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Stephen Ray Inspires Students to Persevere Sharing His Life’s Story

February 23, 2018

During the month of September, schools across the country place an emphasis on students aiming for excellent attendance, knowing that students who regularly attend school achieve more. In September of 2016, Stephen Ray was asked to be the key note speaker at the Coffee County Raider Academy Attendance Pep Rally in Manchester, Tenn. Sitting in the gymnasium stands waiting to hear the guest speaker, students were probably thinking “What can this man say that is any different than what teachers tell us daily, come to school, be prepared and your life will be better.” All that is true but it takes on a higher meaning when the advice comes from one who has walked in their shoes and has overcome the challenges that many of them face each day.

Stephen’s speech caught their attention from the beginning and held it tightly until the end and mine as well. Although he looks like someone who has had a normal life, his story is far from normal. Through no fault of his own, his school years were filled with poverty, sorrow, and self-doubt.  And for many students sitting in the stands that day, his story resembles that of their own. So quietly they sat, eager to hear how as a teenager he was able “change his stars” and put his feet on a path that led to success instead of the doomed life he expected to have. Before them stood a successful, confident man and one who overcame his past. His story is a “how-to” lesson many were eager to learn that afternoon.

After hearing his speech, I knew it was a story that needed to be shared with the masses. What follows is an excerpt from Stephen’s Raider Academy speech and afterward, the Coffee County News (CCN) interview, where he expanded on his story, describing his challenges and how he was able to overcome them.

“Good afternoon, Raider Academy. I want to take this moment to thank the administration, faculty, and staff for allowing me to come here this afternoon and I want to thank all of you, today you showed up. Attendance to many of you is something that’s only collected in those books that is in one of your teacher’s classrooms. Most of you, up to this moment, only know attendance as a word that is only used in these halls and classrooms, but I am here to tell you, that you are wrong. Attendance is something that will be collected throughout life and when you want something bad enough, you will show up.

Stephen Ray pic

Stephen smiled as students laughed and applauded when he mentioned he was married to CCRA teacher Rose Ray. CCN Photo by Rebekah Hurst

So, who am I and what right do I have at all to talk to you about attendance? What do I know about showing up? Today, I want to tell you my story and I will start with where I am. My name is Stephen Ray and I was born and raised in this very city. I have worked at Motlow State Community College for the past nine years and I am currently the director of its facilities at the McMinnville Center. I am married to my beautiful wife of seven years, Rose, who teaches physical science here at the Raider Academy. Together, we have a beautiful home, four cats, one dog and no children yet, though if you were to ask her, she would tell you that she is raising one. My hobbies include hunting, fishing, and I love to ride bikes. By bikes I mean bicycles, so much so that in 2013 I was signed on to race for Volkswagen out of Chattanooga. I also love to give motivational speeches. See, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2009 and was told I wouldn’t walk within a year. I remind you, in 2013 I was signed as a professional athlete. I didn’t listen to what they told me. I’m going to tell you right now and I want you to hear me, ‘He who says he can and he who says he can not are both usually right.’

So what got me to this point? I was born in 1986 and in every sense of the way I was born into a loving, caring, and great family. My mother was a nurse at the Manchester hospital and my father ran a business with my grandfather. I had two brothers and one sister, and what I remember the most is how happy that home was. All that changed in 1991. My brother was hit by a car and died and the repercussions from that January in 91 sent shock waves through my family and ripped it apart. My mother became addicted to prescription medications, my father became addicted to alcohol, and they eventually divorced and I really never saw my father much after that. I am sad to tell you that they still struggle with those vices today. That happy home we lived in became a trailer with holes in the floor. Guys, I am telling you holes and I don’t mean something you could poke pencils through. I’m saying holes big enough that you could put a small refrigerator through. We often times had no electricity. On several occasions we had no water to wash clothes or take showers. New clothes and shoes never made it to my house, even food was hard to come by. See, we received those food stamps but my mother would use those to trade for even more drugs.image4

In 1999, I failed 6th grade on the account of missing 53 days on school. My sister failed the same grade that next year on the same account. See, we were in a hole and we wondered what did it matter? We felt that if we were this deep, it would never be worth climbing out of. We felt that there was no hope and throughout the rest of middle school, we seemed to skate by and we spent most of those days in ISD (In-School Detention) and after school detentions. I came into the 9th grade with that same mentality of a troubled, young man and I don’t know why, but a coach I had earlier in life made an appearance in my life when I seemed to need him the most and he gave me something that I didn’t have a lot of to that point. He believed in me and he made me realize that who I am to become is entirely up to me. Teachers, I want you to hear me as well as the students because that was a teacher that told me that. That was someone that for whatever reason saw something in a kid that had nothing, he saw something in a kid that had ragged clothes, shoes that didn’t fit, and he saw something in me that I did not see, he saw hope.

