ventura County in 2009 and beyond? I would love to see a continued growth of the entertainment industry so people don’t feel the need to leave our county to experience a variety of fun things.

What do you plan to change about Ventura County? Bring more connectivity between the local merchants and their customers, and localize the global online marketplace.

Do you have a personal motto or creed that you live by? Tough times don’t last, tough people do.




“Opportunity is often disguised as hard work. That’s why so many people miss it.” These are words that Tifney Bertram keeps top-of-mind. And considering the opportunities that have come her way, this beloved teacher/surfer/gardener must be very hardworking indeed. The local community voted her one of the best teachers in Ventura County for 2008, and her five-year-old school garden program has been attracting accolades statewide.

How did the school garden program at Cabrillo Middle School begin? My principal caught wind that I had a green thumb and asked me to take on a garden restoration project. I had to start by tearing out dead trees and grading. I persuaded community members like APEX General Contractors to help with the manpower.

What did you hope to achieve through the program? At first I just wanted to beautify the campus and do something I loved. Now, I’ve been accepted to the UC Master Gardener Program in Ventura. It will hopefully give me ideas on how I can fill the gaps between elementary school gardens and high school agriculture classes.

How is the garden being used? Teachers take their students out there for class, student presentations are made there—even detention! Some kids actually got detention on purpose because they had never seen a caterpillar or plucked a tomato off the vine and eaten it.

Any plans for other community projects? I would like to become an expert on creating and sustaining school gardens, and create cross-curriculum lessons for the garden.



Physical trainer Michelle Vrakelos gets behind her students, pushing them to the next level. Photo by Forrest Frields.

Keep an eye on Michelle Vrakelos—if you can. The Ventura County native is a blur of innovation, a high-energy flash with a way of turning everything she touches into gold. Or muscle. A professional dancer, Vrakelos honed her chops at the uber-hip Edge Performing Arts Center in Hollywood. M6 Fitness, her new hybrid gym in Thousand Oaks, fuses exercise and dance, and has either the atmosphere of a trendy house party or a family-friendly vibe, depending on the day and time. The buzz around M6 has already attracted people from Ojai to LA: “People just want to be here,” says Vrakelos. “They want to be entertained when they work out.” Ever the innovator, Vrakelos has a knack for creating profitable niches. When she couldn’t find clothes to fit her athletic build, she started her own line—Cozzi Clothing Company—which was immediately snatched up by chic stores such as Fred Segal, Planet Blue, and M. Fredericks. When she took up Tae Bo, her agility caught the eye of legendary founder Billy Blanks: “Your kicks scare me,” he reportedly told Vrakelos before inviting her to join his exclusive Tae Bo team. Which ultimately led to the hybrid concept of M6 Fitness. So what’s next? Live DJs for one. And beyond that, the sky’s the limit.

M6 Fitness 1655 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks 805.449.1505,



Photo by Lynda Rueter.

According to pediatric experts, a normal four-year-old “enjoys making loud noises.” Appreciation of Tchaikovsky comes later—for Fillmore’s Natalie Graham, a full decade later. Which doesn’t seem terribly strange until you realize that Natalie Graham is only 14. A student at Ballet Academy Ventura since she was four, Graham played a lead role as Clara in the Ventura County Ballet Company’s production of The Nutcracker this fall and has all the markings of a future star. “I’m just kind of keeping my options open right now, working hard at what I do and then we’ll see where the future takes me,” she says. Keeping her options open—at the age of 14? Graham’s natural poise lends itself perfectly to the flow and grace of classical ballet. And with her family’s support, this rising star seems destined for greatness in the performing arts. “It’s a little girl’s dream to be a ballerina,” she says in a soft voice, sounding for a moment like any other young teen. “I think my parents just kind of realized that I really wanted to do it.”



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