Mary Ann Riggs

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Braille teacher | Children's coordinator | Flexible mom

You might say Mary Ann Riggs flies under the radar. But fly, she does. With her natural, fresh face and practical, yet flexible, approach to navigating life with teenagers and her two jobs, she manages to do it all without calling a lot of attention to herself. Except maybe when she pulls up next to you at an intersection in her red convertible.

WACOAN: Describe yourself in three words.

Riggs: Upbeat, dependable and — Mom.

WACOAN: Is balance in your life something you think much about — or just do? I mean, do you have to work hard to balance your life or does it just come naturally?

Riggs: I guess it is something I don’t give a lot of thought to. I just do it! I call it my “creative calendaring,” trying to figure out all the places we need to be or things we need to do and how to get everyone to those places. Then we try to add in the things we want to do.

WACOAN: How do you practice flexibility in trying to balance everything you do?

Riggs: My job is one that calls for lots of flexibility. I may have scheduled a full day but then kids get sick, or I might need to get to a mandatory meeting and it may change my entire day. I try to be as flexible as I can at work and at home.

WACOAN: Because you have a lot of balls in the air, right?

Riggs: Balancing two teen girls and all of their activities, my day job and my church job, as well as Randy’s job and then adding family time with the older girls and Randy’s parents here in town — it gets to be a pretty full plate. It often drives Randy crazy because he is a planner, and I am much more flexible and will change plans at the drop of a hat, trying to make everyone happy.

WACOAN: Tell me a little about your job as a teacher of the visually impaired. How long have you been working with the blind?

Riggs: I have been working in the field of the blind and visually impaired since I graduated college — so for 30 years. I worked in the south suburbs of Chicago for 10 years and have been here in Central Texas for 20 years. I taught in a classroom of blind and visually impaired kids in a middle school for one year, otherwise I have always served multiple school districts and do lots of traveling.

WACOAN: What does your job entail exactly?

Riggs: My job is to integrate my students into their classes — general education or special education — using any accommodations that might be needed. In the case of my totally blind students, this includes teaching them Braille, practicing it and making sure their assignments are Brailled.

WACOAN: So, you read Braille, obviously? That’s really cool.

Riggs: I sight-read Braille but not by touch. Learning to read Braille is a process that’s started by strengthening kids’ tactual skills and finger dexterity. So it’s started with identifying big differences in texture, like sandpaper versus satin, and the different way common things, like a spoon and fork, feel. Then you work to smaller differences and then introduce Braille slowly, associating those dots to letters in their name. So, when I learned Braille, like any new language, I learned it by sight instead of the entire process.

WACOAN: In what ways do you work with your students each day?

Riggs: Sometimes I work on iPad skills or typing skills or maybe Braille reading or writing or researching new technology for my students to be successful in class. A lot of times I visit with teachers about how to find new ways to teach my students using textures, high contrast or real objects. No two days are ever the same, and I like it that way.

WACOAN: You serve 12 school districts. That’s a lot! How many kids do you serve in a week?

Riggs: Fifteen to 20, depending on the week. I have a caseload of about 40 students. Some I see weekly or biweekly, some I check in with their teachers a couple of times each six weeks and some I check in a few times a year to be sure all is on track or to answer questions or assist the teacher.

WACOAN: What age are your students?

Riggs: My current students range from age 2 to 18 and a variety of cognitive levels from 6 months and up. Some are on grade level or above, and some are below grade level. They also range from fully integrated in general education classes to full-day special education classes and everything in between.

WACOAN: You’re not from Waco, right? Even though you seem like a Wacoan in some ways.

Riggs: No. I was born in Effingham, Illinois, and then my dad’s job took us to Lombard, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), when I was 9. Once I graduated college and was working my first job, I moved closer to the city but still a Chicago suburb, until 20 years ago when I moved here to Waco. I moved to Waco because that is where Randy has lived since he was 10, and since he had two young daughters, it was the right thing to do for us.

WACOAN: Where did you go to college and what is your degree?

Riggs: I went to Northern Illinois University, and I have a bachelor’s degree with a dual major in K-8 elementary education and birth-21 special education/visually impaired emphasis.

WACOAN: Did you always want to work with children?

Riggs: Yes. I knew I wanted to be a teacher but wasn’t sure exactly what kind until I worked as a student aide in a class of visually impaired kids during my senior year in high school. I loved all the cool technology — and that was 35 years ago — and the chance to teach kids in a different way.

