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
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.”
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.