Community rallies around Penguin Cafe owners

Kelly Fontenot stood outside the Penguin Cafe on Wednesday morning, her arms full with two pitchers of freshly brewed coffee. She offered some to anyone waiting.

Almost every table was occupied, with customers enjoying the signature banana pancakes and breakfast burritos alongside the penguin kitsch that adorns the walls and counters.

"I Will Survive" played over the stereo, possibly chosen through one of the mini jukeboxes placed on the bright blue front counter.

Fontenot couldn't say whether the weekday rush was due to the normal summer uptick, or if it was due to the recent news that the owners, Michael and Sabrina McMurray, received July 14.

Just two weeks ago, the McMurrays discovered that what they assumed were concussion symptoms in their 11-year-old son William was actually a brain stem glioma, an inoperable brain tumor.

Sabrina, 41, said they first noticed something was off during an end-of-the-year baseball beach party in June, when they observed William slightly tilting his head. He eventually told them he was hit by a baseball and they attributed it to that.

However, when his birthday rolled around on July 11, family and friends said William's symptoms — which included vision, speech and motor skill issues — shouldn't be ignored. At their urging, the McMurrays took him to the emergency room the following Saturday.

William was diagnosed that same day.

At the time of his diagnosis, Sabrina had been working at the Penguin Cafe six days a week, trying to get the restaurant at 981 S. Coast Hwy. back on its feet after a two-year slump.

The McMurrays had moved to Costa Rica in 2010 for a year, and Sabrina said the move had an unfortunate effect on the family business.

"We came back 15 months ago to a restaurant that — to be fair — was drowning," she said. "They say 'You're a tradition. You can't go anywhere.' That's why we came back. The tradition has to continue."

Since the news, friends, including Fontenot, a biology teacher at Santa Ana High School, have rallied. Fontenot volunteered to take over for Sabrina.

Customers ask questions about William and how they can help. One person even brought in cardboard and markers so customers could sign a card.

"We're in a world where everyone is caught up in themselves, in their everyday stuff," Sabrina said. "The fact that they have made the time and opened their hearts is extremely heartwarming."

Sabrina said they haven't told William about the specifics of his diagnosis yet, but he knows he has a form of cancer. He's being treated at the Children's Hospital of Orange County and his parents are hopeful he will recover.

The standard treatment is six weeks of radiation. When radiation is complete, the only other options are holistic or alternative treatments, such as clinical studies.

"We figure that the medical industry makes leaps and bounds on a regular basis," she said. "We're taking the first step in what is going to be a really long journey. We hope it's a long journey; it means we'll be together."

Sabrina said she hasn't even considered the medical costs and the fact that they don't have medical insurance.

"I'm absolutely clueless," she said.

At this point, she said she's just living in the moment and doing the most she can for her son.


Fundraiser for William

On Wednesday, Fontenot hollered thank you at customers as they placed cash in the donation box nestled above the penguin statue on the front counter.

Fontenot said a customer set it up and people have been dropping spare change, bills — some people drop envelopes.

Jim Skelton, a 15-year regular of the Penguin Cafe, sits in the same counter spot "almost" every time.

"Best ocean-view seat in town," he said, as he points to the glimmer of water visible through the kitchen.

He estimates he eats his signature dish — beans, sausage and two over-medium eggs — three times a week when he's in town.

"It's a very emotional time," he said. "Hopefully we can help them get through it."

A young boy approached the donation box after his breakfast, hoisting himself on a counter seat to reach the slot. "We'll be back!" his mother called out behind him.

A fundraiser is planned for the family at Mozambique, 1740 S. Coast Hwy., at 6 p.m. Aug. 14 to raise money for medical bills.

Twitter: @joannaclay


If You Go

What: A fundraiser for cancer treatment for William, the son of Penguin Cafe owners Michael and Sabrina McMurray

When: 6 p.m., Aug. 14

Where: Mozambique, 1740 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

For more information: Visit

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