On this Dad to Dad podcast, host David Hirsch talks to special father, Jim Rigg, the superintendent of catholic education at the Archdiocese of Chicago. Jim has four children including Daniel, who is autistic and diabetic. We’ll hear about the challenges of raising a son with multiple special needs and about Jim’s personal work in helping educate other kids with special needs. That’s all in this Dad to Dad Podcast, presented by the Special Fathers Network. To find out more about the schools of the Archdioscese of Chicago click on schools.archchicago.org.
Dad to Dad 73 – Dr. Jim Rigg’s Son Daniel is Autistic and Diabetic
Jim Rigg: And I have seen that most schools with a little bit of an open mind and a little bit of flexibility and compassion and a willingness to do things differently can accomplish a lot. You don’t always need a, you know, a full time aid or a new wing built onto your school to serve a kid with special needs. You can do a lot just with that. It opened mind and a little bit of flexibility and compassion.
Tom Couch: That’s Jim rig superintendent of Catholic education at the archdiocese of Chicago. Jim has four children, including Daniel who’s, autistic and diabetic. Jim’s our guest on this dad to dad podcast. Here’s our hosts, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the dad to dad, podcast, fathers, mentoring, fathers of children with special needs. Presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process.
New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads, to find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group.Please go to facebook.com groups and search dad to dad.
Tom Couch: Now let’s listen in on this conversation between special father Jim Rigg and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with my good friend. Dr. Jim Ray, uh, Vernon Hills, Illinois, who is the father of four and superintendent of Catholic education for the archdiocese of Chicago.
Jim, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Jim Rigg: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
David Hirsch: You and your wife, Lauren had been married for 17 years and are the proud parents of four children, Matthew 15, John 13, Abby 10 and Daniel 12, who has autism. So let’s start with some background.
Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Jim Rigg: So I, uh, I grew up in Colorado. I’m originally from Denver, born and raised there, stayed there until I went to college at a state. I feel that I had a pretty typical kind of middle class family background. Um, as we talked about earlier, My parents were divorced when I was three and then later remarried.
So I’m very close with my two brothers and have a whole set of steps. The wings on both sides is both. My stepfather and stepmother were married before they married my parents. But, um, had something of a, of a twisty trail professionally, uh, have moved around a fair amount in my life. Uh, really started my career in Memphis, Tennessee as a Catholic school teacher.
And then later assistant principal and principal also where I met my wife and then ultimately was back to Colorado where I worked as a principal in the diocese of Colorado Springs for a time. And then in 2010, moved to the archdiocese of Cincinnati to become the superintendent. I stayed there until two early, 2015 when I moved out here.
So I’ve had the fortune, I think of living in different places. I have the fortune of having a lot of different experiences as a child and my family. And I like to think I bring those experiences both into my professional life and into my life as a father.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thanks for the quick flyby, but I’m going to go back a little bit.
Jen. One of the other things we have in common is that we’re both products of a divorced parents at your age three and at my age six. And that impacts everybody a little bit differently. Yeah, and it’s not all good or all bad for that matter. Um, but you do get to see, um, different aspects of, um, family life when you’re not growing up in that, you know, nuclear family, mom and dad, you know, stick together, you know, through thick and thin and, um, having siblings step siblings and back and forth with mom and dad who aren’t living together anymore because there’s custody issues when you’re super young, you know, has an impact on you.
And, um, I’m wondering, uh, as it relates to your biological dad now, where are you able to maintain a relationship with them? What type of work did he do?
Jim Rigg: So dad is retired. He was in public affairs and government relations originally for standard oil Amoco. And then for British petroleum, when that merger took place.
And I, you know, I feel like I’ve always had a very good relationship with my father. There were some twists and turns in my childhood through the divorce and through the remarriage. But I think dad always did a good job, making sure that he was connected and involved to us. My brothers and I always was very clear in stating that he loved us and supported us.
And again, made an active effort to be a real presence in our lives. So I, you know, dad lives in Colorado with my stepmother. Um, and we see him a few times a year and talk on the phone regularly. Uh, but I feel like I’ve got a good relationship with my father and that he. Has a good relationship, not just with me, but with my family.
David Hirsch: Okay. Did you actually grow up with your dad then? Or did you grow up with your mom and your stepdad?
Jim Rigg: So, uh, they had split custody. So I was with my father about maybe 30 to 40% of the time. So there was a regular schedule. Fortunately, my, both my parents stayed in the Denver area. They moved around a fair amount.
So dad was always a regular presence in my life as a child. Uh, but primary custody was held by my mother who married my stepfather when I was in seventh grade. So what does that approximate 12 years old.
David Hirsch: Okay. So, um, how would you characterize your relationship with your stepdad then?
Jim Rigg: Well, my stepfather and I are very close again.
He entered my life while my mother married him. When I was in seventh grade, he actually entered my life more when I was in fourth or fifth grade. And, uh, I think he came into my life and the life of my brothers when we. All needed kind of a really positive, stable male role model. And he provided that my stepfather is a Catholic, uh, and really brought his faith into our family.
We attended church before, but he really brought that kind of Catholic field. And really in some ways showed us how a father figure could relate to children. So I love my father and dad has many gifts, but I think dad always struggled a bit too. Fully convey his emotions as a father was always a bit more on the loose side.
Again, it was always very upfront and saying that he loved us, but I think struggled with conveying his emotions at times. Uh, my stepfather, um, he goes by Guerke whose real name is John, but he goes by, uh, Guerke is a nickname. Derek is a very upfront person, emotionally, you know, kind of wears his heart on his sleeves, a very lighthearted, humorous person while he had two daughters from his first marriage.
