A youth pastor struggles with another suicide in Laguna Beach


By Sam Ellispeeling onion

Can I be honest with you for a second? Like, really honest. Before I was called to serve as youth pastor at Church by the Sea, the departing pastor told me Laguna Beach can be like peeling an onion. As you pull back the layers, you start seeing past the beauty. Keep peeling and parts of the town will cause you to cry.

People strive to live at the beach, but eventually learn a nice view doesn’t change the human condition. We still struggle. We still have heartbreak, disease, divorce, and loneliness.  We realize our lives don’t look like an instagram’d picture of a perfect sunset under palms swaying in the wind.


Idyllic Laguna Beach (Photo: maryhurlbutphoto.com)
Idyllic Laguna Beach (Photo: maryhurlbutphoto.com)

Don’t hear me wrong on this. I love Laguna with all my heart. But every week I also listen to student after student detailing struggles with drugs, alcohol, suicide, grades, self-worth, pain and divorce.

I go with students and parents to counseling, supporting courageous struggles to overcome conflict and addictions. I’ve held students in my arms to keep them from attempting suicide. I seldom get through a weekend without warring against the impact of the partying on Friday and Saturday nights.

On our high school international mission trips, we have sharing time and among 40 students 10 will reveal struggling with suicidal thoughts, or even histories of planning as well as taking actions in contemplation of ending their lives. That number increases every year.

Students as young as 6th grade carry the weight of parental choices and expectations on their shoulders. I am not in a position to judge, but it is very clear kids are desperate for parents to define boundaries, and keep them safe.

It’s not always perfect near the beach, and in fact it can be very a very dangerous place where kids are at high-risk. Here is where I start peeling back the onion.

I get knocked down and usually I get right back up again, but not last Sunday. During my early morning routine

Hunter Schwirtz
Hunter Schwirtz

of checking instagram, I came across a post about Hunter Schwirtz. I was devastated to find that at age 19, he took his life. He was a popular and well-known surfer and skater that attended Laguna Beach High School. My immediate emotion was to cry. I wept because I knew he was trying to find a way from the dark shadows into the light.

At high school youth group last Tuesday we tried to comfort and console kids that have watched three alumni overdose or commit suicide in the past year. Kids were broken. You could tell on their faces and in their body language. My number one goal is to tell them how valued and loved each one is, and let them know they are never alone, we are always there for them.

It’s what we are not collectively saying or doing that is so heartbreaking in these students’ passing. Educators and others who work with young people are called by this new tragedy to ask what more we can do together to keep our kids safe in our homes, in our schools, on our streets, and, yes, at the beach.

If you are like me, you are tired of crying and cannot keep peeling. What can we do? Here are some concrete ideas for change:

For starters, kids feel trapped in the partying subculture in which there are no boundaries or limits. I constantly meet with so many students who are desperate to get out of the party scene and feel trapped. Trapped because parents are letting it happen in their own homes and providing the alcohol. Students often ask me point blank for ways out.

Paddle out for Hunter Schwirtz (Photo: Chris Polk)
Paddle out for Hunter Schwirtz (Photo: Chris Polk)

I have tried to support and strengthen the anti-substance abuse programs in our city and schools, which lack robust capability. I wonder why we don’t keep teachers and principals that have a heart for this community. How can we better support those that are continuing to do an incredible job day in and day out on our school campuses?

I want to renew my plea with the School Board and City Council to invest in more trained people to counsel and get help for students and parents who are at risk and not safe. If we keep pouring money into multiple large-screen TVs in classrooms instead of focusing on kids’ souls, we are sending the wrong message. Can we upgrade our library downtown to give kids a safe, cool place to go and study? This is not about blame, it is about finding some meaning, value and purpose in a tragedy that should unite us.

When I was in college, I knew that if anyone around me was having trouble, I could anonymously call and ask for help. Can we give students somewhere on campus that is visible for them to go for help outside of their current school counselors? The set-up we currently have in place is not working.

We have had drug abuse prevention networks and coalitions that preside over grants and policy-making. Please reestablish an effective drug council that consults with ground level issues and start bringing in past alumni and trained specialists to speak to the students about real life issues. Could there be a community meeting to help bring the issues out in the open?

I constantly meet with students that are weighed down from stress of trying to know the future. Can we tell students in high school, they don’t have to have all of life figured out? Can we encourage their gifts by giving them strength finders testing so that they can hone in on their significance and meaning? Then, this would open them up to the exciting possibilities for their futures, rather than floating.

Even if it starts with a few of us, let’s work together to combine forces of good in our town and reach out to those who need help.

I am just one, but I am not the only one. Let’s learn from this tragedy. In addition to what all of us can do separately, if we can gather in the name of love and commitment to our young people, surely good will come from it.

