The sound of conversation fills the hall as people chat with old friends and meet new ones. Round tables spread across the room, topped with teal tablecloths and tall conical centerpieces filled with streamers and accent lights—the room’s dimly lit and festive, exuding a holiday feel. Around the edge, tables filled with quiche, shrimp cocktails, assorted appetizers, and local wines beckon.
The ceremony opens with a debut vocal performance by local musician Gwen van Wyk, who sets the tone with a compelling version of “I Dreamed a Dream” and “The Impossible Dream.” Olga Martin Steele then steps to the podium, thanks Gwen, and welcomes the guests to the competition. Her jacket sparkles in the stage lights, a kaleidoscope of colors as she thanks the sponsors and introduces the judges. Christian Ahlmann, Kevin Reynolds, and Sherry Treppa sit just below the stage, faced with the difficult decision of deciding who takes home the $20,000 prize.
A short video of Nic and Myra Lam, winners of the 2020 competition, appears on screen. There they talk with competition founders Maryann Schmid and Olga Martin Steele. Since winning the competition, the business has more than doubled. They used the funds to upgrade their computer system as well as purchase an embroidery machine and a new screen printing press. Before leaving, they offer the contestants a great bit of advice. “If you’re holding something back, now is the time,” Nic says. “Believe in yourself, and others will believe in you. Give it your all.”
Then it’s time for the competition. All the contestants, who had been practicing their presentations in the lobby minutes before, gear up for the moment of truth.
Jennifer Marie Gayda, owner of Bottlerock Candle Studio in Cobb, steps to the podium first. This is Jennifer’s second year attending the competition. “You may buy a candle for your centerpiece, but at Bottlerock Candle Studio, our candles are the centerpiece.” Jennifer then continues to share her story: “Even though the doctors told me I couldn’t do it, I was blessed with a son. I wanted to raise him in Lake County and didn’t want to go back to work. One of my hobbies has always been making candles. So I made some candles, put them online, and realized they were selling immediately. I thought, ‘What if I could take my passion and make it my income?'” That led to the birth of Bottlerock Candle Studio. Jennifer does her candles differently, avoiding petroleum-based paraffin. Since then, her business has skyrocketed: you can find her candles in twenty stores, online, and at private parties. She’s rapidly establishing herself in the candle industry.
Anahi Marie Silva, the owner of Party Ideas, steps to the podium next, along with interpreter Gilbert Rangel. “Judges and audience,” she says, “Raise your hands if you’ve had a party before.” The entire audience raises their hands. “I’m going to tell you about a girl who grew up and never had a party and came up with some great party ideas. When I was young, I never had a party. It wasn’t because my parents didn’t want to give me one, but they didn’t have the resources. So when I had my own children, I had many parties, and my friends came and asked me to help them with theirs. Then I started Party Ideas. With imagination, we make party ideas a reality. When my father saw my ideas, he believed in me and gave me his savings from thirty-four years of working in the fields to start my business.” Party Ideas was created to make dreams come true; it is a one-stop place for parties, offering party design, custom décor, and party logistics. It’s clearly working; she’s already a success in Lake and Mendocino counties, reaping over $10,000/month in sales.
Catherine Ann Reese, the owner of Reese Ranch Retreat in Witter Springs, comes to the podium next. “We provide a place for family and friends to come together,” she begins, then shares her story. “From the beginning, we’ve had a lot of personal challenges and losses. In 2017, I hurt my back and couldn’t be the resident ranch hand. So I sold my photography studio and created my first vacation rental. In 2018 I created my first glamping space. Then in 2019, the Ranch Complex fire hit. Before packing, I got down on my knees and prayed for our valley and ranch to survive. A week later, I held my dad’s hand as he took his last breath. In 2019 my mom passed away in a car accident. In 2020, the pandemic hit, and we shut down. It’s almost too much to deal with. But I don’t want this to be a pity story. So what does 2022 bring to the ranch?” she asks. “Good things. We’re bringing glamping to your backyard. We’ve got a tent, rugs, bedding and everything you need. We set it up, and the next day we take it down. We will start with three sixteen-foot tents, a utility trailer, and branded vehicles. When I set my mind to a goal, I achieve it, regardless of the challenges that come my way. Like my dad said, “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible just takes a bit longer.”
Valeri Ann Stallings, the owner of Send Rover on Over, steps to the stage, a smile on her face. “One of my daughters came up with the name; it’s fun and makes people smile. I take life lightly, and I want to share it with you. It’s good to have a sense of humor, whether in a business competition or life. Before I opened, I researched over one hundred pet daycares because I wanted to exceed industry standards. My boarding programs are homestyle and comfortable; dogs get tucked in with a cookie and blanket before bed. I didn’t plan on being a groomer, but there is a need in Lake County for them. Some people can’t get in for two months. Groomers are important; they can detect health problems in dogs, such as ear infections, skin infections, fleas, and ticks. Proper grooming also helps to keep your house clean, and a fresh-smelling pup is a pleasure to have around. Since November, my husband has been creating an epic grooming trailer for me. I survived the recession and pandemic with hard work and innovation. I’m passionate about dogs, and I turned my passion into a thriving business. I help create a better community of pets and people.”
