A few days after Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico last September, Onix Ruiz walked into the main office of Barnum Woods Elementary School in East Meadow, where he is the head custodian, to see administrators, faculty and district parents with sobering looks on their faces.
When Ruiz, 52, who grew up in Puerto Rico, saw their expressions, he feared that he might be in trouble. But then they began to smile, and announced their plan to raise funds for the school he attended as a child, Jose Celso Barbosa Elementary School.
Asked what happened next, Ruiz said, “You want me to be honest?” and after a pause, added, “I cried in front of them.” He has worked at Barnum Woods for eight years, and calls it the best time of his life. He teaches the students Spanish, and they shout, “Hola!” when they see him in the hallways. He cares for them with his 11-year-old daughter Jessica in mind, he said, and feels at home every time he walks into the building.
“My tears came down,” he said of his reaction to the school community’s plan. “I turned my head, but they hugged me — they told me I deserve it. They showed me how much they cared about me. They showed me how much they appreciate me.”
After discovering that Jose Celso Barbosa had sustained severe damage, the Barnum Woods Planning Management Team — a group of building administrators, faculty, PTA and community members — organized a fundraiser for which students sold World’s Finest chocolate bars. At the school’s annual Flag Day ceremony and health walk on June 14, they presented Ruiz with a $10,000 check.
Ruiz, who lives in Levittown, moved to New York at age 19 with his wife, the late Nancy Ruiz, but his family stayed in Puerto Rico, where they live today. After the hurricane, he said, it took him a month to reach them, and to learn of the extensive damage in his hometown of Ponce.
“My mother’s house is half wood and half cement,” he said. “When something like that happens to you, it destroys your house.”
Nine months after the hurricane, the island is still recovering, the death toll remains uncertain, and in April, the government announced plans to shut down more than 250 schools because of a drop in enrollment.
Ruiz was scheduled to visit his hometown and childhood school on Thursday with the donation from Barnum Woods, which will fund repairs to the school’s roof, the purchase of new books and restoration of the landscape that was demolished in September.
Disaster relief is not foreign to Barnum Woods, whose contributions to Jose Celso Barbosa echoed its efforts after Hurricane Sandy. In 2012, the school “adopted” and donated $18,500 to the Francis Hegarty School in Island Park, which sustained extensive damage in the storm.
“It’s part of our patriotic duty to help our community at large, and be global citizens as well,” said Planning Management Team President Melody Schiller, a reading teacher. “And the students here love Onix.”
Todd Weinstein, a parent of children who attended Barnum Woods and who is also a member of the PMT, added, “Whether it’s a high-five, a joke or a hug, he loves our children like his own.”
Ruiz grew up in Ponce with his parents and a sister, Lissette, 52, where, he said, they “didn’t have much, but my mom gave us what was necessary.” He moved to New York to find work and help support his family. He lived in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem, where he worked as a fry cook at a McDonald’s for almost a year, and then as a foreman at a printing company for 16 years.
He was let go from his job shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and a former colleague persuaded him to search for jobs at schools on Long Island. Ruiz said that he took a chance and moved to Levittown in 2002, and that year he was hired by Hicksville Middle School.
Six years later, he moved to W.T. Clarke middle and high schools, and in 2010 he started working at Barnum Woods. At first, he said, he was apprehensive about working with children, but the school soon became what he described as his “heaven.”