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Ruben’s Story: Breaking Down Walls & Finding His Stride

Ruben’s Story: Breaking Down Walls & Finding His Stride




Ruben’s life before Mercy Home for Boys & Girls was an uphill battle.


After dropping out of high school at age 17, Ruben came to a dead end. He was working a monotonous factory job, his employers routinely cheated him on hours, and his openly racist boss often called him “cockroach.”

“I didn’t want to work in that kind of environment. It was depressing,” he said. “So, I decided to go back to high school.”

Education wasn’t a priority in Ruben’s household. His parents, who never graduated high school, valued an honest day’s wage above getting a diploma or degree.

His mother was a highly devout homemaker and his father worked construction. In their mind, education was a waste of time. They thought Ruben should save money to get a car, buy a house, and get married. While proud of the hard-nosed work ethic his parents instilled in him, Ruben longed for something more.

“I just wished my parents valued education more, and what it can do for you,” he said. “They didn’t have an education. But they did they best they could to feed us, from what they knew. I don’t fault them for that.” At the time, Ruben said he was naïve about many things, especially about what was really going on at home.

“I didn’t know there was violence in my house. Verbal abuse and physical abuse,” he said. “I didn’t know what my brothers and sisters were going through. My family was the type to keep everything quiet and not involve anybody.”

Still, Ruben persisted. He returned to high school and flourished. He earned a 4.0 GPA, was selected as a valedictorian, and even gave a speech at his graduation ceremony. But Ruben wasn’t satisfied with just a high school diploma. So, using the money he saved working at the factory, Ruben enrolled in the City Colleges of Chicago and paid his tuition out-of-pocket, a valiant move for any high school graduate.

Ruben’s father, however, had a different perspective. In his eyes, Ruben wasn’t earning his keep because he didn’t have a job. So he issued his son an ultimatum: either find a job or find a new place to live. Ruben packed his bags.

“I just wished my parents valued education more, and what it can do for you.”

Year Up Program and Beyond


He connected with La Casa Student Housing and Resource Center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. La Casa provides housing, resources, and a stipend for qualifying students who remain enrolled in school. Ruben took full advantage of La Casa’s resources, but without his family’s support, he felt marooned, especially after tuition payments zapped his savings.

“I had a hard time because I was not living with my parents anymore and I didn’t have any money,” he said. “There was just no family support on my end. Support from other people is very different than the support of your family.”

Combined with the rigors of a college workload, being cut off from his family proved too difficult, so Ruben dropped his classes and withdrew from school. Now ineligible for La Casa’s resources, he returned home and struck a deal with his parents for room and board. Ruben worked on his dad’s construction crew to pay for his share of expenses at home.

“As soon as I got my check, I had to give 10 percent to the church. Another percentage went to my mom, for her personally. Another percentage went to my food. And another percentage went to the rent,” he said.

Ruben is very skilled when it comes to building things. He’s proud of the practical experience and knowledge he learned working in construction. But on the job site, Ruben tended to overexert himself. While this tenacity and determination serves him well in other areas of his life, at the time, it wreaked havoc on his body.

“Working in construction is hard work. I got two hernias because of it,” he said. “That kind of work drains a lot of energy from you. When you get back home, all you want to do is just relax. That alone just added another layer of tension and stress in my house and in the relationship between my dad and mom.”

Working on his dad’s crew wore thin. The back-breaking labor, sweltering days in the sun, and lack of health insurance took their toll. Ruben knew he needed to find a different career, so he began talking to other professionals.

“I had conversations with teachers, engineers, and lawyers,” he said. “All of them would tell me the same exact thing: go to school.”

That’s when Ruben heard about Year Up Chicago, a one-year, intensive training program that provides low-income young adults with a combination of hands-on skills development, coursework eligible for college credit, corporate internships, and wraparound support. The program sounded ideal and Ruben decided to pursue it.

“When I decided to do Year Up, I told my dad that I probably wasn’t going to pay him as much anymore, and he told me I needed to find a new place to live,” Ruben said.

Weighing his options for housing, as he prepared to once again move out of his parent’s home, Ruben enrolled in the Year Up program. He hit the ground running. He was bursting with energy and hyperfocused on succeeding. But a week or two after starting the program, his mom passed away.

“I was devastated. That had a huge impact on me. I thought I was the kind of kid who, if something like that happened, I wouldn’t show it,” he said.

Ruben, then 19, thought he could just keep going about his days, but he was wrong.

“It was completely the opposite. I was constantly distracted and never focused. I wasn’t turning in my assignments on time. I was coming in late,” he said.

“No matter how much I was trying to succeed, no matter how much I was trying to go back to school and get an education, it just wasn’t there for me. I was shredded inside.”

When Year Up staff confronted him about his academic nosedive, Ruben couldn’t hold back his emotions.

“I just started crying and couldn’t speak. I was just destroyed,” he said. “No matter how much I was trying to succeed, no matter how much I was trying to go back to school and get an education, it just wasn’t there for me. I was shredded inside.”

Ruben talks about going back to school and getting into Year Up. 



