By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
Jim Riggan flipped through the pictures on his phone, showing off the eight preschoolers he works with every week.
“When I was working with Regions, I began helping at West Jacksonville Elementary School,” Riggan said. “After I retired, I was asked if I could help more. First they needed someone at San Jose Elementary School. Then they needed someone at Total Learning Center. So I go to San Jose on Tuesday and Total Learning Center on Thursday.”
Riggan loves the way the children start out quiet and shy at the beginning of the year and, by the time the program ends, they are talking a blue streak.
“Kids who go through the ReadingPals program do better,” Riggan said. “Half the children at San Jose are bilingual. Getting them to speak is important. I help them interact with others; sometimes the’re tight-lipped at the beginning and, at the end, just try to slow them down.”
Riggan has been watching out for children since he was in his teens. Growing up on a farm on the Virginia/North Carolina border, going to school meant taking roads that wove in and out of the state lines seven times.
He knew those roads well. It was his job.
For two years, Riggan was part of a program at his high school that allowed high school students to drive school buses.
“From 10th grade, when I was 16,” Riggan said. “I drove until my senior year. I started at 7 a.m. and didn’t get home until 5. I had one to 35 kids on my route.”
Riggan said that it was common for buses to be driven by high school students. Virginia law didn’t allow buses to go over 35 mph and students had to follow strict guidelines, or be penalized the $45 they could bring home to their families monthly.
“We learned responsibility at an early age,” Riggan said. “There was a responsibility toward those that rode the bus with you. A responsibility toward others, their lives were in your hands.”
As Riggan moved away from the rural roads of Virginia and into a banking career, he still found ways to help through his church and his work.
“In banking, we help people more than you might think,” Riggan said. “We educate people, often on difficult things.”
Riggan’s family has found their own niche in helping others. Through their church, his wife has helped Slovakian immigrants settle into the Jacksonville community. One of his daughters teaches, and the other works with a battered women’s agency.
“It’s all about helping them interact.” Riggan said. “Kids will interact with kids first, but with older people it’s harder. You have to find ways to have them just talk, to learn to talk about what they want and ask how to do it. Your influence helps them learn to interact.”
As Riggan finishes up the year with his preschoolers, he’s been asked to help with a project involving senior citizens as well as his ReadingPals involvement.
“I’ll be going from pediatrics to geriatrics!” Riggan said, laughing.