Ruth Shuken's backyard is a floral wonderland. Shuken, who turns 94 on July 4, strolls through aisles of roses, lilacs and azaleas. Her green thumb has also served her well in cultivating a garden of mitzvahs.
Shuken's Beverlywood manor, which she has called home for 55 years, is a short drive from Vista Del Mar, the place she has served for more than five decades. Vista Del Mar operates on a $32 million annual budget to assist teens from troubled backgrounds.
Before Shuken was born Ruth Meyerson in 1910, her parents arrived in Los Angeles, where her father, Victor, made a living downtown in the garment district. Then Abe and Ike Diamond offered her father a managerial position with a Tucson men's store. Victor ran the shop, which he eventually owned, by dividing his month between Tuscon and Los Angeles; his wife, Ida Margaret, did not share his affection for Arizona.
Shuken grew up in the Echo Park district and attended Congregation Beth Israel on Olive Street. After graduating from Belmont High School, Shuken headed to Tuscon, enrolled at the University of Arizona, and worked for Victor.
"My father was a very trusted person, very likable," Shuken recalled. "He had people skills. That's what I learned from my dad."
One June day, Jake Shuken came to the Meyerson house to hash out unfinished business on his father's behalf. Jake instantly fell for Ruth, but the 22-year-old was dating another fellow. Jake persisted, while Ruth humored him, only because, in the back of her mind, she knew he owed her father money. On their first night out, Jake shocked Ruth by driving her half a block before stopping to tell her, "I'm gonna marry you."
He eventually got his wish: on Aug. 21, 1932, they were married.
"Any success I achieved in the community, he was responsible for," Shuken said of her late husband, a burlap bag manufacturer who died in 1991.
In 1942, the Shukens were living on Meadowbrook Avenue with their two children when a friend could not fulfill her volunteering commitment to the Red Cross. Shuken went door-to-door on her behalf and discovered that she had a knack for fundraising.
"I had unbelievable luck," Shuken said. "Nobody said no."
Her streak continued when she charmed one Ambassador Hotel patron into donating a then-enormous $1,000.
"All of a sudden, I'm big time at the Red Cross," she said, explaining that the lady she had impressed turned out to be the wife of the founder of Bissel carpet cleaners.
Shuken began fundraising for United Way and The Jewish Federation in the early 1950s. Through The Federation she met Joseph Bonaparte, founding executive director of Vista Del Mar. Bonaparte invited Shuken to Vista's campus at Motor and Manning avenues.
"One walk around with Joe Bonaparte, and I was hooked," she said. That was the beginning of a collaboration with Vista that has continued for more than 50 years.
Shuken worked closely with unwed pregnant women and helped land jobs for unwed fathers so that they could offer some emotional and financial support.
"The girls would feel better about themselves if the boys struck with the girls," she said.
Shuken arranged other ways to boost the self-esteem of the Jewish girls at Vista. She convinced professionals in the community to offer beauty school scholarships to girls in need.
Over time, Vista's predominantly Jewish clientele gave way to other minorities. The 1970s brought teenagers who were more hardened and challenging to work with.
"We have some wonderful kids," Shuken said, "but the kids are different today."
Shuken has also contributed to other nonprofits, such as Jewish Free Loan -- she was its first female president (1978 - 1980). But Vista Del Mar, for which she once helmed the organization's prestigious Associates fundraising division (1972 - 1974), holds a special place in her heart.
"I love my work there," the longtime Vista board member said. "The people I work with. I have tremendous pride in Vista. I see how we help the kids, and I see the happy families where kids are placed."
"I cheerfully refer to her as the seventh wonder of the modern world," said her son, Charles Shuken, an entrepreneur. Shuken also has a daughter, Victoria, a Chicago teacher.
"She's a role model to countless young women," Charles said. "She's been doing it as long as I can remember. I try to be supportive and encouraging, but she doesn't really need it. She's a self-motivator."
"I still have this outlook on life and energy," Shuken said, "and I still want to work."
For more information on Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, call (310) 836-1223.