On November 2, the College of Health and Human Services will host the 2016 Community Heroes Awards to recognize the unsung heroes in our community whose actions, thoughts and words have had a transformative impact in our region. For the rest of the month, we will be highlighting our nine honorees in our Community Heroes Series.
Name: Jennifer Ruiz
Occupation: Chief Executive Officer, Fresno American Indian Health Project
Nominated by: The Department of Social Work Education
Personal hero: “My grandfather, Henry Jones. He overcame a lot of adversity in his life and yet, he persevered and worked hard to make a difference in the community, impacting so many people.”
For Jennifer Ruiz, Native Americans are not just a community, but rather an extension of her family. It’s a feeling she’s felt deep within her since she was a young child, growing up with a close connection to the Native American community in the Central Valley and as a member of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians.
As a young child, she recalls with fond memories the gatherings, fundraisers, and events that her grandfather, Henry Jones, helped organize when she was just a young child. He was a community organizer and activist who helped develop Sierra Indian Center – one of the first nonprofit social service agencies in Fresno specifically for the Native American community.
It was the 1950s, at a time when services and resources to the community were rare. Through this nonprofit, self-help programs were created and scholarships for Native American youth were enacted. In Ruiz’s eyes, and the eyes of many others, her grandfather was a pioneer who helped pave the way for Native Americans in the region.
Now nearly seven decades later, Ruiz is following in her grandfather’s footsteps, serving as the chief executive officer of the Fresno American Indian Health Project – a nonprofit health and social service organization that serves Native Americans in Fresno County. Through the organization, services provided are focused on health, prevention, health education, youth programing and connecting clients to resources to help improve health and wellness.
Ruiz got her start at the organization in 2003, as the front desk receptionist. At the time, she was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in History and Cultural Anthropology at Fresno State. Thirteen years later, she leads the organization, overseeing operations, grant writing, finances and a staff that is more than double the size of when the organization first began.
Most recently, the organization began offering mental health services. This was crucial, as there were no other agencies in the region offering these services for Native Americans. In order to make that happen, Ruiz and her team built up their behavioral health department by securing necessary grants and funding. For her part, Ruiz has nearly doubled the annual operational budget of the agency, creating greater access to a wider range of health services for the Native American community in the Valley.
Today, they have three licensed mental health counselors and four care coordinators, all of whom provide services to families going through very difficult situations. Ruiz says having care coordinators available helps increase support by linking families to needed services and resources, reducing the likelihood of stressors that can lead to a mental health crises for families. A culturally adapted wraparound model of intervention is used in working with families.
“Unfortunately, there is an overrepresentation of Native American families in the child welfare system,” Ruiz said. “Tribes and tribal organizations serve as an important resource for children and families in the system, by providing needed services, helping children remain connected to the tribal community, and by educating social workers about how to better work with Native American families.”
The agency also successfully published the first comprehensive needs and service system assessment of the Fresno Native American community, accumulating valuable data about the needs and service system gaps that currently exist so that greater health equity can be pursued.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, she went on to receive her master’s degree in Business Administration from Fresno State. She maintains a close connection with the University, as president of the Fresno State Native American Alumni Club, which she created two years ago with others in the community to raise scholarship money for Native American students at Fresno State.
In spring 2016, Ruiz taught an anthropology course at Fresno State on California Indians. In addition, she was involved with the SERVE: Indigenous Community Social Workers for Change program out of the Department of Social Work Education. The program aims to preserve the culture of Native American children and families by working to increase the number of social work graduates of Native American descent.
“We need a lot more of our young people to go to college,” Ruiz said. “It’s really important to have social workers that are well-trained to work with Native American families. Our tribes need them. Our families need them.”
In a way, Ruiz’s journey has come full circle from watching her grandparents pave the path for so many in the community to now leading local efforts through her own academic and nonprofit-based work. Through it all, she still credits the ones who came before her.
“My grandparents inspired my passion to continue working in the health and social services field,” Ruiz said. “If I could inspire even a quarter of the positive impact that my grandparents did, I would consider it success.”
The 2016 Community Heroes Awards, which celebrates heroes from each of the seven departments, as well as centers and institutes within our college, will be held on November 2, 2016 at Fresno State. For more information on the event, contact Sandra Daily at 559.278.3603 or firstname.lastname@example.org or click here.