Ricki Ruiz was awarded a college scholarship for leaders, but he has never thought of himself as one.
When asked to speak in public, his face turned red as a tomato. He would speak softly and with hesitation.
Three years later – now a senior at Warner Pacific College – Ruiz is leading the City of Gresham, Multnomah County and AC Portland in transforming an abandoned 28,000-square-foot roller skating rink into a futsal field.
The new soccer field is expected to open in mid-September under the new name: Snake Court (Sports Neighborhood Action Knowledge Empowerment).
As the project unfolds this summer, Ruiz is working as a community outreach intern for the City of Gresham. Ruiz and his teammates oversee the progress of the field, and update the Rockwood community and all the organizations involved.
“Even before this project, my goal and my vision was to go to college and use that knowledge to bring positive change to Rockwood,” 21-year-old Ruiz said.
The concrete court, located in the heart of the Rockwood neighborhood on S.E.182nd Ave., has been abandoned for more than a decade.
The faded blue and white court shows signs of its age as cracks run along its surface. Weeds grew along the surrounding edge. The logo of its previous owner marks the center of the court: Mt. Hood Roller Hockey.
In middle school and high school, Ruiz and his friends would hop the surrounding 12-foot chain link fence to play soccer. Born and raised in Gresham, Ruiz lives just blocks from the park.
Gang activity, violence, drugs and alcohol have been a constant problem in his neighborhood, especially for young people, he says.
“Not everyone from Rockwood is a bad person,” said Ruiz. “There’s a lot of people who have dreams and goals. Some might have the resources and others might not. I was blessed enough that I did.”
About a year ago, Ruiz went for a jog at Vance Park. During his run, he noticed a group of kids climbing the 12-foot fence to play soccer on the vacant field – just as he had done when he was younger.
In that moment, he envisioned the field as a futsal court for youth.
“I thought about the potential and the possibilities, so nobody has to jump the fence anymore,” said Ruiz.
Shortly after, he texted Yesenia Delgado, a friend and fellow Gresham native. At the time, she was interning at AC Portland and Ruiz at Multnomah County.
The project began to gain momentum in the summer of June 2014. Ruiz spoke with his supervisor and chief appraiser, Sally Brown about his idea for the futsal field.
“He floated the idea to me, and as part of the College to County Program we want to introduce network opportunities,” said Brown.
This was Ruiz’s second summer interning at the county’s Division of Assessment and Taxation. He first caught Brown’s attention during a job interview in the summer of 2013.
“He was very shy at first,” said Brown. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person’s face turn so red when asked questions during an interview. I don’t think he was comfortable speaking about himself. I was convinced he would be a good candidate and he’s never let us down since. We watched him go from a boy to man.”
She suggested a meeting with Marissa Madrigal, the county’s chief operating officer, and Eric Zimmerman, Commissioner Diane McKeel’s chief of staff.
“Just getting to network with Eric Zimmerman, Marissa Madrigal, Chair Kafoury and executive directors of nonprofits was enough to get me started,” said Ruiz. “It adds a lot of self-confidence to the person pursuing those dreams. Maybe meetings with Eric and Marissa didn’t mean anything to them, who knows? But they gave me the confidence to go far.”
It did mean something to Madrigal and Zimmerman.
“He inspires me… He sees the need and he’s going after it,” said Madrigal. “Problems need to be solved but they’re always hard to start. If it was easy, everyone would do it. It takes somebody that walks into leadership and says, ‘I’m going to make this change and make this happen.’”
Zimmerman concurs. “He’s early in his career, and he’s passionate about his neighborhood. This is our first project working together, but I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.”
To move the project forward, Ruiz and Delgado knew they needed to gather funding.
In December of 2014, they landed a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Soccer Foundation for the field.
A month later, they learned that the Portland Timbers and Operation Pitch Invasion (OPI) wanted to fund one to two sites that could potentially be soccer fields as part of their Fields for All program.
With the help of AC Portland and the City of Gresham, they applied in late January. Six weeks later, on March 11, they were selected.
By April, the $15,000 turned into $90,000.
Multnomah County’s Facilities and Property Management has also given its blessing to the project, granting the futsal court project team official permission to use the land in July.
Today the field is under construction. About a week ago, construction crews poured asphalt. In a few weeks, acrylic surfacing will be placed. When completed, the field will feature goals, a grass-green court and beige outer boundaries.
Ruiz still leads softly and quietly. The only difference now is he’s confident.
“It doesn’t matter if others think I’m the wrong person to lead this project because I don’t look like the typical leader,” says Ruiz. “I’m going to complete it. I don’t want the main event, I just want to get things done.”
He learned he was always a leader, just the quiet type.