Marianne Ruiz knew practically nothing about her father’s military service until he died.
The man who had brushed off his 24 years of service as a litany of mundane chores had joined the U.S. Navy at age 16, serving on the USS Missouri at Iwo Jima during World War II, and then moved to the U.S. Air Force, where he spent the rest of his career and had tours of duty in Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Germany.
Ruiz’s father, Joseph D’Agostino, retired as a master sergeant from North Air Force Base in San Bernardino, Calif., but only a few years after his retirement, he suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and lost much of his memory.
It wasn’t until his death and the funeral, complete with military honors and the startling green grass, that Ruiz realized how much he had actually done.
“It was huge,” Ruiz said. “There was so much more to his life than what I saw of him. It was really sad.”
All the more difficult for Ruiz was the fact that he had died only days before she was supposed to see him for the first time in 15 years, she said. Family obligations, work and more than a thousand miles had just gotten in the way.
With this new information, Ruiz decided to get involved in veterans organizations, joining the ladies auxiliaries for the Polish Legion of American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But feeling hemmed in by the rules that governed the aid veterans received and the mentality some volunteers had on just fulfilling the hours required by the organization’s charter, Ruiz – after some encouragement from her longtime boyfriend, Gary Klawinski – decided to start Joe’s Wish, named after her father.
“It wasn’t his wish, but I have a wish for him,” Ruiz said. “I want him to have a legacy.”
The goal of the organization is to provide the help other entities couldn’t, rounding out the aid other organizations already were providing, she said.
Since Joe’s Wish started in 2011, it has helped about 300 people, providing dental care, rent and utilities assistance, book scholarships, Christmas presents and gift cards for fresh produce, diapers and formula.
It’s grown little by little, said Karen Fruh, who along with her husband, Ken, nominated Ruiz, who lives a few houses down from them in their McHenry neighborhood, for Everyday Heroes.
“She’s just tireless,” Fruh said. “She spends four days a week working it.”
The work is funded through biweekly meat raffles and other events hosted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ McHenry post, Main Street Station and After the Fox, where Ruiz has worked as a bartender for 10 years.
A new addition to the calender was Patriots in the Park, an August event that mixed booths for veteran organizations with artisans, games, live music and food, and stretched the volunteer resources of the small group.
Joe’s Wish has about 10 to 12 regular volunteers and about 20 people helped with Patriots in the Park, up from the three people that started the group.
Going forward, Ruiz hopes to add more events, such as the shootout it sponsored at the McHenry Sportsmen’s Club, where paralyzed veterans practiced their trapshooting.
With most of the aid materializing in the form of checks, the hands-on nature of the event was very gratifying, Ruiz said.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “I think that we’ve made a difference. Even though we didn’t know what we were doing [when we started], I think we’ve made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”