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The Sky’s Ruth Riley puts priority on kids eating right

Ruth Riley Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Lunch Bus stop Amor de Dios UMC South Lawndale August 7 2012

Ruth Riley at the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Lunch Bus stop at Amor de Dios UMC in South Lawndale on August 7, 2012

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Updated: October 25, 2012 6:06AM

I’m a seasoned WNBA player and Olympic gold medalist. But those attributes don’t define me as much as this: I am the daughter of a single mother from rural Indiana who struggled to put food on our family’s table.

I remember being in second grade and handing a ticket over at the school lunch counter; I was embarrassed because I knew it made me different from the other kids. Over the course of grade school, middle school and high school, I participated on-and-off in free and reduced lunch programs that ensured I had a healthy meal comprised of the five food groups.

My mother did her best to provide for me, my older sister and younger brother. She toggled between blue-collar jobs — she was raised in a family that didn’t believe in educating girls, so her skill set was limited. Add the fact that my dad didn’t pay child support, and we were always cash strapped. I remember for a while she had a beauty shop out of the house, and she would do everything from factory work to waitressing — she was always willing to do any work that was available.

She was also the type of mom who wouldn’t let us sit on the couch and watch TV. She encouraged us to be active, and I started playing organized sports between fourth and fifth grade. Now, as a professional athlete, I realize how important those meals were to my development.

I recently became involved with the national non-profit Share Our Strength, which helps make sure children in need are enrolled in federal nutrition programs in schools. Last week I spoke at a fund-raiser at Everest — the sort of restaurant I never could have imagined when our dinnertime staple was peanut butter and jelly. (I’m thankful we always had food to eat — even if we didn’t have much variety.)

The issue of childhood hunger goes beyond the immediate need for food because it directly affects a child’s ability to concentrate in school and their academic performance, not to mention any chance at athletic development. September is Hunger Awareness Month, and I hope you will take a moment to think about the many local kids who, like me, might have untapped abilities and need a little help growing into their full potential.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I fully appreciated what my mom had gone through to hold our family together. It’s why I’m doubly passionate about this issue — because I understand what a blessing it is to have the incredible gift of a nutritious meal just when you need it the most.

Ruth Riley donated her fee for writing this column to Share Our Strength,

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