Sabina Riggi, 2018 winner of the HILLTOP Award for Individual Achievement

There’s no such thing as a quick trip to the supermarket for Sabina Riggi.

“I can go in Walmart and get my stuff, I just can never get out of the store,” Riggi said. “My daughter is like ‘Do you have to talk to everyone?’”

Riggi’s answer is always an emphatic “Yes.”

Talking to people is a cornerstone of Riggi’s life’s work.

She has spent more than two decades helping people find ways to lift themselves out of poverty by connecting them with educational programs, employment and housing.

“What I do is not so much volunteering for any certain organization,” Riggi said. “I help people in the community become self-sufficient and lead them to the resources. And I’ll take anybody. If you want to take my hand, we’ll go.”

Riggi grew up in North/Northeast Portland and spent her teen years in foster care. That experience has informed her volunteer work. Riggi said she had very little support growing up and often struggled to navigate programs and systems that she thought were intended to help her. So she worked hard to become her own advocate.

Now, she delights in researching and learning about policies and programs that fight poverty and helping others navigate the systems that once stymied her.

Riggi has been a social service, employment and education specialist and a community liaison. She has recruited women and minority tradespeople for major building projects, worked with the chronically homeless and helped parents on TANF continue their education.

“Sabina is a natural community leader, bridging the gaps between resource providers and those needing assistance,” reads Riggi’s nomination for a HILLTOP Award. “She is a woman who speaks with passion from experience, a woman who has successfully helped her community without any expectation of praise or award.”

Sometimes that means she ruffles feathers.

In one example, Riggi knew from her research that a program was available to help people with some college background complete a certificate program or associate’s degree. But she kept hearing that some service providers were unaware of the program or unable to offer enrollment assistance. So she showed the would-be students how to advocate for themselves, arming them with copies of policy to support their cases.

“They would go to their providers and they would get turned down,” Riggi said. “So I would pull policy. Tell them to take that and their transcript to their providers and demand that they support you. And if I needed to get involved, I would.”

Riggi said her goal is always to teach people to advocate for themselves.

Now a foster parent herself for the last 15 years, Riggi said she also prides herself on creating a home life that allows kids to “know what it looks like to be kids.”

“Kids would come to me and they would be fighting things that they’re not equipped to fight or understand,” Riggi said. “I tell them ‘This is what 14 years old looks like. You be the kid and I’ll take care of everything else.’ I’m constantly reminding them that they’re safe and they don’t have to fight the world. That’s what I’m here for.”

Riggi says she thrives on seeing her own three children, the women she has fostered and others she has worked with become self-sufficient.

“Coming from not having things as a kid to being able to see my foster girls succeed is thrilling,” Riggi said. “I want to continue to be able to show somebody that they don’t have to live within their circumstances. They can break that cycle. I broke mine.”