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Ruth and her bike

After weaving through Toronto's downtown traffic, Ruth Ewert carefully parked her brawny 1,100 cc Virago motorcycle. Sliding from the cycle, the petite, dark-haired woman shed her helmet and entered the Yonge Street Mission Evergreen building. Her responsibilities were to make sure no alcohol, drugs or lit cigarettes were brought into the building and that pimps, drug dealers or those looking for a fight stayed out.


Ruth looked out into the street. She watched as a seventeen-year-old girl walked by and smiled in her direction. Ruth knew this girl had been on the streets since she was fourteen, surviving the only way she knew, as a prostitute. Ruth knew the money went straight to the girl's pimp. In exchange, he offered the girl protection from others and provided her with food, clothing and shelter. Even so, he often beat her. To him, she was little more than a slave.


Ruth's heart ached for this girl and the hundreds of others like her. This ache and a dream of change spurred Ruth's return from medical missions in Africa to her Canadian homeland. She envisioned the establishment of a health care facility that youth on the streets could use without identity cards, health cards or money, even though such a system was nonexistent. Her dream required overcoming reams of red tape, raising money and securing professional personnel-a challenge even for an optimist.


For Ruth, it was simple. If God wanted it, and she was sure he did, obstacles were not problems; they were part of the challenge.


I met Ruth in Pearl River, New York, in 1973, during an orientation program at the Africa Inland Mission's U.S. headquarters. We were preparing for a health ministry in Kenya, East Africa. She had a wonderful sense of humor and a depth of character that I admired. I was seven-months pregnant with my first child, and she often rubbed my back in the evening while we talked about what it was going to be like in Africa. We were both nurses and knew we'd be working on the same mission station, yet in different roles. At the Kijabe Medical Center her responsibilities were to include many hours on call dealing with strange tropical diseases, unfamiliar treatments and new drugs. I would be one of the school nurses at the Rift Valley Academy, a school for missionary children, caring for students with flu, broken bones or malaria.


As the years sped by, we spent Christmas holidays together, our children called her Auntie Ruth, and she became like a sister. I prayed for her often because she seemed to get herself into more scrapes than most missionaries. Incidents often included her beloved motorcycle, illness or everything at once. Simultaneously, she had malaria, typhoid fever and pneumonia. She was unconscious for a month.


"I should have died four times," she states matter-of-factly, "but God had things for me to do."


I recall one morning having a sudden urge to pray diligently for Ruth. No sooner had I started than I got a frantic phone call from the hospital. It was Ruth.


"Shirley, come and get me out of here!!" A freak accident at her home had sent boiling water and pieces of a plate flying into her face, injuring both her eyes. She had blindly crawled across a field to the hospital.


Rather than leaving her in the hospital, I took her to my home. It was hard to see her lying on our guest bed, with eyes bandaged. We wondered if she'd ever see again. However, she regained most of her sight, and her strength of character grew through the experience.


Always wanting to hone her professional skills, Ruth studied midwifery in England so she could better help the African people. Later, she received a master's degree in community health in Kenya, a first for any expatriate missionary nurse.


After fifteen years in Africa, Ruth felt God calling her to her Canadian homeland. Although it was a difficult decision, she saw God's guidance as she asked Africa Inland Mission to transfer her to the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto, Ontario.


This mission, also known as Evergreen, works in the heart of downtown Toronto, ministering to street kids. About 50,000 homeless people wander the streets of the city. Ten thousand of these are children between the ages of twelve and nineteen. Ninety percent are from broken homes, replete with physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Daily these kids are confronted with the dangers of street life-pimps, drug dealers, pornographers, violence, rape, hunger, cold, illness, lack of shelter-hovering over them like vultures. In this context, Ruth started to dream about a unique, street-friendly health care facility for youth.


To bring the dream to fruition, this nurse, midwife and health care facility administrator wore more hats-designer, general contractor and chief. Her fund-raising skills grew as she goaded, begged and wooed businessmen, colleges, churches and individuals to give. She spent long hours with building inspectors getting everything right for Canadian building codes. It took four years. But in January 1994, the Evergreen Health Care Center opened its doors, complete with dental and optical facilities, a small lab, treatment room, a classroom for perinatal health education and a day care room.


To provide excellent health care, Ruth organized top professionals who lovingly volunteered their time. These professionals, the heart of the program, included counselors, public health nurses, a dentist, a chiropractor, an eye doctor and other qualified specialists. Today Evergreen Health Care Center, the only facility of its kind in Canada, handles about 9,000 clients a year.


Ruth continues to be part of what is happening in the world politically and socially. She was asked to give a presentation to the Canadian legislature on Bill 18, intended to protect children involved in prostitution. Though its intent was good, her research showed that the bill was flawed in many ways. She presented an improved plan.


A writer and storyteller, Ruth chronicles in heart-wrenching detail the agonies of dealing with death weekly, of prostitutes murdered and left in dumpsters, of young people dying of AIDS, alone, without family or friends. But she also tells about those who have turned their lives around because they've found new life through Jesus. Many see him demonstrated in a non-judgmental way through the lives and love shown by the staff at Evergreen.


Sometimes, for the good of the many, she's made hard choices, including how to deal with a modern-day leper. Ivan had a huge ulcer on his lip. He was a heroin and cocaine addict, had AIDS and was Hepatitis B positive. As Ruth talked to him, blood and saliva dripped from the large sore on his lip and onto the table. Two days later he was back again, dripping everywhere. His mind, clouded from drugs, kept him from comprehending any instructions. He was endangering the health and lives of the other kids, and he was highly infectious. Sadly, Ruth had to ban him from the facility, trusting his fate to God.


Ruth is concerned about the hundreds of babies born to street kids. These kids parent their precious little ones with no support system and no parenting skills. Sometimes, to alleviate a parental crisis, Ruth takes the baby home overnight so the stressed teenaged mom and dad can have some respite. Often grateful street parents say, "You are the only one who cares."


It's little wonder that Compassion of Canada, a Christian child development organization, presented Ruth with the prestigious Compassion Award in March 1992 in recognition of faithful service of love to children and young people. Her supervisor said, "It's unheard of to think of someone spending more than a decade on the front line with street youth. It's hard, very hard."


Ruth was awarded the Nightingale Award by a panel of judges comprised of representatives from the nursing profession and the Toronto Star. The award was given for untiring service to those in need.


Perhaps the greatest praise comes from the kids she befriends. Teenagers waiting in line at the health center shout each other down when they're asked what they think of Ruth. "We love her." "She's our Ruth." "She's better than Baby Ruth."


How does Ruth see herself? "My life is quite ordinary. I see myself as an ordinary person doing whatever comes along. Everything is a gift from God."


Others in her situation, facing the same obstacles and discouragements each day, would have burned out long ago, but Ruth perseveres. She continues riding her motorcycle to work in all kinds of weather. Every day she faces danger as four major bike gangs fight for control of the drug trade outside Evergreen's doors. Both youth and staff have been injured and know that these activities will only escalate.


Ruth's big heart has been hurt often, yet she continues giving God the honor for his faithfulness in her life. Her goal has been to honor Jesus in all she does.