An Uncertain Path to Service

An Uncertain Path to Service

After a lifetime of dedication to public service, Suzanne Schultz, program manager for the San Joaquin County Family Justice Center, is looking forward to retirement in 2022—and she’s going out with a bang. The 57-year-old responsible for planning, designing, and running the FJC just snagged the ATHENA award in recognition of her 36-year career in criminal justice. “When I look at the caliber of women who have won… the caliber of women are actually the women I have always admired,” Suzanne says. “To be in the category with them was actually very, very humbling.”

The award for Suzanne is well-deserved. Starting as a file clerk in the Criminal Division of the San Joaquin County Municipal Court before computerized documents, she made her way through law school working for the District Attorney’s office, and eventually landed in charge of the Family Crimes Unit before getting appointed project manager of the FJC. The position fulfilled her in every way, dedicating her life to the idea of ending generational cycles of abuse. “I have to be able to create a place where the benefits to future generations are going to come to fruition when I’m no longer here,” Suzanne says—and that’s exactly what she’s done with FJC, a one-stop shop for victims of abuse who need counseling, legal services, and more under one roof.

So how did Suzanne get here? Well, it wasn’t her original plan, and she’ll be the first to tell you that. While working at the same offices her mother had served at for 40 years, Suzanne was also going to law school. She graduated, but never passed the bar. At the time, it felt like a failure, and her confidence was wavering; the prosecutors at work insisted she was just a bimbo receptionist who had no business being a lawyer, and for a period of time Suzanne feared they were right. Seven exams and three-and-a-half years went by before a bout of thyroid cancer forced Suzanne to reevaluate.

“Instead of looking for the greener pasture and [trying to] achieve and achieve and achieve, I decided to be content,” Suzanne says. Working in the DA’s fiscal department, she was giving back to the community she wanted so badly to serve, and for a while she was okay with that as her forever path. Her supervisor, Caryn Willett, however, disagreed. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Suzanne recalls of the offer to be her successor.

Eventually, Suzanne caved. She followed Caryn as the Domestic Violence Coordinator for the DA’s Office, took over as the Family Crimes Coordinator in 2004, and started work on the FJC in 2006, pitching the community need to her colleagues, securing partners in both the legal and health spaces, and even doing the design work of choosing carpet, flooring, and fixtures for the space within the District Attorney’s Office. At the core, it was Suzanne’s job to convince everyone around her to see the vision. If Suzanne hadn’t failed the bar, if she hadn’t gotten cancer, she wouldn’t have landed where she did. “I wouldn’t have appreciated this destiny for what it was,” she says.

“I kind of live and breathe this job,” Suzanne says, talking with passion about the teens in abusive relationships, the kids caring for their incapable parents, and the adults with alcohol and drug dependency stemming from unresolved childhood trauma. But that hasn’t stopped Suzanne from finding other ways to serve San Joaquin County. On the board of the AseraCare Foundation, Suzanne helps make decisions that earmark funds for a variety of nonprofits. She also worked with the Lodi Seniors Citizen Commission for many years.

Despite her undeniable achievements, Suzanne shies from the spotlight. The first to talk passionately about the communities FJC serves, she’s also the first to downplay her own achievements. “I’m very uncomfortable with the attention being on me for me,” she admits. Instead, she shifts the focus to those who have given her a helping hand in getting where she is today. “Everyone has blessed me with the ability to grow, to make mistakes and learn from them, and most importantly to be able to serve the community,” she says. For her, the success is not hers alone, but achieved in part because of the faith and guidance of her supervisors and the unwavering support of her mom and husband.