If you happen to see Julio Cruz in your travels around the city of Rochester, he might look familiar to you—and for good reason. His work as a pastor and advocate for racial equity, social justice, and for people who are homeless, addicted, or simply struggling to make ends meet frequently puts him out in the community, on the front lines where he can make the greatest impact on people’s lives.

“We go out into the community in a van with a grill and we give out food, water, juice, free clothing, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, and all kinds of other stuff,” said Julio. “I’ve been doing this for years.”

Julio has been involved in ministry and community outreach since he and his wife moved to Rochester from Brooklyn with their four children in 2001. His work in the Rochester community is so extraordinary, Mayor Lovely Warren presented him the key to the city in November of 2021.

“With everything shut down for the pandemic, nobody was coming out,” recalled Julio. “But I was out in front of my house every week doing outreach, praying for people, and giving them food and clothing. So, the mayor gave me and other Rochester-area spiritual leaders the key to the city. I was supposed to be inside but I went outside and that was a privilege.”

In 2020, Julio participated in the mayor’s inaugural Community Leadership Program. It was here that he learned about ROC the Future Alliance (RTFA), and one of Julio’s classmates in the Community Leadership Program encouraged him to apply for a Parent/Family Partner (P/FP) position with the Whole Child Initiative.

As a P/FP, Julio is applying what he has learned over the past 20 years about navigating the agencies and systems that serve local residents, helping to lift up community members who need it most. He is especially passionate about improving educational outcomes for K-12 students.

As a Foreign Language Translator for the Rochester City School District (RCSD), Julio is well positioned to understand the challenges that young students and parents face. His work with the RCSD involves helping Spanish-speaking families communicate with teachers and school administrators and helping educators develop individual education plans designed to fit each child’s needs.

Julio has played a critical role this year in the Whole Child Initiative’s roll out of Parent Cafés in Rochester. Parent Cafés are structured, small group conversations that facilitate transformation and healing within families, build communities, develop peer-to-peer relationships, engaging parents as partners. They are safe spaces where parents and caregivers talk about their challenges, strategies, and successes.

“I love Parent Cafés,” said Julio. “They’re dynamic and impactful. It’s great to come together with families and have people laugh, cry, and dig deep into themselves to solve problems. It’s amazing to give them the tools to be better mothers, fathers, and members of the community.”

Parent Cafés are just one of the ways RTFA “centers parent voice” by giving caregivers a seat at the table and making them equal partners in the organization’s work. Earlier this year, Julio took the concept of centering parent voice to another level by offering to record the voiceover for a radio campaign on one of Rochester’s Spanish language stations, Poder 97.1. “That was just amazing,” said Julio, a former DJ with a deep, engaging voice. “It was so much fun. There’s nothing better than doing something you love and can put your whole heart into. I had a blast!”

If there’s one thing Julio could improve for Rochester families, it would be accessibility to government-funded programs when it’s needed. “Many of the emergency phone numbers and hotlines have been disconnected or are unavailable,” said Julio. “The lack of access to these programs can severely limit people’s upward mobility, leaving them to struggle for themselves in an endless loop.”

Julio is optimistic that his work with ROC the Future Alliance will continue to bring about transformational change at the systems level, pushing education, health care, and human services to function the way they are supposed to. “As a Parent/Family Partner, I’ve grown and learned a lot,” said Julio. “It’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I love the fact that I understand equity better so I can serve the community better. It has been a true blessing.”