Other Freelance

A Brush with Art, Success for Boy with Autism

This article was published on the website of Santa Barbara Newsroom, an experimental project launched by a group of journalists.

Until May 11, Kevin Hosseini will have a painting displayed at the Carpinteria Valley Arts Council, 855 Linden Ave. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN
Until May 11, Kevin Hosseini will have a painting displayed at the Carpinteria Valley Arts Council, 855 Linden Ave.. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN

* * * WATCH THE VIDEO * * *

(Originally published on April 7, 2007)

Perhaps like many artists, Kevin Hosseini can get frustrated to the point of hurling his paintbrush across the room when a piece isn’t coming together.

But unlike others, the 12-year-old Carpinteria resident benefits from a one-word reminder neatly handwritten on a note next to his easel: “Calm.”

Kevin was diagnosed at an early age with autism, a developmental disability related to the central nervous system that can cause people to become easily over-stimulated. But that hasn’t stopped Kevin from finding success.

A gifted oil painter, the sixth-grader at Carpinteria Family School has sold about 15 pieces to patrons who live as far away as New York City, as well as closer to home, including Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum and state Assemblyman Pedro Nava.

Kevin’s body of work grew so large that the family started selling the paintings. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN
Kevin’s body of work grew so large that the family started selling the paintings. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN

Until May 11, he will have a painting displayed at the Carpinteria Valley Arts Council (, at 855 Linden Ave. And on May 12, he will be one of 28 artists featured in Carpinteria’s first-ever home studio tour.

Kevin discovered his passion by accident about two years ago, when his behavioral therapist, Colin Zimbleman, who’s also an artist, came to the house with a canvas and paintbrush in the hopes of finding a fun activity that would bring a therapeutic effect.

It worked. In addition to the artistic success, Kevin still benefits from the lessons of life learned through painting. For instance, sometimes life is messy – sometimes you drop your brush on the floor and leave a splotch that needs cleaning. The key, Zimbleman tells him, is to solve the problem one step at a time: get a paper towel, get it wet, rub the floor clean, throw the towel away.

“Then it’s not some big heavy thing,” he said.

Painting became an obsession. Kevin’s body of work grew so large that the family started selling the paintings at modest prices for lack of space on the walls, said his mother, Debbie Hosseini. So far, he’s made a total of about $2,500 — not a bad stipend for a 12-year-old.

Every year, one in 150 children are diagnosed with autism. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN
Every year, one in 150 children are diagnosed with autism. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN

“He doesn’t have a lot of friends, so he gets satisfaction from his art,” she said, while sitting in the kitchen, as Kevin dabbed away on a brightly colored abstract painting of Bob Marley in the adjacent room. “Also, the recognition he gets is satisfying – people see him as a capable person.”

Every year, one in 150 children is diagnosed with autism. The disorder is especially prevalent among boys – one in 94. Twenty years ago, for reasons researchers have yet to decipher, the rate was one in 10,000.

Debbie and her husband, Carpinteria Sanitary District Financial Director Hamid Hosseini, started noticing something amiss with their son when he was around 2 years old.

He started forgetting words that he had learned; his vocabulary dwindled from about 75 words to 25. He became obsessed with lining up his toys in neat rows, and with watching water pour out of a hose. He started having gastro-intestinal problems.

As a toddler, Kevin would escape from the house at night and run into the darkness. At the time, the family lived near a creek in Carpinteria.

“One time I had 10 people out looking for him,” said Debbie, an accountant and computer programmer. “I was afraid he had drowned in the creek.”

Some of the episodes were scary. Once, when he was 4, the pair was on the freeway and he started acting up from the back seat. He wanted her to stay in the fast line, because he was fascinated with the yellow line.

“He started throwing things at my head, and he got out of his car seat, yelling ‘Yellow line! Yellow line!’ ” she said. “He tried to open the van’s back door.”

Now, thanks to years of behavioral therapy, Kevin is better able to control himself, and his parents are better trained in dealing with the tantrums. The biggest lesson: Do not respond to a child’s tantrum by giving him what he wants – until he settles down.

 gifted oil painter, the sixth-grader at Carpinteria Family School has sold about 15 pieces. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN
gifted oil painter, the sixth-grader at Carpinteria Family School has sold about 15 pieces. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN

But Debbie said she learned another, perhaps even more valuable lesson: Don’t just treat the weaknesses – focus on the strengths, too.

“He’s developed a skill that maybe he can use later on, instead of bagging up groceries,” she said. “Something that he’s passionate about.”

As for Zimbleman, who spends five hours a week with Kevin free of charge – his costs are covered by the Tri-Counties Regional Center — said he was blown away by Kevin’s natural ability as an artist.

“He’s got a Kevin style – people can see that,” he said. “Between the color, texture, the technique he uses, the subject matter – it all just kind of fits,” he said. “His work has a gut-level intensity to it.”

Click here to see more of Kevin’s art.

Other Freelance

UCSB entrepreneurial contest leads to million-dollar idea for 3 young alums

Breathing Life into an Enterprise – An UCSB Entrepreneurial Contest Leads Three Young Alums to Start Multimillion-Dollar Company

By Rob Kuznia

Originally published in the spring of 2009


While it’s true young entrepreneurial dreamers have all their lives to start that first business, some believe there’s no time like college — or the years immediately after — to take the plunge. One of those believers is Byron Myers ’01, and he should know.