Once again, Ruben felt like quitting and going back to construction work. He had all but given up his goal of finishing school. But Year Up staff insisted he speak with a counselor. He told them about his mom passing away and his dad kicking him out of the house.

“Outside from that, my dad was already looking around for another woman,” he said. “My mom passed away and my dad got married a month later. For me, that was hard.”

A week after that meeting, the counselor scheduled an appointment for Reuben to speak with the Mercy Home admissions team.

“Even before I got into the building, I could tell that Mercy Home was a good place. It was very welcoming and peaceful – completely different from where I used to live,” he said. “I told them I could move in right away.”

He added: “I could tell people at Mercy Home really wanted to help me. That totally changed me. It gave me that energy to keep working toward my goal of getting an education. I no longer had my dad telling me I was stupid, wasting my time, or not a man for going after my goal.”

Ruben found his stride almost immediately, thanks to our therapeutic care and positive support network. Mercy Home’s academic resource team kept Ruben on target to finish his Year Up program. From there, he interned with a global IT firm doing computer hardware repair and other help-desk tasks.

Most recently, Ruben interned in the external affairs department of a multinational telecommunications company, doing outreach and research on corporate partnerships. Today, Ruben is 23, finishing his degree at Harold Washington College, and networking with professionals in cybersecurity, the career field he hopes to enter.

“People at Mercy Home know the struggle that others go through,” he said. “They are very understanding, kind, and willing to lend a helping hand.”


First and foremost, Ruben learned that it’s OK for men to be sensitive and have emotions.

“I was blind to that for a long time. I come from a very macho culture and was taught that men have to confront each other, be tough, and make fun of others,” he said. “Mercy Home taught me to treat people with respect and be a nice person. Doing so creates a more positive vibe in the workplace, the household, or the sport you’re playing.”

The willingness to be vulnerable, Ruben said, is one of the most important things he’s learned at Mercy Home, thanks to former Quille Home Program Manager Cody McDonald.

“She taught me it’s OK to express yourself; that it’s OK to be weak and show that you’re not always a strong person,” he said.

On life at Mercy Home and learning to express himself.



Becoming a Mercy Home Hero


Aside from Ruben’s emotional health, Mercy Home secured medical care to repair Ruben’s painful hernias, which prevented him from having an active life or participating in sports. Once cleared after his successful surgery, Ruben was back in the gym. He wanted to feel powerful, strong, and healthy. That’s when he got the idea to run in a Spartan Race, a grueling, mud-caked obstacle course full of monkey bars, fire pits, and barbed wire on hilly terrain. He even recruited Mercy Home peers and coworkers to join him.

“It feels cool to finish that race because you’re physically climbing over obstacles and overcoming challenges you might not think you could do,” said Ruben “It gave me the feeling that I could tear down the walls that are standing in front of me.”

During intense training sessions for the Spartan Race – sessions that left him gasping for air – Ruben took notice of one of his teammates, Mercy Home Heroes Coordinator Jim Harding.

“I saw this man – Jim – who is older than me and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “He wasn’t sweating. He wasn’t breathing hard. He wasn’t hyperventilating like I was. I was like ‘Who is this guy?’”

Ruben was not only impressed with Jim’s passion for distance running, but also the endurance of his spirit.

“Jim’s a great guy and really inspiring. It’s people like him, who are in condition – physically and mentally – that I want to be like.”



“Jim’s a great guy and really inspiring,” he said. “It’s people like him, who are in condition – physically and mentally – that I want to be like.”

As Ruben’s mind and body aligned – surrounded by positive role models and healthy relationships – new outlooks on life emerged in the euphoric afterglow of aerobic exercise.

“You need to love your body and take care of it to live longer and be healthy,” he said. “Part of the reason I got the hernias was because I was really stubborn. If I told myself I was going to lift a 200-pound chunk of concrete, I’d just do it, without considering the consequences. That’s the wrong approach.”


Ruben used to be very hotheaded, like he was on a collision course, always sprinting towards a brick wall. These days, he’s much more calculated and calm. He understands the value of setting and achieving goals at a steady pace – the hallmark of a distance runner.

These qualities caught the attention of Jim, who recognized Ruben’s potential as a marathon recruit. As their conversations continued, Jim and Ruben’s bond strengthened. Ruben was fascinated by the numerous marathon medals decorating the walls of Jim’s office. Ruben thought to himself, I want one of those. That’s when Jim extended the invitation and Ruben signed on as a Mercy Home Hero to run the 2018 Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

Ruben is excited to tackle the physical challenge of the marathon and hang a medal on his own wall, but he’s also invested in the philanthropic responsibility of being a Mercy Home Hero.

“Mercy Home has given me so much. I realized that it was time to start giving back, even if it’s as small of a contribution like sharing my story or running a marathon,” he said. “I think it’s always important to give back.”

You can help Ruben go the distance by visiting his Mercy Home Hero fundraising page and giving your own small contribution. Or come cheer Ruben on at the Mercy Mile on race day! No distance is too far to save a child in need. Together, we can give Ruben the support he needs to cross the finish line.


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