Andrea C. Riley
The Tennessee Justice Center is honored to recognize Ms. Andrea Riley as a 2022 Mother of the Year for her love and dedication to her son, Joshua Riley.
Ms. Riley has lived in Nashville all her life – she grew up here and has seen nearly every part of the Nashville landscape transform from her childhood playground into today’s “It City”. When she and her husband, Chris, decided to start a family, they felt they were being led to adopt. They adopted two children at the same time, their daughter Hannah and their son Joshua. When Hannah was just 5 years old, she told her mom that she wanted a little sister and began praying. One day she walked up and said mom was going to have a little sister and not a month later Ms. Riley found out she was expecting! This is one of the many ways God showed the Rileys that He always has a plan.
In raising her three children, Ms. Riley realized that they were very different people with different needs. “For a mom, you’ll sacrifice almost anything for your children to meet their needs. True fairness is doing everything you can to give each child exactly what that child needs to grow and thrive.” As he was growing up, Joshua was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and depression. When he was 19 years old, he was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Joshua also has a physical disability with his spine. Ms. Riley understood that Joshua was the child that would need her greatest energy, focus, and financial support. Her role as a passionate advocate for Joshua would require ongoing sacrifice and change her everyday life. Though Joshua is not as independent as her other children, he is continuing to develop great skills that will bring him closer to the independent life he longs to achieve. Joshua has even developed strong advocacy skills, just like his mother.
After Ms. Riley was able to enroll Joshua in TennCare’s ECF CHOICES program – which is a program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities – Joshua then participated in Project Search. ECF CHOICES and Project Search enabled him to find employment and earn his own income in his first job. Both Joshua and Ms. Riley also are graduates of the Partners in Policymaking program with the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. Joshua is now advocating, through The Arc of Tennessee, for ECF CHOICES enrollees to have more affordable housing options through his participation in a recent video and dinner engagement with Tennessee legislators. Currently there are three housing options and Joshua has experienced all three. His recommendation is that enrollees choosing the option of consumer direction should be able to use a portion of the funds set aside for services to find affordable housing. At this time enrollees are not allowed to use any budget funds to contribute to their housing costs. This limits ECF CHOICES members from living more independently in safe settings.
Ms. Riley is proud of the person her son is becoming, “Joshua is an inspiring person and is so smart, articulate, and engaging. He desires strong relationships and is great in one-on-one settings. He also loves to read and spend time with his dog.” Joshua is also Ms. Riley’s most grateful child. He is always ready to thank her for everything that she does for him.
Ms. Riley has always been a systems thinker and can identify problems quickly and thinks through ways to improve them, which are skills that she uses for various jobs she has had over the years. Prior to having children, she worked as an Admissions Counselor for The University of Tennessee at Martin, her Alma Mater. During her children’s younger years, she worked as a stay-at-home mom. Now she is reaching her fifteenth year working full time at Fellowship Bible Church in Brentwood. She began as the Weekday Childcare Director during her children’s early school years then moved into Operations within the Children’s Ministry. Today, Ms. Riley works as the church’s software systems coordinator managing the database of over 5000 members.
Ms. Riley finds herself utilizing many of her career skills each time she goes to bat for Joshua to get the supports and healthcare services he needs to thrive. Most of her advocacy for Joshua has been fighting the TennCare system. From TennCare eligibility denials to denials of various services, she is constantly on guard for her son. The TennCare issues are so confusing that even all parties involved from healthcare offices to insurance companies to TennCare cannot give clear answers as to why approved services consistently are rejected for payment. Being an advocate within the system now for years, Ms. Riley has seen it all.
Ms. Riley has come to realize that most issues with TennCare seem to point to TennCare’s own internal systems and processes. Ms. Riley is a very smart and talented advocate, but she sometimes feels that “the system” has chewed her up and spit her out. In moments where she has hit a wall in trying to solve a particular problem for Joshua and no one seems to be able to make any headway, she is grateful to have a resource like the Tennessee Justice Center to turn to.
Since finding TJC in 2020, Ms. Riley has worked together with TJC advocates to not only resolve issues that Joshua is facing, but also to identify issues that impact many people in TennCare programs. “My heart is for those that continue to have problems with the systemic issues that occur, and TJC is the only organization I know that can make any headway in changing the TennCare system. That’s huge.” Ms. Riley is a mama bear so she’ll never give up the fight, but when she gets to a point where she feels that she has done everything she can, she is glad TJC is there. For her, while trying everything you can and being diligent is a part of advocacy, knowing when to ask for help is key.
Now that Ms. Riley’s youngest child is getting ready to graduate and head to college, she hopes she will have time to enjoy her passions and hobbies – like camping, hiking, kayaking, and reading. Ms. Riley also loves to arrange cut flowers as a creative outlet and intentionally tries to make asymmetric arrangements so she can exercise her brain to do things out of her very systems-oriented comfort zone.
Ms. Riley also hopes to dedicate more time to advocate for other families and may even volunteer her time at the TJC! “I want to put my particular talents and gifts that I believe are God-given for the benefit of not only my son, but I hope for others. It brings me great joy and I get great fulfillment in knowing that I am not just helping Josh, but I am helping someone else that doesn’t have a voice. I may never know who they are, but I want to use what I have been given for our community and for others.”
Photographs by John St. Clair