Although she’s a stand-up comedian, Amy Shuklian takes her day jobs very seriously. The Visalia City Council member is also a recreation therapist, who works in Kaweah Delta’s rehab center on Akers. And, while serious about her work, she finds that the use of comedy is helpful in many situations.
The South Valley native was raised just west of the Tulare-Kings county line, where her family farmed 54-acres next door to the Delta View School, which she attended. Her father and uncles also farmed at Tagus Ranch.
“I grew up on Tagus Ranch – picking peaches, sorting peaches, driving forklifts at 9, 10 years old – that’s what you do when you’re a farm kid,” she said.
Shuklian is the youngest of four children, having two older brothers and a sister, who all remain living in the area. Her family is of Armenian heritage, all of her grandparents having survived the Armenian genocide, she said. Her father’s family ended up in the Central Valley and her mother’s in Detroit. But, her mom and a friend came to California on vacation, and each met their future husbands.
Shuklian graduated high school in Hanford where she was very active in Future Farmers of America, and attended College of the Sequoias, mostly taking agriculture-related classes with the thought of working in the family business, but farming was changing. So, she took some time off to re-evaluate just what direction she wanted to take in life. She started volunteering with various entities, while working with her family.
She volunteered at the Creative Center, the Visalia’s recreation department and psychiatric hospitals, which is where she discovered recreational therapy. She received her associate degree from Reedley College and then her bachelor’s from Fresno State in Recreational Therapy. From there she went to work at a few facilities in the Fresno-Clovis area for several years including Cedar Vista, an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Fresno, where she worked for nine years becoming the supervisor of recreational therapy and the program manager. She oversaw the adolescent patient psychiatric unit working with depressed kids, suicidal kids and at-risk kids.
And, then her father passed away.
“He died on his tractor, doing what he loved with his boots on,” she said.
Because her mom was having a difficult time living alone in the big farmhouse, Shuklian moved home with her life-partner for about 2 ½ years, while her brother farmed the land.
“Things just kind of worked out – it was God’s plan, I guess, because something opened up at Kaweah Delta Rehab, so I applied for the position and got it,” she said.
Shuklian speaks highly of her parents and says she comes from a long line of strong, independent women. She also speaks highly of her grandparents and her heritage. Her maternal grandmother, watched her mother being “viciously” murdered in front of her by a Turkish solider, Shuklian said. She was then taken capture and worked basically as a slave, until she was able to escape.
“She never talked about it until about 18 months before she passed away, when she talked to me about it extensively,” she said. “And, I luckily have it all on video. I keep clips of it on my phone – just to see her and hear her talk, but also it is just amazing, what they went through.”
While it was good to spend time with her mother again, after a while it was time for Shuklian and her partner, Mary, to be out on their own again and they bought a house in Visalia.
Shuklian continues to work the inpatient rehabilitation unit.
“I always thought I didn’t want to do anything else besides work in mental health, but this has been a great experience,” she said. “To work with folks who have had a stroke, or spinal cord injury, or brain injury and they come in and they’re not-walking, not-talking, their functional mobility – they have major deficits and to see them get better in the time they are in the hospital, but even beyond. Now and then, I’ll hear a little knock on my office door and I’ll turn around and it’s a patient who left in a wheelchair and is now standing at my door saying thank you, and they’re an outpatient and it’s just wonderful, because that’s what it’s all about, it’s working with people to get them to their highest level of functioning so they can go back and live their life. That’s a great thing – I enjoy the work that I do there, a lot.”
When she moved back to Visalia, Shuklian, having two dogs, realized that dog parks were becoming popular. She ran into an acquaintance, Donna Bailey, who used to be the director of parks and recreation in Visalia and said, “Hey, when is Visalia going to get a dog park?” Bailey responded, “Well, when you get a group of people together and make it happen.”
“So, I met with some folks in the city, with the parks department,” Shuklian said. “Other folks had talked about it in the past, but it just never really took off. I talked with the city manager and council members, and what we need to do – where can we locate this – where are some spots that would be a good location. I had some fundraisers, I’m a standup comedian, so we did a couple comedy show fundraisers, Comedy Unleashed, and we raised $25,000 to pay for everything – the fencing and all of
“Just that whole process of going through the council meetings and the park and rec meetings was very interesting to me. I really enjoyed it. So, in 2002 we opened the park.
“Our city manager at the time, Steve Solomon, said, ‘You know Amy, a lot of people come to us and want something to happen in the community, but they don’t want to make it happen. They just want the city to do it. You made it happen.’
“After that, you know once you do something, people come after you – so from there I was asked to be on the Parks and Recreation Commission and with my background is recreation, and that was a great fit.”
