There are certain individuals in this world who exude more energy than regular human beings. You know the sort? The kinds of people who manage to squeeze a week’s worth of tasks into a single day and still find time to volunteer, catch the news and socialize. Sherry Ahern, one of La Jolla’s torch-bearers for public service and a glowing example of what it means to give back to the community, is part of that club. In her case, she probably has at least four times the regular quota of enthusiasm and energy than others.
The Open Aire Farmer’s Market is one of her most well-known success-stories around town; today it’s a regular fixture on La Jolla’s weekly calendar, hosting over 200 vendors and having raised over $2 million since its humble start fifteen years ago. But the well-oiled machine you see every Sunday didn’t happen overnight. She started with 14 vendors and a small team of volunteers who were willing to wade through a sea of red tape to make it happen – and the rest is history. Using the momentum from her success at the Farmer’s Market, Sherry undertook a new challenge five years ago, the La Jolla Art and Wine Festival – another venture that continues to grow, garner more attention and ultimately benefit schools in the community.
This week we caught up with her to talk about the Open Aire Farmer’s Market, the upcoming La Jolla Art and Wine Festival and her recent awards – Mother of the Year (from City of Hope) and Women of Dedication Award (from Salvation Army).
La Jolla Blue Book: Why and how did you start the Farmer’s Market?
Sherry Ahern: My children went to La Jolla Elementary and I was on their foundation board, which is called ‘Friends of La Jolla’. I started on the board when my daughter was five – just to give you an idea of the time frame, my daughter’s going to be twenty-seven on Halloween, so needless to say they should put a term-limit on people like me because I’m still on the board.
I didn’t think it was rocket science as far as the idea went (it’s just the way people shop and eat all over the world). My job at the group was be the entrepreneur; all of us on the board had our strengths, so if you were good with numbers you’d be the treasurer, if you were good at writing you took notes. I had started some other things at the school that had made some money, but the school was still in dire, dire straits. One of the main things was that it had no library or librarians, and I wanted both. So that’s what I originally wanted the farmer’s market for and I wanted to create something that would be ongoing and would bring the community and the school together.
Let me back up and just say that the year I started the market was the year my kids left, just so you know – I’ve stayed on the board for fifteen years and they’re not my kids (even though they feel like my kids).
La Jolla Blue Book: I believe there was some red tape and hoops to jump through along the way?
Sherry Ahern: I’m not going to lie about the fact that it took two years to get the Farmer’s Market up and running, because there was some apprehension in the community. But I felt passionate about the idea and knew it was right. I could close my eyes and see people, families walking with their pets, with flowers and bags of vegetables from all over the community.
My husband and I had taken a business trip to France, Provence, and I saw a farmer’s market there that took up several streets. And I saw artisans and food and farmers – it was so beautiful. I basically took a picture of that with my camera and put it into my brain and said: “That is what I’m going to put in La Jolla.”
La Jolla Blue Book: What is your secret to working with people and making these events a success?
Sherry Ahern: I’m not afraid to run with an idea and I’m good at putting people together. We didn’t have a big group to start with, not like the festival. But like anything, you have to prove yourself first and show people that you’re capable.
La Jolla Blue Book: Did the idea for an Art and Wine Festival progress from the farmer’s market concept? I see that this festival is in aid of more schools, including La Jolla Elementary, Muirlands Secondary, Bird Rock and Torrey Pines Elementary?
Sherry Ahern: I believe that if you’re all facing the same problems in the same area, why not become a united front? For some reason it’s the first time anybody has brought all the schools together. In the case of La Jolla Elementary, even with all the money raised and the help from parents, the school still needs help.
As far as the festival goes, La Jolla was an artist’s colony from the time it began. There was a woman named Anna Held Heinrich who came here in 1894 and she started what became known as the Green Dragon Colony, which was for artists and writers. About 20 years plus ago, we used to have an art festival that took place in La Jolla proper and then it dissolved.
In ’08 when the economy went down, I saw a lot of ‘To Lease’ signs. I live in this town I want to help my community, so I thought it would be a great way to help businesses and the schools.
Today we’re a juried art show – a fine art show. We’re not a craft show or a street sale. We try to have the most exclusive artists from California and Northern Baja. We have expensive things and inexpensive things, so there’s something for everybody, but we try to have the right mix. The puzzle putting this together is enormous. We are proud of ourselves that a group of volunteers put this on.
La Jolla Blue Book: What has changed over the years with the festival?
Sherry Ahern: We’re very strong, because we have about 7000 parents and close to 4000 kids. For the first 3 years we had the festival on upper Girard Avenue and just gave money to the 3 elementary schools. And we did have to charge to get in and that’s how we made our money. But then we outgrew our spot and La Jolla Merchants Association popped up two years ago, so we decided to have a meeting with them and ask if we could become their partners, so now we’re one of two signature events. The beauty of being their partner is that we’re part of the 14,00 businesses in the district, and they allowed us to move the festival downtown in La Jolla, where it needed to be.
We were also lucky enough that Wells Fargo, for the second year in a row, made a donation big enough to allow us to not charge people at the gate. 300 booths, 160 + artists, a wine and beer garden that holds over 750 people and we have the local breweries, 60 wineries (at least coming from our neighbors down south).
Today we have a huge silent auction area; all the artists and local merchants all give us something. We have a fabulous family arts center that takes up a whole street and everything for the kids in that area – they could probably spend the bulk of their day there. One of the main attractions is to paint an SUV that is donated by one of the parents at the school.
La Jolla Blue Book: La Jolla Blue Book has this legacy of women who really strive to serve their communities –the Scripps sisters and Anna Held spring to mind. You’re now giving back in the same spirit – and winning awards for it! When did you get into charitable work?
Sherry Ahern: It’s funny, when I was writing this all down for my bio (the awards and such), I realized this was something I’ve been doing this my whole life. This isn’t something I do for awards or credit. I’m just a giant giver and I will help anyone that I can within reason. And my husband, Kevin, he’s cut from the same mold. I don’t want anything in return. The awards are just icing on the cake. And I just love helping people and like anything that you do that you’re good at – it gives you goose-bumps. Like the Farmer’s Market. When I walk through there I get goose bumps. It’s not my market. I started it, but without the community supporting it and all the vendors it wouldn’t be what it is, and that makes me very excited.
I’m so excited for the Art and Wine Festival. I saw last year all the hotels were full, all the restaurants were full – that makes me happy. The merchants were busier than they’ve ever been – and that makes me happy.
La Jolla Blue Book would like to thank Sherry and her team for their time.
The La Jolla Art and Wine Festival is coming to town on October 12-13 and is a free event to everyone. We’ll be bringing you more information about it closer to the time.