“I’m a fighter,” Cruz Brigham says. “I don’t like the word no.” Growing up with a developmental disability was no easy path. He was picked on and bullied. Professionals doubted his abilities and his future. He has spent his life proving the naysayers wrong. “When I was little, the doctor told my parents, ‘He won’t get a job. He won’t get married. He’s pretty much going to be stuck with you for his whole life.” He sets his jaw. “When I heard that, I thought ‘I’m not going to listen to you. I’m going to prove that I can do all of those things.” And he has.
Cruz got his job as a swim lesson aide at Cascade Swim Center before he was a strong swimmer himself. “I dog-paddled,” he jokes. As he assisted new swimmers in learning the collection of skills they’d need to advance to the next level, he too improved his skills until he became a strong enough swimmer to qualify for a lifeguarding position as well. He was weighing the choice between his cashiering job at 7-11 and his job at Cascade Aquatic Center when the Aquatic Director told him she was considering him for a supervisor position. He decided to focus on lifeguarding and dedicated himself to meeting the qualifications for a lifeguard supervisor and he was promoted last September. Cruz is coming up on four years with RAPRD. When I ask why, after many previous jobs, he has seemed to find a home here, he says, “With other jobs, there was always something about the job. Something that wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t family. It wasn’t me.”
Rather than the exclusion and cruelty he experienced in school, Cruz has found mentors and friends at RAPRD who have helped him get better at his job and work toward his goals. “This job helped me swim better. As days went past, I get better, as weeks passed, as month passed, I got much better. I actually do know how to swim well now.” He credits coworkers and supervisors with helping him improve his swimming skills and teaching him how to lifeguard and so-called “soft skills” as well. “Ed taught me a lot about communication skills,” he recalls. “How to open up more and not be nervous. And Charlie showed me how to be a good leader but not push too much.”
Those people skills have served him well, both in his job at RAPRD and in his own business, as he carefully listens to people, hears their specific needs, and tailors his service to get them what they need. “As a swimming instructor, I’m looking at how can I help the kid better. Our goal at RAPRD is not just to make the kid feel good, but also help them learn the skills they need to swim when they are older. A kid may not listen well, so you may need to take more attention for that kid. But you still have all your other kids. So you need to balance the needs of the kids you have.” His concerns are different in his lifeguard supervisor position, he says. “As a lifeguard, my number one thing is safety. Making sure my team is safe, making sure the people in the pool are safe, and making sure everyone follows the rules.”
That same attentiveness to others’ needs and safety – as well as his IT Graphic Design degree from COCC – has guided Cruz in developing his business installing LED lighting into safety gear and tech equipment and toys. Although the sample he brought to his interview is a fidget spinner that lights up as it spins, many of his company’s products serve a serious purpose. “We do a lot of safety stuff and how to keep people safe.” His company developed a flashing arm band for the Redmond Fire Department that can be seen through smoke and at a distance of up to a mile away. The light array is red and blue and provides more than just visibility. “It has a chip so that GPS can ping to dispatch to redirect lost fire teams,” Cruz explains. A similar product helps nighttime runners avoid vehicles, again through the long-distance visibility of a colored LED arm badge. “If a car gets too close to them,” Cruz describes, “it sends a signal to the runner so that they can move out of the way.”
They partner with Amazon to deck out fidget spinners, dog collars, watches, and even dog chew toys with LED lights. “It gives me something to do,” he says. I meet new people, try new things.” But, he insists, “At our company, we don’t really care about the money.” He explains that every January, Cruz, his wife Katie, and his business partner – a friend since elementary school – have a drawing from business cards they have picked up from charities whose work they have appreciated throughout the year. They keep 10% of their profits to cover their expenses and donate the rest. Another unique cause they have found to support is sponsoring prom for local kids facing special challenges. “We donated money to a family whose daughter had heart surgery and they spent all their money on her hospital bills.” The company paid for the prom dress, found a limo, a fancy dinner out, the whole nine yards. “Senior year is very important,” Cruz says. “They want that memory. I want to do everything I can to make that happen.”
Although his goals include possibly opening a shop one day, where other kids with disabilities can volunteer and learn tech skills, his focus is on philanthropy and giving back, rather than becoming a budding corporate tycoon. “I don’t want to be a business man. I want to be one of those guys that when people need help, I can be like ‘Let’s see what we can do.’”
Cruz tries to put himself out in the community as a mentor and a role model for younger kids with developmental disabilities or learning disabilities. Working with kids with learning disabilities “really opened my mind and opened my heart,” he says. “Showing if I can live on my own, if I can be a lifeguard, you can do the same thing. You have to get up and keep on fighting for what you want to do.” This is the determination, the stubborn streak, that has served him so well in his own life. “When somebody tells me no, you can’t do it,” he says, “I’m going to show you actually, yes I can. I can do the same things anyone else can do, I just need to work harder.”
When I ask him what makes him look back on his work with RAPRD and smile, he relates a story from about a month ago. “I had an adapted kid who didn’t want to get in the water. Didn’t want anything to do with me or anything. I told him if you didn’t want to get in the water, you don’t have to. I was like, okay, can you wave your hand in the water? And he did.” Gradually, the kid moved from having his hand in the water, to his body, to being able to kick his feet – a key swimming skill. Step by step. “Everything’s all about patience. You have to get to know the kid better. If the kid is five year old, you have to be that five year old.”
Cruz has been using that deep empathy he feels for the kids he teaches to help him make decisions as a parent for his son Zach, now 3. On the one hand, he wants his son to be able to do everything he wants to do. He doesn’t want anyone to tell Zach no, you can’t do that (even his dad). On the other hand, he is afraid for him, because he knows what bullying feels like and doesn’t want his son to ever hurt like that. Cruz is bringing to fatherhood the same patience and determination he brings to everything else. He is taking it step by step.
Although he wants his son and other young kids to be able to learn from his example and take comfort and inspiration from all that he has accomplished, Cruz says that it is more important how those who hear his story will change their own lives. “When I’m talking to people and they want to get to know me. It’s not my story to tell, it’s your story. I’ll tell people what I do and what I want to do, but that’s not the whole reason I’m here. I want people to know, don’t look at what I did and what I can do, look at what you can do and how you can inspire other people. That’s your story to tell.