Always kind of wanted sons as well. And so he really took to us and we really took to him and he really, in some ways became my father figure throughout my adolescence and provided that stable male role model presence that I think I, my brothers very much craved and needed at that time in our lives. So, and he sure was dedicated, is dedicated to my mother, uh, who, uh, I think needed that presence in her life as well.
David Hirsch: Well, what’s interesting is that, um, your parents, your biological parents were married for a relatively short
Jim Rigg: period of time. Yeah. And they could not be more opposite. Um, I don’t know opposites attract, but it didn’t last in the long term. My mother’s a very. Uh, outgoing kind of bubbly personality, dad, very smart, very intellectual, but a bit more aloof emotionally.
And it probably came as no surprise when that marriage did not last.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, you can look back on it now and see that your mom and your
Jim Rigg: stepdad had been married for yeah. Like a longer period of time.
David Hirsch: And, uh, same with my. My dad, um, was been married. He was married up until the time of this stuff for 48 years
Jim Rigg: to my
David Hirsch: stepmom, but only married to my mom for say six or seven years.
Jim Rigg: So I think my parents were married, gosh, maybe six or seven. And they were turbulent years from what I understand. Whereas I think both have been. Very happy in their current marriages.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, that’s a reassuring,
Jim Rigg: right.
David Hirsch: And, um, you know, sometimes people are fortunate to get it, get the right, um, match, you know, from a marriage standpoint, from the very beginning.
And, um, it’s not always that way, so it’s, uh, can be traumatizing and it can be challenging, but hopefully
Jim Rigg: there’s a silver lining and it’s
David Hirsch: not just a
Jim Rigg: thin silver lining,
David Hirsch: maybe.
Jim Rigg: Wide silver lining,
David Hirsch: like you’ve just described. Yeah. So when you think about your relationship, either with your dad or your stepdad and Kirk, um,
Jim Rigg: what are some more important takeaways that come to mind?
So I’m thinking about both, you know, I know there’s an old saying about being a parent that showing up is half the battle. I think their presence, both of them, their presence in our lives was very important. I’m very fortunate not to have an absentee father or an absency stepfather. And the fact that both were present, they were there the important events.
It was very, I think, helpful. I think Ngarrk in particular became a very strong mentor of mine and showing me kind of how to live as a, sorry to say it this way, that as a man, you know, kind of the family values of responsibility of, uh, treatment of women, a mix of being lighthearted and humorous, but also being able to.
Provide support and be supportive during a serious time in people’s lives. Uh, he’s certainly been a mentor for me as a father, wanting to be a similar father to my own children, as he was a father figure to me in the way that he was present in the way that he advised us, guided us, loved us as we were being raised.
And the way again that he treats my mother is a wonderful example for me and my wife. That gosh, all three of us, my brother, my two brothers and I, when we got married, we all said that we wanted to have as happy a marriage as my mother and stepfather. We said that to them. Uh, and they were very touched by, uh, by that comment.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s pretty powerful. Well, thanks for sharing. So let’s switch gears and talk about grandpas. I’m curious to know what role they played now, starting on your dad’s side.
Jim Rigg: Um, my father and my grandfather, uh, Jack, Rick sr, uh, passed away. Gosh, it was shortly after I got married. So I was married in 2002.
And in fact, our wedding was the last plane trip he took. He was in retirement in California. But he was a fascinating man. He was a world war II vet fought in the Marines, was at the battle of Okinawa and had some very interesting stories to tell about that experience and what it was like to be in one of the bloodiest battles of the second world war.
And he left the military proposed the day he came back from active service proposed to my grandmother, who he had already met and fallen in love with. I believe they met in college. They both went to the university of Nebraska at Lincoln, and she was working in the library there. And the day he got back, he found her in the library, got down on one knee and proposed to her and she fortunately accepted.
Um, and, um, she, uh, not unlike my wife kind of had a whirlwind experience of a lot of different moves. So he was, uh, something of an entrepreneur. Uh, he was a minor and he always wanted to strike it rich in the mountains of Colorado. And there were moments when he would literally walk around the state claiming land.
There was still a time, uh, in the early 20th century where you could claim land just by walking around and putting a stake in the ground. And so he claimed, um, areas where he thought we could strike it rich with gold or silver or uranium or other minerals. And some of that property is still in our family, actually it’s undeveloped, but we still have family there were passed down from that era and he would bring my grandmother out to these mines and, um, you know, hire random people.
And she would be there at one point. Um, my grandfather and his dad, two brothers. So he was one of three as well, a middle child like me. Uh, they were, uh, adventurers, uh, at one point they ran, uh, A grand Canyon tour company where they ran boats down the grand Canyon and, um, ran a tour flights back in the early fifties when flying was not as safe as it is today.
Um, grandpa was one of the first people to go down the grand Canyon and a motorized boat, uh, and just had amazing stories. I mean, all of that had passed by the time I knew him when I was a child, he became, he was the under secretary for the interior. I had been under Richard Nixon and then was hired into a similar post.
Under Ronald Reagan. So he lived in DC for most of my childhood and then retired when the Clinton administration came in and there was a regime change and ultimately moved out to California. But he had some, just an incredible story. So just one example, he couldn’t tell me too much the details, but there was a time back in the fifties when they were building a lot of nuclear silos in Northeastern, Colorado, and Southwestern, Nebraska, Wyoming, that area, he was one of the consultants that was brought in by the military to build these underground bunkers for nuclear missiles.