The 2001 UC Santa Barbara graduate is one of three young founders of a business that began as an innocent idea for a UC Santa Barbara entrepreneurial competition.

Now, the three UC Santa Barbara alums own a company that generates up to $15 million annually, pays a handsome salary and employs 50 people. And here’s the kicker: Myers and the two others — Ali Perry ’03 and Brenton Taylor ’03 — are all still in their 20s.

Called Inogen, the Goleta-based business manufactures a portable oxygen concentrator for lung-disease patients. The suitcase-size oxygen generator is designed for those who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is usually caused by smoking and is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

Inogen One is a lightweight answer to bulky stationary systems that tether people to their homes and air tanks that need to be refilled every couple hours.

Given their status as a local success story, the Inogen One founders are often invited to speak in classes at UC Santa Barbara. Myers, the company’s 29-year-old director of marketing, likes to encourage students to strike out on their own right out of college.

“You don’t have much to lose — no mortgages to pay or kids to feed,” he told Coastlines. “Now is the time to see if you can make something happen.”

As the trio has shown, you also don’t need a degree in engineering. Myers and financial controller Perry were math and econ majors; technology director Taylor was a biology major.

To date, the company has sold 20,000 units, which fetch between $4,000 and $5,000 apiece. The young entrepreneurs wracked up numerous accolades, including mention in Inc. magazine’s annual “30 Under 30” issue profiling “the coolest young entrepreneurs in America” of 2007.


The success of Inogen One underscores the power of a simple idea, especially one that offers a solution to a common frustration.

It all began when the college friends decided to enter a contest that is now known as the New Venture Competition hosted by UC Santa Barbara’s Technology Management Program, which offers courses about the process of commercializing new technologies.

It was near the holidays, and the contest didn’t get under way until after winter break. The group went home to their respective families and ruminated.

At the time, Perry’s octogenarian grandmother, Mae Stoneman, was suffering from COPD and had just been prescribed an oxygen tank. Stoneman lamented how this could prohibit her from embarking on some of her dearest pursuits, such as attending plays and going on cruises.

At 55 pounds, the device that generated the oxygen for her portable tank was the size of a mini-fridge, and could not be transported. The thought of running out of oxygen outside the house — say, during a traffic jam — was terrifying.

Then came the million-dollar idea: Why not design a portable device that does it all?
With this in mind, the group set about crafting the concept for the competition, which requires a business plan and a good pitch. To say they impressed the judges would be an understatement of the highest order.

Odell and CooperThe judges not only awarded the team first place, they encouraged the students to give it a real go. What’s more, two judges continued to work with the students to help them refine the idea.

Then, one day, during a meeting at a coffee shop, one of the judges, UC Santa Barbara alum Steve Cooper ’68, made an announcement.

“He said, ‘We’re at a point now where I want to invest in your company,’ ” Myers recalls. “That was a surprise. Then it became much more serious.”

Cooper — currently the CEO of Skyler Technologies — became the company’s first chairman. The other judge, Kathy Odell, became the CEO. (The company recently hired a new CEO, Raymond Huggenberger.)

Using Cooper’s $200,000 investment, the company created a prototype. By fall of 2004, the device was ready to roll off the production line. At 10 pounds, the oxygen concentrator — which is designed to last five years — can be carried like a suitcase, complete with a lightweight cart on wheels and a retractable handle. In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration approved its use on commercial airliners.

The first model off the line went directly to Stoneman, who soon after hopped aboard a cruise ship, Myers said. She used the device for three years before dying last year. She was in her late 80s.

Myers, who graduated two years before his younger business partners, acknowledged that the company has felt the sting of the recession. Although he declined to reveal recent revenue figures, the 2007 article in Inc. magazine said the company at the time had 100 employees.

Still, Myers said he is very optimistic about the future, and added that the push now is to go public. He also plans to stay with the company for a long time.

“We’re not looking to just get acquired quickly,” he said.

Meanwhile, despite his success, the San Diego native is still reluctant to purchase a home in Santa Barbara, where median price of a home in late March was $715,000, the highest in California.

“I was never comfortable with the housing prices here,” he said.

So for the foreseeable future, Myers and his partners will continue to work on their business, strive to take it public, speak to students in the Technology Management Program, and pay rent.

Other Freelance Shifting Paradigms

Another Relic Bites the Dust: A Gritty Day Drinker’s Bar is the Latest Santa Barbara Fixture to Be Priced Out of a Gentrified Market

This article was published on the website of The Ink Online, an experimental project launched by a group of Santa Barbara journalists.

In the crisp early hours of any given morning, those who decide to begin their day with a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in the Paseo Nuevo mall may notice the sounds of a clinking glass or hacking cough from a nearby dark open door.

That’s the sound of a loyal group of regulars at Mel’s bar, starting the day off in their own way: with a glass of beer and a cigarette. Or, perhaps, just a cup of coffee.

Although daytime drinking might not be a tradition to aspire to, the patrons and tenders of the pub at 6 De la Guerra Street wryly maintain that Santa Barbarans should lament – at least a little bit — the impending loss of a historical fixture.

Regardless of whether Mel’s is a local treasure, an unhealthy enabler, or both, one thing is certain: It is the latest ma-and-pa-shop victim of the State Street rental bonanza.

