Teen's loss fuels campaign against cancer

Andrew Ruiz was 14 when his mother died of breast cancer. He has not stopped working for the fight against cancer since.

Ruiz, now 18, graduated this year with a 3.5 grade-point average from Hialeah High School, where as a student he collected thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society, and he generated greater cancer awareness through a club he started, Teens Against Cancer, and promoted the ACS's Relay for Life fundraiser.

Because of his leadership, commitment and volunteerism, the United Way of Miami-Dade on June 18 awarded Ruiz its Outstanding Youth Award. The award began in 1992 as a way to recognize and honor young people who make a difference in their communities.

"I am an optimist, just like my mother was, " Ruiz said. "What is the point if I just sit here and do nothing when there is so much to do for my generation and the ones to come?"

Harve A. Mogul, president/CEO of the United Way of Miami-Dade, described Ruiz as "a remarkable person with tremendous character."

"Andrew's commitment to helping others and building community is a credit to his family and Miami-Dade Public Schools, " Mogul wrote in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. "He clearly knows the power of philanthropy and the importance of helping others."

Ruiz was a team member of the Relay for Life before his mother died. He then became a team captain and started volunteering on the planning committee and recruiting teams for the event in schools and other institutions.

At Hialeah High, he organized a Relay for Life team at the school. In his junior year, he created Teens Against Cancer to raise cancer awareness throughout the school and be a support group for students who have a family member with the disease.

The club also raises money for the ACS.

"We had a lot of activities, like the Cancer Awareness Week through which we were able to raise awareness and money, " Ruiz said.

During the week of April 23-27, TAC sold students one dollar passes to wear shorts throughout the day and also sold the right to throw a pie in the face of a counselor.

At the end of the year, TAC and the Hialeah High Relay Team raised about $11,000 for ACS.

Ruiz has raised at least $2,000 every year since the ninth grade. How does he do it? By asking. He sends letters out and makes a lot of phone calls to family members, friends and businesses.

"Hialeah has been a bit of a challenge to get donations from, either because the Relay is something relatively new for this area or because it is not a high-income city, " Ruiz said. "But, now, things are finally starting to change and next year the students from Hialeah High, who are already experienced, will be a good team for the city's Relay."

Although Ruiz was the president of both TAC and Relay for Life at school, he left two seniors to run them: Stephanie Carrasco heads TAC and Aileen Ivora is the new president of Hialeah High Relay for Life.

Also, before graduating, Ruiz researched for himself and other seniors opportunities for continuing to help in the fight against cancer in college and in the community.

In all of this, he said, his inspiration continues to be the memory of his mother.

"I was the baby, " he said.

Angela Ruiz was a teacher at Twin Lakes Elementary School in Hialeah, which her son attended.

"I really didn't cry when she was sick because I thought that I needed to be strong, for me and for her, " he said.

Ruiz was attending Walter C. Young Middle in Pembroke Pines when his mom died in 2003 from breast cancer. She never lost hope, and that has been his inspiration for everything, he said.

"A lot of people ask me if I would have done all I did had my mom not passed away, but I made it my goal and there was no reason not to believe in everything I could do for everyone else."

He said sometimes it is hard for him to continue because, due to his activism, he meets a lot of cancer survivors, including some who subsequently died.

"I always tell them to fight the battle, " he said.

Ruiz, who was manager and editor of this year's yearbook at Hialeah High, is off to the University of Florida, where he plans to pursue a journalism degree.

He received several scholarships, including the Silver Knight Award, Florida Bright Futures, and the Dade County Youth Fair.