An Airdrie family that has already been through its share of trials and tribulations is finding ways to give back.
Since relocating to Alberta four years ago after living abroad for more than a decade, the Riley family in Bayside has come up with interesting ways to help others, whether it’s collecting winter clothes for the Calgary Mustard Seed, handing out money to families at grocery stores around Christmastime or shovelling neighbour’s sidewalks for food bank donations.
“It’s not just about money,” said Robbie Riley, who owns a chain of English-learning schools in China, where he previously lived for 13 years.
“Sometimes it’s more about giving your time. If all you have is a hand to give, then give it. More often, what we need is for people to give their time. There are a lot of people who need help [and] a lot of places that need volunteers. Money doesn’t help you if you don’t have the resources to get through it.”
This winter, Riley said he created a Christmas hamper program that sponsored a few local families.
“We gave them gifts, a bottle of wine for the mom, toiletries, bath bombs,” he said. “For me, it was more things I felt you wouldn’t buy for yourself at Christmas if you didn’t have a lot.”
Among the families supported by the Rileys this winter was the Meyers, whose newborn baby, Whitney, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma in August 2020. Riley said his family knew firsthand what it is like to have a new baby go through a medical scare, as their son Greyson spent his first two years in hospital from 2014 to 2015.
“At this time of year, when you have a sick kid and you’ve been living in the hospital that long, it’s not about if you lost your job or whatever,” Riley said. “There is a lot more going on and you put everything aside to focus on your kid.”
According to Riley, doctors noticed late in his wife Mandy’s pregnancy with Greyson that something was wrong with the baby's bladder. After Greyson was born, doctors determined he had an extremely rare congenital condition called megacystis-microcolon-intestinal hypoperistalsis syndrome
“We weren’t thinking it was a very big deal, but it turned out it was quite a big deal," Riley said. "They went in and did a little exploratory surgery and found his intestines didn’t work – nothing in his stomach’s lower region functioned at all.”
For the first nine months of Greyson’s life, Riley said he was confined to the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, while the rest of the family lived at the Ronald McDonald House. The severity of Greyson’s condition meant he had to be fed by a tube until he was more than a year old.
For most of the time Greyson was living at the hospital, Riley said he was in isolation because he didn’t have a proper immune system. After almost a year, Riley said Greyson finally received intestinal, pancreatic and liver transplants in Edmonton.
The anxiety surrounding Greyson’s birth was a case of déjà vu for the Rileys, as he was born shortly after the family had lost a son due to a serious medical diagnosis. In 2013, Riley said their son Cavan was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome – a birth defect that meant the left side of his heart did not develop properly in utero.
According to Riley, the family was unaware there was an issue with their son until just a few days before he was born.
“There was a check-up right before and the doctor heard a weird sound,” he said. “They started investigating what the sound was and that’s when everything took off. We were in China at the time, too, so that was the hardest part – not being able to deal with stuff how we would deal with stuff in a developed country with healthcare.”
While Cavan underwent emergency surgeries in the days after he was born, he, unfortunately, was unable to pull through.
After their newborn’s death, Riley said the family felt it was important to engage in humanitarian and charity work, and formed the Cavan Ocean Riley Foundation.
“We were always passionate about it, even before [coming to Airdrie],” he said. “With our schools, something I wanted to focus on was that we weren’t just teaching English, but also teaching children. Because most of the kids in our schools are wealthy, it gave us an opportunity to be able to connect with people, teach the children about giving, teach the parents about the need around the world.”
Having since returned to his home province of Alberta, Riley said he has brought back that philanthropic attitude. He said he’s a member of the 100 Airdrie Men Who Give a Damn organization and has found other ways to assist Airdronians as well.
“We’re hoping to find a place we can fit in and can help with children or people who need it in a city like Airdrie that’s growing," he said. "All I know is, there is always need and we have a lot of time.
“Sometimes, I know it’s not about the money,” he added. “Sometimes, to me, it’s about the feeling of the giving, but also, if you make an impact in that way, maybe it changes the whole course for them. Maybe it lifted them up in a way they needed at the time.”
One initiative Riley said he is planning, either later this year or in 2022, is to do a charity run from Vancouver, B.C. to Airdrie. He said the intention of the run is to raise awareness of live organ donations.
“My goal was to raise $500,000 and I wanted to run 35 kilometres a day for 30 days,” he said, adding he dreams of capping off the run with a party in in Nose Creek Regional Park.
Above all else, Riley said he wants to continue to find ways to serve the community.
“A lot of what I do is for the greater good,” he said. “I hope we live in Airdrie [for a long time] and we’ll be able to continue doing what we’re doing. I enjoy this and like being part of the community and being involved – it’s nice I can help people as much as I can.”