23Strong Memorial Finds Its New Resting Place

By Nick Masuda   |   December 14, 2021
Susan Venable sits on her 23Strong memorial bench that has been relocated to Lower Manning Park (Photo by Nick Masuda)

Susan Venable can’t help but get choked up a bit, as the mental images that come from weeks of helping clear out other people’s homes amid natural tragedy are something that will stick with her for the rest of her life.

As an artist, the Montecito Debris Flow was chockful of visual reminders, but none more so than the 30 boulders that she saw as she returned from Los Angeles shortly after the disaster.

They were standing guard just off Jameson Road like sentinels, in Venable’s mind.

“I don’t even know why they were there, but it was just one of those moments where it sparked an idea inside of me,” Venable said.

The artist had never worked with a massive boulder in any piece, but this wasn’t a normal situation.

She approached First District Supervisor Das Williams with the idea of a memorial park, where the boulders would be made into a semi-circle with varying sizes, with the smallest representing the youngest of the 23 victims, the largest left for the oldest.

But the appetite for a full-fledged park just wasn’t there, Venable said, with too many other critical recovery efforts a much higher priority.

Williams did offer some advice: Find a private location to place a memorial — less red tape, same sentiment.

The boulder bench is dedicated to the 23 lives lost in the Montecito Debris Flow (Photo by Nick Masuda)

Thus, Venable’s 23Strong bench was borne.

“It was a vision just stuck in my head after all that I saw while helping the community; I just felt like we needed something to honor those that we had lost. Everyone knew someone impacted by the debris flow,” Venable said.

She shopped the idea of a single boulder, cut into a bench. No names, just 23Strong along the back.

She’d find a suitor at the San Ysidro Ranch, where the memorial was cut to specification to live next to a garden — all happening in a 48-hour time frame due to the impending wedding season that the Ranch was preparing for.

The bench had found its forever home.

Or so Venable had thought.

Recently, a friend told Venable that the bench was no longer at the Ranch.

Venable told her friend that she was mistaken and that she would show her where it’s at.

They made the trek, only to find out that Venable’s friend was right. It had been moved, away from its original home and into a spot near a public walkway.

It didn’t feel right to Venable, and she connected with Williams once again to see what they could do to relocate it.

Williams took care of the Parks and Recreation approvals, and now it was up to Venable to find her ideal spot for the bench.

She chose a spot under the Big Cypress tree on Butterfly Beach, with a handful of victims losing their lives in that area during the debris flow.

It was universally approved — at the municipal level.

But the Coastal Commission would still have to approve, and that was likely to be a longer process.

“Public Works got back to me and said it might be up to 18 months and maybe even $10,000 to go through the process,” Venable said. “I just didn’t think we had that type of time.”

And she thought back to Lower Manning Park being a control center during the debris flow, memories of the Bucket Brigade and its efforts still very fresh in her head.

It’d be an appropriate home.

And there it now rests, with the move paid for by San Ysidro Ranch owner Ty Warner.

It sits just behind the playground, where generations of children will be exposed to the bench, stirring conversations over why it is there.

It’s a way to keep the memories of those the community lost alive and well.

“I’m ecstatic; it was quite the journey to get it here, but it’s the right resting place,” Venable said.

For Venable, it’s her way of giving back to a community that continues to rise in the face of adversity.

“One thing about the debris flow disaster, is that it didn’t matter if you were wealthy or you were poor, it impacted everyone the same,” Venable said.

“And you were inspired to help out, however you could. That’s what makes this place special, and sometimes we need reminders of that.”

Website: 23strong.com


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