Uh, and he could not convey a lot of details about it, but he always said that he saw some wild things and was privy to some very interesting plans as part of the overall nuclear strategy of the United States. So he had 1,000,001 different stories. It was just a fascinating guy. Somebody at some point needs to write a book on his life because he was.
A fascinating character.
David Hirsch: Well, it sounds like that might be a good project for you or you in one or more of your brothers.
Jim Rigg: There could be, or maybe you, my children. No, I’ve never had the benefit of meeting him.
David Hirsch: I remember before my grandfather, who was my father figure, growing up this passed in 2001, I got the idea from another family member, but I put together this little book booklet about his life.
He was a pharmacist and the title of the story. Was an
Jim Rigg: RX for life or a prescription.
David Hirsch: Okay. And, um, I interviewed all the living family members at the time to get their perspective on my grandfather. And, uh, I shared it with them. It was probably within a year of when he passed away at age 93. And he was very moved by this to be able to read, you know, what other
Jim Rigg: people’s perspective
David Hirsch: on.
Jim Rigg: life we’re all about
David Hirsch: and the impact that he had on their lives. So I think that there’s something there that while your grandfather is not alive, it would be great to memorialize the experience that you’re now living family members
Jim Rigg: had
David Hirsch: as a result of, uh, the impact of his life on your
Jim Rigg: lives. I think it’s a great idea.
Maybe something that we can take on as a family or I can take on. I know every so often I run into just a random person. Who knew my grandpa Jack and remembers him fondly. I just happened. I was up at the, my family owns a habit. Yeah. In this kind of commune of cabins in the Colorado Rockies. And there’s a, there’s a communal dining hall where everybody eats meals together during the summertime.
And that was at that time, I’ll just last summer. And somebody pulled me aside and said, Oh, I remembered your grandfather. I had no idea that he knew him, but I guess they worked together and yeah, C during my grandfather’s time in the department of the interior, And he had some, some funny and characteristic stories about grandpa Jack who had a distinctive sense of humor.
I remember that. Well, he was, uh, a funny, um, but corny man in his sense of humor. Uh, so everybody knew him and everybody liked him. Oh,
David Hirsch: thanks for sharing what a great influence he had on so many people, your family members and beyond
So, um, from what I remember, um, from an educational perspective, You went to Holy cross
Jim Rigg: because cause blue cross.
David Hirsch: And then from there you went to Notre Dame. Correct. And what were you thinking, you know, as you’re coming out of Holy cross and going through their day and what did your
Jim Rigg: career aspirations look like?
So I knew from a very young age that I had a calling to education, so I, I always thought I would be a teacher. And as I went through studies and in high school, and then in college, I particularly fell in love with. History. Um, and so my career path throughout much of college college was to become a high school history teacher, but the focus primarily on American history.
And that really was my career trajectory and a friend of mine who was a year ahead of me in college, told me about this program at Notre Dame called the Alliance for Catholic education. You teach in a Catholic school somewhere in the United States. So it’s almost like a teach for America model with a master’s degree attached.
So I could have been sent anywhere in the United States was sent to Memphis, Tennessee and earned my master’s degree there while I was teaching at that, uh, inner city, Catholic junior and senior high school. And it was just such an incredible experience in my life. And really, again, deep in my desire to work in Catholic education for the rest of my life.
So at the end of my two years, I decided to stay in Memphis in part, because they offered me an administrative role while still teaching part time. Uh, but more profoundly because I met a girl who I was dating at the time. Who’s now my wife and one of our four children. So that was a pretty good reason to stay, I think, in Memphis.
So is Lauren
David Hirsch: from Memphis?
Jim Rigg: Yep. Born and raised. She grew up a mile or so away from, uh, Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home.
David Hirsch: So you have family back in
Jim Rigg: Memphis duty in laws here.
David Hirsch: So, uh, where did getting your doctorate degree a fallen? Uh, the career path?
Jim Rigg: I stayed in Memphis, worked as an under administrator for a time.
And then in 2003, received a phone call from the superintendent there, a woman who is still a good friend and mentor of mine, but she’s in retirement. Now. What’s her name? Mary McDonald, Dr. Mary McDonald. Just a good friend who had been to it. Mary informed me that the diocese of Memphis had received a multimillion dollar grant to reopen a set of previously closed inner city focused Catholic elementary schools.
And they’d opened up a couple of them already, but we’re looking to open a new one. And she was wondering if I would be interested in becoming the principal there. Initially. I said no, because like a lot of educators, I had noticed that principal’s office full time. I love being a teacher. I was an under administrator, but I was still teaching half the day.
And, um, I really didn’t want to give up my classroom work and the relationships that you build with students, but Mary MacDonald has a wonderful way of, of getting what she wants, always with a smile on her face. And, uh, lo and behold, I found myself becoming the principal of this newly reopened. A Catholic elementary school st.
Joseph school in Memphis, one of what came to be called the Jubilee school network, these reopened schools, really one of the earliest successful efforts to reenergize inner city Catholic education. So, um, became principal there. Yeah. And then after a time just felt, it was time to move back to Colorado where I’m from and still have a lot of family.
So I’m moved back there with my wife. And at that time we had our firstborn child, Matthew. And I became principal of a Catholic school in Colorado Springs and the diocese of coloreds. And during that time I started taking classes, uh, initially online and said, you know, I just want to continue growing and learning about my role and administration.
I kind of became a principal on the fly without really feeling I was ready for it. So I might as well go in and get some actual, uh, academic qualifications and just started taking classes in various ways and eventually realized that it was very close to a doctorate. I was essentially just a dissertation away.
