Tag

Volunteering

Browsing

Alumna volunteers to help schoolchildren in Guam at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a time when it seemed like much of the world went into hiding due to COVID-19, alumna Dominique Cruz ’17 was preparing to launch an outreach event in her community.

Cruz said the idea for her service project came after reading an article about how a business in Las Vegas served schoolchildren meals during the pandemic. In the first few days after many schools announced closures, children missed receiving their free- or reduced-price school lunches, which in some situations may have been their only meal of the day.

“That sparked an interest for me,” Cruz said. “I thought, ‘so what happens to our kids here.’”

Today, the 2017 criminal justice graduate lives with her husband, Christopher, and daughter, Draya, in Guam, a U.S. territory located in the northern Pacific Ocean. The island is 35-miles long and home to more than 16,700 people. Just as in the mainland, the schools in Guam had closed during the pandemic, leaving children without their school lunches.

Cruz, who has worked as a victim rights advocate for the Office of the Attorney General of Guam for the past three years, said she has always had a desire to help others, which is what led her to pursue the career she enjoys today and come up with the idea for an outreach event.

So instead of letting go of her concern for the children in Guam, Cruz connected with work colleague Mariana Crisostomo and decided to take action. Crisostomo’s mother, Leann, owned the restaurant Fizz & Co., known for serving gourmet hot dogs with a variety of toppings, and so the pair approached her about organizing an event to feed children and families in need. They posted information about the event on social media and soon had growing interest from others who wanted to help. Even The Guam Daily Post covered the event in advance.

Cruz and Crisostomo distribute free lunches.

On March 19, Cruz, Crisostomo, and her mother organized the lunch event, giving away free 50 bagged lunches that day, which included a hot dog, bag of chips, bottled water, and fruit.

“We had people driving from the end of the island all the way up to get the lunch,” Cruz said.

After the event, the pair gave away an additional 50 to 60 lunches by curbside delivery and then partnered with nonprofit Mañelu, which provides mentoring programs for youth and families, to deliver an additional 150 meals to children in need across Guam.

Cruz said that the experience was incredibly rewarding. “The people who came out were really appreciative and thoughtful,” Cruz said. “They asked if they could bring some meals back to other members of their families.”

While the event was a one-time endeavor, Cruz said it served as an inspiration to others in the community. Shortly after, she noticed that other restaurants and businesses started to do similar events to help the community. It also was not too long after that the Guam Department of Education opened its own grab-and-go lunch program for students.

Cruz said that her desire to help others has always been a part of who she is a person. During her time at Saint Leo University, she interned at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to learn more about the work of being a victim advocate and even volunteered as a teacher’s assistant for the child development center at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Land O’ Lakes, FL. 

Today, she is pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice through the university’s Center for Online Learning. Her goal is to advance into a career that will allow her to work in forensics and criminal investigations.

While work, family, and studies occupy much of Cruz’s time today, her spirit of service is still present. Cruz shared that she and her husband have recently started a new outreach effort: Every Sunday at noon they go around to different areas of the island and hand out lunches to the homeless.

“My husband and I recognized that there is a need for the homeless on the island,” Cruz said. “It is a difficult time for everyone right now, but by giving out free lunch to those in need, it lifts a small burden off of their shoulders.”

In 2008, at age 23, LaVita Rodriguez ’15, ’17 was paralyzed in a car accident. That transformative moment led her to change her outlook on life.

Today, Saint Leo University’s core values are an integral part of her. “I am a true believer,” she said of the core values such as community and responsible stewardship. “We studied that constantly. The core values guide me in life: I use them to stay on the right path and help others as a part of fulfilling both my personal and professional goals.”

LaVita in cap and gownAfter she graduated from high school, she worked for a law firm. “Something in me told me to go back to school,” she said. “That led to Saint Leo; you just get so much out of higher education because it provides you with the ability to make positive changes in the world around you.”

She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in business with a concentration in management in 2015 through the Center for Online Learning. She completed her MBA in December 2016 and officially will receive her degree on April 29.

The accident and her experience at Saint Leo fostered a desire to give back to her community. Rodriguez now volunteers at Tampa General Hospital (TGH) in pediatrics. It is the hospital where she was treated following her life-changing accident. “I want to give back to the hospital that saved my life that night in March [2008],” she said.

“Volunteering is my way of showing appreciation and gratitude for life and the doctors and nurses who continue to keep me healthy so that I may continue to pursue my dreams and spend time with my supportive family and close friends.”

Rodriguez is at TGH with the pediatric patients weekly. “I’m there to alleviate stress and loneliness that have the potential to generate anxiety and depression,” she said. “When the kids are there by themselves, giving them positive stimulation helps them cope with the unfortunate situation they are experiencing.”

She also takes care of the physicians and nursing staff who took care of her. “I bring them cake pops as a small gesture of my unending gratitude,” she said, laughing. “And who doesn’t love cake?”

Her love of children extends beyond the hospital setting. She has several nieces and nephews who want her undivided attention when she is not volunteering or studying. She is prepping for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and plans to attend law school so that she may “give children a voice” as a human rights, family, and health care attorney. “I believe it will be incredibly gratifying to help our future generations live a happier and healthier life by bridging gaps that have the potential to deteriorate one’s quality of life,” she said.

Rodriguez hopes to take her quest for children’s rights to Washington, DC.

The desire to help children and trips to India resulted in a visit to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Orphanage. “I love India,” she said. ”It makes me more appreciative for ancient wisdom that deepened my spiritual views. I also like to give back wherever I go. It shows humility and develops unity in diversity that fosters an abundance of love, happiness, compassion, and peace.”

LaVita (1)In the United States, “We are blessed,” Rodriguez said. “You can drive around and not see kids on the streets. [In India], you see kids begging. But many still are smiling ear to ear. Why? Because it is not a materialistic culture, but a spiritual one that focuses on values. This is not only inspiring, but also truly beautiful.”

Wherever her travels take her, Rodriguez always stops by a cathedral to pray. And she tries to do some volunteering while vacationing.

“You leave a little piece of you there whenever you do something like that,” she said. “You are supposed to help others. I will never forget these experiences.”

Almost losing her life had a tremendous impact. “It pushed me. I just have a different view of life,” she said. “[My] having a lower-level spinal cord injury is minor. I could have died. I feel like I got a second chance, and I need to use it. To waste it would be such a mistake. God has placed these dreams in my heart and is clearing my path to fulfill them while driving me to act in a way that serves others.” •