She ended up becoming chairperson.
She was also asked to be a board member on the newly founded Parks and Recreation Foundation and she also served on the Valley Oak SPCA board.
“You know Visalia is one of those towns where you can get involved and you can make a difference,” she said. “I really felt it. I felt so embraced by people. You could go to the fireworks show and there’s your city manager out there selling t-shirts in the crowd. You know, you don’t see that a lot. The mayor, or whoever, just out there being a part of the community – I really embraced that – I loved that. So, I just wanted to get more and more involved. That’s why I joined the different commissions and committees and then I joined different task forces like the Smart Growth Task Force, to get more involved in the city.
“It’s the Visalia way – we’re 130,000 people, but you can still get involved and you can still make a difference. We’ve maintained that sense of community here and I love that! That’s what I strive for – is to maintain that sense of community because it’s so important.”
And so she moved forward.
On to Council
“You see things around town, you didn’t like, or see something in the paper – the council made this decision and you think, why did they do that,” she said. “So, one thing lead to another and I thought, you know I’d like to get more involved in the decision-making process. So, in March of 2005, I started going to council meetings and I ran for council that following November. There were three seats open, eight people running, two incumbents and a former 16-year council member, Greg Collins. That’s the year Greg decided to make his big comeback, damn him. And, you can put that in there. I came in fourth behind the two incumbents and the former council member. So, I did pretty good, but I lost.
“I continued going to every council meeting for the next two years, until the next election – I went to every council meeting, I didn’t miss one. In 2007, I ran again and that’s when I won – there were two seats open and I won a seat.
“Since I’ve been elected, I have not missed a single city council meeting. And, I know that’s not always possible – there might be something that comes up – I have just been lucky enough not to get sick the week of the first or third Monday of the month. And, it has been the best experience ever. The thing I like about it the best is engaging with the community. Sometimes I wish the community would engage more with us, but if that’s not going to happen then I am going to do everything I can to engage the community.
“I love walking down Main Street and running into somebody and they have an issue, or I am in the grocery store and somebody says, ‘you know what, I don’t want to bother you,’ and I say, ‘you know what, bother me.’ This is what I signed up for. This is what I want to do.”
“I think I have fresh, different perspective on things,” she continued.
“I think I surprised a lot of people,” she added, reflectively. “After I was elected, I would have people come up to me and say, ‘you know what, I need to apologize to you, I didn’t vote for you and I’m sorry. You’re not what I thought you were going to be.’
“I was afraid to ask them what they thought I was going to be,” she said, “I can probably figure it out.”
She didn’t ask any of those people and they didn’t share it with her.
“I think people thought I was going to be this big liberal . . . and I’m not,” she said. “I’m a comedian – I am this woman who is kind of outspoken – I brought up different issues.
“I’ve heard, I have been called a liberal and I go, ‘What is that? What exactly is that?’ And I’m not. I meet every Monday morning with the city manager and Councilmember Gubler, and we’ll sit there and go over the agenda or other items, things that are happening in the city that we need to be made aware of, and sometimes I’ll ask a question, like a financial question, and Warren [Gubler] will look at me and say, ‘Are you sure you’re not a republican?’ And, I say nope, I’m neither – I’m undeclared.”
Shulkian is open about the fact she is gay.
“It shouldn’t come up. People haven’t brought it up – which is good. It’s a non-issue. I didn’t say vote for me because I am a woman, I didn’t say vote for me because I am gay. I didn’t say vote for me because I am Armenian. I said, vote for me because I am qualified and I can do the job and I care about the community and I will work my tail off. That’s what I’ve done.
“I remember, one time I was at an event and some young kids, 18- or 19-year-olds, came up to me and they were gay and they said, ‘So what does the city council do for us.’ And, I said, ‘Well you know, we legislate, we do ordinances, and we work on budget and all for the city.’ And, they said, ‘No, no, what do they do for us, the gay community,’ and I said, ‘What do you do for the city?’
“I don’t look at any particular group, in any way, we’re all Visalians and everybody is a citizen of Visalia. I encourage everybody to get involved. That’s just the way I work. That’s how I was raised, I guess.”
Run for County Supervisor
And, Shulkian is looking to take her work to the next level; she is running for County Board of Supervisor District 3.
She gave a few reasons why, the first a lack of cohesiveness, she feels, between the county and its cities.
“I was really surprised when I was elected not only at the lack of collaboration between the city and the county, but almost, I hate to say a ‘hatred,’ a big dislike, between the two,” she said, “And not being able to work together on issues that we should have been working together on for a long time.