And so I wrote my dissertation and got my doctorate in 2009. And, um, ended up as a superintendent about a year later. So what was your
David Hirsch: dissertation
Jim Rigg: about? So my dissertation was about Catholic education. Not surprisingly focus was on the role of the pastor, which wasn’t is still a role that fascinates me when I was in college, Colorado Springs.
The diocese was in the process of centralizing. The governance of the Catholic grade schools. So in the Catholic church, our schools have traditionally operated in a very decentralized way, and there are reasons in both our culture and in Catholic Canon law for that. Uh, but many dioceses, including Colorado Springs at the time have, have, uh, decided to run things more centrally.
And so I was interested in what happens to the role of the pastor when that centralization process happens, both from a governance perspective. But perhaps more profoundly from a institutional or cultural perspective. So how does that pastor, who’s no longer sort of that the head of that school, but still has the school in his parish.
How does he relate to the principal? How does he relate to the families? How does he relate to the kind of strategic direction of the school? So I did case study research on three of the Catholic schools, not my own in Colorado Springs. And it actually gave me a lot of good preparation for the work I went to to take on shortly after in Cincinnati.
So I ended up as the diocesan director of curriculum while still a principal as a very small diocese and the superintendent who had other duties as well. I felt like she needed some extra help. Um, she did not really have, um, the qualifications of a principal. So she called me in to do some things that, um, you know, needed a licensed principal to do.
Uh, and so I did that for a couple of years while still the principal. And then in 2010, uh, received a call from, uh, A group that was looking for a principal at Cincinnati, Ohio, and I had driven through Cincinnati. I’d really never spent a lot of time. There always thought of it as a nice city. And after some discernment and discussion with my wife, I decided to pursue the role and ended up getting hired.
So moved to Cincinnati in 2010.
David Hirsch: Wow. That was a big move for both of you, because previously you had lived in Memphis and then in Colorado where you had the family support. In place with this growing family of yours, and
Jim Rigg: now you’re
David Hirsch: sort of launching off in a totally different direction,
Jim Rigg: right? So I have, I have four children as you know, my first I was born in Memphis.
My other three were born during our time at Colorado Springs and my daughter, my youngest, my only girl. She was only, gosh, maybe a year old. I think we moved to Ohio. So my children are all very young. My oldest wasn’t I had just finished kindergarten. My youngest was still in diapers. So that was a big move for us to move across the country, to the Buckeye state,
David Hirsch: a leap of faith, if you will.
Jim Rigg: It was, but I always try to discern where the Holy spirit is calling me. And I’m, I’m very fortunate to have a wife who supports what I do and is, is willing to pick up and move. God bless her. That’s fabulous.
David Hirsch: So you were there for four or five years
Jim Rigg: before? A little over five years. So in, um, Um, and probably, Oh gosh, the summer or so of 2015,
David Hirsch: uh,
Jim Rigg: had some strong encouragement to pursue this role, which had become old.
And Chicago is, is a national hotspot for Catholic education. It is historically the largest or one of the largest private school systems in the country had always been seen as, as a great place for Catholic education and kind of a place of innovation. Um, and while I was happy in Cincinnati and thought that I would spend the rest of my life there, uh, when the call came in about Chicago, I couldn’t resist, uh, pursuing it after of course, some prayerful discernment in some conversations with my wife and, uh, ended up getting this job.
I started here in the late fall of 2000.
David Hirsch: Hello, we’re happy to have you here in Chicago and it’s a bigger job, like a much bigger job. Uh, one of the two largest, from what I understand, private education
Jim Rigg: systems in the country. This one here in
David Hirsch: Chicago and then the one in LA that seemed to go sort of neck and neck, you know, for however you measure
Jim Rigg: yourselves, as far as number of schools
David Hirsch: usually
Jim Rigg: remember kids.
So we serve about 71,000 kids and have about 205 schools in the archdiocese of Chicago, which is just. Cook and Lake Kelly’s.
I’m wondering if we can
David Hirsch: switch gears, um, talk about special needs,
Jim Rigg: uh, first on a personal level
David Hirsch: and then beyond. So before Daniel was born, I’m wondering if you were Lauren had anything connection to the special needs community?
Jim Rigg: Yes. So, um, my wife in particular had deep connections, so I had, of course worked with, um, students with special needs.
Um, as an educator. And, you know, when I was a child, the diagnosis of children with special needs was just in a very different place. It’s very possible that I, and maybe one or both of my brothers might’ve been diagnosed with something, but again, it was a different day and age. So, um, my wife, if, when she was starting out, actually work both in college and after, as a therapist for students, with autism, for children, with autism, Uh, she worked at ABA therapy, applied behavioral analysis, and it wasn’t a therapist that had aspirations.
I think it’s still does perhaps to become a BCBA, a certified behavioral analyst for children with autism. So she had extensive experience with students with special needs, uh, prior to us having a family together. So
David Hirsch: when was the diagnosis made? Daniel’s diagnosis. So we
Jim Rigg: had the fortune of having two children before Daniel.
So my older sons, Matthew and John Michael, and we knew fairly quickly after Daniel was born, that there was something different about him. Uh, he was less verbal. He was not hitting the developmental benchmarks, but there were times when Daniel would just go vegetative. There were other times where there would be strong outbursts.
And we succeed early on that there was some from early in its, even that there was something different about him, very sweet child, very cooperative most of the time, but there were, there were differences when compared to his older brothers. And so we were able to work with a pediatrician and get a diagnosis for Daniel when he was about a year and a half old, about 18 months.
