Voices of Alumni: Gladys Ruiz

Gladys’ first summer as a LEAF intern was the first time she had ever really been away from home. Long days in the field and quiet nights under the stars helped her discover the strong, independent person she was inside — and it also planted the seeds of who she would become.
“I love that nature is ever changing. Each day, you walk into whatever nature is allowing you to see in that moment. You never know what to expect.”


How did you first get involved with the LEAF program?


Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was pretty rough. There were a lot of drugs and violence, and I wasn’t really allowed to go out much. My mom always said, “The safest place in the neighborhood is right here at home.” So, when my high school urban studies class did a weekend tree pruning, I signed up. It was the only way I could get out of the house.

I had friends who had participated in the LEAF program and loved it. For me, it was not only an opportunity to get out of the city for the summer, but it also gave me the opportunity to be paid to do something completely out of the ordinary.


And how did it go?


My first thought was, “What did I get myself into?” I was 15 years old, and it was scary. It was the first time I had ever left my mom for an extended period of time. But once I settled in, I loved it. It was the first time I was really treated as an adult. I had responsibilities. People depended on me. It gave me a sense of freedom and also gave me a sense of stewardship toward the environment. At the end, I didn’t want to leave!


What is one of your favorite memories as an intern?


One of my most memorable experiences was being out on the Mashomack Preserve, listening to the Garth Brooks concert in Central Park out of a pick-up truck, sitting on the patio looking at a meteor shower. In that moment, I realized that you could go outside of New York City and experience some amazing things. You don’t even have to go very far. It still gives me shivers when I remember it.


What impact did the summers with LEAF have on you?


The experience opened my mind to other possibilities. It helped me define who I was and how I wanted to be. A big part of that was having a good mentor who was doing work that she loved. It was really nice to see that.


How did that influence you?


I wanted to be a mentor to other kids like my LEAF mentor was to me. That’s always what I’m striving for. For the past year and a half, I’ve been working to get my Bachelors degree in environmental science and a minor in elementary education. This summer, I’ll be working for Audobon Society as an Environmental Educator in a community satellite program. We’ll be going out into predominantly immigrant communities, meeting the families and teaching the kids about the natural environment. LEAF gave me an opportunity to get out of the city and get into nature. This program is giving me an opportunity to give back. It is my life’s work. It’s what I’ve been wanting to do. I’m so excited to have a job that I love.


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