For­mer CSM stu­dent cre­ates non­profit to help kids near and far

Once a vol­ley­ball player and stu­dent, now a sup­porter of chil­dren at home and abroad

Maryland Independent - - Front Page -

A for­mer Col­lege of South­ern Mary­land stu­dent and vol­ley­ball player, Deb (Wool­wine) Rigney, has found a way to help chil­dren at home and abroad af­ter see­ing the con­di­tions many chil­dren were in when she adopted her son from Rus­sia.

Rigney grew up in New Car­rolton, at­tend­ing schools in a sys­tem where, at that time, few of her friends went on to col­lege, she said. She was an all-star vol­ley­ball player but was un­sure what her next step would be af­ter grad­u­a­tion. It turned out that vol­ley­ball was key to that next step.

Rigney was re­cruited in 1985 to play for CSM (then Charles County Com­mu­nity Col­lege) by Head Vol­ley­ball Coach Nila Toribio-Straka. Toribio-Straka’s team had par­tic­i­pated in the Na­tional Ju­nior Col­lege Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion Na­tional Cham­pi­onships the year be­fore. With an eye for her team to earn a re­peat ap­pear­ance at Na­tion­als, Toribio-Straka of­fered Rigney, a 6 foot 1 inch mid­dle hitter, an ath­letic schol­ar­ship and a chance to pur­sue an as­so­ci­ate de­gree.

Rigney and Toribio-Straka rem­i­nisced about those days dur­ing a re­cent visit to CSM’s La Plata Cam­pus. Rigney said that the col­lege was the en­vi­ron­ment she needed at that time to turn around her per­for­mance as a stu­dent.

“I just needed a cou­ple of years to get my aca­demics un­der con­trol. I re­ally needed schol­ar­ships,” Rigney said. “I think that was very help­ful. I also wanted to play vol­ley­ball at a Di­vi­sion I school, and I needed Nila and CSM to help me ex­cel in vol­ley­ball to achieve that goal.”

Rigney moved to Charles County and pre­pared to fo­cus on her stud­ies as well as the sport she loved.

Toribio-Straka cre­ated a chal­leng­ing prac­tice sched­ule for her young ath­letes, putting to­gether a no­tably com­pet­i­tive team that made it to the NJCAA na­tional cham­pi­onships at Mi­ami Dade Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Flor­ida four years in a row. In 1985, Rigney’s first year, the Hawks made it all the way to the fi­nals, fin­ish­ing as na­tional run­ners-up. In 1986, Rigney re­ceived All-Amer­i­can sta­tus as she was named to the NJCAA Vol­ley­ball All-Amer­i­can 2nd team.

Toribio-Straka took pride in her play­ers not only on the court but off the court as well. “My whole goal is to not just train vol­ley­ball play­ers, but it’s about teach­ing life skills and pre­par­ing for life,” Toribio-Straka said.

With the as­sis­tance of an aca­demic ad­viser specif­i­cally as­signed to the sports teams, Toribio-Straka made sure that the ath­letes on the team paid at­ten­tion to their aca­demic op­por­tu­ni­ties as well as their sports-re­lated ones. Many of her play­ers grad­u­ated with a 3.0 GPA and higher and re­ceived vol­ley­ball schol­ar­ships at four-year in­sti­tu­tions, she said.

Rigney grad­u­ated from the col­lege in 1987 with an as­so­ci­ate de­gree in gen­eral stud­ies and re­ceived a full schol­ar­ship to Univer­sity of South Flor­ida (USF) in Tampa.

“I felt pre­pared. I was ready,” Rigney said about con­tin­u­ing her ed­u­ca­tion at USF. “Com­ing to CSM helped me get in shape both phys­i­cally and men­tally.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from USF with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Rigney mar­ried her hus­band, Scott, and moved to Carmel, In­di­ana. They adopted two chil­dren, Cooper, now 14, from Rus­sia and Piper, now 9, from China.

Four­teen years ago, the Rigneys be­gan a life-chang­ing jour­ney as they trav­eled to Rus­sia to pick up their then 9-month-old son, Cooper, dur­ing the adop­tion process. The process took more than one trip, and it pro­vided suf­fi­cient exposure to the plight of that coun­try’s or­phans that Deb and her hus­band were moved to ac­tion. “We just couldn’t get the idea that so many chil­dren won’t have a fam­ily. It just put a fire in our hearts to help some of the chil­dren left be­hind,” Deb Rigney said.

In re­sponse to this new sense of mis­sion, in 2012 the Rigneys helped form a non­profit, BarnRais­ers of In­di­ana. The or­ga­ni­za­tion is de­signed to ad­dress chil­dren’s is­sues lo­cally and abroad.

“We pri­mar­ily fo­cus on rais­ing and dis­tribut­ing funds for sus­tain­able projects that can im­prove the health and qual­ity of or­phaned and/or un­der-priv­i­leged chil­dren and youth,” Deb Rigney said.