This was all in Colorado. Uh, the poor boy has the misfortune of having two educators as parents. We knew what some of the warning signs were and were able to get a good diagnosis. Unfortunately, we had to fight for services. So the way the funding worked in Colorado for young children, there was not automatic funding all on something like the, you know, the autism scholarship in Ohio or something other supports.
And we felt passionately that they are going to need it early intervention and early care. So, uh, we did fight and then eventually, uh, received some funding. I mean, from the state, we were one of the first families we learned later to receive funding from the state of Colorado for a in-home ABA care. But we paid for much of his initial care out of pocket.
We want it and received at home ABA therapy for him. We had other supports that he received and we paid for a lot of that out of pocket. And my wife has stayed at home as a mother, since my oldest was born, I worked for the Catholic church. So we don’t have a lot of disposable income and it became an economic hardship.
So we spent through our savings and it’s a decision that it to this day, I still do not regret.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell I can underscore,
Jim Rigg: I think what you’re saying
David Hirsch: is that the importance of early intervention and maybe that comes from more Lauren’s experience being a therapist. With the ABA training and really understanding that from the get go and most parents are not going to have
Jim Rigg: that level of experience or understanding at that early in age.
You know, when I say early age
David Hirsch: at the time of diagnosis, so you sort of had, you know, a quick understanding learning curve wasn’t
Jim Rigg: steep or
David Hirsch: long, but you had a sense for what needed to be done and could. Be the advocates that I heard
Jim Rigg: you saying that you were for his benefit? Well, and I, I mean, I have to give credit to my wife.
I was hesitant. I have seen as an educator cases where I feel like some children are over-diagnosed and I do think there’s a tendency. This gets me in trouble sometimes in certain cases to label the child quickly. And then particularly over Medicaid. Now I’m a fan of medication if it’s applied in the right circumstances.
And of course, if a child has a special need, they need to be diagnosed and treated. But I, I, I think I did go through some initial denial with Daniel. I think my wife was the bigger driving force on that even when, uh, later, uh, he was diagnosed with a second special need. I was in a little bit of denial at first, but then accepted the science, accepted the medicine.
I like to think that I’ve done my part as a father to support him.
David Hirsch: Are you referring to the type one diabetes?
Jim Rigg: Correct.
David Hirsch: Okay. So the diagnosis for autism was about 18 months. When was he diagnosed with type one diabetes,
Jim Rigg: about five years old. Um, so we, at that time had moved to Cincinnati and I will never forget.
I was actually in Columbus and a multi day meeting. So I was spending the night there and one night my wife called me and said that, you know, We know that Daniel was feeling under the weather. Yeah. We were trying to help him feel better, but nothing was working and she had taken him to the doctor and then I’ve done a, uh, a diabetes test and determined that he had type one diabetes.
Uh, and it was a shock. I think that both of us, there’s no real history to our knowledge of type one diabetes and either one of our families. So that’s not the diabetes as I’m sure, you know, that relates to health or diets people. I don’t think doctors are fully sure of what causes type one diabetes.
It’s suspected that there are genetic reasons for it. And maybe it’s just the right mix of our genes. We already had Daniel on a very restricted diet. So we do subscribe to the philosophy that there are certain dietary allergies that can exacerbate Daniel’s autistic tendencies. Um, so early on, we had taken him for some allergy tests and determined that he did have sensitivities to dairy, to caisson, to rice, to egg, to soy, to carbohydrates.
And so we had put him and still have him on a very restricted diet. I can tell you when something slips, when he eats something that has their, your carbohydrates, you do notice a difference in his behavior. He either becomes very vegetative or acts out quite a lot. And so even to this day, we suspect that those sensitivities are there.
So Daniel eats a lot of just plain fruits and vegetables and meats. He, I, at moments, it has been frustrated that he can’t eat what his brothers and sister read, but is generally cooperative is a very sweet boy. And so when the time one diabetes diagnosis came along, it added further complexity to his diet.
So now not only were we restricting his diet and watching what he ate, but we had to count carbohydrates. We had to do insulin injections. You had a couple of cases where he had seizures because his blood sugar got too low. And so it’s really been an interesting journey to add that diabetes. On top of the autism diagnosis, it’s come a long ways with autism, with his treatment.
And I think the credit goes to the earlier events and the people that worked with him, the schools that he’s been at, like perhaps most profoundly my wife’s and her relentless work in advocacy. Daniel is a different kid. And in some ways his diabetes is more high maintenance now requires more work than his autism
David Hirsch: Was there some advice that you got early on? Not the knowledge that Lauren had as a therapist, herself, but advice that you can remember looking back. That seemed to be instrumental or the two of you getting on top of the situation. I
Jim Rigg: know that my mother and my stepfather pushed us to make sure that we understood what was happening with Daniel, particularly with the autism diagnosis and that he received the services that he needed.
And I think not just my parents, but my wife’s parents. So my mother in law, my wife’s mother is a nurse. At st. Jude’s children’s hospital in Memphis, which treats children with cancer. And so I think she particularly pushed for medical intervention. Now, none of them had to push hard. I think my wife in particular, get to the doctor and figure out what was going on, but they have been constant supporters of ours and making sure that we keep working with medical professionals that we keep working in the educational system.
I know my, my wife is a, is a force to be reckoned with in this regard, uh, the books she’s read, the people she’s talked to. I mean, she really was the warrior. When it came to fighting with the state of Colorado fighting with local public school districts to get the IEP that we needed, getting the services that our son, you didn’t desire.
