It’s a Long Way From Shanghai to Santa Monica

Updated: Nov 3

Monika White with her banjo.

It is a common belief that one of the best ways to learn more about yourself and the world around you is to listen and learn from the stories of others. It is this belief that is the driving force behind our column, Senior Snapshot, where we share the life story of a senior resident in Santa Monica each month.

This month, we are featuring Monika White, a member of the Rotary Club of Santa Monica for the past 26 years. Monika has been and remains an active part of our community. Although retired, she sits on the board of directors for several local nonprofits, knits for charity, performs music, and has traveled extensively with her husband, Roger Goodman.

Her story is rich, emotional, and inspirational. It takes us all around the globe. Monika was born in Shanghai, China, where her parents had fled from Nazi Germany in 1938. Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese military, and Monika’s family of four, including her mother, father, and twin sister, were forced into an internment camp along with tens of thousands of other Jewish refugees living in the ghetto until the end of WWII in 1945. “There were five families living in one room separated by a blanket or sheet for privacy,” Monika recounted of her time in the camp. There were bombings, soldiers, and hunger – it was a scary time, although the Jewish community always made sure there was a school for the children.

After the war, Monika’s family remained in the Shanghai ghetto in a single-room residency until an international relocation organization helped them move to the United States. Sadly, just before the war ended, Monika’s mother left, but soon her father married another German-Jewish refugee. Monika later reunited with her mother but when Monika took the arduous three-week boat journey across the Pacific, it was with her father, twin sister, stepmother, and stepsister. She was just eight years old.

Monika’s life changed drastically as she experienced a whole new world of marvels, such as a fully furnished five-room apartment, a radio, and water safe to drink without boiling it first, but there were also difficulties. The weather in their new home in Duluth, Minnesota, one of the coldest places in the country, was quite shocking. Knowing only German at the time, they also couldn't yet speak a word of English.

Five years later, Monika’s family moved to Minneapolis, where her parents enrolled the twins in the Minneapolis Vocational High School. “Our parents sat us down one day and said, “You must always be able to take care of yourselves. No one else will take care of you, so, you have to choose a trade.” Monika and her sister chose cosmetology and, by the end of their junior year at age 16, they had passed the Minnesota State Cosmetology Exam and became licensed hairdressers.

During a vacation in California at age 18, however, Monika found herself madly in love with Los Angeles. “That was it!” she declared with a laugh. “I packed up and moved to California.” She went on to work as a hairdresser in Los Angeles and, while things were good, there was a lifelong dream that was calling out to her: “I always wanted to go to college and become a teacher.”

In her mid-twenties, Monika enrolled in Pasadena City College and was hired as an executive secretary by Rosemary Cottage, a home for teenage girls with mental health issues. Here, she found herself drawn to the social services environment as she grew closer to the girls. The social work staff encouraged her to start volunteering in community agencies and to continue her education. She eventually received her A.A. degree from Pasadena City College before getting a B.A. in English from Cal State, L.A.

She graduated in 1970, and because of her volunteer activities with the Pasadena YWCA, Monika was offered a position as their youth services director working in their Y-Teen Program, Big Sister Project, Job Corps, and summer camp. She went on to become one of three recipients of a prestigious award from the national YWCA, granting her a full scholarship to the graduate school of her choice. Not surprisingly, she chose the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California.

With an MSW in hand, she was invited to teach and conduct research in social welfare at the school. Eventually, she won a scholarship to work on her doctorate and through her dissertation study conducted at the USC Gerontology Center – the first in the world – began a 45-year career in the field of aging. Her study was funded by the federal government and focused on what could be done for older adults besides putting them in nursing homes. “By helping to develop programs to support older adults in the community,” Monika explained, “I established a career for myself and became a pioneer in the field.”

Her career would lead her around the world as a specialist and consultant to help public and private entities think through the types of programs and communities that support the idea of “aging well” while benefiting older adults. After 10 years at Huntington Hospital’s Senior Care Network, a model program still in existence today, Monika was recruited to direct the Center for Healthy Aging (formerly Senior Health and Peer Counseling). She has lived in Santa Monica ever since.

In addition to her professional career, Monika led an all-woman, old-time string band, “Old Mother Logo,” that debuted at Magic Mountain in 1977. For the next 10 years, the group played bluegrass festivals, theme parks, house concerts, and many other venues, and recorded two albums.

Monika still plays music today with her sister and her husband, who is “the most wonderful and supportive husband anyone could have.” Between her music, her yarn hobby, and her volunteer activities, she remains in touch with her aging and social work colleagues, musicians across the country, and her large Minnesota family.

“I look back at my life with immense gratitude. To come out of a war and poverty and have the opportunities that I have had is miraculous to me,” Monika reflects.

Listening to Monika’s life story was a truly inspiring experience. I feel honored to share it with our readers, and hope they are as moved by it as I was. Monika has overcome and achieved so much in her life, and her story is a powerful lesson in perseverance, possibilities, and strength.

By Luke Netzley

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