– Growing up in the Bronx, Rocio Ruiz saw enough reckless behavior to fill her with an urgency to do something about it.
"A lot of my friends were having unprotected sex and having children as teens,” said Ruiz, 34. “They were uneducated on the risks and various diseases they were exposing themselves to.”
Ruiz saw how gay friends, many of them minority men, struggled with the backlash – even from their own families – after coming out.
“I just wanted to help them.”
Ruiz made her mission a reality. She has devoted the past decade of her life to public health.
She spent years working as an HIV testing counselor and helping to teach numerous people about avoiding infection. Today, she is director of prevention at Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, New Jersey’s first and largest AIDS service organization.
Hopefully one day I start my own organization to empower Latinas and write a prevention curriculum that would be targeting Latinas specifically.
- Rocio Ruiz
The non-profit agency describes itself on its website as an organization that provides “individual client advocacy as well as hotline counseling for prevention, care and treatment, service referrals, professional and community education workshops, and legal services.”
“Take the leap and build the wings on the way down,” said Ruiz of her philosophy about how to get through adversity. “I admire human life, I admire mostly, struggles. I’ve always been curious about how five people could go through the same thing and have five different outcomes.”
Ruiz oversees more than 35 employees throughout the state, eight prevention programs sites in Paterson, Newark, Jersey City, Plainfield, Trenton, and New Brunswick, and she juggles additional directorial responsibilities, as well.
“My team is an excellent team. Without my team I don’t know where I would be. Before I use to work directly with clients but now in my role, I am influencing employees and helping them to develop their professional skills and to be an excellent team member,” said Ruiz.
On a personal level, it was important for Ruiz, who grew up in a traditional home, to help her Dominican-born parents better understand why she does the work she does -- and why it matters.
“In helping my family understand why I do the work I do, I had to help my family see that the gay community was no different than heterosexuals and there are basic needs that everyone should have and it shouldn’t be deprived from them on the basis of their sexuality,” said Ruiz, who is straight, and identifies herself as an ally for the LGBT community.
Ruiz attended Montclair State University as an Education Opportunity Fund student, earning her bachelor’s in psychology.
Ruiz is widely respected for her work and devotion in the state, but she quickly directs the kudos away from herself and to her support network.
“I do have 10 years of experience in the field, but I know of other friends who are still in positions and they have had more years in the field, who are still in those positions and I was able to move up.”
Ruiz believes that she would not have gotten as far as she has if it had not been for the mentors she has had throughout her professional life.
“What I tell a lot of my Latina co-workers or students or people who look up to me is to look for a mentor. Look for someone who is where you want to be and hear their struggles so you can learn from their lessons,” said Ruiz.
Ruiz accredited Deloris Dockrey, one of her mentors, who is the director of community organizing for Hyacinth, who inspires Ruiz through her own struggles and experiences. Ruiz also credits a former boss, Diana Santiago, who, incidentally, she labeled as a difficult boss.
“She’s [Santiago] been able to refocus me a lot,” Ruiz said. “I tend to give so much that I forget about myself, so now I am refocusing on continuing my studies, getting my master’s in social work. Hopefully one day start my own organization to empower Latinas and write a prevention curriculum that would be targeting Latinas specifically.”
Ruiz hopes to one day work for the Center for Disease Control, do international work in third world countries that are being impacted by HIV/AIDS the most, and continue to give back to the community in some way.
To learn more about Hyacinth AIDS Foundation and to learn about more resources regarding HIV/AIDS, visit their site at www.hyacinth.org.
Mark Travis Rivera is a freelance reporter in New Jersey.
Mark Travis Rivera is a LGBTQA activist and was recently named one of the 2013 Voice & Action Award recipients by Campus Pride, the nation's leading LGBTQA organization for college students. You can contact him on Twitter @MarkTravRivera.