Relationships mean everything to Ruben Escobar, a security guard at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He values his family members, friends, and colleagues who have helped him get through life’s pivots and challenges.
“Growing up in the South Bronx, we all looked after each other,” says Ruben, the oldest of four siblings. “It was pretty crazy, but it put a tough skin on us and there’s nothing that a New Yorker can’t handle.”
With confidence that was nurtured with support and guidance from his loved ones, he has flourished in his career path. And, he has made it a point to lift others up along the way.
Following in His Grandfathers’ Footsteps
Ruben was deeply influenced by his mother, who was born in Puerto Rico and settled in New York City as a child. He was surrounded by Puerto Rican culture at home and within the predominantly Hispanic/Latinx South Bronx neighborhood that he still calls home today.
Food was a big part of that. “My mother taught me how to cook the basics of Caribbean cuisine at home and both of my grandfathers were cooks, which is how they helped out the family,” says Ruben.
That, along with his mother’s encouragement, inspired him to go to culinary school. Even so, it was not an easy decision because his first dream was to enlist in the Air Force after high school. “My mother didn’t want me to go because she thought it would be dangerous. I was really disappointed, but you have to respect your parents’ wishes,” he recalls. “She pitched culinary school, and it felt reassuring to have her push me forward in a new direction.”
Hungry for a Better Quality of Life
After two years at the Institute of Culinary Education and an externship at a Manhattan restaurant called Blue Smoke, he was hired as a cook at the W Hotel, where he worked for six years until the hotel closed. “It was eye-opening,” he says. “You work at a fast pace for very long hours in the culinary industry. It’s a dog-eat-dog, put-your-head-down, do-what-you-have-to-do environment.”
He took away an important life lesson from his experience there. “When the W Hotel closed, it made me realize that there’s more to life than just working, and that everything happens for a reason,” he says.
Hungry for a healthier work environment, Ruben came across an advertisement for a position as a cook at a hospital. He ended up landing a job with MSK’s Food & Nutrition Services, where he worked as a cook in the cafeteria for three years.
MSK offered Ruben the peace of mind that he was looking for. “I loved every bit of it, and I learned something about myself,” he says. “Working in the MSK cafeteria made me see how good I am at working with people, including patients and hospital staff.”
People Skills Open Doors at MSK
Ruben’s excellent customer service skills did not go unnoticed — they led to a new opportunity with the Security Office as a door attendant. Stanley Vazquez, a coordinator in Transportation Services, appreciated Ruben’s people skills, which were on full display when he worked the register in the cafeteria, and recommended him for the new position.
“I was a little skeptical because I usually worked in food service, but I gave it a shot and loved it!” says Ruben, who especially enjoyed the opportunity provided by his new job to interact with patients. “I got to meet some fantastic people. A lot of patients would tell me their stories, and it made me feel really good, like I was part of the team,” he says.
Ruben worked as a door attendant for two years before his supervisor at the time suggested that he take the next step and become a security guard. He went through the required training and licensing and was assigned to the Rockefeller Outpatient Pavilion (also sometimes called Memorial Sloan Kettering 53rd Street). He celebrated his two-year anniversary with the security team in April and marks his six-year anniversary at MSK this September.
“I love that everyone at 53rd Street is like family,” he says. “There’s never a day when I go there and think, ‘Oh, this is work.’ I don’t see it as a job. It’s more like I’m going to my next home.”
Besides securing the building and responding to emergency codes when needed, Ruben has been able to put his Spanish language skills to use. “We get a lot of people who speak Spanish, so being able to step in and help translate when needed is a good asset that I bring to the table,” he explains.
Although his parents were both fluent in Spanish, he didn’t learn to speak the language at home. He picked it up in the kitchens and restaurants where he worked as a cook. “A lot of my coworkers who were Mexican, Salvadoran, and Honduran had trouble with English, so I had to find a way to communicate with them,” he says. “That was a big challenge for me, but I owe a lot of my knowledge of Spanish to those guys. I’m still learning.”
What Hispanic Heritage Month Means to Him
“It’s all about family, food, and music,” says Ruben. “When I was growing up, that was a big thing in my culture. Every time there was a birthday party or gathering for any reason, my family always ate, sang, and danced together. We would celebrate with Puerto Rican food and music — especially salsa. If you name it, we were playing it!”
As Ruben points out, family, food, and music are not just associated with Hispanic/Latinx heritage. “Everybody relates to those three things in some way, shape, or form,” he says. Ruben has found that these subjects are natural ones to discuss with patients, who are eager to dive into topics that are far removed from cancer.
“I like to bring it up with the patients to help get their mind off the things they have to do at MSK. Cancer is not something that you take lightly, so I always try to lift their spirits with talk about cooking and recipes, and the latest music. If they are singing a song, I’ll sing with them. It makes them feel good.”