Getting out of one’s comfort zone to do volunteer work abroad is not for everyone. It can be hard but not impossible, especially for those who are truly committed to serve and have a zeal to bring about positive change in the lives of impoverished people.
Enter Jose Nuñez Ruiz.
Nuñez Ruiz, 44, has a long history of volunteerism that began when he was only 19 years old.
“My first volunteer work experience was with the Salvation Army’s children program,” he says. “I knew that helping others was my calling and I wanted to do something.”
He recently returned from the Dominica Republic after serving there for two years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps.
His inspiration and encouragement to help those less fortunate than him came from his late mother, Luz Veronica Martinez Ruiz.
“She always taught me to love and serve others,” says Nuñez Ruiz.
A Lancaster resident, Nuñez Ruiz traveled to his native Puerto Rico in 2012 to help his father and spend time with his extended family.
“I enjoyed it so much I decided to move there,” he says. “People here thought I was crazy.”
While in Puerto Rico, he worked at a casino but also joined AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs that address critical community needs.
For three years, he worked in AmeriCorps’ after school programs helping students with math, English and social skills.
“I was assigned to a school in Barrio Cucharilla, in the northern town of Cataño. They have one of the highest rates of school dropouts on the island. I was part of their tutoring program,” he says.
During that time, another volunteer introduced him to Peace Corps, a program that provides economic and social development to communities in countries around the world.
The woman’s response to his interest in the organization surprised Nuñez Ruiz.
“She said to me, ‘The program is not for people like you.’ and I just stared at her, speechless. To this day, I’m not sure of what she meant,” says Nuñez Ruiz.
Replaying the conversation in his mind gave him the push he needed to take the next step.
“I believe God does things for a reason so the very next day I submitted my application to go to El Salvador with the Peace Corps,” he says.
Volunteers with the Peace Corps immerse themselves in the communities they serve, working with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of that community as they relate to agriculture, environment, community economic development, health, education and youth in development, among other things.
According to the organization’s website, there are 7,367 volunteers currently serving in countries around the world. The majority of them serve in the 2-year program.
“There is a lengthy application process which I found challenging at times, and also a lot of training involved at different levels while you serve,” he says. “You have to meet certain standards in a lot of areas including technical, linguistic, cultural integration and health,” says Nuñez Ruiz.
Unfortunately, Peace Corps suspended their program in El Salvador before he could travel there due to the country’s safety environment.
“I was so disappointed. I had some friends from El Salvador and was looking forward to serve in their country,” he says.
Instead, he was offered the opportunity to work with youth and families in the Dominican Republic.
Volunteers, he says, are traditionally sent to the poorest parts of the country where many families live in need.
“I’m a Spanish language native speaker so I was able to do a lot of projects to help other volunteers get integrated into those communities and learn more about their culture,” he says.
Nuñez Ruiz was sworn-in as a Peace Corp volunteer on October 2016 and was sent to the Galindo neighborhood in the town of Comendador, in the Elias Piña province, near the border with Haiti.
Hurricane Maria had devastated his homeland of Puerto Rico just a few weeks earlier. Staying focused on his work was a very stressful and difficult task.
“Puerto Rico had been declared a national disaster but I couldn’t go to check on my family,” says Nuñez Ruiz. “There I was with orders to help my Dominican brothers and sisters through this program and wondering how my family was doing just a few miles across the ocean, but what I didn’t know was that the Dominican people were helping me,”
The residents of the village where he worked began to gather supplies so Nuñez Ruiz could send them to his family in Puerto Rico.
“These people and I became like family to each other,” he says.
During his time there, he managed a summer camp for the children, supervised environmental projects with the youth and developed a radio program for parents.
“I figured that was a good way to get the parents engaged and educated about their children’s rights, discipline issues, child abuse, nutrition, sex and pregnancy,” he says.
The children and youth learned ways they could care for the environment, and kicked off a project to pick up trash around their neighborhood.
Nuñez Ruiz also collaborated with the Office of the Ministry for Women, which leads the implementation of public policies and programs that contribute to equality and gender equity, and the full exercise of citizenship for Dominican women.
“It was about the women, yes, but we also worked on what they called ‘new masculinity’ which was an initiative to get men talking with other men about being advocates for women,” he says.
“It was about trying to break the culture of machismo … men can do dishes too, you know,” he says.
His work didn’t end there.
“We developed approximately 20 community multipliers. These are young people between the ages of 14 -28 who were trained to do the same work we did but at their level, so the community keeps growing and developing,” he says. “Why wait until they are adults when we can get them started as early as we can.”
Now that he has returned to Lancaster, Nuñez Ruiz takes advantage of every opportunity to talk to others about his experience.
“I love to help people and Peace Corps has given me the opportunity to be a goodwill ambassador. It’s the best place to be,” he says.
“My mother was right. I know we can make this world a better place,” says Nuñez Ruiz.