Skyrocketing monthly rents – reportedly from $3,500 to $10,000 — are forcing the 66-year-old watering hole to either move out of its longtime digs or close up shop for good. The bar is currently looking for a vacant space with reasonable rent.

“It sucks — I’ll be honest with you,” said bartender Doug Hedger. “They’re bent on getting rid of small businesses. State Street is going to look like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where it’s nothing but corporations.”

In the meantime, the Mel’s folks will continue to stop in for a drink and reminisce about what they believe to be the good old days for as long as they can.

Their favorite tales include the one of a lawyer named Bruce who used to show up every day at 7 a.m. for a glass of beer. When Bruce died, his relatives called the bar just to let everybody know.

“And to make sure he didn’t leave open a tab,” quipped Hedger, while fixing a $7 “Cadillac Margarita” for a customer on a recent summer day around noon.

Then there’s the lore about how the place used to be a speakeasy back in the days of prohibition.

“There were two sets of stairways from the basement to the bar,” said Richard Blake, a former bartender, of the bar’s first location just across the street, from which it moved 44 years ago. “There was only one reason for that – to hide the liquor in the basement, is my guess.”

In the ensuing years, Mel’s has had a way of attracting a clientele with more than a bit of grit. Take Hedger, for example.

Like many a Mel’s enthusiast, Hedger is a Vietnam war vet who drifted into Santa Barbara almost accidentally. A 56-year-old Wyoming native with a few missing teeth and a large tattoo on both forearms, Hedger spent his first few post-war years as a horse-riding ranch-hand in Arroyo Grande.

His career path changed in the blink of an eye, the day a stubborn Texas Longhorn-bramah mix– which he said translates loosely into “big cow with long horns” – fatally gored his horse in the heart, and then him in the stomach on his way to the ground.

Several weeks and seven surgeries later, Hedger decided to hop on his motorcycle and ride as far away from the ranch as possible. He ended up in Santa Barbara.

Hedger met some other bikers who introduced him to Mel’s, where he became a regular customer. That was 1981. Nearly 20 years later, he was promoted to bartender – where he has been ever since.

“I went from an imbiber to an enabler,” he mused.

But now he’s worried about his livelihood.

“I’m a little too old to get a job at some other bar,” he said.

The owner of Mel’s, Michael Knapp, said the bar has until Feb. 1 to find a new location. If it doesn’t happen by then, it’ll be closing time.

“There’s a lot of history here,” said the 44-year-old Mesa resident, who also works as a defensive coach for the Santa Barbara City College football team.

“We’ve got locals that go way back – three or four generations. A lot of people come in here and say, ‘My dad used to come in here,’ or ‘My grandfather used to come in here.’ You hear that all the time.”

One such patron is a 60-year-old man known as Mace. As a child, Mace would amble into Mel’s to get some loose change from his uncle.

But unlike some other regulars, Mace – who describes himself as a retired employee of the “shipping and receiving” industry – doesn’t get too sentimental about the potential demise of the drinking den he has been patronizing for some 40 years.

“Obviously people here drink, so it doesn’t really fit in with this mall,” he conceded, pointing to the nearby clothing stores, coffee shops, faux cobblestone pathways and the signature water fountain of the open-air shopping plaza. “I would like it to stay, but I understand. I’m a realist.”

If the rent hike – imposed by Santa Barbara Real Estate and Investment – left the Mel’s crowd jaded, the police department’s springtime recommendation to a state agency to deny the bar’s request to move into an empty lot in the 400 block of State Street only compounded the bitterness. The bar is still awaiting a final answer, but the state usually defers to the expertise of the local police force.

Further stirring the dander of the Mel’s crowd is an unconfirmed rumor that the Cheesecake Factory – which also sells liquor – will soon grace the lower State Street area.

“If you sell cheesecake you can move in – it doesn’t matter how much liquor you sell,” said Louie Giglio, another Vietnam vet. “It’s just the little guys getting the short end of the stick once again in Santa Barbara.”

Paul Casey, the city’s community development director, said he hadn’t heard the rumor about the Cheesecake Factory, although he added that the chain restaurant would not need the city’s permission to move in.

As for the police recommendation, Lt. Paul McCaffrey, the spokesman for the Santa Barbara Police Department, said it’s not that the city has anything against Mel’s, per se.

McCaffrey said the zone that includes the 400-to-600-block areas of State Street boasts the highest number of alcohol businesses anywhere in the state. The last thing the area needs, he said, is another bar that serves only drinks and no food.

Also, he said, the volume of criminal police calls in the lower State Street area – more than 2,000 in two years – is excessive. (In comparison, Mel’s has seen just eight criminal calls in three years, he said.)

“We’re not opposed to them moving, we just don’t want them to go there,” he said.

For their part, the Mel’s crowd will do their best to enjoy the last days in their den. What other choice do they have? And they’ll continue to do it with a slight sense of fatalistic irony.

Summing up the soul of Mel’s, Giglio put it this way:

“It’s a sunny spot for shady people.”

With that, he slapped the bar, gave out a self-satisfied hoot and stepped out into the afternoon sun for a smoke.

Other Freelance

Santa Barbara High Grad Faced Own Mortality

This article was published on the website of Santa Barbara Newsroom, an experimental project launched by a group of journalists.

Jerry Perez can remember the moment he decided to turn his life around and graduate from high school.