BarnRais­ers of In­di­ana have since raised close to half-a-mil­lion dol­lars through ac­tiv­i­ties like golf tour­na­ments, raf­fles, bingo events and auc­tions. With those funds, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has paid for hand­i­cap ramps, projects for schools for the deaf, shel­ters and more in In­di­ana. In­ter­na­tion­ally, the group has as­sisted with a com­mu­nity health cen­ter for the BriBri in­dige­nous tribe in Costa Rica, clean drink­ing water and an or­phan­age in Haiti, an anti-hu­man traf­fick­ing project in In­dia, an or­phan­age in Nepal, school class­rooms in Gu­atemala, the Shad­dra School for Street Kids in In­dia and a chicken project at an or­phan­age in Kenya.

The cre­ation of the non­profit has pro­vided a bet­ter qual­ity of life for chil­dren both in the United States and abroad. But the BarnRais­ers’ work has also in­spired Deb Rigney and other board mem­bers to travel the world, as they visit and as­sist with the projects funded by the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Th­ese trips are self-funded, with none of the funds com­ing from BarnRais­ers of In­di­ana.

One of those trips re­cently pro­vided a con­nec­tion to Rigney’s years at CSM and her for­mer vol­ley­ball coach. Toribio-Straka was keep­ing up with some of her for­mer play­ers through Face­book and saw all the posts about places Rigney was trav­el­ing. Toribio-Straka con­tacted her for­mer vol­ley­ball stu­dent-ath­lete to ask what kind of work she was do­ing that re­quired so much ex­otic trav­el­ing.

Rigney said she’d show Toribio-Straka, if she was will­ing. The BarnRais­ers group was plan­ning a trip to Costa Rica, and she in­vited Toribio-Straka and her hus­band, Joe, to come along and ex­pe­ri­ence the BarnRais­ers project for them­selves. They agreed.

The group trav­eled by plane, then bus, then a dugout ca­noe and then a 10-mile horse­back ride to even­tu­ally reach the com­mu­nity cen­ter built in the re­mote BriBri vil­lage with BarnRais­ers’ funds. The cen­ter was needed to pro­vide child care for the fam­i­lies work­ing on banana plan­ta­tions, where harsh pes­ti­cides are a daily con­cern. The com­mu­nity cen­ter also pro­vides med­i­cal and den­tal as­sis­tance to the vil­lagers and other ser­vices pre­vi­ously dif­fi­cult to ac­cess.

Toribio-Straka said that on that trip she was struck by the good work her for­mer mid­dle hitter was do­ing in the world. Toribio-Straka said that she and Deb had not seen each other in nearly 30 years but the bond of coach and player was still strong.

Toribio-Straka keeps in touch with many of her for­mer play­ers like Deb Rigney from those 1985 cham­pi­onship teams as well as her other teams. Many of Toribio-Straka play­ers be­gan their vol­ley­ball ca­reers at CSM and fin­ished their bach­e­lor’s de­grees at four-year schools on schol­ar­ship and are con­tribut­ing to the good of oth­ers like Deb Rigney.

“The op­por­tu­ni­ties CSM has given my­self and the many women who have played vol­ley­ball at this in­sti­tu­tion is a tes­ta­ment to the struc­ture of a com­mu­nity col­lege sys­tem and the ben­e­fits that it can of­fer,” Toribio-Straka said.

“Par­tic­i­pa­tion on a col­le­giate team is true-to-life ex­pe­ri­ence,” said CSM Di­rec­tor of Stu­dent Life and Ath­let­ics Michelle Ru­ble. “It chal­lenges in­di­vid­u­als phys­i­cally, men­tally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally and chal­lenges them to out­grow their in­di­vid­ual per­spec­tives and to fo­cus on the greater good. Through that ex­pe­ri­ence with one an­other, last­ing re­la­tion­ships are one of the most grat­i­fy­ing re­sults.”

SUB­MIT­TED PHO­TOS

The 1985 CCCC Na­tional NJCAA runner-ups in­cluded, stand­ing, from left, Man­ager Ed Auld, As­sis­tant Coach Fran­cis Light­heart, play­ers Diane Rober­son, Deb­bie Wool­wine, Michelle Queen, Eva Win­lin, Stacey Un­der­wood and Sonya Un­der­wood, Head Coach Nila Toribio-Straka, As­sis­tant Coach Juan Ortega, Man­ager Dawn Dickerson and, kneel­ing, play­ers Sharon Mil­lar, Denise Lotscher, Rosie Stineg­ger and Sally Mertler.

Deb Rigney, cen­ter, and her chil­dren, Cooper, right, and Piper, front, visit with Rigney’s for­mer vol­ley­ball coach, Nila Toribio-Straka, at Toribio-Straka’s home in Cobb Is­land this year.

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