by Allen Martin and Jennifer Mistrot

It is lunch time at Mission Neighborhood Center’s Capp street dining room and a large group of local seniors are enjoying good food, conversation and some entertainment as several dancers treat these friendly diners to an impromptu performance of traditional Latino dancing, complete with beautiful, colorful costumes.

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Also making the rounds is the center’s CEO Santiago Ruiz, or Sam as he likes to be called. In the last 40 years Sam has attended many of these lunches, where 60 or so seniors are served daily. Many of the seniors come by to say hello and share personal life events with Sam, as he greats everyone as if they are old friends.

“Those moments of joy right that come to mind and it’s like I want to be part of that,” explained Sam. “I want them to know how proud I am. I want them to feel it.”

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And Sam has much to be proud of. When he took the reins, Mission Neighborhood Center or MNC was struggling. The non-profit’s facilities were in disrepair. There were only about five employees, and it had an operating budget of only $180,000 a year. Under Sam’s guidance, MNC has increased its workforce to more than 200 employees and grown its budget to nearly $20 million annually. Which some might find ironic since he almost didn’t get the job.

“I went through two interviews, the first one they declined,” recalled Sam. “The second time was the winner for me.”

And Sam’s hiring was a win for the community, too. Through its programs for children, parents and seniors, Mission Neighborhood Center now serves more than 3,000 families every year. Parents like Daphne Rizzo have seen their children grow and learn through the center’s daycare program. Rizzo says her two daughters love going to their classes, and seeing their teachers and friends.

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“I have been seeing in them how much they are learning,” said Rizzo. “I like always to be there learning because we all learn everyday … so these programs help a lot.”


Long time board member Liliana Rossi praises Sam’ ability to seemingly always stay one step ahead of what his community needs.

“He is a visionary,” said Rossi. “When you know your population, you know your constituency, you are in touch with the clients. And I think Sam … that is one of the talents that I always recognize in him.”

For Sam, himself an immigrant from El Salvador, serving the residents of the Mission and beyond is his life’s dream. Mission Neighborhood Center has just launched its biggest expansion ever, a $14 million campaign to expand into four new buildings throughout the neighborhood and city of San Francisco.

Sam will be retiring next year but says the work will always stay near to his heart. “I am so blessed,” said Sam. “I get paid to make this community a better place to live. Who wouldn’t want that job?”

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So for serving the families of San Francisco’s Mission District’ This week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Sam Ruiz.