It was three years ago, and he was lying in what he thought might be his death bed, trying to console his sobbing mother.

Jerry Perez promised his mother he'd graduate. Photo by Rob Kuznia/SBN
Jerry Perez promised his mother he'd graduate. Photo by Rob Kuznia/SBN

The victim of a life-threatening kidney disease that had plagued him from birth with kidney stones, temporary paralysis and stunted growth, Jerry’s health troubles may have contributed to behavior issues that landed him in situations nearly as dangerous as the disease.

“My mom told me ‘All I want is for you to get a diploma in your hand,’ ” he said. “That’s when I promised her that I would get one.”

On June 14, he will fulfill that promise: Jerry will accept his piece of paper along with hundreds of other graduating seniors in cap and gown at Santa Barbara High School.

His path to a diploma has been a bumpy one, filled with the obstacles of not only disease, but also gang violence, divorce and the alcoholism of his father, who recently wound up homeless.

In one year’s time, owing largely to on-campus extracurriculars such as the low-riders bicycle club and the now-defunct Junior ROTC, Jerry went from nearly being expelled to being a student of the month, not to mention a favorite of many teachers and administrators.

Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals. Photo by Rob Kuznia
Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals. Photo by Rob Kuznia

Jerry still has a tough road ahead of him. Next year he plans to simultaneously take courses at City College and take care of his recovering father after he is released from the detox shelter. But his achievement of earning a diploma is significant. The youngest of three siblings, Jerry will be the first in his family to graduate high school. He hopes to one day become a Medical Emergency Technician.

“He’ll do fine in the world, because he’s got street smarts,” said Marcy Porter, an academic counselor at Santa Barbara High. “He’s also got a lot of personality.”


Jerry has come a long way from where he was that day three years ago at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. His kidney disease – known as Renal Tubular Acidosis – was getting the better of him.

He’d been at the hospital about a week since waking up one day and realizing that he couldn’t move. It was one of those bouts of paralysis that results from dangerously low levels of potassium, and this episode was especially severe. He rode to the hospital in an ambulance.

At the time, however, his problems weren’t limited to poor health.

An undersized kid who, at the age of 8, had been told by doctors that he wouldn’t live past 12, Jerry developed a nihilistic anger that he tried to satiate with violence.

“There was nothing more to live for,” he said, while sitting on the couch in the subsidized apartment he shares with his mother on the Eastside. “Back then I didn’t care about nothing.”

Starting in junior high school, Jerry, who now, at age 17, stands at 5 feet 2 inches, became involved with gangs, and refused to back down from anyone who challenged him. Often, rivals made fun of his height.

Jerry Perez credits Junior ROTC for helping turn his life around. Courtesy photo
Jerry Perez credits Junior ROTC for helping turn his life around. Courtesy photo

Once, he walked into a throng of hostile boys on State Street. After some words were exchanged, one of the boys whacked Jerry on the upper back with a small baseball bat, knocking him to the pavement. Afraid of getting hit again, Jerry stayed face down on the ground until he was sure they were gone.

Another time, as Jerry walked past the fountain at the Paseo Nuevo shopping center on State Street, a kid he had never seen before referred to him as a “wetback midget.”

Jerry shoved the kid into the fountain, accidentally slamming the kid’s head onto a hard surface. A bystander called 911. As Jerry fled, he heard the ambulance approaching.

By the time Jerry was in the eighth grade, he’d been in so many fights – and had taken so many blows to the head – that he started suffering severe headaches.

To this day, the back of Jerry's neck bears the scar from a brain surgery he says was caused by fighting. Photo by Edgar Oliveira
To this day, the back of Jerry's neck bears the scar from a brain surgery he says was caused by fighting. Photo by Edgar Oliveira

“It really hurt when I laughed,” he said. “Like someone was pushing my head together.”

His mother, Lorena Garcia, now 40, took him to see a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals.
Academic counselor Marcy Porter and Jerry got to be pals. Photo by Rob Kuznia
It turned out to be a good idea. The doctor said tubes needed to be surgically implanted from his head to his spine to drain surplus liquids, which Jerry believes were caused by the fighting. (Jerry said the doctor didn’t speculate on the cause.) To this day, the back of his neck bears the scar from that surgery.

“The doctor told me, ‘You get hit in the head one more time and you’re done,’ “ he said. He is scheduled to have another checkup after graduation.


Although Jerry eventually promised to change his delinquent ways partly out of concern for his own safety, his main worry was his mother. He knew he was her last hope to see one of her children graduate on time.

An immigrant from Mexico who speaks no English, Garcia has long held three low-wage jobs, as a newspaper delivery woman, house cleaner and janitor.

Jerry and his mother were thrilled when he won the Cadet of the Year award. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN
Jerry and his mother were thrilled when he won the Cadet of the Year award. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN

Meanwhile, her family life has suffered. Her oldest son, now 24, dropped out of school and got heavily into gangs and drugs. Her daughter, now 19, also dropped out of school. Her husband was an alcoholic, and she divorced him about 10 years ago. She has since remarried.

But even after Jerry made the promise to his mother, he had a few slip-ups. On one such occasion, when he went to the principal’s office for yet another fight, he struck up a conversation with the secretary, Marcy Porter. (She has since taken a job at the school as a counselor.)

Due to his frequent trips to the office, the two had developed a rapport.