Sam Ellis is the youth pastor at Church by the Sea in Laguna Beach. Go to his blog, “Desperation Generation,” here



  1. I am almost glad to read of your post. I am not glad of the circumstances, but only the writing of it. Hunter had a pretty unfortunate life and at the root of that was his mother’s death, it’s cause, and his father’s lifestyle and choices. But he loved Hunter. He had distinct views on things and I think Hunter looked to him for more support than he got. But, in all honesty, the community and school system failed Hunter, and I know why, because it failed my own children, too. Jenny Salberg was probably the worst and the ‘talent pool’ at the elementary school and middle school, whom were always penalizing him, but never rooted out his abilities and polished them-he had them, in droves, and I think that is what really bothered them. They were unable or unwilling to consider children with differences, and too worried about their own appearance to be very concerned with what went on in their community or to relate it directly to their teaching methods. They smoked pot, did drugs and they were fine, why couldn’t children from this generation just make do? Well, to begin with, children of lower incomes do not get the push that children from higher income levels get in Laguna Beach. The wealthy use it as their system, funding activities and focusing on the credit they get for giving donations to the school and its programs, making them, whether people like to admit it or not, necessary. Hunter wanted to ‘fit in’ as a child, but for some reason was made to feel he did not. I can remember J.S. asking to discuss his mother’s death, its causes, etc, without even consulting his father about the matter or getting permission to discuss those things, and without any obvious credentials. I think she just did this in a way to make him feel bad. Yes, everyone already knew, and in my opinion, his father should have taken him out of the area, but that was his choice. The drug use and sales should have been stopped, and where was he getting OXY from? People just look away and they don’t say anything about what is important in order to stop it. In some ways you cannot help, because if you do, everyone will be angry with you for spilling the family secrets. The other problem, to me, seems to be, where did he get the gun? Why did he have it? Why was he left alone? These and other things will never leave my mind as I think about Hunter, his potential and abilities, and his intelligence. The community of Laguna Beach is failing all of these children, and it begins with the parents, but is also the school’ s and community’s responsibility to give each of these children their attention and help, whether they Like it or not.

    • Also, are you stating that he was an oxycodone addict? If so, that throws a whole different dimension into it. That stuff will really mess with your mind.

  2. I don’t buy it. You cite that he had a rough upbringing I am assuming this means that he came from a low socioeconomic standing in a wealthy town. Fact of the matter is you don’t see too many young handsome apparently well-liked athletic 19-year-olds throwing themselves into the abyss unless there was Something tragically amiss. There must have been a major psychological factor at work here don’t you agree?

  3. I second Lara’s opinion. You are throwing far too much emphasis outside of the family unit Ava. Did the young man not have parents? You mentioned his mother had died. Was it by natural means or a od or suicide type of thing? You know mental illness/addiction is passed on genetically, were these factors at play I wonder? Just food for thought.

    • Tragically amiss? I would say he was going around apologizing to people right before he took his own life, but I cannot imagine Hunter wanting people outside himself to pay. He wasn’t the type to leave someone else holding the bag or the bill in my experience. Mentally strong? Very. A risk-taker? Definitely; but many young men are. Do you see them? Going off to war? Trying to prove themselves? This is not new stuff. Haven’t you seen Rebel Without A Cause? But there was a cause, and it was the whole community, not just the parents. Did all of the other deaths have the same m.o.? His mother died an accidental death. He had, as far as I knew, a very good relationship with his father. Seeking attention, surely. But, if you can point me to a neutral oracle then I would say that no one is without mental problems today, and those people who live in glass houses can throw stones-there are surely enough of them in Laguna Beach. People who claim they are are just looking for it in other people, which is another illness altogether, nevertheless, are suffering from a mental illness, also. Who is immune? An alternative program for students of school age, where they can come from a variety of backgrounds, financial and otherwise, and succeed, be encouraged, get the support THEY need, is needed badly there, and should already been implemented due to the diverse culture and different lifestyle there. There is funding. There are bright kids that are evidently falling through the cracks. They have been. It’s not news in Laguna Beach-there is little to do outside the school ‘community’ and face it, if you aren’t into that then it can be a stuck path for those with even slightly different means or profiles. He may have seen it as the last challenge he hadn’t undertaken, but in all fairness, that would be letting those people off the hook who simply didn’t care enough to make an effort, and I know a lot of people DID, or just ignored his abilities while he was in school, and made the path difficult for him and conventional. There were many warning signs, I thought. Didn’t have to be. Kid was gifted. He mattered very much to me. I think a prospective future of that, over and over again, would be enough to blow any intelligent person’s mind, let alone a kid without sufficient support of whatever kind, who had the kind of ambitions he did. It’s a small town and in a lot of ways it has a small town mentality-nothing wrong with that. But how can people deal or use OXY in front of everyone in charge and not be noticed? How could he possess a gun? How could he be left alone at a time when he had reason to use it, was exhibiting classic pre-suicide behavior, had other motives, or had been under the influence of drugs which have that effect, and who are you blaming if not? His father was out of commission-ill. No mother. Whom? Are we not responsible for our own? It takes a whole village to rear a child (Nigerian proverb). I might have seen it, had I been there, but other people were there. If it were not for the spate of suicides in that community and nearby, in recent months, I would not even be mentioning it, or commenting, as it is really none of my business. But how could people there not have noticed it or put 2 and 2 together? Coincidence? After three suicides in a year? 25,000 population? What is it, Japan? Something is dead wrong. A community that small should take extra care to make sure its children do not spend a life apologizing for being a burden to it-

  4. I knew him personally, he had a strong passion for what he liked but was constantly getting into fights and had quite a few enemies, his Facebook is full of racial rants and the drug use potentiated the narrative he was already on. RIP he was one of the true OC’ers

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