DOWNTOWN — After two years of working as head of the Salvation Army in Burbank, Mario Ruiz got a call from headquarters informing him that it was time to move again. Earlier in the year during a visit to the beach, his 18-year-old daughter Loreal told him that she wanted to spend the next summer in Santa Monica. A few months later, she got her wish.
Ruiz, 40, along with his wife and two daughters, moved to Santa Monica in June 2010 to lead the city’s branch of the Salvation Army, filling a position that had been vacated due to illness.
“Santa Monica has a heart to help the homeless. Just joining the community to help, and the importance [of it] on people’s lives is incredible,” said Ruiz, who had been visiting the city since he first moved to Southern California in 1998.
Ruiz, whose small stature is complemented by his husky voice, is no stranger to moving around.
Born in Mexico, but raised all over the western hemisphere, Ruiz has lived in three countries, four U.S. states and enough cities to be counted with the majority of his fingers on both hands.
“I don’t know what it is like to be raised in one home, to go to one elementary school, one junior high and one high school,” Ruiz said, who attended two elementary schools, four junior highs and four high schools.
His father, a minister-turned-missionary, moved the family where his work required, which included Argentina and various cities across the U.S., before finally settling in Phoenix, Ariz., where he became a pastor at a local church.
“[The hardest part about moving is] you get attached to your friends, and now you have to move to somewhere unknown,” said Ruiz, who recently started using Facebook to reconnect with old acquaintances. “The good thing about moving around is getting to know about different places … and you have friends everywhere.”
After high school, Ruiz became a youth pastor at his father’s church — Church of God in Glendale, Ariz. — where he eventually met his wife Claudia. She had moved from California to be closer to her brother, who attended Ruiz’s youth service.
But after a few years, Ruiz felt like he had hit a professional ceiling, and decided he needed to move again; this time, in pursuit of a college education at Lee University, a private Christian college in Cleveland, Tenn.
“My dad has always been in education. He was a professor … I went to college to expand that — to be able to become a better youth pastor,” said Ruiz, who married Claudia while attending school.
However, a year and a half later, Ruiz dropped out of Lee University to accept a pastor position in his family church.
“I didn’t want to be a pastor …. I saw how hard it was and I wanted to make money,” Ruiz said. “But, to be a pastor is a calling from God, and you just obey it. I felt like I was being called.”
In 1998, Ruiz followed God’s calling all the way to Compton, Calif., where he and his wife joined the Salvation Army as youth pastors at a friend’s referral.
“The Salvation Army, besides being a social service agency, it’s a church. [I moved because] I would still be pastoring, but I would also be working with different types of people,” Ruiz said.
After a summer of organizing weekly youth camps, he and his wife decided to enter the Salvation Army’s training college, a two-year intensive program that taught them how to conduct bible ministry, social services and other operational duties.
Structured like the military, the Salvation Army ranks officers after training is completed, and those who join, expect to be moved wherever and whenever they are needed. In addition, to maintain the family unit, married couples must enter into the training together.
Ruiz and his wife graduated as captains, which made them qualified to lead any branch of the Salvation Army.
Their first assignment was in Caldwell, Idaho. Four years later, it was in Tualatin Valley Citadel in Hillsborough, Ore.
While in Oregon, Ruiz went back to school, finally graduating with a major in social and behavioral studies at George Fox University. While juggling school, his second daughter Emily Ruiz was born on Sept. 16, 2006.
Three years later, Ruiz was called to move yet again. The family stayed for a short two-year stint in Burbank, before finally landing in Santa Monica.
“We’ve been trying to stabilize. We’re just barely starting to step out more in the community,” said Ruiz, who tries to work only during business hours, but ends up being on call at all times. For the upcoming holiday season, he expects to work 13 to 15 hours a day.
Despite the long hours, Ruiz, who often opts to bike and walk to work, jokes that finding parking is the most challenging part of his job.
“There have been times when I wanted to stop, but I believe that happens to anybody …. I still believe I wouldn’t be as happy if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now,” Ruiz said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s rewarding … seeing how we are able to be there to help someone that was struggling … makes it worth it.”