“She’s like, ‘You seem like the kind of guy who wants to be in charge,’ “ he said.


Porter told him about a class – Junior ROTC – in which students wore military uniforms and could make their way up the chain of command.

To this day, the back of his neck bears the scar from a brain surgery Jerry says was caused by fighting.
To this day, the back of Jerry’s neck bears the scar from a brain surgery he says was caused by fighting. Photo by Edgar Oliveira
The part about the uniforms made him uneasy, but Jerry decided to give it a shot. He enrolled in the class.

At first, he wasn’t nuts about the ROTC, and continued to get into trouble. But over time he excelled; his grades improved, and so did his attendance.

He rose to the rank of lieutenant, meaning he led a squad of cadets during drills. Unfortunately for Jerry, the program was cut after his junior year because of low enrollment. But he said he’ll never forget that last day of ROTC.

During that class, the teacher, Sgt. Steven Potts – who, like the class’s other teacher, was a contracted-out military man — forbade Jerry to perform his daily duties, such as doing roll-call, handing out reading materials and leading drills.

Later, the class held its annual awards ceremony. Expecting that he would receive at least one award, Jerry told his mother to come. She did. By the time the event was nearly done, however, Jerry still didn’t have anything.

“They didn’t call him and they didn’t call him,” said Garcia, speaking in Spanish. “He was nervous, biting his fingernails.”

Then, the instructor approached a table with a trophy covered in cloth. The two-foot–tall statue of a soldier was set aside for the Cadet of the Year. As the instructor unveiled it, the room fell silent: “It goes to Jerry Perez!”

His mother wept. Then the instructor started giving out more awards to Jerry.

“At the very end,” she remembers, “they began calling, ‘Jerry Perez, Jerry Perez, Jerry Perez’ – over and over again, ‘Jerry Perez!’ ”

His success with Junior ROTC bred further success. Jerry’s GPA jumped from around 1.3 after his freshmen year to his current 3.3. He became a student of the month.

This year, Jerry was awarded a $2,400 scholarship from Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation. (He had to turn it down because his medical condition won’t allow him to sign up for the requisite 12 credits at City College.)

When the school board eliminated the Junior ROTC program, Jerry joined a low-rider bicycle club, of which he became secretary.

In addition, Jerry also started working as an office assistant at Captain Don’s Whale Watching Tours, where his struggling father has also been an employee.


Now Jerry is about to embark on what could be his most daunting challenge to date.

Recently, he was at school when he received a call on his cell phone from his boss, Don Hedden – also known as Captain Don. He called to tell Jerry that his father needed help, and should probably go to detox.

Jerry plans to live with his father when he gets out of detox. Photo by Edgar Oliveira
Jerry plans to live with his father when he gets out of detox. Photo by Edgar Oliveira

Jerry learned that his father, Jose Perez, 38, seemed to be having hallucinations. He had used his cell phone to call the police from the restroom of a bar to report that a strange man had been following him all day long, and was hiding in the next stall.

Officers arrived and checked the stall, but found no such man. When the officers left, Jose Perez swore that he saw the man following him again.

Jerry decided he needed to help his father. At the time, Jose Perez had been homeless for about six months, and was sleeping under the stars at East Beach.

A few weeks ago, in an effort to help coax his father into detox, Jerry spent some nights on the beach with him. They slept in sleeping bags inside a motorboat on loan from Captain Don.

Jose Perez agreed to check into a 14-day program at Casa Esperanza. Now, Jerry, who already has his hands full making plans for his graduation party, is looking for an apartment for them to share.

“I’m going to have a really busy life,” he said, “a lot of responsibility. It came really early to me.”

For his part, Jose Perez has made a promise to Jerry to turn his life around. It’s not unlike the promise Jerry made to his mother three years ago.

“I feel so happy by him,” Jose said. “I hope as soon as I get out of here I stay away from the alcohol. … I want to start a new life.”

But Jose Perez’s situation is tenuous: he said he still sees the man on occasion.

Jerry, meanwhile, said he has learned to set goals, and achieve them.

“It’s a goal that we have to reach,” he said of his father’s sobriety. “Now I have something to live for.”  ***

Colorful Characters Other Freelance

Homeless Man Reveals Power of the Internet

This article was published on the website of Santa Barbara Newsroom, an experimental project launched by a group of journalists.

Anyone who still doesn’t believe that the Internet is the great equalizer ought to meet Patrick Sexton.

A homeless man in Isla Vista, Sexton sleeps on a mattress tucked inside a thorny bush. He works at a recycling station in a parking lot behind the Isla Vista Market, and says he has a fifth-grade education.

A homeless man, Patrick Sexton works on his Web site at the UCSB library. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN
A homeless man, Patrick Sexton works on his Web site at the UCSB library. Photo by Edgar Oliveira / SBN

The story he tells of his past is filled with worldly travel, unlikely triumph and blood- and alcohol-stained tragedy. He says that following a two-year stint as a humanitarian-aid worker in war-torn Africa, he careened on a downward spiral into homelessness. If Sexton’s past is difficult to verify, his present is considerably less so.

The 36-year-old drifter has created one of the world’s most prominent online guides for improving Web site rankings on the Google search engine. He works on the site not with his own computer, but from a UCSB library terminal.

To be sure, the title of his online guide,, isn’t exactly a household name. ( But in Internet circles, it has attracted considerable attention for its ability to help people create sites that will pop up more prominently in a Google search.