Ashely Ruth Garrigus, the owner of Wild Hope Bakery in Middletown, steps to the podium last. “At a young age, I found myself as a single mother to two girls,” she says. “I worked multiple jobs and continued my education over the years and gave the best life I could to my daughters. Fast forward to 2019: I moved to Lake County with my husband, son, and daughters and we found our forever home in Hidden Valley Lake. We fell in love with Lake County and the people. I was professionally trained in pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco and decided to open a bakery here. As I thought about what I wanted the bakery to be, I decided to make more than delectable desserts; I wanted to make a difference. So I created a bakery with a platform that empowers women. For example, we name all our cakes after women who made a difference. I am collaborating with farms, flower farms, nonprofits. I found myself going over the mountain to St. Helena to find quality goods, so we opened up in Middletown. My husband and I have put every cent we have in the bakery to make it a success and want to give back to the community.”
With the presentations finished, the judges disappear, and local musician extraordinaire Andre Williams steps on stage to entertain with a medley of standards, followed by a duet of “Fly Me to the Moon” with Gwen van Wyk. The mood relaxes for everyone except the contestants, who pace nervously around the room. People stand up, stretch their legs, grab a plate of appetizers, and chat while the judges consult.
Then the moment comes: It’s time to announce the winners. “Okay, this is a big moment here,” Olga begins. “And we’re just going to get on with it.” She pauses for a second, considering. “The judges did a great job. It was really hard, wasn’t it, judges?” They all nod. “Well, they are all winners.”
Ashley Ruth Garrigus of Wild Hope Bakery takes the fifth-place $4,000 prize, followed by Jennifer Gayda of Bottlerock Candle Studio, fourth place winner of $6,000. Anahi Maria Silva of Party Ideas takes home the third place, $8,000 check, and Valerie Stalling of Send Rover on Over wins the $12,000 second-place award. Each poses next to their massive checks, a big smile on their faces.
“Now we need to have a drum roll,” Olga continues. “Can you drum roll? The audience pounds on the tables. “Issued to Catherine Reese of Reese Ranch Retreat.” Applause fills the room, and Catherine comes to the stage with a big smile on her face and poses, holding the trophy in one hand and a $20,000 check in the other.
“We still have a couple more awards,” Olga adds. “We invited the fans in a poll, and 999, one shy of 1,000, took it to choose the fan favorite. I just want to share the numbers are very close on this one. Maryann Schmid, I think you need to come up here. Can you do the honors?”
Maryann, co-visionary of the 1 Team, 1 Dream competition, steps up to the podium. “Okay,” she greets everyone. “And the fan-favorite is Send Rover on Over. Congratulations!” Then Maryann continues: “We also have a Founder’s Award for Brianna from Red Feather Leather.” Applause fills the rooms as the awards conclude.
“On that note,” Olga continues, “Don’t forget to enjoy some R Vineyards and Six Sigma Wines, and more food. And don’t forget pictures and all that stuff.”
Monica Rosenthal, Hands Up Lake County board member, steps to the stage. “I wanted to reiterate to you the value of this program to Lake County and the economy of Lake County,” she begins. “This isn’t just a competition to win a pot of gold. It’s an educational opportunity for small businesses, and it creates strong, sustainable businesses in Lake County. This began from fires and survived through Covid; it is a phenomenal program that builds exceptional businesses.
Judge Christian Ahlmann of Six Sigma Ranch continues the thought. “If I had $50,000 to improve a community, I could buy a nice car, or I could build something like this. The idea Maryann and Olga had to do this training for dozens of businesses spreads like rings of water. We saw the grit factor for these businesses, and it also is part of this competition. It started during the hard times of Covid, and Olga and Maryann got right back on the horse and made it what it is now. Thank you.”
Alan Flora, city manager of Clearlake, provides the closing remarks. “It’s been said before but bears repeating. Small businesses are the backbone of our rural community. The success of an area is dependent on how involved people are in a rural community, and Hands up Lake County is part of that. What you saw today in these special businesses is just the tip of the iceberg. The Hands Up Lake County competition is making a difference.”
Maryann Schmid once again steps to the stage. “I want to thank Alan,” she says. “From the beginning, he believed in our dream. You’re the best. And each one of these finalists is a winner.”
Olga concludes the ceremony and people stand, stretch, and begin to head home. Catherine Reese sits at a table, her $20,000 check resting against the back of her chair. “Thank you,” she says when congratulated. “I do the best I can, and the judges decided in my favor. We plan to launch our popup camping in spring; we’ll be online in January with an incentive to pre-book. I always hear people ask me what things there are to do for family and kids in Lake County, and this popup will provide something. Young people need common activity. They want connection.
“Whatever I do, I do it heart and soul. If it doesn’t feed your soul, don’t do it.”
“It was so much work,” Olga says, her jacket still glimmering in the lights. “Did it turn out well?” The answer’s an undeniable YES. Compared to last year, the competition has grown significantly. The prizes are larger, and considerably more local businesses applied. With over fifty initial contestants, it took hard work to narrow it down. However, those who didn’t make the final list still receive support with advertising and training. Plus, each business is welcome to try again next year.
It’s all part of the goal of 1 Team, 1 Dream. It works as more than a competition; it’s designed to help bolster the local economy, support local entrepreneurs and raise the water level for the entire county. Just wait and see what happens in 2022. Maryann Schmid’s already started planning.