The spirit of serving others

Lutheran Settlement House honors Fishtown native Ruth Zarzycki at annual Women of Courage event

That’s the spirit: Ruth Zarzycki enjoys a moment at her favorite spot at Lutheran Settelement House in Fishtown.

By Melissa Komar

Ruth Zarzycki was still at a loss for words the day after Lutheran Settlement House presented her the Spirit Award at its 11th annual Women of Courage Ceremony and Breakfast.

“I am stumped for words,” she said. “I’m shocked. I never thought it would happen. But it means [Lutheran Settlement House] appreciated what I do.”

For 13 years, Zarzycki, 73, has been an active member at the Fishtown-based nonprofit that provides services to disadvantaged populations including victims of domestic violence, the homeless, seniors and those lacking access to education.

Zarzycki is an everyday participant at the Senior Center program and serves as the vice president of the senior activities council, the governing body of the program.

Her duties range from coordinating fundraisers such as flea markets to creating events to engage fellow seniors such as crazy hat day.

Some of her favorite activities include the fundraisers, arts and crafts and going on trips — she helped organized a weeklong trip to Wildwood for a group a seniors that takes place this month.

Aside from physical activities, the center provides a place for mental respite, too, according to Zarzycki.

“If I have problems, I can talk to staff and they give me support if I need it,” she said.

While Zarzycki has been a faithful Monday to Friday member at Lutheran Settlement House for more than a decade, her connection to the nonprofit was established years before.

Zarzycki grew up in Fishtown and attended church in the building when she was 11 years old. Her son, 42, — the youngest of four children — attended the daycare program when he was a toddler and Zarzycki worked at a factory across the street.

The factory job was one of many she worked over the years to support her children on her own after she separated from her first husband.

“We lived on a lot of streets in Fishtown,” Zarzycki said. “Palmer. Oxford, Hewson. I raised my four kids alone, so we had to keep moving to afford the rent. I worked three jobs to keep my kids. And I just did it because it had to be done.”

That mentality is one of the reasons why Zarzycki is the recipient of this year’s Spirit Award. The award recognizes an individual from the Senior Center program who “has displayed spirit and courage in blossoming in the program and overcoming life’s obstacles.”

Jesse Bilger, activities coordinator at Lutheran Settlement House, has worked with Zarzycki since arriving at the organization four years ago.

“Ruth is essential to the center,” he said. “It’s very obvious that she cares about this place. She has lots of ideas, and without her energy, we would be worse off.”

Having ample energy is one attribute Zarzycki openly boasts about.

“I’m very motivated to do things,” she said. “My husband jokes he can’t keep up with me.”

Zarzycki and her second husband, Walter Zarzycki, recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

And although they no longer reside in Fishtown, the neighborhood left a lasting impact on Zarzycki.

“I got to know everyone in Fishtown,” she said. “And everyone knew me and my kids. That’s why I come here. I know everyone from the neighborhood.”

Supporting her fellow members is another reason Zarzycki received the award, according to Bilger.

“Ruth is just vigilant,” he said. “She’s very good at making sure all the members’ needs are met.”

Helping others is second nature to Zarzycki.

“I just really enjoy helping other seniors out,” she said. “In fact, I just like to help others, not just seniors. I treat some of the other seniors like they’re my mother.”

And while Lutheran Settlement House publicly recognized Zarzycki for her work helping others and overcoming obstacles in her own life, she remains humble.

“I’m just thankful I received the award,” she said. “I’m thankful the staff would consider me for the award. It meant a lot.”

For more information about programs offered at Lutheran Settlement House, visit lutheransettlement.org.