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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Flamingo Man Builds Memorials to Family, Friends

Don Ruetz and his wife Cindy brought their family to Costa Rica from the U.S. city of Hawthorne, California, in 2004 because they wanted to give their sons new opportunities.

They settled in Playa Flamingo, on the northern Pacific coast, with the hope of giving their boys, Justin and Jack, a chance to grow up in a clean, healthy and bilingual environment.

Tragically, Justin, 9, Jack, 8, and Cindy, 42, were killed last July along with family friends Paul Kells, 53, and his son Connor, 7, when a light aircraft they were flying in crashed off the northern Pacific coast (TT, July 22, 2005).

In the months since the accident, Ruetz has striven to honor the memories of his family and friends by immersing himself in the Playa Flamingo community, and working to give the area’s children the kind of opportunities he wanted for his own sons.

A new skateboard center, basketball court and yoga studio at Ruetz’s Flamingo gymnasium, The Jungle Gym, are part of this project, as are a series of summer camps he will begin operating this month.

The idea for the series of efforts took hold in Ruetz’s mind shortly after the accident, as he thought about projects he could take on to memorialize his family.

At the time of the crash, the Ruetz family had just finished adding an open-air yoga and pilates studio to The Jungle Gym. The studio, which features a teak floor and a lighted bamboo ceiling, is now called the Cindy Ruetz Yoga Center.

The skateboard center, which opened May 1, was one of the first projects Ruetz started after the accident. An oblong bowl the size of a small swimming pool, it is dedicated to Paul and Connor Kells.

The idea for the skateboard park came from a wooden half-pipe Paul Kells built when he came from California to visit Ruetz and his family. Not long after the accident, rains ruined the wooden structure. Ruetz wanted to construct something more durable to remember his friends, so in November he started work on the concrete bowl.

The Paul and Connor Kells Skateboard Center is free to gym members and costs $5 a day for nonmembers. Ruetz has skateboards and helmets that he lets patrons use for free.

The drive to create lasting memorials for his loved ones has kept Ruetz working at a frantic pace. By the time the skateboard center opened, for example, Ruetz was already working on another project.

“I wanted to do something for my kids, so I decided, ‘I have enough room; I’ll build a basketball gym,’” Ruetz said.

The basketball court is a fitting tribute to his sons Jack and Justin, who were strong basketball players, baseball players, skateboarders and surfers, he said.

The court, which is scheduled for completion in late July, will be an enclosed facility with an arched roof, air conditioning and a wood floor. Like the skateboard center, the Justin and Jack Ruetz Basketball Court will be free to members; nonmembers will be able to use it for $10 a day.

In further tribute to his sons, Ruetz is planning four four-day sports camps this summer. The camps, which are targeted at children 8-13, will include basketball, baseball, trampoline and surfing, and will cost $120 per child. The first camp will run June 26-30, followed by camps July 10-14, July 24-28 and Aug. 7-11.

By including a mix of sports in the camps, Ruetz said he hopes to introduce children to an active lifestyle without boring them with too many drills. The camps will mix sports instruction with competition, and kids will rotate through the sports so the activities stay fun, Ruetz said.

The Jack and Justin Ruetz Summer Sports Camps are Ruetz’s way of directing a fatherly instinct toward the children of Playa Flamingo.

“There aren’t too many activities for kids here, and I want to give them something to keep out of trouble,” he said.

As part of that goal, Ruetz tried to keep the camps’ cost low to make them widely accessible.

“It’s not about the money… if the kids can’t afford it I’ll work something out with them,” he said.

And though the summer sports camps named for his sons have not yet begun, Ruetz’s desire to pay tribute to his lost family members by being a pillar of their adopted community keeps him moving on to new things.

He is currently holding kids’movie nights two Saturdays a month at The Jungle Gym, and in the next few years he hopes to build a baseball field complete with underground irrigation, an electronic scoreboard and dugouts.

Ruetz hopes a well laid-out baseball field will give Costa Rican youngsters a new perspective on the game.

“Let the kids experience baseball and then they might like it as much as they do soccer,” he said.


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