A feature centerpiece for the Gresham Outlook on Ricki Ruiz, a local guy working for the city, who is trying to make his community safer.
Ricki Ruiz has a scar on his right forearm. It’s thin, faded over the years, and dances down the length of his limb.
The wound occurred during one of the many times he scaled an old chain-link fence that used to separate Ruiz and his friends from their soccer pitch of choice, an abandoned 28,000-square-foot roller skating rink in Vance Park on Southeast 182nd Avenue. It was the price to pay for playing.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Ruiz, it is much easier — and safer. Youths simply have to open a gate to access Snake Court (Sports Neighborhood Action Knowledge Empowerment) and play futsal — a modified version of soccer.
“Growing up it was memories of myself and friends going and playing after school,” Ruiz says. “I was going for a jog and I saw kids jumping the fence in order to play. I had a little flashback and determined what we needed to do.”
Ruiz is now the crime prevention specialist for the city of Gresham, a position the 22-year-old says is more about forming connections and lines of communication than anything else. A lot of the work he does is in the Rockwood neighborhood, as it is a place he is very familiar with. Ruiz grew up in Rockwood, lives in Rockwood, and is working to help Rockwood continue to grow and develop.
“I don’t really pay attention to the negative opinions,” Ruiz says. “Rockwood is just another neighborhood in Gresham. There are going to be great moments and bad moments. I don’t see it as a dangerous spot, because I have lived here my whole life.”
Ruiz loves Rockwood because of the diversity and culture. He says it is a place where you can hear 90 different languages spoken, and walking on the streets has a feeling like nowhere else in the region.
He never planned on getting into politics, and if you asked him two years ago if he would be working for the city he would have laughed. But while interning with Multnomah County, city officials took notice.
“All these people kept talking about this young man, universally good things,” says Eric Chambers, government relations director. “We learned what he was doing and thought he should be here.”
His internship with Gresham started with a bang, as he garnered support and funding for his Vance Park futsal courts. He made such an impression on his coworkers and supervisors that the city offered Ruiz his current position.
“Ruiz is really intelligent, and he has an unflappable positive attitude,” Chambers says. “I’ve never seen him have a bad day.”
Ruiz has been working for the city for a little more than a year, and so far — as the job has him wearing many different hats — no two days are the same. He meets with members of the community, providing a safe place for them to air issues and concerns. This is done through meetings, sending emails and knocking on doors. The trick, Ruiz says, is making himself available.
Many feel safe coming to him because he is a known quantity, someone who has grown up in the neighborhood and understands the problems many are facing. A lot of times people will look for help with things that fall outside of his job because they trust him.
“I try to let people know I’m a first-generation Mexican-American who came from Rockwood,” Ruiz says. “People didn’t expect me to graduate from high school, didn’t expect me to go to college and graduate. I share my story with people and let them know it’s always possible to change your pathway.”
Safe future ahead
People have taken notice of Ruiz, despite his relatively short time working for the city. In Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis’ February 17 State of the City Address, he spoke of the work Ruiz has accomplished.
“If you’ve met Ricki, you’ll know that two things become immediately clear,” Bemis said. “He is contagiously optimistic, and he’s a solid young leader.”
One of his focuses is finding ways to prevent youth violence. Ruiz works with the Gresham Police Department’s Neighborhood Enforcement Team when they go to meet with community leaders. Fluent in Spanish, Ruiz also serves as an unofficial Latino liaison, providing translations for the city as needed.
“I love my job, my coworkers are also my friends and mentors,” Ruiz says. “That is what made me believe in government, knowing there are opportunities for someone like me.”
He recently spearheaded the building of a second futsal court, this one located in East Rockwood Park next to Davis Elementary School, and construction of a third at Aspen Highlands Park will begin soon. In addition, he works with partners to provide programs at the courts, and creates his own through the Rockwood Initiative, a nonprofit organization for which he serves as chief executive officer.
Ruiz hasn’t had the chance to play on Davis Court yet, as his go-to spot is still Vance Park.
“I have memories playing there as a kid, having fun with friends — some whom are now in jail or dead,” Ruiz says. “Building these courts was in honor of them, their families and the kids in the future.”
With the scar on his forearm as a reminder and motivator, Ruiz is hopeful his work for the city ensures he will be one of the last youths to hurt themselves searching for a safe place to play.
“In the future I would want my kids to play in a safe environment,” he says, “rather than jumping a fence and getting a scarred arm.”