Against all odds

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A mother’s love and an inner drive defined Chad Riggins’ life

Pam Riggins

A men’s league hockey trophy sits at Pam Riggins’ home. There’s no plaque signifying it yet, but the trophy has been renamed the Chad Riggins Cup after her son, who died Jan. 22.

Though Chad, 37, was developmentally disabled, he was also, by all accounts, very special to everyone around him. He was well-known at the Marsh Supermarket at 96th Street in Fishers, where he worked as a bagger for 19 years, and at the Forum at Fishers ice skating rink, where he played hockey on the Canadiens men’s adult team.

Chadwas able to enjoy a level of independence no one would have expected of him as a child, according to Riggins, who credits the Fishers community with much of his ability to do so.

“I looked at it from a mother’s eyes,” she said. “I could let go with him because I knew there were always angels looking out for him in the community. What I didn’t realize until he died was how much he impacted them (people in community).”

When news of his death reached his friends and teammates, Riggins said the phone calls and letters started pouring in.

“People were thanking me for the privilege of playing with my special needs son,” Riggins said. “For a mother, what could be more awesome?”

 

A challenging beginning

Corbin and Kaden Riggins

At 3 years old, Chad was taken to Riley Hospital for Children. His hearing and vision were impaired, he had no muscle tone and once in school, he would have extreme difficulty with traditional education models.

What Chad and his mother never got, however, was a diagnosis.

“The best advice I was ever given was here at Riley,” Riggins remembered. “They (doctors) said, ‘We don’t have any answers for you. Take him home and raise him.’”

So, Riggins said, she did. And asChadgrew up, he defied all expectations.

“They (doctors) didn’t know when he’d walk, or if he’d walk,” Riggins said. “When he’d talk, or if he’d talk. They said he’d probably never read because he couldn’t do phonics. But he proved them all wrong.”

More than just learn to walk,Chad learned to ice skate – eventually playing on the Canadiens adult hockey team at the Fishers Forum, and winning a silver medal for speed skating in the 1988 international Special Olympics. He didn’t just learn to talk, either. He maintained a successful career for 19 years as a bagger at the Marsh Supermarket on 96th Street in Fishers; a bagger whose customers knew him by name, and made a point of checking out groceries in his lane.

He learned to read, too, though in his own way.

“At one point I said, ‘I don’t want to see any more of these primers. He likes to read the newspaper. He’s interested in sports,’” remembered Riggins. “And that’s how he learned to read.”

In school, Chad was “mainstreamed,” an educational philosophy which promotes including special needs students in general classrooms as often as possible. Still, Riggins said Chad’s true mainstreaming came from him.

“He had that inner drive himself to be normal,” she said. “And you couldn’t keep him away from hockey. He loved hockey.”

 

Through a mother’s eyes

Pam and Chad Riggins

“Mainstreaming then wasn’t what it is today,” Riggins said. “It seemed to be mainstreaming all of the special needs students together. But I have nothing negative to say about it. I kind of feel like it was a fortunate point because it was all brand new. We were all feeling our way.”

For parents with developmentally disabled children, Riggins said her best advice is to be as involved in their children’s lives and education as possible.

“I was always very much an advocate for (Chad),” Riggins said. “We had the (individual education plans), which the parents were always active in writing. I was on the parent advisory board for special education. I would advise all parents to be involved in some way.

“I think there’s a bigger squeeze today because more moms have to work,” she said. “When Chad was young, I was able to be at home. And you need that. You have to be involved. You have to know the teachers and what they’re working on. And then, think outside the box.”

Riggins also said that, though it might be counterintuitive, children likeChadneed to be allowed independence just like every other child.

“Parents need to let go in the respect that you can’t coddle them (children),” she said. “I see that a lot. Parents need to let kids go to have their own experiences.”

Riggins recalled a time when she was hesitant to allow Chad to attend a class field trip to the ice skating rink. When she eventually changed her mind, it began a lifetime love of hockey, she said.

“That’s when I learned you’ve got to let them try everything,” she said.

Along with his mother,Chad is survived by his father David, brother Brad and sister Tammy. As to what the future holds for Riggins, she said she’s not sure, though she’d like to do something to pay back the community for all she said it gave to her son.

“Chad had that will and desire to fit into the real world,” Riggins said. “And the really cool thing is: He did it.”

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