Fifteen years ago, the eighth-grade class at Bradley Central Middle School marched on to high school in their graduation ceremony. But one of those graduates, Augustina Rios, didn’t walk across the stage that day.

Rather than strut across the graduation stage, Rios was entering a rehabilitation facility after mental health troubles and run-ins with the law. Shortly after her two-month stay, she checked herself into local mental health facilities, where she learned she was carrying a child before she would carry a bookbag down a high school hallway.

“I was [in mental health services] at Riverside because I didn’t think I was good enough,” Rios said. “And then I found out I was going to have a baby and I definitely didn’t think I was good enough for that.”

By the next summer, Rios was the mother of Bella Rios-Richey, now 13. And by the time she was 18, Rios was a mother of three, to now-12 Izayah and now-10 Ria, with increasing mental health troubles disguised as a passion for brushing up with the law.

But last Thursday, Rios, 29, watched her oldest child walk across the very stage she never had the chance to herself. And it will come just days after Rios’ own first graduation ceremony at Kankakee Community College.

“This is huge for me because I didn’t get to walk at my eighth-grade graduation and had Bella that [next] summer. I’m just really proud,” Rios said. “They say not to live through your kids and let them be who they are, but I just see so much of myself in [Bella] and I kind of feel like I got to do eighth grade over with her.”

Growing up

As a juvenile, whether it was in school or the streets, Rios often found herself in visits with authority, both in the principal’s office and encounters with local law enforcement. Some saw her behavioral patterns as nothing more than a bad kid who would grow up to be a bad adult. But others, like high school teacher Katie Bretzlaff and middle school principal Todd Schweizer, saw potential in the girl that was in trouble as much as she was in the classroom.

“I just had some really great teachers and people in my life that pushed me and encouraged me to keep going, even if I didn’t do well or failed in that moment,” Rios said. “I remember Ms. Bretzlaff, ‘Oh, you’re skipping class again? Let me walk you to your next class.’

Away from school, Rios and the Bradley Police Department became well-acquainted before she was old enough to get a driver’s permit. But like her teachers, some of the officers Rios grew to know were out to help a clearly troubled child rather than punish her.

“Officers [Mike] Norton and [Joseph] Martino are definitely two people I could count on to steer me on the right path,” Rios said. “When everyone else said I was a lost cause, they were always coming to my mom and asking what they could do.”

Giving back

Those interactions helped lead Rios to her professional calling. Now a proud holder of an associate degree in law enforcement and a handful of professional certificates to go with it, Rios wants to have the same impact on the next generation that others have had on her.

“I look at where we are with law enforcement in our world and community and I look at my kids and the relationships I have with them and their friends ... as the mother of a daughter going into high school, they trust me,” Rios said. “I want to be that person in these kids’ lives that not only can you be their friend but someone of authority that respects them.”

Currently, Rios works as a parent liaison for Project Sun, a Kankakee nonprofit children’s mental health resource center. As someone who grew up with mental, emotional and behavioral disorders, and the mother of Izayah, who has attention deficit hyperactive disorder, Rios knows how much it can mean for a parent to have someone to lean on when dealing with their child’s mental health.

“I love my role and I think it’s one of the most important in the organization,” Rios said. “When you’ve been through it you’re able to help someone in that situation do better than you did.”

Dr. Scott Goselin, Bradley Elementary School District superintendent, has now had both Rios and her children at school, and also works with Rios as a member of the executive board for Project Sun. Over the past decade-plus, Goselin has seen as well as anybody the jumps that Rios has made.

“What a supportive young lady; she’s supportive of her kids, of our district and of our community, and anything she can do, she’s there for us,” Goselin said. “What I like about Tina is she relates the stories of her personal life to these parents who are going through difficult times.

“She went through a lot of turmoil growing up and is now using it to benefit our community.”

Aside from the educators and officers that helped guide her, Rios had a guiding light right at home, in the form of her late mother, Augustina, who died in 2014.

Just before her mother’s death, Rios finished shedding away her past life and began her journey that led her to where she is today.

“She definitely supported me in a way that not many other parents of someone with three kids before they were 18 would ...,” Rios said. “I know my mom would just be super proud. I don’t even know how to explain, before she passed she got to see me leave an abusive relationship and she got to see me be freed from that.”

Discovering passion

Professional career aside, Rios’ biggest passion is found in cheerleading. A cheerleader from her toddler years until her pregnancies, Rios began coaching cheerleading at the youth levels shortly after receiving her GED in 2010, and for the past seven years, she has also coached Gigi’s Gems, a cheerleading team for children with special needs. Since Rios began coaching, the Gems have performed at Chicago’s Soldier Field, on Chicago evening news and done performances at several area schools.

“I’ve always had a passion for people with special needs and for cheerleading,” Rios said. “People always put a stigma or label on people with special needs and when I watch these girls do splits, learn 8-counts to full songs, I see that these girls are awesome.”

Rios loves her Gems, but her favorite cheerleader lives under the same roof. Like her mother once was, Rios is now the proud owner of her own “Mother of a Bradley Knights Cheerleader” shirt. And while Rios had to end her own cheerleading career early to become a mother, Bella will now get the chance her mother never had, as she recently made the 2021-22 Bradley-Bourbonnais cheerleading team.

But it’s not just cheerleading Bella is excited about joining in high school. As adventurous as her mother, Bella can’t wait to explore all that secondary school life offers.

Finding joy

The changes that have come with Rios’ and Bella’s graduations arrived just a handful of months after the family moved back to Bradley from St. Anne, where they spent just over a year, when Rios separated from her ex-fiance. Although their living situation was anything but consistent at the beginning, they found stability earlier this year when Rios became a first-time homeowner after one of the toughest stretches of her motherhood as she balanced finishing college, raising three children and finding housing.

“When we moved, I remember Bella telling me it was the happiest she’s ever seen me,” Rios said. “We were living above a bar and I was going to sleep crying, but I know she knew I was trying my best and I wasn’t ‘happy’ but I was happy we could move forward, and we did.”

As the oldest child, Bella knows she can’t fully understand the sacrifices her mom has made for her and her siblings, but she does know how much it means.

“She’ll try whatever she can to make sure we can get what we want or do what we want; like for cheer, she does whatever she can to make sure I can do it,” Bella said.

And as Rios reminisces on the past 15 years, she still vividly remembers those thoughts she had doubting her own self-worth.

“Mental health never goes away,” she said, adding that she’s reminded how far she’s come when she sees her three beautiful, healthy children every morning.

“I guess just seeing my kids, interacting with them and seeing how loving and respectful they are, every day I’m reminded, ‘Hey, you’re a good person, you really made it,’” Rios said. “Every day you learn something new and my kids are what inspire me every day, even when I don’t think I’m good enough.”

Mason Schweizer is an award-winning reporter who has been with the Daily Journal since 2017 and sports editor since 2019. Save for time at the University of Illinois and Wayne State College, Mason is a lifelong area resident.