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Behind the story: Winning the trust of a traumatized family

Behind the story: Winning the trust of a traumatized family
The Cantin family's Christmas card was found in mudslide debris in Montecito. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Last December I was in Carpinteria to hang a memorial star at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony for my mother. She had died in 2017 and I wasn’t done grieving. The “Light Up a Life” event, sponsored by Hospice of Santa Barbara, was a beautiful way to remember her.

At that event, my friend Pattie Lorusso, who works for the organization, told me it had scheduled a similar tree-lighting in Montecito — in four days — which would serve as a community memorial for the 23 people killed during catastrophic mudslides on Jan. 9, 2018. Lauren Cantin, the teenager who’d been swept from her home and buried in mud and debris for more than six hours before her rescue, was going to sing “Amazing Grace.”

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Like many people around the world, I was haunted by footage of Lauren emerging wide-eyed from under at least four feet of mud. What was it like to be buried alive? And then to learn that you had lost your father and your brother and your home? How does life go on?

I decided to go to the Montecito event and approach Lauren and her mother, Kim Cantin, who was hospitalized for three weeks after the mudslides, about the possibility of a story.

I first introduced myself to one of the speakers, Catherine Remak, a DJ at K-Lite FM in Montecito and a lifelong resident of the community. Remak introduced me to Kim Cantin.

Kim was receptive but wanted to think about it over the holidays. She told me that Lauren had just won a spot in “Teen Star,” a singing competition in Santa Barbara. The “American Idol”-like production was to take place on Feb. 23 in the Arlington Theatre.

On Jan. 2, I sent a text to Kim asking if she wanted to do the story, and she said yes. Over the next two months, I spoke with Kim and Lauren repeatedly, in both formal interviews and informal chats. I wanted to tell the story primarily from Lauren’s perspective and I figured it would take some time. She was a traumatized 15-year-old who might not welcome a stranger into her life.

Kim introduced me to Santa Barbara investment banker Joe Lambert, who started the nonprofit “Teen Star” a decade ago to support Santa Barbara County teens in the performing arts. Lambert gave me and Katie Falkenberg, a Times photographer and video producer, backstage access to the show.

And the Cantins let me tag along at other memorial events and rehearsals. I understood they were trusting me to relay intimate details of the worst year of their lives to the world. I had to get this right.

It took a while, but eventually they seemed to feel comfortable with me and more details of their trauma tumbled out.

As a journalist, I know that the impact of some stories is fleeting; others take up permanent residence in your heart. This is one of the latter, and I will be forever thankful to Kim and Lauren for letting me in.

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