In the egalitarian world of the Internet, the prized asset of a high search-engine ranking can’t be purchased with money. Big corporations that simply pay Google a bundle of cash receive only a mention on the side of the screen, not a favorable ranking on the search itself.

Sexton sleeps in the wilds of Isla Vista. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN
Sexton sleeps in the wilds of Isla Vista. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN

Good placement in the actual results must be earned, by following the ever-evolving dictums of Google.

Among the Google guidelines spelled out in feedthebot: “Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.” Under each guideline is a page of text written by Sexton telling people how to comply, and how to tell whether a site complies.

“Five years ago, Web sites were made with design in mind,” Sexton said on a recent sunny day last week, while helping a fellow homeless man pour a sack of empty beer cans into a barrel. “Now an enormous factor is … do search engines understand it, can they comprehend what it’s about?”

Sexton practices what he preaches. His Web site has attracted a fair number of unique visitors – 50,000 since it was launched five months ago. He’s also been publicly praised on the blog of an Internet-world celebrity, the head of Google’s Webspam team, Matt Cutts.

More impressive, though, are his own rankings on the Google search engine. To get an idea for his mastery of the mysterious-but-widely-used-device, go to Google and type “Google Webmaster Guidelines” in the search engine. (The quotes are not necessary.)

The search produces roughly 1.1 million hits. The top two are from Google itself. Ranking third is Sexton’s Web site. Now try typing “Webmaster guidelines” (again, no quotes). This generates about 17.5 million hits. is No. 7. Typing “Google guidelines” produces about 57.4 million hits — that’s almost double the number of people living in California. Feedthebot is No. 6.

“You don’t need a whole bunch of money for marketing, if you do your site well,” said Sexton, who said he’s been living in Isla Vista for about two months. “I could have been a corporate executive with millions of dollars, or I could have been a homeless dude at the library.”


At first glance, Sexton doesn’t look homeless. He’s relatively young, and appears to be in good health. His beard is well trimmed; his demeanor is professional. He makes good eye contact, is socially graceful, and seems, for practical purposes, normal.

Sexton regularly walks from the recycling station in I.V. to the UCSB library. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN
Sexton regularly walks from the recycling station in I.V. to the UCSB library. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN

A closer look reveals slightly dirty fingernails –no doubt partly from his line of work – a few careworn wrinkles around the eyes, and a pack-a-day smoking habit. He also says he has trouble remembering portions of his past.

Still, his appearance and affable nature belie the traumic life story he tells.

A native of Portland, Ore., Sexton said he became a ward of the court when he was in fifth-grade due to an abusive situation. In those days, he said, kids who lived in state-run group homes were denied access to public schools.

He never attended middle school or high school. Instead, he went to bookstores – Powell’s in Portland – and read voraciously about the topics that fascinated him, namely math and physics. He said he eventually emancipated himself from the state system, and got his GED. A couple years later, he landed a job fighting forest fires in Northern California.

Sexton said he attended Nassau Community College in Long Island, N.Y., where he studied math, biology and physics. Sexton said he moved to Italy at age 19. He didn’t return to his native United States for another 12 years.

In Italy, he worked odd jobs – such as “hauling cement in bags on my back” – and painted as an artist.

By and by, he became acquainted with a group of humanitarian-aid workers. At first, he admits, his attraction to the line of work wasn’t entirely altruistic.

“They were young, exuberant, heavy drinkers,” he said. “The women were beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘I like this humanitarian-aid stuff.’”


Eventually, through that group of friends, Sexton said, he landed a fulltime job as a logistician for Save the Children International. He was stationed in Sierra Leone in Western Africa, where bloody wars fought by children are waged over diamonds. Logisticians in such situations try to run normal offices in abnormal conditions.

“You have to have offices, yet you have no electricity, so you bring in generators and satellite phones,” he said.

At the recycling station, Sexton is able to help other homeless people. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN
At the recycling station, Sexton is able to help other homeless people. Photo by Edgar Oliveira/SBN

Sexton said that from 1999 to 2001, he worked at a shelter for recovering child warriors, who needed protection from the local residents, whose moral clarity was blinded by a raging thirst for vengeance.

The experience was devastating, he said.

A short-story writer, Sexton authored a piece that juxtaposes the horror of an explosion that sent him and some children flying off the ground with his attempts to keep them calm by making them laugh.

“You watch a cart filled with fruit lift up. You don’t know you are off the ground until you crash back down onto it. Dust is everywhere and the wall with a mural you noticed isn’t there anymore. … You put out your cigarette, walk like Charlie Chaplin and make dead children smile.”

Sexton said the story won first prize in a Canadian non-fiction writing contest called True Life Story.

In 2001, he said, a bloodthirsty mob stormed Ogo Village, flipping over cars, and murdering children.

In another short story, Sexton recounted how, when holding a dying boy’s chest to stop the bleeding, he saw that a guerrilla organization called the “Rebel United Front” had branded its initials on the boy’s chest.

“My hands covered the ‘U,’ and I didn’t see the ‘U’ until after he was dead,” he wrote.

Santa Barbara Newsroom attempted to verify his affiliation with Save the Children, but the U.S. office in Connecticut had no records of his employment. A clerk in Connecticut tried the Italian office, but hadn’t received word back as of press time.