It is not an easy journey. And there are people certainly in the public school systems who care about children and want them to have the services that they need. And there appear to be others that simply want to write a plan that gets the kid off their desk, so to speak, or, uh, enables the least amount of services so that the funding can be minimalized from the public school district.
And we did encounter that type of person, both in Colorado and Ohio, as we tried to get Daniel in touch with the services that he needed. And so there were people. Oh, gave us good advice along the way. Family members, educators, Mary McDonald, as I already mentioned, was helpful to me, uh, and giving us good advice.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. I was, I think that, uh, one of the most important things is to realize that, uh, you need help, right? You need to reach out and, uh, you know, you’re, you’re the best advocates for your child. Right. And, um, You know, you have to be intentional about seeking out those resources.
Jim Rigg: It’s hard for a father.
So back to the, you know, fatherhood, I think men have a tendency to want to be stoic, to want to be strong, to not want to accept, help from others. And I’ve certainly felt that way as I’ve gone along and say, listen, we can just, you know, sort of power through all this and, you know, help our son without any, uh, other types of supports.
But again, my wife, I think, has been very helpful in making sure that I understand that we all need help. We only do listen to advice. We all need a medicine and science and professional, even psychological supports. Well, I know you didn’t ask this, but I know when Daniel was diagnosed, it was, it’s a tough time for us in general.
So my daughter had just been born by August. So she was an infant and obviously required a lot of support as you know, with diaper changing and all the things that infants need. My wife was going through postpartum and we were trying to get her the psychological supports that she needed. And professionally, at that time, I was actually the principal of two different schools simultaneously.
And one of them was imploding with some significant leadership and governance challenges that were a bit above my pay grade. And so we were trying to manage multiple issues on multiple fronts, and it was a time where we did have to rely upon family and friends for supports to get through that time. So one piece of advice, I would certainly give a father going through a similar issue with us is you can’t do it alone.
You’ve got to find help wherever you can get it. Family, friends, there are networks of people like autism speaks. Schools find those supports because you cannot be on this journey on your own.
David Hirsch: Well, thanks for sharing. Very powerful. So I’m wondering what a impact Daniel’s situation has had on his siblings as well as the rest of your
Jim Rigg: family.
So, uh, Pope Francis, my boss’s boss, uh, I think has provided a powerful example of outreach to people in the margins in general, but particularly those who have special needs and disabilities. Uh, and he often says over verbally and in writing that we have a lot to learn from people who are differently abled.
And I think that is absolutely true Daniel in our lives. So he has taught us far more than we have taught him. He has certainly taught me patience. And while I have to be patient with all my children, he has called me to be even more patient patient at a deeper level. To understand what really drives him, which is different from other kids, different from his siblings, what are his triggers?
You gotta have a great relationship with him. And he’s one of my sweetest children. Uh, really a people pleaser very now, very outgoing, but you have to understand what kind of makes them tick. And my approach with him is going to be different from his siblings. I know that he’s opened my mind in the mind of my family, to the issue of autism and autism spectrum.
It is real, it does exist. And we have been helpful with other relatives of ours that have had children with special needs who have been born through the years. Um, we were the first in our families to have kids. And then I think Daniel and our journey with him has been instructive for everyone and has allowed us to mentor others.
You asked about Daniel siblings. I mean, Daniel drives them nuts at times, but they write each other nuts at times. I mean, that’s part of growing up in a family. Um, and I think my it’s not due with the autism. It’s just, it’s just being
David Hirsch: a kid
Jim Rigg: and a sibling. Right? Exactly. They, I think they love each other.
There children’s best friends, but, uh, you know, I think it’s some level of my own other children understand the triggers, the ways to work with Daniel, to help him to love him, to support him. I certainly think that they understand that as well and incorporate into their own relationship. I wish they’d Daniel is often not my worst behavior might be another child that gets that award.
Um, so, uh, while he certainly, he has his moments, uh, by and large, these are really good kid. He’s a rule follower and it’s just, as I said, it’s a sweet and loving boy at his school where he attends now in Buffalo Grove. They call him the mayor because he often has to go to the office to deal with his insulin needs.
And, uh, he’s very outgoing and loves to be a people pleaser. He loves to know all of the adults in the building, the staff members, even teachers that haven’t had him the year, uh, parent volunteers that are regular presences and he loves to. Kind of chat with them and, and be social. And so, um, there are those there that call him the mayor as he’s such a public kind of presence within the culture of the
David Hirsch: school.
Well, that’s another insight, right? It sounds more mature than
Jim Rigg: maybe his peer group on average, as a result of that.
David Hirsch: So I’m wondering what supporting organizations beyond like the local autism speaks organization you made reference to earlier that your family has benefited from Daniel’s benefited from, from that manner.
Jim Rigg: Yeah. So we certainly have a, I would call an informal network of parents, of kids with special needs within Catholic circles. So both in Cincinnati and in Chicago, there’s not a formal Catholic school focused network of children with special needs. So we are part of, kind of an informal network of parents that do talk to each other and rely.
On each other. Um, so that network has certainly been very, very helpful. You mentioned autism speaks, uh, there’s a local diabetes organization as well that we’ve worked with our parish parishes through the years have been wonderful support networks as well. Uh, but mostly it’s I think friends and
David Hirsch: family.
So let’s talk a little bit about, um, special needs beyond your own personal
Jim Rigg: situation.
David Hirsch: Cause I know this is something that. You passionate about, um, as a leader, as an educational leader. And I’m wondering when you think about special needs
Jim Rigg: and
David Hirsch: school, what comes to mind first? At least
Jim Rigg: from my perspective is that right?