WACOAN: What’s the most interesting or fun day-to-day part of your job?

Riggs: That no two days are alike. You never know what may happen. I have some of the greatest kids who are usually excited to see me, and I love to watch them learn.

WACOAN: What’s your work schedule like? How does it fit in with your life as a mom?

Riggs: My job is basically 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but it can be pretty flexible because I will often prep for the week [by doing] paperwork in the evenings and [on] weekends. I typically never take the time to stop for lunch, other than in my car, so I am able to do things for the kids or come to a performance during the day if I need to.

WACOAN: Sounds like there’s no typical day, but what’s your routine like? What time do you get up and when are you out the door? What do you spend most of your day doing? And how do you close out the day?

Riggs: A typical day? I am not sure there is such a thing! My alarm goes off between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., and honestly I never want to get up. Mornings are not my thing. It usually takes Randy and me both to tag-team the girls to get them moving. I pack lunches for both girls and get them out the door and then get ready to start my day.

I check emails first thing to be sure there aren’t any changes to my day, check on my schedule and confirm my visits for the next couple of days. I usually visit several schools in a day. I try to have a set schedule, but that doesn’t always work so I have multiple backup plans. Usually I need to be back to pick up the girls from school and run them wherever they need to go, and we fit in dinner and homework when we can and I try to get to bed by 11 p.m.

WACOAN: What do you eat for breakfast? Do you drink coffee or tea?

Riggs: I have a cup of chai latte every morning, I love my Keurig! Breakfast is usually yogurt or fruit or a granola bar.

WACOAN: In what ways do you feel your job contributes to the greater good of education and the world? And is that something that’s important to you?

Riggs: Well, I must admit I’d never thought of it like that. Any little thing I can do that will help any of my students to be successful contributes to their greater good, and that is very important to me. Sometimes I am the only constant in my students’ lives because they may move from one campus to another or get new teachers, but I stay with them. It’s been fun to watch several of my students grow up and develop into fantastic young people.

WACOAN: Is there someone who has inspired you, in your work or your life?

Riggs: I think my grandmother is my biggest inspiration. She went back to college after she raised her kids and her husband suddenly passed away at age 50-plus, and she studied to be a guidance counselor because as my dad was navigating the path of figuring out college and where to go and how to apply, there was no one to help them. She did well in college as a more mature student and worked for many years in a small high school. She was well-loved and kept in touch with many of her students through the years with letters and cards.

She strived to help me understand the importance of education and always asking questions. She lived into her 90s, and I’m sad she’s not around to share in my kids’ lives today.

WACOAN: Your husband, Randy, has a busy job as the tax assessor and collector for McLennan County. In what ways does he help you most with running your household?

Riggs: He is willing to do any and all that I ask of him. Typically, he takes the girls to school in the mornings — remember I am not a morning person. Depending on how my day goes, he is also willing to do pickup as needed, or he will go run errands, especially the ones of bringing the girls things they forgot if I am out of town for the day. I think we make a pretty good team. Sometimes we just have to figure out our plans and then figure out who will do what. We text a lot during the day.
WACOAN: When did you two meet and how? And when did you marry?

Riggs: We met in New York City when we were both serving in leadership roles with the U.S. Jaycees, or Junior Chamber of Commerce. He was the treasurer of the U.S. Junior Chamber, and I was president of the Illinois Jaycees. We had a long distance relationship for about a year, and we got married in 1997.

WACOAN: In the craziness of life with kids, how do you make time for each other? What do you like to do just the two of you?

Riggs: We have found that lunch is often the best time to connect, when there are no distractions and the kids are in school, so there’s no one who has to be somewhere at that time. We don’t do a lot just us, but we try to have lunch every couple of weeks and mesh our calendars and catch up. Last summer we went on a cruise without our kids and enjoyed it immensely.

WACOAN: What are some of your favorite lunch spots?

Riggs: When I am in town, we enjoy going to [Kitok Restaurant] or World Cup Café and trying out the new places in town, like [Moroso Wood Fired Pizzeria].
WACOAN: What are your kids’ names, and how old are they? Describe each of your kids’ personalities in a few words.

