Elias Ruiz, the 18-year-old Medford teen killed during a run-in with police last month, was remembered Saturday night for his willing spirit, as well as his love of swimming, art and music.
"My son always smiled when he got things done and when he was able to help someone," said his mother, Alejandra Ruiz. "His echoing words were, 'We got to make things right.' "
Alejandra Ruiz spoke of the many places he volunteered — including Kids Unlimited, Rogue Valley Medical Center and as a lifeguard at Jackson pool. She detailed her son's love of art, music and his interest in his Mexican heritage, which he expressed through storytelling.
More than 200 people gathered at Kids Unlimited in Medford for Ruiz's public memorial.
Ruiz was shot and killed Jan. 22 by Medford police officers responding to a 9-1-1 call from his residence, after Ruiz approached the officers while making slashing motions with a large knife. On Thursday, a grand jury cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing in the incident.
Memorial attendees were greeted at the doors with trumpet vine seeds to plant in memory of Ruiz. Families, classmates, friends and community members filled the nonprofit organization's building to hear poems and songs dedicated to the Medford teen.
Tom Cole, executive Director of Kids Unlimited, gave Ruiz' eulogy after two American Indian songs were performed by the Whistling Elk Singers.
Cole choked back tears as he read, pausing every few sentences for his words to be translated into Spanish by Nora Chavez. (Correction: The translator's name has been corrected in this article.)
"I've had the privilege and the honor to know Elias and watch him grow up in our community," said Cole. "We must recognize that all of our children are capable of making mistakes. None of them should be condemned as a failure for any of those. We must learn how to forgive and instead of sitting silent; we must find ways to embrace them."
Emphasizing the need to continue to support troubled youths at time when they need help most, Cole noted that many in the community continue to face obstacles — such as barriers to education, fears of pursuing hope, or despair and belief that they are not deserving of this community.
"On Christmas, Elias wrote me a letter, thanking me for believing in him," continued Cole, "In the letter he mentioned the mistakes that he had made in the past; but he clearly stated that he regretted causing his family suffering, and that most important his goal was to graduate from high school and to move on in life."
After Cole's eulogy, Jose Arrequin performed "Morenita de Mi Corazon," which most of the audience joined in singing. Ruiz's mother and father then took the stage — joined by a group of about 12 of Ruiz' aunts, uncles and cousins.
Ruiz's father spoke to the audience in Spanish answering the question, 'Who was Elias Ruiz?' Ruiz mother, Alejandra Ruiz, translated the message into English.
At the memorial, ribbons Ruiz had won from swimming competitions were displayed, in addition to much of his artwork which included Aztec-inspired sketches and watercolors of mountains, fish and birds.
The program included a presentation of photos of Ruiz, a poem in Spanish that Alejandra Ruiz wrote and read aloud, as well as a another song by Arrequin to which she and her son used to dance.
Two of Ruiz' classmates from South Medford High School, Nick Morales and Lily Macias, spoke about the struggle Hispanic youth face today.
"Being a kid today isn't easy," said Morales, "What criteria do you use to determine if a kid is good or bad?"
Morales spoke in English while Macias translated into Spanish. He went on to say that as a young Latino it feels as though he has to work twice as hard to get noticed half as much as his other classmates, as he figures out his place in the world.
"We hear on the news that our immigrant parents are here for a free ride, that our language is that of the ghetto," said Morales. "Yet we see another reality, pride in our roots, our parents doing all they can to help us get ahead, sometimes we just want to fit-in."
Conflicting information makes it hard to sort out the truth, Morales said, as kids we can be scared, confused and overwhelmed.
"Listen to us, tell us you love us, tell us you are proud of us, come watch our activities, encourage us," said Morales, "help us blossom and grow into the people we were meant to be. In honor of my friend Elias, next time you see a kid doing something right, tell them 'thank you.' If you see a kid that needs help, reach out your hand. Communities can make changes when we pull together."