David Hirsch: The public school system seemed to be the path of choice for families when they get a diagnosis. And I’m wondering why do you think that is? And. What do you think we can do about it?
Jim Rigg: Yeah, I do believe that public schools are often seen as the Avenue of choice because they tend to offer more robust resources for children with defined special needs.
So public schools are obligated to implement every accommodation on an individual educational plan, an IEP individualized educational plan. Whereas the Catholic schools are not public schools obviously have to serve any child that comes to them. A Catholic schools do not. I am an ardent believer in the mission of Catholic education, and I’m a believer that a key part of our mission is to, to attempt to serve any family that comes through to us.
And in spite of that, I far too often see schools turn away children with defined special needs. I think we’re making progress in this regard. I’m certainly seeing more children with defined needs being served in Catholic education now than I did say, you know, 20 plus years ago when I started as a teacher, but I think we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
I in my own interactions find that principals and teachers want to serve kids, but there’s a hesitancy because they don’t have the resources. They don’t have the funding often of local public school districts. So, uh, I have made in part because of the presence of Daniel in my life, a big part of my own purpose as superintendent to help push our Catholic educators, to be more open to serving kids with special.
I have encountered a here full of cases where a teacher or a principal will say, well, you know, I’m worried about this child’s presence, having an effect. I have done the overall academic quality of this classroom or this group of kids. I think that’s, uh, in erroneous position, I have seen this actually happen because I have a child who’s differently able to mess domestic special need can really be a net benefit to every child in the class because their presence encourages differentiation, encourages compassion, uh, helps to illustrate that we’re all different.
We all have special needs to one degree or another, even if there’s not a diagnosis or a name for us. So I often say the Catholic education is special education and special education is Catholic education. And a key part of our mission is to serve what do you who comes to us? And I’ve tried to make that a big part of my own role as superintendent we’re still growing.
And I, you know, I think my ultimate hope. Is to be able to tell a family no matter what the diagnosis is of their child, no matter what the degree of need might be, that there is a Catholic school reasonably located near them that can serve their child. May not be the one down the street may not be the one in their parish necessarily, but one that is reasonably in nearby.
And I have seen that most schools with a little bit of an open mind and a little bit of flexibility and compassion and a willingness to do things differently. Can accomplish a lot. You don’t always need a, you know, a full time aid or a new wing built onto your school to serve a kid with special needs.
You can do a lot just with an open mind and a little bit of flexibility and compassion. And I think that’s the, uh, how we’re serving the majority of kids with special needs in our schools today. Certainly resources can help, but I think part of it is just an attitude and a philosophy that
David Hirsch: that would be at the core level or the foundational level.
But from a practical standpoint, I don’t mean to press you, but. Isn’t it real though, the resources that the federal government and States provide for the support of IDPs, how do you bridge that gap? The resource
Jim Rigg: gap. Okay. So our students are entitled to a certain amount of funding from the federal government through Ida.
And we have tried to push very hard on both our schools and the local public school districts to get access to the funding that our children are entitled to. And I think by and large we’ve been successful, that only helps to a certain extent. So often children need more than what is able to be funded through Ida.
And there are networks of donors that are willing to help. I’m always amazed at what we can do with volunteer, support, even volunteer doctors and psychologists and social workers and therapists and special educators who are willing to give their time to help kids in Catholic schools. But I talked to, I just had somebody in my office a few days ago.
I often talk to parents who are interested in Catholic education, who have children with a defined special needs, and they always ask for help. And they always want us to support them and finding the right path to serve that child. Well, and I have found that more often than not were able to do that successfully.
Can’t do it in every case, in every school yet, but we’re. I think we’re on the path.
David Hirsch: Is there a pilot program or a series of schools that within your 205 schools seem to be the leaders in this area?
Jim Rigg: Absolutely. So we’ve, we’ve taken the approach of trying to support anchor schools again, with the ultimate hope of having a school that is reasonably nearby.
Any family I can serve a child with even a more profound, special need. So there is a set of schools. That really rise to the surface as being more open and more able to support children with moderate to severe special needs, both at the elementary and at the secondary level. And we’ve tried to encourage and support those folks.
So, yes. Um, there are certain schools that I can point to and say, there’s a very good chance that that school can serve your child. No matter if they have, you know, autism or severe speech needs or dyslexia or down syndrome. Cerebral palsy. We have those kids in our schools right now, and I think they’re being served well.
David Hirsch: And I think part of it is just education, training, and education at the school level. And then let’s be honest. Parents can be very outspoken.
Jim Rigg: Yes.
David Hirsch: Right. They’re paying for them the education. Right. I feel like they’ve got it. Some skin in the game and not all of them
Jim Rigg: are as
David Hirsch: accepting or open minded about children with special
Jim Rigg: needs.
Correct. So we certainly do encounter parents who are, who seem hesitant to accept that their child may have a learning or behavioral need. And so often a lot of our outreach is to the parents to educate them on what their child really needs. And again, we don’t want to jump in and label somebody too quickly, but working alongside doctors and psychologists and others, we can get a good diagnosis and get the right treatment plan for a child that will help that child and measurable as I’ve seen happen with.
David Hirsch: So I’m wondering from a funding standpoint, if there is a gap that needs to be bridged. Um, if organizations say like
Jim Rigg: big shoulders
David Hirsch: could or are perhaps already playing a role.
Jim Rigg: Absolutely. So starting with big shoulders, they have been a wonderful partner in the archdiocese just recently. They helped to build an elevator in an inner city Catholic school, where we had a, a young man, unfortunately struck by a bullet in a drive by shooting with an innocent bystander and the bullet passed through his spinal cord.