Riggs: Isabella is 13, is an eighth-grader at the ATLAS Academy at Tennyson Middle School. She is a little spitfire that wants to be involved in all that she can. She loves sports and academics and theater and helping others. She works hard at all she does and is generally a rule follower.

Alyssa is 16 and a junior at Waco High School. She sees a friend in everyone she meets and loves singing and theater. She is a pretty relaxed kid who loves to be with her friends.

WACOAN: And the older girls?

Riggs: Katie is 25 and lives and works in Cedar Park, Texas, and manages the Vent Blotique [a blow dry and hair salon] and is enjoying life as a 20-something. Leah is 27 and married to Austin. They live in Burleson, and they have two sweet boys: 2-year-old Truett and Abbott who is 9 months old. She is the neuro-oncology clinical research coordinator at Cook Children’s Medical Center, and Austin is a driver operator and EMT at the DFW Airport.

WACOAN: Your girls go to Tennyson Middle School and Waco High. Talk about your choice of schools for your kids.

Riggs: I am a big believer in public education, and our kids have gone to Waco ISD schools their entire life. They started at our neighborhood school, Viking Hills [Elementary School] and once Alyssa finished fourth grade, we decided to school shop. And we found our new school home at Lake Waco Montessori, which became Lake Air Montessori Magnet.

WACOAN: I hear great things about that school.

Riggs: We had an awesome experience with Montessori, even though our kids were a little bit older when they started. Alyssa opted to stay at LAMM until high school, and we again looked to see what might be the best fit for her and found that Waco High had the things she was looking for, like theater, show choir, band and the ATLAS track for academics that we were looking for.

WACOAN: How did you decide to switch Isabella to Tennyson?

Riggs: At the same time that Alyssa was heading to high school, Isabella’s teacher was retiring, and she wanted to look at the ATLAS Academy at Tennyson Middle School. Randy and I were quite happy with LAMM, but she felt strongly that she wanted to play sports and try out the mini-courses. So we took a leap of faith, and she has had an outstanding experience there too.

WACOAN: So the thought of a big urban high school didn’t scare you?

Riggs: We had heard a lot of negative about Waco schools, but honestly there is good and bad everywhere you go. A lot of it depends on the circle of friends that kids have. I must admit that both of our girls have fabulous friend groups, and they have done well.

WACOAN: What are some of the ways your family connects when you can all be together for quality time during the week?

Riggs: We try to eat dinner together a couple times a week, and we like to watch movies as a family, but it honestly doesn’t happen as often as we’d like because it seems we are all going in different directions.

WACOAN: Where could we find your family on a Saturday afternoon?

Riggs: Well, possibly on a soccer field in Arlington, since Isabella is playing select soccer or else at a Baylor sporting event such as soccer or basketball or catching up on chores at home before we head to First United Methodist for church on Saturday night.

WACOAN: You’re very involved in your church, both as a member and employee.

Riggs: Yes, very important. I work part time as the first through fourth grade elementary coordinator for our children’s ministry on Sunday mornings, as well as Saturday and Sunday evening services.

WACOAN: What all does that involve?

Riggs: That means preparing curriculum, securing supplies and coordinating volunteers for all the services. It’s part-time. Probably 10 hours a week. I’ve been doing that for about seven years. I started it when my kids were in that first through fourth grade age group. And then when Alyssa became part of the praise band on Saturday nights, it worked well that I would be there and get to hear her sing while still doing my job.

WACOAN: As if you have extra time, what are your personal passions, favorite organizations or sectors of the community that you serve?

Riggs: I’m past president of the Waco Civic Theatre, where both kids have been very involved. I’m a board member of the Waco ISD Education Foundation, which grants money to classroom teachers who are looking to enrich students’ lives in new and creative ways. I’m the president of the Waco High School [Parent Teacher Student Association], where I’m able to support Alyssa’s school and the things going on there. I’m a member of the Waco High Band Boosters and Tennyson PTA, as well. And I’m a sustaining member of the Junior League of Waco, and Isabella and I are in our first year of National Charity League. I was involved for many years with the Race for the Cure and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and the Jaycees hold a pretty special place in my heart.

WACOAN: Do you bring your lunch to work or eat out?

Riggs: I always plan to pack a lunch, but usually I just grab a cheese stick, chips and a bottle of water to eat in the car.

WACOAN: Do you like to cook? What are a few of your go-to weeknight meals?

