Meet Steve Ruce, CVT’s 25-Year Volunteer Extraordinaire | The Center for Victims of Torture

Meet Steve Ruce, CVT’s 25-Year Volunteer Extraordinaire

Thursday, June 14, 2018

CVT has changed a lot over the years. Just ask Steve Ruce, founder/owner of the award-winning Heliotrope Garden Design firm, who recently announced his retirement from his 25-year stint as CVT’s volunteer gardener.

“The organization has expanded its outreach to those it serves quite dramatically over the last 20 years,” he explained one bright May morning, seated on the front stairs of CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center beside an arrangement of potted tulips he’d just donated. “Its mission just keeps getting more urgent and valuable. The issues we address are more pressing than ever before, and so sad.”

Soon Jenna Nomeland, MSW, LGSW, CVT social worker and information & referral coordinator, appeared at the top of the stairs. She had news. CVT’s social workers had recently met to discuss this year’s Healing Connections Award, and everyone was in agreement, she said, that Steve Ruce should be the recipient.

Steve thanked her and graciously accepted. “I was totally surprised and awestruck,” he said later. “I have difficulty grasping that my efforts made the kind of difference that deserves such recognition. I’m so happy about it!” He’ll receive the award in person at the Healing Center’s annual celebration commemorating United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

After finalizing plans for the award ceremony with Jenna, Steve sat down with CVT’s marketing and communications specialist, Sabrina Crews, to reflect on two-plus decades of gardening with CVT.

Sabrina: Why do you think there’s healing value in gardening?

Steve Ruce: Three things in life sustain me: gardens, dogs and music. I was born profoundly hearing impaired, and became comfortable with how these three things enveloped me, someone who never quite fit in.

I learned to play piano at five; by the time I was a teenager, I found that gardens and dogs could comfort me in ways I felt lacking when interacting with other kids. I embraced garden art and craft as my refuge and never looked back.

From those early experiences, I came to value the healing power of gardens. It just worked for me.

How did your work lead you to CVT?

My wife, Irene, knew about CVT and persuaded me to get involved. I started at the original site on East River Road in 1992 after a series of meetings with former CVT executive director, Doug Johnson.

How have your responsibilities changed over the years?

Heliotrope donated design work, labor, materials and plants for the original gardens. The site had poor soil, which Heliotrope later replaced. And we had help: a group of Boy Scouts from the Hmong community dug out the original footprint. 

When CVT opened its St. Paul Healing Center, the bright yellow Victorian home on Dayton Avenue, Heliotrope designed several gardens for the new site. We also planted two of the three gardens and then maintained them throughout the years.

25 years is a long time. What kept you committed to CVT?

I’ve always been aware of the healing power of gardens, the way that such environments can create little Edens of repose, privacy and safety. Gardens are a source of great pleasure if you’re open to the experience.

Early on, I realized that most of Heliotrope’s clients were privileged, and could afford to build their own private refuges. I decided that, as a counterpoint to that exclusivity, I’d give part of Heliotrope’s proceeds to less fortunate members of society.

Above all, I’m simply committed to CVT’s mission. It addresses some of the worst aspects of human nature, and through a determined process of grace and forgiveness, opens doors to hundreds and thousands of individuals who had nearly lost hope, bringing them back from the precipice to a life of dignity.

Any highlights from your years of service?

Participating in the dedication of the gardens at CVT’s East River Road site, where I was photographed with the late Senator Paul Wellstone—even though I had the worst haircut of my life!

From left: former Congressman and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser, a CVT gardening volunteer from Boy Scout Troop 100, Senator Paul Wellstone, Steve Ruce, Betty Ann Addison, David Weissbrodt

Also, I have received many letters from CVT staff, rich with gratitude and praise, about Heliotrope’s efforts over the many years. Doug Johnson referred to me as Minnesota’s best garden designer. That was a laugh!

Pete Dross, CVT’s director of external relations, has been a supporter for a very long time, even though he loves the Grateful Dead a lot more than he does Heliotrope. Nothing wrong with that, though, right? Life isn’t fair.

[“Steve Ruce is one of the kindest, warmest and most generous people I’ve ever met,” Pete later told Sabrina. “I’m grateful for his extraordinary contributions and equally grateful to know him.” No comments on the Dead.]

Aside from that though, the best highlight is never losing sight of the feeling that I accomplished something that gave value to many people. I never thought I would be able to do that. At the end of the day, my wish is to help people see gardens in a different and meaningful light, an experience so simple, it doesn’t need to be explained—only felt.

Are there specific plants or flowers that, for you, symbolize healing?

As I age and begin to realize that what lies ahead is shorter than what’s left behind, I relish the change of seasons, and specifically, the flowers that bloom and mark the passage of time. How many more seasons will I be welcomed by daffodils in May? Or the Aconitum blooms in October?

I named Heliotrope Garden Design after, well, Heliotrope, a tender annual with an enticing fragrance of vanilla – some say cherry pie – that has been used successfully to calm the mentally ill and the ill at ease. But all blossoms are healing. What could be more pleasurable than putting your nose in a flower?

For me though, daffodils are tops. They symbolize renewal and the strength of carrying on, day after day. Their inevitable fading and subsequent absence in bloom symbolizes what all of us will experience with time. All the more surprising, then, when they make their forceful appearance again every May!

Sorry, have to: If you were a flower, what would you be and why?

I would be a white chrysanthemum. In Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s iconic book, The Language of Flowers, the white mum is a symbol of truth. Enough said.


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