Marching Toward Progress

Philadelphia’s Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha tackles social issues while making internal renovations

When Nilda Ruiz graduated from college in 1986, she was determined to work on Wall Street, but her aunt had other ideas for her. “I’ll never forget: My aunt was doing my hair, and she said, ‘You’re the first in the family to graduate from college. There are so many kids out there who are lost. You should really give back to your community.’ I didn’t even have my own life together yet, and she wanted me to save the neighborhood,” Ruiz laughs.

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Nilda Ruiz, president and CEO of Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Inc. (APM).

Her aunt set up an interview for her at Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), which would change the course of Ruiz’s life. APM is a Philadelphia-based organization that has been changing the course of behavioral health, housing, substance abuse treatment, and child welfare—to name just a handful of issues—for more than 40 years now. As president of the organization, it could easily be argued that Ruiz has changed the course of APM as well.

When she assumed the role in 2005, the organization was, as Ruiz says, stuck in the 1970s. Basic structures were lacking and documentation was paper-based. None of the employees even had work-related email addresses. Even more troubling, the organization hadn’t handled its finances well and had lost credibility.

“We had to build infrastructure,” says Ruiz. “The organization was like an old house: you could do small things here and there—like get computers—that would make things look better, but we needed more than just a facelift.”

The president says the process of rebuilding a trustworthy reputation was slow, but APM now has a bill of clean audits, and its budget, once $9 million, now exceeds $34 million. Ruiz thought it beneficial to stick to APM’s strongest endeavors: its community development, social services, and education projects. Her work in housing has been a real game-changer for the organization and for the city of Philadelphia.

Paseo Verde is a $42 million, 120-unit housing complex featuring affordable and market-rate apartments in what is being called a “transportation-orientated development” right next to the Temple University Station. Even more impressive, the development was the first of its kind in the nation to receive LEED Platinum certification.

“We will be focusing on sustainability from here on out,” Ruiz says. “We only have one planet and it’s important that we take care of it. Not only that, but the families we help deserve healthy living environments, and it’s important for them and their children to learn about sustainability and prioritize it. APM will keep growing and  keep pushing into the future because, as they say, ‘If you’re not growing, you’re dying.’”