Sometimes life can seem overwhelming, even in the idyllic environs we enjoy in Orange County. As reflections about the past and new year kick in, we wanted to share the inspiring stories of a few OC families.
The Brown Family 100 Miles and Counting
Last December, Kelly and Allen Brown sat their small children, Eden 5 and Elijah 3, around the kitchen table. They felt it was important to teach their kids about the rewards of hard work and began an elementary conversation about goals. As January approached with resolutions soon to follow, the Brown family comtemplated setting a goal for the new year as a family.
Being avid hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, Kelly suggested the idea of hiking 50 miles in one year. Other ideas surfaced but much to Kelly’s surprise, instead of groans and complaints the children blurted out, “Let’s hike one hundred miles!” Their goal was to spread the hundred-mile goal over the course of one year covering no more than 5.5 miles in one hike. (“You’d be surprised at how far a four year old’s legs can hike,” said Kelly.) Consulting websites like OC Parks, Family Friendly hikes, and the book, California Hikes, the Brown family embarked on their first hike the morning of January 2, 2016, in Carbon Canyon.
Completing the goal would result in a family trip to the indoor-waterpark resort, Great Wolf Lodge. This midway incentive was cooked up in order to motivate Eden and Elijah when energy waned, threatening success. Kelly and Allen sweetened the pot for the trekking twosome with token rewards of candy for every mile and Gatorade refreshment in addition to water. Kelly kept a large chart where progress was noted and calculated, and where the miles could be counted down throughout the year. Soon the family grew excited as Hike Days approached.
“I like rocky hikes, because I could climb on big rocks. And snowy hikes because I could make snowballs,” said Elijah, 3.
Engaging in the online game using GPS navigation in order to discover outdoor treasures also aided in the excitement. While Elijah loves the general concept of adventure, hopping over rocks and chasing after the occasional lizard, Eden found the Geocaching a more interesting way to pass time on the trails.
Another unexpected benefit of the Brown’s hiking experiment, was growing closer as a family by getting outdoors, away from their busy lives, creating time and space to have valuable conversation.
“This special time together allowed us to teach our kids about nature, provided a sense of the family as a team, and helped organize our weekends,” said Kelly.
As a couple, Kelly and Allen spent the time outdoors talking about where to spend their next vacation and sharing fantasies about buying a cabin in the mountains. As the months passed, Kelly who works as a photographer, documented their progress by posting photos of their adventures on Instagram. Soon, the Brown family developed a social media “team of cheerleaders”.
The Browns reached their family hiking goal last month with a scenic three-mile hike in Crystal Cove. Not only did the hiking result in a happier, healthy lifestyle, it expelled all ideas that their kids were too young to achieve or appreciate such a feat.
“I liked when we finished because I felt super strong,” said Eden, 5.
“As a father, seeing my children push through challenges and do more than they thought they could, filled me with pride,” said Allen of the impressive achievement. “When they conquered hikes I found challenging, they came to understand they are stronger than they realized. This, in my opinion, was the greatest reward of our family goal.”
The Zygo’s Let Faith Take the Stage
Stephen and Maggie Zygo’s dream of opening a thriving acting academy for kids came to fruition in 2009. This was at the height of home costs soaring and money spent on outside endeavors for kids dropping, a challenge for the Orange County majority. Having met in grad school while studying musical theater at the University of Hawaii, the Zygo’s knew their dream would be a long shot. Both were working full time, enjoying their jobs and using their talents in the workplace. However, in 2008 they were both unexpectedly let go from their positions.
The Zygo’s took their sudden free time as a silver lining and partnered with Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano to open Acting Academy for Kids, www.actingacademyforkids.com. In spite of the failing economy, the business grew. Making the academy “all about the kids and keeping the families happy” was paramount in their business plan. They hired professionally-trained, credentialed teachers and offered vocal training, television and film courses, instrumental music, and dance, in addition to musical theater and stage acting. The academy has since trained over 7,000 students.
Riding the success, they achieved another dream — buying a home in Orange County for their growing family. But in a terrible stroke of irony, on the joyful day their home purchase was complete, Stephen and Maggie were told that the Camino Real Playhouse would be shuttered and sold, leaving their business homeless. The Zygo’s, busy caring for an active two-year-old and pregnant with a second child, relied heavily on their faith, believing they would somehow find a home for their thriving acting academy. As the search for a new location continued, Maggie visited her doctor to talk about a lump that she noticed in her neck. While nine months pregnant, she underwent minor surgery to remove the lump for biopsy, confident that the results would be encouraging.
A few days later while Maggie was in for a routine ultrasound, she was told the baby was in distress and needed to be delivered immediately by C-section. She rushed home to inform Stephen who was frantically moving boxes and furniture into their new home while tending to their toddler, Julian. Maggie stood in the doorway as Stephen gathered her hospital bag, trying to remain calm and absorb the turn of events when her phone rang. The lump on her neck was Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—cancer.
A day that should have been marked with unequivocal joy at the birth of their second boy, Jessie, would forever be linked to a devastating medical diagnosis. Their positivity was challenged further upon receiving news that while the post-operation radiation was successful, the cancer had spread to Maggie’s abdomen.
“Our faith has been the foundation to get us through all of this,” said Stephen.
The Zygo family needs, and are depending on, an unimaginably positive prognosis not only for Maggie, but also for the future of their family business which faces a March eviction. The couple continues their quest to locate a home for Acting Academy for Kids as they navigate the tricky waters of cancer treatments, two small boys in tow. The highs and lows the Zygo family faced might debilitate your average family, but Stephen and Maggie rely on their faith, the strength of their marriage and love for their boys, and heavy dose of belief in miracles. Their unwavering positivity and force in fighting the odds is an inspiration to anyone facing challenges in their lives.
Tilly Levine and Daughters Help Teens Catch a Wave of Positivity
Tilly Levine, known for her successful surf clothing business, knows the battles teenagers face on a daily basis. Issues with self-esteem, comparing to others, and identity weigh on our young people and make it hard to stay positive.
“Teens typically don’t think too highly of themselves and we want to empower them to think differently,” said Tilly.
As a mother of two, Tilly was determined to equip her daughters with the life skills necessary for success. While many attribute success to a good education, character development, and taking responsibility for your actions, markers Tilly would agree are crucial, she was determined to prepare her girls with emotional intelligence and positivity for the time when they would need to live without her.
“No one taught me how to be a positive human being. My life would have been a lot better if I was able to think positively and learn how to make the best choice possible,” said Tilly.
Tilly, along with her two daughters, has begun a foundation called Tilly’s Life Center (TLC) which strives to empower teens from 12-18. TLC provides 36-week classes, led by trained facilitators who address issues like bullying, drugs, and eating disorders, as well as the overlooked emotions of fear, forgiveness, and body image. Classes are voluntary and held onsite at local schools.
Her older daughter, Amy, devotes her time to fundraising as the Director of Marketing and Operations for TLC while younger daughter, Netta, uses her PhD in Psychology to proof all of the TLC materials. Together, this family has made a determination to change the trajectory of teens throughout Orange County.
By Linda Vujnov