A lot of my story starts with my mom.
My father left our family when I was young, leaving my mom to raise my older sister, my younger brother and me. Mom hadn’t been encouraged to get an education beyond high school, even though her brothers did. She was never trained for anything beyond blue-collar jobs. She worked in quality control in a factory, and also waitressed and worked in a grocery store, sometimes holding down two jobs at once — whatever she had to do to provide for us.
We didn’t have a lot of money. We went on and off free- and reduced-lunch programs and government assistance. As her daughters, my sister and I knew at a very young age that we were going to college.
My mom was strict. She taught us the value of hard work, to believe in ourselves and to dream BIG.
As a young girl, my dream was to participate in the Olympics. And ultimately, I did realize that dream as a member of the U.S. women’s basketball team that won the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But back when I was growing up, people thought I was crazy because I was terrible at sports. I was 6 feet tall by the time I was 12. (I’m 6 foot 41⁄2 inches now.) Unfortunately, I was very uncoordinated. But I worked hard at sports and eventually became skilled enough to get a scholarship to play basketball at Notre Dame.
Little did I know our team would make University history by winning the national championship in 2001. By my junior year, there would be anywhere from 50 to 150 fans after a game, waiting for autographs. I would stay and sign them all because I was so touched by the support and enthusiasm. It opened my eyes to the opportunity I had to use my passion for sports for something more than the sport itself. I contemplated how I wanted to use that platform.
Coming off a national championship year and being named Player of the Year my senior year, I was picked fifth overall in the WNBA draft in 2001 by the Miami Sol. I had spent most of my life growing up on a farm in Indiana. It had been an adjustment to go to South Bend; that was big city living for me. Going from South Bend to Miami really opened my eyes to diversity beyond what I had ever experienced, and helped me reach a greater understanding of the world and its needs.
In my third year in the WNBA, I was traded to Detroit. That was a breakout year for me. We won the WNBA championship and I was MVP of the finals. We also won a championship in 2006. I’ve always been intentional about putting the needs of my team first, beyond my individual goals. My mantra as an athlete was, “Be prepared for the moment, but be humble enough to see the big picture of the team needs.”
My humanitarian work started through the WNBA when I represented the league in Kenya at a global AIDS event in 2006. This gave me a raw education of what AIDS looks like on a global spectrum. Later, I became a spokesperson for NothingButNets, a United Nations Foundation malaria prevention initiative. Com- munity service had always been important to me, and these new opportunities allowed me to deepen and broaden the impact I could have.
In 2012, I cofounded a nongovernmental organization in South Africa called Inspire Transformation, which creates sustainable social improvement through sports, music, counseling and culturally relevant activities. I had gone to South Africa for the first time in 2007 and visited one of the highest HIV-infected areas in the world, right on border between Swaziland and South Africa. I saw how AIDS plays out in the lives of this very rural community. I continued to go back every year that I could. Eventually, three of us — a former soccer player, me and a friend who provides counseling at a women’s crisis center for domestic violence and rape in that area — brought together our expertise to make an impact on this community. It’s very small, very grass roots. What compelled me was the realization that if we didn’t go, nobody was going to be there.
Once your eyes are open, it’s hard to shut them without seeing images of people you have met. We went to an orphanage where a lot of the kids had lost both their parents to AIDS in a community where the unemployment is 70 percent, and where the odds of young girls getting raped are outrageous. Seeing these kids and understanding what they’re up against is hard. It changes you.
A lot of people become overwhelmed in the developing world, especially when it comes to AIDS, because there’s not a cure,
and the impact you’re making is not quantifiable. But we felt passionate about seeing what we can do in one community by building new relationships. Guys played basketball with me — at first for the love of the game. They loved that we taught them new skills. But having somebody believe in them was even more important. Some of the kids, who were teenagers when we first arrived, are now in their early twenties. They’re taking ownership of their community and trying to create positive change.
In 2012, I was asked to become a national spokesperson with No Kid Hungry, a campaign that is really close to my heart. It ties into the experiences I had in childhood when I was given assistance and didn’t even know who to be grateful to.
When I was with the Chicago Sky, which partners with a lot of food banks, I traveled with a summer program providing meals for kids who are on the free- or reduced-lunch program during the school year. It made me think about my mom and the struggles that I had no ability to comprehend as a kid. Now, as an adult, I can understand these parents. It’s great that the government makes a provision for these kids, but we have to make sure that our young people break through that stigma of not wanting to be identified as needing help.
I try to use my platform as a professional athlete to make these kids realize that so many athletes, including me, also needed help when we were young. We used that help to get to where we are today. I want them to know it’s OK to admit that you need a little help.
Interestingly, when I come back and talk about AIDS in Africa, people have empathy and want to help. But when I talk about hunger in the U.S., I get a different response. We don’t want to admit that our neighbor’s kids might be hungry, because then we need to look around and see other problems that exist in our schools and neighborhoods. We don’t want to see this. Yet, one in four kids goes hungry in the United States.
I retired from professional sports in 2014. My faith has given me balance and a sense of peace and purpose about what I do. It was easy for me to walk away and have no regrets.
Being back at Notre Dame in the Executive MBA Program has given me a tremendous opportunity to understand how to better serve my causes, and it’s helping me figure out life and which direction I want to go. I’m really grateful for this experience.
I’ve also had time to reflect on how grateful I am for the sacri- fices my mom made to provide a better future for her kids. In the developing world, I see so many women who remind me of her. The women are such strong figures in their communities. They’re the ones taking care of everyone else.
As I go into a clinic in Mali or Nigeria or Angola, I can see my mom’s same sacrifice and struggle and determination in the demeanor of the women there. It’s a powerful reminder of what she’s given me.
Editor’s note: In January, the Notre Dame Monogram Club announced Ruth Riley (EMBA Candidate '16, ND '01) as the recipient of the 2015 recipient of Moose Krause Award, the club’s highest honor. In bestowing the award, Monogram Club president Haley Scott DeMari (’95) cited Riley’s outstanding athletic career and her inspiring dedication to service. Riley is just the second woman to receive the Moose Krause Award.