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AFSP Spotlight Interview: Renee Cruz, AFSP’s New Vice President of Project 2025

26 Aug 2021 — 6 min read

By Renee Cruz

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Renee Cruz, MPH

Bake My Day: Making Something Sweet for Suicide Prevention

You’re AFSP’s new Vice President of Project 2025! How would you describe what Project 2025 is to someone who doesn’t know? How would you describe your job to them?

First, I would say I am not in a job – I am attaining my highest level of professional advancement by serving in this role. I am in full service, in which all of my prior skills and education are allowing me to make a positive impact on systems and communities. My role with Project 2025 is more than just a job to me, because it has aligned my purpose and meaning beyond simply tending to tasks that need doing to overcome a challenge: it is about meaningfulness. It’s about the WHY, not just about the WHAT.

Project 2025 is AFSP’s nationwide initiative to reduce the annual rate of suicide in the U.S. 20% by 2025, by forging strategic partnerships within the four key areas we’ve identified to save the most lives in the shortest amount of time: Firearms, Healthcare Systems, Emergency Departments, and Corrections Systems. We have committed to delivering effective and evidence-informed approaches that identify those at risk for suicide, and providing suicide prevention interventions. By expanding the reach of those activities, we save lives together.

If you really want a window into what I do in a concrete manner: I carry the overall responsibility for developing, implementing and assessing the high-impact, collaborative initiative in the four focus areas. It’s a highly complex, highly variable project, and is dependent on our partners to make the change. We are the voice, the influencer, and the advocate for our communities.

Why is suicide prevention important to you? What led you to AFSP?

I have been in the healthcare field for more than 18 years, coming from case management of the severely mentally ill, to working in residential psychiatric hospitals for children, through policy, and later in my career, program implementation and process transformation roles.

There was a moment not too long ago when I received a phone call, letting me know I had lost yet another high school classmate to suicide. This was the sixth, out of a class of 88. Emotionally, I just lost it! I couldn’t understand how all my work, education and positive movement did not seem to be making a difference – or at least it felt that way to me in that moment. I took a hard look at myself and how I was feeling, in order to truly understand what was next for me. It was difficult. This work is my heart, my love, my joy; and yet I needed to take a deeper look.

During this time, I dove deep into my Why: how it could be different, and how I as one person can really make a difference. I realized I needed to think bigger. This was easy for me; I have always been the person to take things to the next level. But I was unsure how that would translate into actions that would create a lasting legacy of change.

Intention for me is big. If I am clear in my wants, the HOW will follow. And it did. A friend sent me a LinkedIn page and said to take a look. “You like puzzles, right? This seems to be a big one.” Fast forward to today, taking on this new role at AFSP. I feel I am living my best version of me! I am working on translating that out to our communities through the integrity of our work, transparent communication, and a continuous, flexible yet steady drive.

Could you tell us a bit more about your previous experience?

I have had years of successful program and project management experience in both the public and private sectors. Most recently, I served as a Global Program Director for Michelin Corporation, and prior to that I was Executive Director of Program Delivery and Transformation at HCA Mission Health Systems. Earlier in my career was focused on the Mental Health field. I served as Senior Director of Project and Portfolio Management for the State of North Carolina, a behavioral health carveout in the state; as Health Systems Executive Director for the State of Ohio, Department of Medicaid; and as a Mental Health Specialist at West Virginia University Hospital’s Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.

I have a Master of Public Health degree, with a minor in Health Administration from The Ohio State University, and two Bachelor of Science degrees in Clinical Psychology and Biology from West Virginia University. In addition, I have a green belt in Lean Six Sigma, certifications in strategic operations, Service Strategy, PMO development, and Adaptive Program and Portfolio management. I was named a McNair Scholar, following a mission to prepare students from underrepresented segments in society for higher-education study and careers. Quick fun fact: the McNair program is how I met my husband.

How would you like to change the world in terms of mental health?

The children of today face new sets of challenges and global shifts that were unimaginable to those before us. I hope, dream and place action on building a global community that will accept how we all perceive the world, regardless of the lens we place upon it.

We pay tribute to those who have laid the groundwork for us, and we applaud those stepping up in these challenging times: the people who will take us through the fall of stigma and into actionable awareness and systematic change. This younger generation will help us raise awareness paired with action, vocalize voices that have been silenced, and put funding and efforts to creating an empowered way of living. We do not have to crumble everything around us to make change: we must simply allow space for those who may know better and can do better for our systems and communities to be placed in leadership roles, with high impact throughout our country.

More simply, we can be free: free from judgment, free to open up without feeling uncomfortable or having to sacrifice our genuine voice for the comfort of others. Freedom for everyone to be their truest self: that’s my greatest hope through the actions being taken today and tomorrow. It’s vital that any and all feelings can be heard and supported through our systems, and be treated as critical as they feel to each person having them.

You are obviously a busy person, and we all need to take time to recharge. What do you like to do in your downtime? Any favorite hobbies, or TV shows?

Many may not consider this down time, but: I have three young children, ages 5, 4 and 2. They are the most amazing, kind-hearted and funny people. We love to dance in the mornings -- really any time – and sing (probably the most off-key you have ever heard) as loudly as we can. We all contribute to respecting our space. Even my two-year-old helps me with her laundry! (She smells every piece that comes out of the washer, but we eventually get there.)

I love the water. If I could find the time, I would paddle board more! I also love driving – it’s the perfect time for me to clear my mind and listen to 90’s R&B and rap with no kids in the car. (Yep, the best music really was during this timeframe.) I love concerts – or I used to 😊, since they’ve been on hold during the pandemic. Concerts are a great opportunity to be in a community of like-minded people who just LOVE music and want to dance out all that they have been carrying.

Most of all, I love taking actions to care for me, whether that’s a weekend by myself, visiting my aunt in another state, or a massage to keep me in alignment with my body. I believe it’s important for children to see that it’s not only okay, but necessary, to fill your own cup; and as a parent, to be able to provide a full, present and engaged way of life at home. My children are about both the present and the future – and so is Project 2025.

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Learn more about AFSP’s Project 2025 initiative at afsp.org/project2025

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