Sexton says he quit the job and fell into a deep depression that he medicated with booze. He moved to France. Using the considerable amount of money he’d saved on the job, he started getting drunk. Toward the end of 2001 or the beginning of 2002, he said he became so destitute he went to the French government and asked to be “re-patrioted,” which basically means they purchased a plane ticket for him to return to the states.

His memory of that phase of his life is blurry. For no particular reason, he said, he decided to go to Miami.

“The first thing I remember is me being in Miami at the airport and I just started crying,” he said.

At the time, the United States was in the midst of the craze for laying down high-speed Internet cable, widely known as DSL. For a while, Sexton said he made good money connecting people’s modems to the high-speed Internet in several states. But he grew tired of the job and moved back to Portland, where he reconnected with an old friend, he said.

Sexton said it was in the basement of his friend’s house that he started reading about Web sites, links and search engines. In 2002 or 2003, Sexton said he moved to Hawaii, where he stepped up his efforts to educate himself about Web sites.


A savvy shoestring-budget traveler, Sexton said he also created a Web site called, in which he gives reviews of youth hostels around the world, complete with photos.

This Web site, too, has found success. Sexton said earns him between $300 and $500 a month in advertising. He uses this money to travel so he can review more hostels. It was such a tour that took him to Isla Vista from the Los Angeles area about two months ago.

In Isla Vista, he said he has had some problems with the I.V. Foot Patrol, who tend to shoo him out of his outdoor sleeping quarters. Indeed, records show that on March 26, a 36-year-old Patrick Sexton received a misdemeanor citation for “prowling” on private property on El Colegio Road just before midnight. A statewide background check turned up no other criminal records.

On the issue of money, Sexton doesn’t sugarcoat his intentions. Like most people, he would eventually like to make a fair amount of it.

“Do I want to make money? Abso-friggin-lutely,” he said. “I don’t think money’s evil.”

He said he is trying to build readership on his Feedthebot site, and one day may start posting ads, as he does on Twizi – but for more money.

To anyone wanting to start a successful Web site, Sexton offers a simple piece of advice: Make it useful. As an example, he mentions the unlikely topic of Herpes.

“It sounds weird, but if somebody were to find out they had Herpes, they probably wouldn’t ask their co-workers about it,” he said, adding with a chuckle that no, he doesn’t have the sexually transmitted disease. “They probably wouldn’t ask a cashier.”

As a result, it’s a topic that is bound to generate a lot of interest on the Internet.

But to create a Web site that attracts thousands of hits, a creator likely would need to abide by the Google guidelines. That’s where Sexton comes in, providing helpful tips that could improve a Web site’s position in search reseults.

Sexton said he has reason to believe his site about search engines will become even more useful as more Webmasters seek to improve their rankings. This would help him achieve his goals in life.

“I’m not looking to have an office-type job,” he said. “I don’t like wearing suits, or even casual office attire. … My goal is absolutely to accumulate wealth and to live in a situation where I’m no longer homeless.”

In the age of the Internet, where the merit of information still trumps shiny shoes and firm handshakes, his dream could be realized with a few more clicks of the keyboard.

Colorful Characters Featured Other Freelance

Prostitution Vigilante Van Cruises Minneapolis Neighborhoods Looking for Johns

(Note: This was a story that was published on Aug. 7, 1999 in The Alley, a monthly newspaper covering the Lake Street area, an impoverished section of Minneapolis.)


Linda Kolkind isn’t afraid of the riff raff near her house on 12th and Lake, and she refuses to be cooped up inside because of it.

“This is where I live. I can have a garden if I so please.”

Highlighted with benches and a pool with goldfish, her award-winning garden blossoms with tulips, daffodils, and irises every spring. All this stands in stark contrast to the chain-link fence surrounding the garden, the Lake Street neighborhood surrounding the chain-link fence, and the menacing sign slapped against her stucco-walled house: Beware of Dog.

But her defiantly sown garden isn’t the half of it.

Kolkind sits in the driver’s seat of a rusty van parked in the street adjacent to her home. The van’s side, rear, and hood are spray-painted with graffiti. “Prostitution: the world’s oldest oppression,” “Real men don’t have to pay,” and “Down with Johns!” are some of the spray-painted messages. Kolkind, the owner of the van and founder of the Southside Prostitution Task Force, is evidently amused by the attention the van attracts.

She grins, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Quite the van, huh! It’s a moving billboard. Volunteers did the artwork. The thing’s literally held together with duct tape. It breaks down every other day.”

The Southside Prostitution Task Force – founded in 1992 – consists of about 20 members. Its primary focus is to work in conjunction with larger organizations like Pride and Restoration Justice, which provide rehab for prostitutes. Unlike the larger organizations, the Southside Prostitution Task Force takes a grass-roots, on-the-street approach.

“Most organizations want larger numbers – they don’t like to do this one person at a time. We will. Because we, being residents of this area, have been violated one person at a time,” she says.

In addition, the task force attempts to suffocate the prostitution business by hampering the demand side.

She tells me to get ready to witness the harassment of some johns. I get into the van, and she starts it up.

As we troll slowly down Lake Street, people walking on the sidewalk turn their heads toward the eyesore of a vehicle. Since it’s the middle of the afternoon, the van is especially visible. Some people frown. Others smile and shake their heads. One man at a bus stop gives us the thumbs up. Another man, smoking a cigarette and talking to a woman on a street corner, stops talking to the woman to look at the van. He holds his hands up and follows the van a few paces, strutting, as if to say, “Lay off!” or, “Wanna make something of it?”

