Raising the Water Level: How the Hands Up Lake County Competition Has Changed Lake County

Catherine Ann Reese, winner of the 2021 Hands Up Lake County Competition, walks along the side of her barn, tossing alfalfa to her goats, who eagerly push each other aside to get to the food. “How many goats do I have?” she asks herself. “I don’t know. Let me count.” She pauses, looking over each pen. “Seventeen. I have seventeen right now. Other people have car collections. I really like collecting animals.” Her animals are the long-term residents, but she also opens up her ranch to guests, who come to enjoy the country atmosphere, relax a bit and enjoy some goat yoga. And since winning the $20,000 first prize in the competition, her plans have expanded. She’s used her winnings to purchase the equipment to take her retreat on the road. “All you have to do is provide an empty space in your house or on your property,” she says, “and I’ll provide everything else.” She’s grateful for the competition giving her the opportunity to grow. Her advice? “When you see a prize, go for it. It’s a huge opportunity, and you can only do better by competing.”

Valerie Ann Stallings, the owner of Send Rover On Over, stands at the table inside the mobile grooming trailer she purchased with her winnings, brushing the hair of Bitta, a gentle-mannered dog. The trailer’s parked next to a dog run, where other dogs watch through the fence. “We opened up to help the other groomers in Lake County out. They were under a lot of stress. Groomers couldn’t even answer their phones. But I didn’t want to compete for their existing customers.” Thanks to the Hands Up Lake County competition, she’s been able to do just that. Since opening, she’s taken in multiple dogs—now she’s full and has a waitlist. “I entered the competition because I was game for a free lunch,” she smiles. “But it’s worth the investment to apply for the competition. Even if you don’t win, you’ll learn something. I didn’t know some of the things I learned about running a business.”

Anahi Maria Silva, the owner of Party Ideas in Clearlake and third place winner in the competition, stands behind the counter, twisting a piece of newspaper in her hands. She’s working on a dinosaur-shaped piñata to put out on the shelves next to numerous other piñatas, varying in shape from stars to superheroes to princesses. Anahi’s still saving her prize winnings for a cardboard cutting machine, which will help her make more piñatas quicker. “When I entered the competition, it helped me a lot because I learned a lot of things and more people came into my store,” she says. “I was scared because I don’t speak English. I only understand it. I was scared to talk in front of people at the first presentation.” However, after practicing, her whole demeanor changed. “I wasn’t nervous at the big competition,” she says with self-assurance. “The second time, I knew what I was doing.”

Jennifer Gayda, owner of Bottlerock Candle Studio and fourth place winner, checks on her candles. A mixture of fragrances fills her workshop, combined with the warm aroma of wax. Molds line out along a table, ready to be filled, while completed candles sit in display cases, showcasing different looks Jennifer is trying out. She’s a creative person: “I’m always creating new stuff,” she says. “Because I’m a blender. I’ve got a million different oils, and I don’t tell anyone what’s in them.” She used some of her winnings to purchase wax and vessels in bulk, cutting down on her wholesale cost. But she’s still got some money left over that she’s saving to build her website. And she’s grateful for the support the Hands Up Lake County competition provided. “I don’t know of any other programs like this one,” she says. “And I can’t wait to see who’s going up this year.”

Ashley Ruth Garrigus, the owner of Wild Hope Bakery and fifth place winner, stands just inside the doors of her soon-to-open storefront. A bright wall, handpainted with flowers, rises to her left, the bakery counter just behind her. And, in the back, hidden by wooden barn doors, is the kitchen where she makes her magic. Professionally trained at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, she knows how to create delectable, one-of-a-kind desserts. And her winnings helped her make her dream a reality. “One hundred percent of the money I won went into this space,” she says with a smile. “We’re going to have a grand opening on May 21 st .” The competition helped her immensely. “I didn’t know much going into it,’ she says. “But the lessons I learned were invaluable.” Her advice to anyone interested in the competition? “Go for it. Don’t hesitate to enter because anything you gain will be valuable.”

Brianna Thomas, owner and designer of Red Feather Leather and the Founder’s Award winner, pulls a piece of unique leather from her collection. “This is frog skin,” she says, touching it gently. “It’s so different from the kangaroo leather. That’s so stretchy.” Brianna’s been creating for years. “I’ve loved art forever,” she says. “Even in high school, I was in the art room even when I wasn’t supposed to be there. Then, I got bored of paper and decided to try art on leather.” She’s taken that love and transformed it into a successful business. Her shop’s filled with hatbands, halters, and, her most recent piece, a graduation cap filled with sunflowers. Even though she didn’t win any of the cash prizes last year, she’s planning on entering again. “Of course, I’m going to try again,” she says. “And this year, I’m going to win it!”

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