Whether creating a farmers market, staging an art and wine festival or fundraising to help save a distressed community center, Ahern has the moxie and experience to get the job done.
“I have always been the entrepreneur — a promoter,” said Ahern, a La Jollan since age 2, who owns an international agri-business selling hybrid seeds to farmers along with husband Kevin.
“All my life, from the time I was a little kid, I liked to do things to help people,” Ahern said. “I like to start things from scratch and give the money away.”
Ahern is grassroots. Allow her to establish the roots, and she’ll undoubtedly get you the grass.
The farmers market Ahern started as a fundraiser for La Jolla elementary schools just celebrated its 15th anniversary. The La Jolla Art & Wine Festival, another communal “seed” planted by Ahern, turned 5 this year.
And the La Jolla Community Center (formerly Florence Riford Center) with the help of Ahern, attorney Glenn Rasmussen and a core group of volunteers, has transitioned from near-bankruptcy and is on the road to self-sufficiency.
“I wake up in the middle of the night with these epiphanies,” she joked. “My husband just says, ‘You’re having a bad dream.’”
Ahern is Russian Jewish and was born in Michigan. She married an Irish Catholic from Texas who grew up in El Centro. Ahern said their relationship endures in part because of shared “humanitarianism.”
“We married for love,” said Ahern, noting her two children, now in their 20s, have been schooled in both faiths.
The creed Ahern lives by is more practical than religious.
Her motto — “Don’t tell me what you’re going to do. Show me.” — complements the rules she lives by: “Try to be a good person. Do good things. Do right by people. Help when you can. Give your money, give your time, or vice versa.”
Ahern’s prescription for success in life as well as business has two ingredients.
“Stay focused, and never give up,” she said, adding that philosophy helped her persevere through the two years it took to establish the La Jolla Open Aire Farmers Market, an idea she came up with as a school fundraiser 17 years ago after both her children had graduated from the school.
“They didn’t have a library or a librarian,” said Ahern, a longtime member of the Friends of La Jolla Elementary School Foundation board. “I came up with the idea (farmers market) two years before I started working on it.”
Her first community “reclamation” project, Ahern said starting the farmers market to raise funds to spare music and arts from the budget-cutting knife was “like inventing the wheel because it had never been done before at a school.”
The first hurdle to be cleared was creating a 501(c)3 nonprofit to operate and maintain the market.
Establishing a farmers market from scratch was like tiptoeing through a mine field, said Ahern, noting more than a few mistakes were made early on.
“We started in the fall, which you never should do because it’s cold at the end of the growing season,” she said. “It was also the rainiest winter we’d had in 25 years. I think it rained nine Sundays out of the first 10.”
But focus and persistence carried the day and “we never lost a nickel,” she said.
Fifteen years later, the market continues to thrive and La Jolla Elementary School now has a library and a librarian, and the school continues to offer art, music and physical education programming thanks to the market’s support.
By comparison, Ahern said creating another signature community event, the Art & Wine Festival, seemed easier the second time around because of what she’d learned a decade earlier. She was inspired by La Jolla’s past to create another school fundraising event.
“I could always remember La Jolla being an artist’s village and people painting on easels down by the ocean,” she said. “I felt we needed to go back to our art roots.”
La Jolla became an art colony in 1894 when Anna Held established the Green Dragon Colony, a cluster of 12 cottages designed by famed architect Irving Gill.
In 2008, at the height of the real estate and banking recession with huge state budget cuts coming down for local schools, Ahern set out create “a gala event” benefiting La Jolla, Bird Rock and Torrey Pines elementary schools.
Admitting starting out “on a shoestring” with some up-front money from the schools and a core group of 12 volunteers (465 the weekend of the festival), a new signature community event was born.
Like the farmers market, the Art & Wine Fest was a struggle at first, but five years later it has grown to the point where this year “we had to turn away 250 artists,” said Ahern. “We plan on growing it.”
As far as reviving the La Jolla Community Center, Ahern said a core group of volunteers set out to resuscitate the facility, which had the stigma of being a “senior center.”
“We knew if we only fixed it up from the outside in that we would never be able to change the persona of the place,” said Ahern. “We needed a new look, a new feel.”
With the help of Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, county Supervisor Ron Roberts and a host of others, Ahern and other volunteers began rebuilding the facility from the inside out.
“My goal is to get everyone in La Jolla over the age of 25 to see the place,” said Ahern, noting the new and improved center is now “very sophisticated and cultured,” with a commercial kitchen offering a wide array of educational and entertainment options to members and guests.
Reflecting on having created two signature community events while having helped save and transform an iconic facility, Ahern said she believes all three efforts played to her most important strength.
“What I’m best known for is networking,” she said. “My life is all about networking.”