It was a proud moment for 17-year-old Mauricio Ruaz, Grade 12 student at Vanier Catholic Secondary, when someone said, “I’m glad you put Colombia’s name up high … where it belongs.”

That’s where his journey began, in Bogota, Colombia. In 2003, the family relocated to Whitehorse.

On May 7, at Château Laurier, in Ottawa, Ruaz was awarded the TD Community Leadership Scholarship. He was one of 20 chosen from 70,000 applicants “for demonstrating leadership and doing ‘stuff’ for the community.” Ruaze chuckles at his use of “stuff”.

He is the editor of Voces Latinas, one example of that “stuff”.

“I was the one who revived it,” he says. When the previous editor stepped out, Ruaz stepped in.

“For me, leaving Colombia at such an early age – I left when I was 11 – it’s hard to remember culture.” Voces Latinas has helped Ruaz and others to experience the richness of their Spanish language and culture.

“Voces Latinas is a really fun project. It’s interactive work,” Ruaz smiles easily and often.

“You’re putting your vision toward work: getting to unite the whole Latino community … so we can all get to know each other.” Each edition features a community member and becomes a conversation starter.

In contrast to the paper, Breaking Chains is a Bogota-based organization Ruaz is assisting – one that is “super, super, super personal” to him.

“Homelessness in Colombia is a big issue.

“There is a lot of displacement. There is great beauty, but there is great poverty.”

Breaking Chains supports 60 orphans and Ruaz is helping.

His goal: to raise awareness and money for basic needs (food, clothing, medical expenses, education).

Ruaz was spurred on when he attended the Shad Valley program at Carleton University last summer. It showed him “what’s between charity and actually breaking the cycle of poverty.

“Charity solves an immediate problem, but you need to go look at the root problems of it and break it down.

“There is an area—the slums—in Bogota” where the children come from.

Two of the mothers who work in the houses (one for male, one for females) were “rehabilitated from the streets. They’re kind of like ‘pay it forward’,” Ruaz says, smiling.

“It [Breaking Chains] is an ever-expanding foundation. It breaks the cycle. It has a huge success … It makes the foundation, itself, sustainable.”

Ruaz began with a literacy and education project. Then he organized a dinner/fundraiser that raised about $1,000.

The Social Justice Club at Vanier joined him, selling yellow, blue and red bracelets, “Colombia flag colours”. With help, Ruaz has raised about $2,600.

Ruaz says he will continue working with Breaking Chains and plans to visit the children.

He also plans to become an engineer at U of A and, eventually, to join Engineers Without Borders: “You can design things that actually can have a purpose and could help people.”

At Shad, Ruaz was part of a project called “Designing with a Conscience”, building a pillbox that would dispense pills for elderly people.

He has a particular interest in and vision for prototypes.

“New problems, new solutions,” he says, grinning, “and the satisfaction that you’re helping people.”

He credits his passion for helping people to his family—”My Mom and my Dad always really worked hard for what they had”—and also to his new life in the Yukon.

“Immigrating to a new country really changes your life … especially Whitehorse … to a community willing to give.

“The opportunity is huge. The success rate is huge.”

If you are interested in learning more about Voces Latinas or Breaking Chains, you can contact Mauricio at 456-7428.