“And, that’s not me – I mean you can disagree on things and you can have difference of opinions – there’s five of us up there on the dais every two weeks, and we have a difference of opinion and we discuss it and we vote and if you’re not on the voting side, oh well, we’re in a democracy, that’s how it works. And, we shake hands and say, see you next meeting.
“So, it’s OK to disagree and have difference of opinions, but it was a head-butting – some things got to the point where the different cities and the county had to come together and form this council of cities to talk about issues that we were dealing with, with the county. They were going to sue the county, some cities did sue the county regarding the general plan it just didn’t seem right.”
Shuklian also pointed to when the downturn of the economy started and in the city when different departments were looking at ways to cut spending while Visalia oversaw the regional hazmat.
“We have a hazmat vehicle, trailer, our firefighters are trained in hazmat and our fire chief at the time was looking at it and saying, Visalia is paying for everything, but yet, it’s or everybody. So, we came up with this plan, and we approached the different cities, and some cities said yeah and some said no and the county was one of those that said no. They eventually said yes, but their first reaction was no.
That was just another one of those, ‘Wow, really? You don’t want to pitch in to help with this hazmat, especially in Tulare County when you’ve got so much farming community, where you’re using chemicals and these people are working in the fields.’”
Shuklian also said she wants to see more of an openness of county board members.
“Another thing, I think it is important for the citizens, the constituents, to feel like they can go to their elected official,” she said. “That’s something that I have really tried to do, with my [council] office hours, but just in general. Going to events, supporting different events, in council meetings treating people with respect, encouraging engagement, all of that – I think that’s important. And, sometimes I don’t see that with our current District 3 supervisor.”
Shuklian said she wants the community to gain trust in their government.
“You need to trust your elected officials – there is too much of that going on – and that is one of my other goals in moving on to the board of supervisors, along with many other things, is making people trust their government again – their elected officials, because we don’t,” she said.
“I like local government, I like the city council, I like the county supervisor position, because it is a non-partisan position. Now, people want to make it partisan, but it’s not.”
Shuklian also discussed the fact that when supervisors give their top employees, such as the sheriff or district attorney, a raise, they get one too.
“That could work negatively for the folks that deserve a raise,” she said. “We want good people in those positions.”
In running for the county seat, Shuklian admits to feeling a bit like she is abandoning the city itself.
“It will be bittersweet,” she said. “I’ve made some incredible friendships and relationships here, but there is no reason why they’ll end.”
If not elected to county supervisor, Shuklian would probably rerun for council, she said.
If elected to the county seat, she will have to leave her job at Kaweah Delta.
“That’s scary too,” she said, “because then you will have to run for your job every four years. It’s been 16½ years there and it’s a good salary and good benefits. But, I’ve done the same thing in my life for 30 years, and I found this new thing I have been able to do – both of the things, I love to do – but, I would love to do more of the city-type work and the supervisor position would allow me to do that more.
“A lot of times I wish I had more time to be more involved in the committees that I’m on, and to go to different meetings where you have a say and help to provide a direction and a vision and as a supervisor, you would – working closer with the department heads, making them as best as they can be and to provide the services that we need to provide to make Tulare County thrive.”
If Shuklian weren’t involved in the local political arena, she would undoubtedly be spending more time in
“I was telling jokes out of the womb, I guess,” she said. “All my life I have just enjoyed comedy – growing up I would watch Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Moms Mabley, all those women comedians. I watched the Ed Sullivan Show, Flip Wilson and Carol Burnett on Friday nights and I
just loved it.
“I guess I have always used humor to engage people. Actually, I do workshops and lectures on the appropriate use of humor – humor and laughter is very powerful – it’s very powerful in a positive way and it’s very powerful in a negative way. There’s a fine line between that.”
She absolutely uses comedy in her rehabilitation work and recreational therapy, as well as on city council.
Shuklian also enjoys golf, home improvement jobs, shooting at the gun range and her new hobby, poker. She’s not a high-ante player, she says, but rather $1 or $2 games and Texas Hold ‘Em is her game of choice. Last year, she played in the Ladies World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and made it about halfway through the
field, she said.
In the end, Shuklian would like to be remembered for her hard work and dedication.
“I’m not a legacy person, I don’t want to leave a legacy,” she said, “I want people to say, ‘she worked hard, that she was fair to people, and respected people.’
“I have people come up to me now and say, ‘You know Amy, I don’t always agree with your decisions, but I respect the way you make your decisions.’ That is a big deal to me. And, I have a lot of those people right now. A lot of the people who supported my opponent in the past, are now supporting me. People who did not want me on the council in 2007 are now supporting me, endorsing me. So, I’ve proven myself – I’ve proven that I work hard, that I’m qualified.”