It was 2012 when Nicole Riggs decided to seriously reevaluate her life. The year before, her mother passed away. So did her mother-in-law, a friend’s young daughter and the family dog. As 2012 got under way, Riggs’ fifth-grade son fell victim to school bullies, her stepson’s mother succumbed to ovarian cancer and Riggs’ marriage ended in divorce.
A renovation consultant at the time, Riggs began questioning her career choice, realizing that she no longer cared so much what color toilet someone wanted in their bathroom. “I saw no value in what I was doing. It wasn’t helping people who needed help,” says the New York City-based Riggs, who is also a NationSwell Council member. “It wasn’t offering a shining light to me, my sons or anyone else in the world dealing with loss or trauma.”
Riggs had always made time to volunteer with various nonprofits, including producing events for Team Rubicon, an organization that encourages veterans to serve on emergency teams that respond to natural disasters. But she found herself drawn to the idea of making documentary films ― specifically, she says, “issue-based films that do more than entertain.”
In 2015, Riggs founded Make It Happen, a transmedia production company committed to creating films that educate, engage and build solutions to social challenges. Inspired by her volunteer work with Team Rubicon, Riggs chose to center her first project ― a social campaign featuring 10 short films ― on the mental health of veterans. After hiring a videographer, she traveled the country, conducting interviews with each service member herself.
Instead of spotlighting the many difficulties facing soldiers as they transition back to civilian life, “we focused on their futures,” explains Riggs. “I wanted people to see positive role models they could emulate.”
The campaign, called Empower Our Vets, launched on Veteran’s Day in 2015. The first film profiled a retired Army sergeant who had struggled with survivor’s guilt after a grueling tour of duty in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death.” The turning point, he admitted, was finally talking to a therapist.
Soon after the three-and-a-half minute film was posted on Facebook, another veteran left a comment: “I’m getting ahold of the VA finally in the morning,” he wrote. “Seeing this made it sink in … I can only thank you.”
“That’s my proudest achievement as well as my greatest hope,” Riggs says. “If I saved one young man, maybe he’ll help somebody else.”
Make It Happen’s most recent film, “My Intention Was Not to Leave,” tells the stories of three adolescent refugees ― one teenage boy from Iraq and two more from West Africa ― and their harrowing journey as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Europe. Riggs and her film crew spent five days in Athens last summer, listening to the boys talk about their experiences with child slavery, brutal violence and ethnic cleansing. Despite the solemn subject matter, the film strikes an optimistic tone.
“It’s true I don’t have all the money and resources to succeed,” one of the boys acknowledges in the film. “But I have all the people I need to succeed.”
Riggs has a similar mission for Make It Happen.
“These films are vehicles to start conversations,” she says. “We want to engage regular audiences, policymakers and fund-raisers.”
Currently, Riggs is working with the nonprofit Concordia, which promotes public-private partnerships that drive social change, to screen the film in several cities across the globe, beginning with New York in late January. She’s also in talks with other organizations about not only sharing her films, but helping viewers understand how to take action.
“How can we teach adolescent refugees skills? How can they get an education? How can we engage communities to help?” asks Riggs. “I’m a big-picture person.”
Each of her films, she says, “offers hope that even in the face of something awful, there is the potential to overcome. It’s just a matter of hearing something positive.”