People in Your Neighborhood: Meet former J*Company Youth Theater producer Monica Handler Penner

Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to editor@lajollalight.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.

After eight years, La Jolla resident Monica Handler Penner is passing the baton at the J*Company Youth Theater to Candice Powell. Now in its 25th season, the theater program, based at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center (JCC), provides performing arts opportunities to children and teens, ages 4-18, regardless of gender, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or economic status. A pediatrician full of positive energy and in constant motion, Monica also rescues birds and other wild animals along the coast. This mother of two lives with her husband, five pets (three dogs and two cats), four of them with chronic illnesses.

Where are you from?

“My family came to San Diego in the mid-1950s. I was born at Sharp Hospital. I grew up in the Del Cerro area and went to college at UC San Diego. But then I went to medical school at UC San Francisco, ended up living in New York for a while, then back to the Bay Area, and then I found myself raising my children in San Diego, most recently in La Jolla.”

When did you move in La Jolla?

“We first got this house (in La Jolla Shores) in the mid-1990s, and then moved around. We found ourselves in North County, and I’ve been living here full time since 2014.”

What do you do for a living?

“My training is in medicine, so I am a pediatrician, but I’ve not been working in clinical practice for quite a few years. I’ve been fortunate to be able to stay home and raise my children, but I haven’t stayed home per se, I’ve been doing other things.”

What are those other things?

“I was lucky enough to get a place at the table at the Wexner Heritage Program, which is a leadership fellowship. I spent three years learning how to lead the community, immersed in a Jewish lens. After that, I found myself even busier with young children at home, so I was president of the Agency for Jewish Education, and then got involved with the JCC, mainly because my daughter loved theater and she started doing plays with J*Company. Eventually, I found myself the executive producer of the company, planning the seasons, going through budgets, representing the J*Company at the JCC on budget and finance. Simultaneously, the JCC asked me if I would become secretary of the Center for Jewish Culture (CJC). I just passed along my position as executive producer of J*Company to a younger parent because my daughter graduated, but I continue on the board of CJC.”

What’s been your contribution to the JCC?

“I think it was very comforting for the JCC that a pediatrician was running their youth theater. I implemented a lot of policies (addressing lice to the flu) that were very helpful for preventing infectious diseases ... because when you have 60, 80 or 90 kids together and they’re sharing costumes … kids can get sick. We ended up really limiting the amount of kids that got sick.”

I understand you also volunteer for Project Wildlife.

“The Humane Society sent me an e-mail and said they were looking for volunteers for Project Wildlife. I was like ‘Sure!’ I roped my husband in with me, because I didn’t want to do this by myself. So we got trained on how to handle wild animals. We decided to purchase leather gloves that go up to the shoulder, because we were to handle animals as small as humming birds and as big as raptors ... owls have claws that can tear your skin off! Seagulls and the birds that you find here in La Jolla Shores can actually poke your eye out, so this is a very serious project we undertook.

The animals are dropped off at various animal hospitals. My husband and I got the beach route from Oceanside down to La Jolla. We make a stops at some of the animal hospitals on the way … we’ve brought over an owl, big animals, little ones, like a humming bird, rats, opossums. We have to get them out of their crates and put them in our crate, which is more complicated than one might imagine, because if they’re birds, they can fly around.”

What do you do for fun?

“This is all fun! I worked so hard in college to get to medical school, worked so hard at medical school to become a resident, worked 100-hour weeks as a resident … so I’m a very purposeful person. I just love to learn and I love to grow. In addition to hanging out with friends, I exercise. I’m a big fan of staying fit.”

What’s your personal life like?

“We’re a ‘blended’ family. My husband has children, and I have children, so together we’ve raised them. We feel so fortunate that we were able to fall in love a second time in life. We were both divorced and single parents, and our community introduced us and fixed us up on blind date. It’s a wonderful union, the two families get along beautifully. I have two kids and he has one. My son has finished graduate school, my daughter is about to go to college.

For a lot of families, it’s a struggle to raise children, and for us, there were also challenging moments, but I feel really good because we’ve raised, together with the ex-spouses, three really happy, strong, successful (individuals). It takes a village to raise children who will do well for our future.”

What does you religion mean to you?

“It gives me a place to go — not only for community and social reasons — but also for my own personal journey. We all have challenging moments in our life, and nobody is immune to difficult times and tragedies, but I found that through my relationship with my community and my spiritual journey, I’m able to find strength and hope in difficult times.”

What were those difficult times?

“I’ve had a couple of medical situations. I’m a (breast) cancer survivor and I was in a car accident. I was sitting in the passenger seat and was hit from behind by someone who wasn’t paying attention and I ended up with a concussion that was not healing. So through my medical experience and connections, I’ve searched for ways to get better, never let my cancer come back, and got myself able to think again, to do electronics again, which I couldn’t because of my concussion. It’s been two years since my accident ... they said it would be a five-year recovery. I’m maybe 98 percent better.”

How did you recover so quickly?

“In addition to traditional medicine, doing whatever they told me to do — physical therapy, balance therapy and vision therapy. I had a neurologist who’s well-versed in holistic medicine. He recommended I go on a gluten-free diet to get better from the concussion, which debilitated me. I ended up getting 50-60 percent improvement in 48 hours on a gluten-free diet! So I said to myself, ‘why?’ I dived into Dr. David Perlmutter’s (book) ‘Grain Brain.’ I read it cover to cover, and it just blew my mind. Basically, the book says a lot of our illnesses come from what we’re eating and our lifestyle. I went back to my neurologist, and asked, ‘Is this hype or true?’ And he said, ‘It would scare you very much, but it’s all true.’

I did more research and discovered I needed to get further nutritional and genomic testing to find out what I was missing in my diet that was preventing me from fully healing my brain and preventing other diseases. So I had a full evaluation done in the last couple of months, and now I am gluten-free, dairy-free, alcohol-free and sugar-free. All those things are very inflammatory, and research has shown increased inflammation in the body can affect my (brain’s) recovery. The hardest thing for me to give up has been dairy, because I love cheese, and milk in my coffee.”

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