And he’s paralyzed now from the waist down. And his family really wanted to stay at their local Catholic school. So big shoulders, very generously partnered with us and with the school and building an elevator to help make the school ADA accessible so that the town could remain there. So they’ve been wonderful partners.
Uh, there’s a group of donors in town that are banding together and have started a foundation. It’s just now getting up and running. It’s called the fire foundation, which is a actually part of a larger network founded in Kansas city. Of folks who love Catholic education and want to help fund services and programs to make our schools more inclusive.
David Hirsch: What does fire stand for?
Jim Rigg: I don’t recall.
David Hirsch: I’m guessing it’s an acronym though.
Jim Rigg: I don’t remember, but, uh, this group is just getting started and they’re focusing on a handful of families and just a small number of schools, but focusing on, um, children with more profoundly needs. So I know a couple of the students they’re supporting right now.
Do you have down syndrome? Okay. And there are others out there with a significant yes.
David Hirsch: I’d like to learn more about that. And it’s probably not lost on you that we have the Chicago flyer right here as one of our, you
Jim Rigg: know, sports teams
David Hirsch: and the fellow that apparently is the driving force behind that Joe Mansueto.
Jim Rigg: And I realized I misspoke two children. Don’t have downs. I think they have muscular dystrophy. I apologize. Okay.
David Hirsch: So I’m thinking about advice now and you shared some thoughts previously, but under the banner of advice, I’m wondering what some of the more important takeaways that come to mind are when you’re raising a child with differences.
Jim Rigg: I think every child to a certain degree has a special need. Now I say that gently. It’s a way of saying that every child has a unique way of learning and developing and growing. And I think the. The key to being a good parent is understanding the specific needs and drivers and gifts of your child. It has been a great privilege to be the father of Daniel.
And he’s taught me a lot as I’ve said, and really has advanced it’s opened my own mind at the mind of my family. So what it takes to serve children with different needs. I also think Daniel has equipped us to be strong advocates. I’d like to think I’d be an advocate for my children anyway. But there is a, a difficult and convoluted system out there to get him well diagnosed and to make sure that the child gets the services that he or she needs.
And many, many families that I talked to have enormous difficulties navigating that convoluted system. And so it takes a lot of work, energy and education to be able to do that. So I, I certainly would advise somebody who has a child with special needs too. Form that network to get educated and to be a relentless advocate for their child as we feel we have with Daniel.
David Hirsch: So I’m wondering why is it that you agreed to be a mentor father as part of the special father’s network?
Jim Rigg: Well, if anything that I have done or I have learned can be a benefit to another father, I’m certainly happy to share my experiences. I won’t claim to be the father of the year claimed to that I haven’t made mistakes or have my own shortcomings, but, uh, I do have experience.
And I do know the educational side yeah. Of things as well. And I know some of the tips that parents can employ to navigate the diagnosis and treatment process, the IEP process, um, most centrally I’m motivated by a desire to help me get anywhere. I mean, kids need advocates, kids need parents and parents need mentors.
It’s tough to be a parent of a child with, especially, it’s tough to be a parent period. Yeah. And so I think parents have to have a network of support.
David Hirsch: Well, we’re happy to have you thank you for volunteering to be one of the mentor fathers. I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up,
Jim Rigg: it’s really a privilege to talk with you.
And as I have said before, while I feel like I’ve mostly pulled my own weight as a father, so much of the credit goes to my wife. I just don’t. Just the tireless work she has done as a mother for Daniel and for my other children. So I want to make sure I say that
David Hirsch: well, thank you for sharing. And I think that’s one of the most important points is that a moms are the first line advocates for all things, health, all things, education, and most families.
And we have to do our role as dads
Jim Rigg: to support, um, our
David Hirsch: wives and make that a priority. And. We’re fortunate that we have strong wives and, um, you know, if that relationship is challenged or
Jim Rigg: isn’t
David Hirsch: strong there some, uh, back-filling that needs to
Jim Rigg: take place really to be able to move
David Hirsch: forward on something.
Jim Rigg: Yeah, I couldn’t do without her, I know dads, we’re trying to raise children. Without a stable wife or, um, mother figure. And it’s, I mean, it’s a challenge, especially if that child has a special need, it’s a virtually impossible task.
David Hirsch: So if somebody wants to learn more about a Catholic school based programs or to contact you.
What would be the best way to do that?
Jim Rigg: So you can certainly go onto website arts, chicago.org, and click on the link for Catholic schools and find more about the Catholic schools in general. There is a particular tab I believe on there that relates to students with special needs. And I’m very fortunate to have somebody on my staff who is a specialist in inclusion in special education, a wonderful woman named Kate McConnell.
Who has a professional background in special education, as well as a child of her own, who has a special need. So many of us have been motivated by our own and experiences to work in this area. And so she’s a wonderful resource and it’s usually the first line of response above and beyond other local teachers and principals with helping families.
But as I said, I’ve certainly talked with families. I’ve met with families. Uh, I’ve made this a part of my own personal mission to make our schools more inclusive. Uh, it is part of who we are as calf. I think Catholic education deserve all income through us. And so we’re better able to fulfill our religious mission when we’re open to serving all.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous.
Jim Rigg: Yeah.
David Hirsch: Well, Jim, thank you for taking the time and many insights. As a reminder, Jim has just one of the dads. Who’s agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
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Jim. Thanks again.
Jim Rigg: Thank you.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the dad to dad podcast presented by the Special Fathers Network. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process. New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation.
It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers. Go to 21stcenturydads.org. It’s 21stcenturydads.org.
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