“That guy’s what they call an entrepreneur,” she explains. “She wants drugs and money. He has both, so he gives her both, in exchange for sex.”

Designed to be visually upsetting to men that are interested in soliciting sex, the van’s graffiti has a tactical purpose.

“Prostitution thrives on the fact that these men think they’re anonymous. With this van, we try to undermine that by letting johns know they’re being watched.”

In the future, Kolkind wants to watch the johns more intensely. Her vision includes a new van equipped with a laptop, so she can immediately send the license plate numbers of johns to the DMV. That way, the DMV can immediately send her the addresses of the johns, so she can “spook them out a little bit.”

“For instance, we thought it would be nice to go have lunch inside the van right outside a john’s house and not say a word. And people will say, ‘why is that van here?’”

Seven years ago, Linda Kolkind considered herself a passive neighborhood victim of prostitution. Back then, prostitutes and their customers were no less visible than the Powderhorn and Phillips stores, houses, and bars on whose property they did business.

“Not only were they lingering around our neighborhood, they were having sex in our driveways.”

During this period, Kolkind, a mother, wife, and collector for a bank, laid blame upon the women who sauntered in her neighborhood. Then, a murder completely changed her outlook.

“There was a certain woman who was always hanging around here. She was maybe 40. Always getting into and out of people’s cars with various men late at night. I would scream and yell at her, and she would scream and yell back.”

The bitter feud lasted over six months but ended abruptly.

On September 23, 1992, a team of squad cars pulled into the parking lot of a dry cleaning store across the street from her house. Inside the building, someone had found a naked woman’s body stuffed into a stairwell. She had been stabbed repeatedly. That night, after talking to some neighbors, Kolkind learned the name of her rival for the first time: Linda Marie Priebe, the victim.

“My life was absolutely turned inside out because of it,” she said.

After Kolkind went to the funeral, she realized something had to be done.

“Many people tell me they go through all kinds of measures to ‘get the whores’ off the property. They swear at them, they throw eggs and stones at them. And now, I tell them, ‘it’s fine to act out, but you gotta find the right targets.’”

The targets, she says, are the males who can typically best afford the tricks. Most of these men, she says, are white and drive in from the suburbs. This is especially the case with establishments known as saunas.

Six months after the death of Priebe, Kolkind attended a neighborhood meeting dedicated to the closing down of a sauna in Powderhorn called A-Spa. “I had a lot to say at the meeting, because, after what I’d seen, I thought that I knew a lot about prostitution.”

This being the case, the meeting inspired Kolkind to start and lead the Southside Prostitution Task Force, which was solely devised to run the neighborhood sauna out of business.

“I thought this would be easy – thought it wouldn’t take us more than six months. But the police were less than enthusiastic until we let them know we were persistent.”

Two years later, Kolkind and the task force persuaded the police to investigate and charge Susie Kotts, the owner of the A-Spa.

Since then, Kolkind has quit her job, purchased a van, closed down six other saunas, and profoundly cleaned up Lake Street and the surrounding areas. At the same time, the former A-Spa is now back in business in the alley by the intersection of Lake Street and 17th Avenue. The sign by the door now reads “Healing Arts Spa.” The only vehicle in the parking lot is a new looking minivan.

“You really don’t see beaters in the parking lots of these places,” she says.

To reiterate her point, she drives the van to another sauna called the Delux Spa. The van stops next to the Spa’s parking lot.

“There’s the Johnnies,” she chuckles, nodding towards the cars in the lot. The small lot actually seems more like a large driveway. The five vehicles in the lot have taken the only five available spots. None of the cars looks more than two years old.

“We’ll toy with them a little – make ‘em squirm.”

She parks the van right in the front and points to the neon-green “open” sign.

“See that? In a couple of minutes, the light will turn off,” she predicts. Kolkind speculates that this is because there is some sort of agreement between the owner of the spa and the owner of the auto body shop across the street, as the Spa has no windows.

Suddenly Kolkind fumbles around for a notepad. “There’s one right now!”

An elderly white man exits the spa, looking both ways before stepping onto the sidewalk like a kid looks both ways to cross the street. He spots the van, looks at the ground, and limps towards his white car, parked right in front of the van. Linda pushes up her glasses while jotting down his license plate, which has a handicapped sign on it.

“Older white male, possibly 60 to 65. Short and bald. Nice car – Whittaker Buick.” While writing, she shakes her head. “It’s all about classism, racism, the haves and the have-nots.”

She finishes jotting down the information as he drives away.

“In a few days, he’ll receive a message from the police saying he was spotted by the spa. I sure hope his wife does not read his mail!” said Kolkind.

Naturally, such zealous behavior has awarded her some enemies. Once, a man banged on the window of the van while at a stoplight, threatening to “take her out.”

“Before we really cleaned up the area last summer, I was scared. But now they’ve moved to the Bloomington (Avenue) area. They’re like cockroaches – they go to where it is dark. So now (their anger) has settled to a quiet rage.”

Kolkind’s own intolerance has done no such thing. Until the Prostitution Task Force rids the area of its last john, it seems clear Kolkind’s own rage will remain loud and quite visible.