From the ground up

Ruben Aguayo, director of facilities and construction, supports MLKCH because he knows, from personal experience, the critical importance of what we do.

Flat on his back, dangling 400 feet above the ground on a construction beam, was not the first time Ruben Aguayo faced death.

Growing up in East LA, one of four children of a hotel housekeeper, the sounds of gunfire were as familiar to Ruben as his pangs of hunger.

As a teenager, he narrowly missed being shot by gang members who targeted a crowd of kids on the street. As a construction worker who dropped out of high school to support his family, he nearly fell to his death—twice.

Then a bit of good advice, strength, and determination born out of years of hardship propelled him away from danger and towards a successful career in healthcare. That career eventually brought him to Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital (MLKCH) as director of facilities and construction.

How he found his way to MLKCH is exactly why he gives back.

This year, Ruben is a member of the leadership team for the MLKCH Gives campaign—an annual staff giving campaign that raised more than $110,000 in 2018 and had record staff participation. Ruben believes in supporting the hospital because of who the hospital serves: those with the fewest resources, those who are struggling.

He believes because he’s been there.

Gorup of eight MLKCH staff members smiling and holding signs that read we love South LA and access equity life
Ruben Aguayo, pictured third from left

Hard way up

Growing up in City Terrace in the late 1980s was not for the faint of heart. Gangs were everywhere. Healthcare was reserved for emergencies. Most residents of Hazard Avenue—where Ruben, his three sisters, and their single mom lived—were low-income.

In 11th grade he dropped out of school to sweep the floors of a construction company. He worked his way up to become a welder, soldering the support beams of major buildings at UCLA and USC.

He never imagined that he would someday study in these same buildings.

Until one day, a construction worker on the brink of retirement looked at him and said,“You’re a smart guy. What are you doing here?”

The question took on greater urgency after Ruben took a construction job with Kaiser Permanente. He had a bad boss and thought he could do the job better. With all the hutzpah of a young man, he marched into the Chief Operating Officer’s office and told her he wanted more.

“I’ll never forget this,” Ruben recalls. “She said, ‘How’s your education?’”

Embarrassed, he lied to her, telling her had a high school degree.

“She told me, Ruben, you have the fire in your belly. But you need to focus on your education.” On his way out of the office, his head hung low, he spotted the COO’s diploma on the wall. “It was from USC and it was the most ornate and beautiful thing I had ever seen,” he recalls.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ll never get accepted there.’”

USC and more

Ruben began to think. He had passed Los Angeles City College many times on his way to work. What if he just stopped in to see what was possible?

That decision led to an associate degree, acquired around the edges of his full-time job. Then a Bachelor of Arts from University of Phoenix. Then—unbelievably—he was accepted into the Master’s in Health Administration program at USC.

“People will say, ‘I can’t make it, I’m from the hood,’” says Ruben. “I’m here to say, ‘Don’t let that hold you back. You can.’”

“MLKCH is special”

Armed with these powerful credentials, Ruben staked out a leadership career in facilities management with Kaiser. Something was missing, however.

On his first day of work at MLKCH, he realized what that was.

“The difference for me—when I realized MLKCH is special—is when I walked through the doors of the ER,” Ruben says.

For the first time in his healthcare career, Ruben saw patients who did not have good jobs or the critical health insurance coverage those jobs bring. He saw people who had few other places to turn.

“It was a little shocking to see humanity that’s reaching out and saying, ‘Please help me.’ And we do. That really means a big deal to me.”

MLKCH’s patients were his people.

Giving back

Today, he supports the hospital because he can relate.

“If nobody gives, then these people are on their own,” he says. “And places like MLKCH won’t exist. Then what? Where do those folks go? At the end of the day, if we’re not here, there is nowhere else to go.”

Ruben, who always wears a dapper suit out of respect for his colleagues, patients, and the hospital’s namesake, knows he is a living example of the old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

“I’m really proud to work here,” he says. “No one knows better than me how important MLKCH is.”

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