An Interview with Gina Ruggieri

Roberta Machin, BA

 

As Director of Programs with Open Hearth, Gina Ruggieri is no stranger to working hard and overcoming challenges.  Her commitment to her work stems from her parents, whom she admires greatly for their work ethic and dedication.  “My mom and dad immigrated to the United States from Italy,” she said.  “They had to learn how to become adults as teenagers.  They had to overcome language and culture barriers.  My dad quit school to get a job and support his family, and was able to send two daughters to college.  I’m incredibly grateful.” 

Growing up in Drexel Hill, Gina says she took for granted having a “normal” home and family and rarely noticed evidence of homelessness.  She didn’t have a clear understanding of what poverty was until she started college at Villanova.  There, Gina was able to go on service trips to poor communities in Mexico, Peru, and South Carolina, where she witnessed poverty firsthand.  Originally interested in becoming a teacher or marriage counselor, Gina earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology.  However, while volunteering with Mercy Volunteer Corps as an outreach counselor, Gina fell in love with her position and decided that she wanted to help people find homes.  She earned her Master’s in Social Work at the University of Maryland, with a specialization in Social Planning.

While every day at Open Hearth is different, Gina enjoys the unpredictability of her job.  She tries to always be prepared for what might be thrown at her.  She spends some days working out issues with clients, and others filling out reports for funders.  Her work involves switching gears fast and constantly, and it’s never the same.  Gina says that her most memorable days of work have involved crisis intervention and resolution, particularly while she worked as a member of the ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) Team for Pathways to Housing in Philadelphia.  There, she sometimes faced dramatic highs and lows due to the unpredictable nature of the job.

Gina enjoys the challenges that social work presents.  “Impoverished people within the community deal with a complex puzzle of issues, and it’s my job to match the resources to each person and situation so that they can overcome the barriers they’re struggling with,” she explained.  Gina has felt the most successful in her career while doing direct service.  “When you help someone get into a house, you feel like you did your job,” she said.  She’s happy that she has experienced a variety of roles and positions, and believes that challenging herself has allowed her to understand homelessness from multiple perspectives.

What surprises Gina most about her work is how intertwined she has become with her clients’ lives, and how much they are willing to let her in.  “It’s incredible how much they trust you to help them,” she says, “and it’s strange that being intrusive starts to feel normal.”  Gina always tries to balance between holding clients accountable and making sure she is being respectful.  She won’t sugar coat a situation, preferring to be firm and direct, but she also wants her clients to feel comfortable and trust her so that she can help them to the best of her ability.  When she can, Gina tries to bring laughter into a situation, so that she can get others to lighten up. 

With the understanding that the work she does is not about her, Gina says she always tries to leave her ego at the door.  “When people only think about themselves or making their own organization better, they lose community support.  It’s not about you, it’s about the common goal: working towards ending homelessness.”

As an incredibly active and dedicated member of Decade to Doorways, Gina is proud to have co-chaired the Systems Change Action Team.  Originally nervous to be in charge of the committee, Gina has proven herself to be a worthy and diligent leader.  She has enjoyed gaining the trust of the group and learning how to lead, and praises her team for accomplishing the goals they have set.

Outside of work, Gina enjoys being outdoors, especially if she’s going for a run or a hike.  At the moment, her favorite role in life is being an aunt to her nephews, whom she loves spending time with.  Gina also loves desserts, and when asked what gets her through the tough days at work, her answer is simple: “ice cream.”

While discussing the biggest challenges facing low-income families in Chester County, Gina said that she is shocked that buses still don’t go to certain areas of the county.  “This prevents opportunities from happening,” she said.  “It all comes down to access.  Since services tend to be in the bigger cities, that’s where people go.”  She believes that it is possible to end homelessness in Chester County, because interest in the issue has been growing.  “As awareness of homelessness builds, people will be more interested in funneling money and resources into solving the issue,” she said.  “Chester County has a manageable homeless population, and DCD is very committed to refocusing their goals and working hard to solve this problem.”

Gina recommends that anyone interested in beginning a career in social work needs to be able to go with the flow.  “Don’t plan, but always be prepared for any possibility,” she said.  “Since you can’t always anticipate what’s going to happen, you need to learn to let go, because there is no rigidity or predictability in this line of work.”

When asked what animal she wishes she could be, Gina responded, “definitely a giraffe, because they’re so gentle and non-aggressive, and no one is scared of you.”  Tina Fey is the celebrity she wishes would portray her in a movie about her life.  “I think she’s a perfect combo of hilarious, smart, driven, bold and engaging,” she said.  “I hope I’m viewed as that at some point in my life!”

Gina will soon be leaving Open Hearth to work at the Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing.  While the Decade to Doorways community is sad to see her leave, we are excited for her as she embarks on this next chapter, and we are incredibly appreciative of her dedication to her work and the cause.  She concluded our interview by saying, “For nearly 5 years Chester County has been home to my career and I will forever be grateful to all the wonderful and passionate people living and working here. Being a part of Decade to Doorways, the development and execution, has been an important learning experience for me and I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to be part of such a dedicated community. It’s been a pleasure to work alongside other providers, advocating for those in need. Though I’m moving on in a different county, I look forward to seeing what D2D does next!”