DePaul alumnus George Ruff and his wife, Tanya, make compassionate contributions to help eradicate homelessness and amplify student potential
By Craig Keller
All human beings are born with potential—to create, to educate, to invigorate the intellectual, emotional, economic and physical dimensions of the societies in which they live. The barriers to fulfilling one’s potential, however, can be daunting. Lack of financial resources has kept too many from pursuing higher education. For many others, that lack has forced them to make their home in the streets, where survival must take precedence over personal striving.
Fortunately, two steadfast DePaul supporters are opening the doors of dignity and opportunity to those who need a place to live, study and grow. DePaul University Life Trustee George Ruff (BUS ’74) and his wife, Tanya, have made a generous commitment totaling $21 million to support scholarships and DePaul’s Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH). The couple’s George L. and Tanya S. Ruff Endowed Scholarship follows their George L. Ruff Endowed Scholarship in Hospitality Leadership, deepening their commitment to students. Moreover, in recognition of their contribution to the institute, it will now be known as the George and Tanya Ruff Institute of Global Homelessness.
A senior principal of Trinity Hotel Investors LLC and member of DePaul’s School of Hospitality Leadership Advisory Board and Board of Trustees Philanthropy, Finance, and Physical Plant and Property committees. Mr. Ruff has been a longtime supporter of the university. He helped establish the Real Estate Center in the Richard H. Driehaus College of Business, and the Ruffs contribute to the college through the hospitality program scholarship, the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center Endowment and George L. Ruff Endowed Chair in Real Estate.
“George Ruff has played an important role in expanding education programs, career opportunities and industry connections for DePaul students,” says DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban, PhD. “With this gift, George and Tanya Ruff are taking their student support and commitment to DePaul’s global Vincentian mission to another level that will lift up all communities and inspire humanitarian initiatives for years to come.”
A Boost for Inclusive Education
The Ruff scholarship is designed to benefit low-income students, students of color, first-generation college students and current members or veterans of the U.S. armed services. Part of these funds immediately support Now We Must: The Campaign for DePaul’s Students, an ambitious fundraising initiative that aims to help students through the hardships they are facing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mr. Ruff serves on the Now We Must Campaign Committee.
To encourage others to help students, the Ruffs also have issued the “Double Your Impact” Ruff Scholarship Challenge, which runs through Dec. 31, 2021. During this time, any gift of $50,000 or more to create a new endowed scholarship for low-income students, students of color, first-generation students or active military/veteran students will be matched by the Ruffs with a $50,000 gift to the Ruff Endowed Scholarship, up to $750,000.
Mr. Ruff relates to aspiring students for whom a college education seems unattainable.
“Nobody went to college where I grew up,” says Mr. Ruff, a native of Chicago’s South Side who now resides in Hawaii. Instead, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Vietnam. Returning to Chicago in 1969, he worked for a few months in a steel mill while deciding what to do with his life. Soon, he was pursuing an associate degree at a community college while working part time at an accounting firm. An instructor encouraged Mr. Ruff to complete his bachelor’s degree at DePaul, where he studied accounting before finding success in the international hospitality industry. Mr. Ruff and his brother were the first in their family to go to college.
Helping fellow veterans attend college resonates powerfully with him.
“A lot of vets who served in Afghanistan and Iraq end up homeless,” he says. “The lucky few who get trained in electronics and such do have a future, but many servicemen and women struggle after they’re discharged.”
The bonds Mr. Ruff built with soldiers from various backgrounds in the Marine Corps, even amid the fractured race relations of the 1960s, also opened his eyes to the urgency of equal opportunity in education.
Tanya Ruff shares her husband’s commitment to make higher education accessible to all.
“Through the years, I’ve had a lot of breaks that turned out well for me. I would like to think that I’m giving our students the break of a college education they might not have been able to obtain on their own,” she says. “I come from a Korean family where we view sharing as a given. George and I look at DePaul as part of our extended family. We’re happy that we are fortunate enough to have the ability to share some of our good fortune with its students and the efforts to end homelessness through the Institute of Global Homelessness.”
A Place to Call Home
Compassion for marginalized populations also inspired the Ruffs’ support for the research, global cooperation and direct action that form the mission of IGH. That mission is to promote efforts to alleviate the suffering of those experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity, with the goal of ending street homelessness.
