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South Allegheny student wins 1st place in Reflections, develops swim cap to help brother

| Monday, April 14, 2014, 3:01 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
South Allegheny sixth-grader Jonathan Riggs, holding his first place plaque for literature in the state Reflections program, stands next to his brother Jacob, displaying the swim cap that inspired Jonathan's entry.

South Allegheny sixth-grader Jonathan Riggs took first place in the state Reflections program for literature, but there is more behind his “Believe, Dream, Inspire” essay than words..

Jonathan, 12, of Lincoln reflected on his relationship with his siblings, 10-year-old fraternal twins Jacob and Jamie. The trio play, laugh – and sometimes fight to coexist – like any other brothers and sisters.

Topping their list of favorite pastimes is splashing in their backyard swimming pool or taking family trips to the shore.

Time in the water always has been enjoyable for the family, including parents Jay and Melissa Riggs. But they were missing a connection with Jacob, who lost his hearing as he battled high fevers of bacterial meningitis at 4 years old.

Aligning his family's story with the fall 2013 Reflections theme “Believe, Dream, Inspire,” Jonathan composed an essay he called, “Inspired by Tragedy.” He wrote about the swim cap he produced in the Invention Convention program for gifted students — a swim cap to help Jacob enjoy his time in the water.

Jacob underwent surgery after his initial recovery to receive cochlear implants, and he slowly acclimated back into a world of sound and speech. He wears the devices nearly all the time, even keeping them attached when he goes to sleep.

But one place the implant receivers can't go is deep water. They can take a sprinkle from the rain or a brief, accidental submersion, but they won't hold up in the pool or ocean. Jonathan found a way to protect the receivers by cutting holding pouches from one swim cap and attaching them to a whole cap.

“It's a swim cap with latex pockets on the inside,” Jonathan explained. “You put the implants into plastic sandwich bags, and you put the bags in the pockets. When he lines them up, he can hear.”

Every member of the Riggs family said Jonathan's project embodied the “Believe, Dream, Inspire” theme.

Jonathan believed his brother deserved a better opportunity to have fun. He dreamed of a solution, and he was inspired to find a means to accomplish it.

“Prior to that, Jacob couldn't wear the devices in the water,” Jay Riggs said. “We couldn't communicate with him verbally. I think it bothered Jonathan and Jamie as much as it bothered Jacob not being able to communicate.”

“We had to use sign language in the water,” Jacob confirmed, pointing out the difficulty of dedicating your hands to communication while trying to keep afloat.

While Jonathan said he would help other people with cochlear implants by teaching them to craft swim caps of their own, he never thought of the project as a business venture or outreach.

“My purpose was to help my brother,” Jonathan said. “I accomplished that, and I'm happy.”

The state Reflections program is organized by Parent Teacher Associations in school districts across the commonwealth.

Jonathan's project won in his age group at South Allegheny in the fall, and he received the state award on April 5. His essay now is in competition with students from 49 other states.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.