Riggs: I don’t mind cooking, but I usually don’t have the luxury of the time to do it. We enjoy salmon, fish, burgers and, of course, steaks. I try to keep our freezer stocked so we can defrost and cook them at a moment’s notice.

WACOAN: When do you find is the best time to go to the grocery store?

Riggs: Usually I will go to the store in the evenings or between pickups of the girls. I must admit the idea of submitting my order online and picking it up sounds like heaven. I have done it once, and it was so very easy!

WACOAN: What do you do to care for yourself physically and emotionally? How do you like to exercise or relax and de-stress?

Riggs: Most of the time I am not as good at this as I know I should be. Time with my village helps. We usually will meet for appetizers and wine or margaritas. I try to do some walking, but I must admit it’s been a while. And my biggest de-stressor is to read or go for a drive in my convertible.

WACOAN: So tell me about your village. How important are your girlfriends in getting through life, work, motherhood, all of it?

Riggs: I have a group of ladies that are my village. They help me keep my sanity, and they are there when I need anything, from getting my girls somewhere to a shoulder to lean on or just to chat. They are there for me. I consider them a very important part of my life.

We all kind of gathered because we were all attending the same church. (Our Facebook group is called the Church Ladies). We learned we all share common interests and all have a strong faith. Sometimes we get together in our large group, and sometimes it’s just a few of us. We always have a great time when we are together.

WACOAN: Do you have any favorite, must-have products that you can’t live without, like a favorite lip balm, wristlet or phone case?

Riggs: I’m pretty low maintenance but I must have my plain ol’ Vaseline lip balm and my cross-body bag to keep my hands free and the stuff I need close at hand.

WACOAN: What kind of stuff would that be?

Riggs: My iPhone and my charger, which has everything in it, including thousands of pictures, and my paper calendar. It’s in my phone too, but not always up to date or as detailed.

A book or my Nook. I prefer a “real” book, but if I want to bring more than one, the Nook is easier to carry and has lots of reading options. I usually have water in my Bubba cup and a snack of Reese’s peanut butter cups or salted almonds. A silly indulgence of mine is People magazine.

WACOAN: Are you into social media? How much time do you spend there?

Riggs: I love Facebook because it helps me keep up with my friends from other places and to see pictures of their families. I usually check it in the mornings and before I go to bed, maybe an hour a day. I may check it when I’m waiting to pick up the girls from their various activities too.

WACOAN: In what areas do you feel you struggle or wish you had better skills?

Riggs: I wish I could keep my house clean and better organized. Oh and the parenting of teen girls. I’ve been assured we will live through this!

WACOAN: What do you see as the most important job in your life?

Riggs: Being a mom!

WACOAN: How do you hope your children see you as a mother, wife, working woman? What do you want them to know about being a person who can do everything she wants to do?

Riggs: I want my girls to see me as strong and independent, yet flexible, and that when I need help, I will ask for it — and that it’s OK to do that from friends or family.

I also want them to always try to help others when they can, whether it’s giving someone a ride, grabbing some chicken soup for a sick friend or attending events that show support. My friends know that if there is anything they need, just ask and even I can’t help personally, we may be able to work together to find a solution.

I want them to see I am strong in my faith and that prayer helps them get through the tough times as well as helping celebrate the good times. Also, I want them to know that if they really want to do something, we can make it happen but it may take a lot of work.

I want them to know I am here to listen to them and talk with them during good and bad and that their dad and I love them unconditionally. I just try to be the best role model I can be, knowing I’m not perfect, but that I try.

WACOAN: When you think about your life, how do you prioritize the things that are most important to you?

Riggs: This has changed over the years. Making sure my kids have a strong faith and stick up for themselves and what they believe in is important to me. Being sure the girls know that Randy and I support them in all they do and that we will be there for them.

WACOAN: Anything interesting or unusual on your bucket list?

Riggs: Someday I’d like to visit the town of Gouveia in Portugal. Gouveia is my maiden name, and long ago in elementary school we had to pick a city to research, so I looked it up in our huge atlas index and wrote to their Chamber of Commerce (way before the internet research of today), and I have wanted to go ever since. My dad visited there a few years ago and stayed at the Hotel de Gouveia, which I think would be so cool.

WACOAN: Do you have a motto or a favorite quote or words you live by?

Riggs: “Just keep swimming” from Dory in “Finding Nemo.”

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