“I think of the institute’s vision, ‘a world where everyone has a home that offers security, safety, autonomy and opportunity,’ and reflect on what Jesus believed to be the second of the two greatest commandments: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’” says Mrs. Ruff. “I’m thankful that we can give back.”Founded at DePaul in 2014 as part of a partnership with London-based Depaul International, IGH focuses on homelessness as a global phenomenon, with an emphasis on those who are living on the street or in emergency shelters. So far, IGH provides direct services to people experiencing homelessness in the UK, Ireland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Croatia, the United States and France.
“George and Tanya have been generous donors to IGH for a number of years. The issue of homelessness is very close to their hearts,” says IGH Director Lydia Stazen. “This new gift will help IGH better focus on the work we’re doing now with the confidence and security to know we can continue to have a positive impact on decreasing homelessness.”
IGH summarizes its core priorities as “see it, solve it, share it,” Stazen adds. Th e work includes shaping standardized language to define homelessness across its myriad manifestations and contexts; facilitating training and capacity-building resources for “vanguard cities” across six continents that have set goals to reduce or end street homelessness; and spreading information on what works and what doesn’t among change-makers, service providers, policymakers, scholars and educators.
“There’s so much we can learn from each other,” says Stazen. “Making those connections and sharing how to do the work better, smarter and more efficiently to make sure fewer people are experiencing homelessness is precisely IGH’s mission.”
A Life-Changing Experience
The Ruffs’ support for IGH’s mission was sparked after a memorable dinner Mr. Ruff had with Depaul International Group Chief Executive Mark McGreevy, OBE, who played a central role in founding IGH and has worked in the field of housing insecurity for more than three decades.
“Many people are sympathetic to the homeless as long as they’re not next door. They become invisible to a certain extent. IGH sounded like a worthwhile idea, a way to give to an organization that has a defined program,” says Mr. Ruff.
In 2018, McGreevy invited Mr. Ruff to Ukraine to see how Depaul International approaches homelessness. The group visited Kharkiv, a city located near the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia. An armed conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed anti-government separatists that began in 2014 had displaced 1.8 million people by the time Mr. Ruff arrived in the country.
In Kharkiv, they met the Rev. Vitaliy Novak, C.M., a Vincentian priest who launched the Depaul International efforts in Ukraine in 2007, when the country was in a political crisis and experiencing a punishing inflation rate of 16.59%. Fr. Novak, who delivered meals in a minivan to people in need, now oversees shelters, health care facilities, food trucks and homes for single mothers with children that cumulatively serve about 5,000 people in four cities.“Hundreds of children in Kharkiv live on the street,” says McGreevy. “Actually, under the street in the sewer systems and central heating ducts where they put their sleeping bags on hot water pipes to keep warm. They live in gangs and survive by begging, petty theft, prostitution and an occasional job in the market.”
Fr. Vitaliy showed Mr. Ruff a fleet of food trucks and a hospital where he’d secured half a floor and volunteer physicians to provide medical care. He explained how the charity helps secure IDs for individuals.
“If you don’t have an ID, you have no rights to any kind of benefits. You’re basically persona non grata,” says Mr. Ruff. “Vitaliy does the best he can with what he has, and through his efforts, you start to really understand there can be global solutions to homelessness.”
McGreevy agrees and believes a nexus like IGH holds the key to international problem-solving.“There are hundreds of Vitaliys around the world,” says McGreevy. “All of them want the same thing. They want somebody to recognize them. They want someone to dream with them, to encourage them. They need the training to get the right skills together, the resources to begin to do things, the networks to help them know what is good and bad practice. Most of all, they want a long-term commitment to work alongside them to make a difference.”
The visit solidified Mr. Ruff’s resolve to try to address the problem on a global level. The Ruffs’ commitment will support IGH’s most ambitious initiative, A Place to Call Home, which aims to end street homelessness in 150 cities by 2030. The foundation for this effort is the pioneering work of 13 vanguard cities, which IGH plans to increase to 25 by 2025 and to 150 by 2030.
“No one organization can end homelessness alone. It takes a whole-of-community response,” says Stazen. “Our work needs to be informed by what’s happening on the ground.”
Belief in DePaul
Mr. Ruff thinks DePaul’s enduring dedication to social service, from its Vincentian roots to local community-building partnerships in Chicago, makes it the ideal institution to fuel IGH’s expansive goals and award the scholarships he and Tanya enable.
“I can’t think of any other university that’s so actively involved with the community,” he says. “DePaul has a strong social mission that goes side by side with its world-class education. That atmosphere the university creates generates the kind of activity that makes a difference far beyond the campus. We’re glad to help that continue for years to come.”