That day I started and I got my sister to follow my exact same footsteps. For some reason, I remember doing homework for the first time ever at home that evening on a bed in a house that had no power that day. I will tell you that years later, I received that diploma all because I showed up not only physically but mentally as well. From that moment I was given hope, I changed, though that diploma would have been enough I strove to make myself better. Throughout the years in high school, I not only received that diploma but I received six academic awards and several times I received the CHS Student of the Week. I went from missing 53 days of school in one year to having perfect attendance the last two years of high school. I also received a scholarship to Cleveland State Police Academy.

The number of educators that believed in me grew as my respect for them grew. Educators, I will tell you this, often times it will be hard to see past the rough parts of someone’s life but when you give hope, you give a chance. I am still great friends with those educators who believed in me so many years ago. That one educator that had me to believe in myself is Mr. Richard Skipper. I will never be able to repay his kindness to a kid that was promised nothing and I believe that if I would have continued down the same road, I would have failed in life as well.

Skip and Stephen pic

When Stephen invited his former high school teacher Richard Skipper to hear him speak as he addressed the CCRA students, Mr. Skipper had no idea that Stephen planned to honor him by telling the students that it was through his encouraging words and actions that Stephen was able to believe in himself too, and succeed. Pictured after the rally together are Richard Skipper, left and Stephen. CCN Photo by Rebekah Hurst

The other educator that believed in me wouldn’t become an educator for many years later but for some reason, saw something there too. I am happy to tell you that I married that person and she still believes in me to this day.

It all started with showing up first and foremost. By you showing that you want to be here you are showing that you want more in life. I leave you with this question. “Why start something tomorrow that you will regret not starting today?” I leave you with this quote. “If we always settle for others expectations, we will never understand how it feels to do the impossible.”

I thank you for letting me come and letting me tell my story. I throw out a challenge to you all. In 2020, I will be at the Coffee County Central High School Graduation and I challenge you to be there as well. I challenge you to be on that field and I challenge you to have showed up throughout your high school career. I challenge you to help one another with this goal. I challenge you to be better tomorrow than what you are today. I want you to commit every day to be better than what you were yesterday.

I want to thank you all for letting me be a part of your today and I’ll see you again in 2020.”

CCN Follow-Up Interview with Stephen:

CCN: In what way did Mr. Skipper encourage you and what did he say to you that let you know that he believed in you?

Stephen: Skip, that’s what I have always called him, just told me that it’s up to me of what I become. He had me to see that if I wanted to come out of the situation I was in, that I would have to climb out on my own and show that I wanted more. He had a very strong presence in my life when I needed him the most. He was like a big brother that showed me love and though it was tough love a lot of times, it was love regardless. It let me know that the world didn’t owe me anything and I was going to have to earn it.

CCN: What symptoms did you have that led you to the doctor?

Stephen: I first started noticing something was wrong in the fall of 2008 when I started to lose feelings in my extremities. My legs and arms were starting to go numb from the tips and working its way in. My vision also started to blur up pretty bad and felt like I was constantly trying to gain focus. My weight had dropped from about 180 to 118 in a matter of two months. I really felt as if my insides were on fire because the nerves to my insides were all out of whack.

CCN: How were you able to overcome the diagnosis?

Stephen: I had to first change my entire diet. I started to eliminate foods that people were most commonly allergic to and through that I was able to gain back some muscle. I really believe that the fact of starting to ride a bicycle helped utilize my nerves that were causing pain.

CCN: Were you a cyclist before 2009?

Stephen: I was not a cyclist nor did I even understand the sport. There was actually an old bicycle in the corner of a garage and my wife thought that might be a good exercise for me. She had thought it might give me a sense of freedom and have a little bit of an emotional and physical therapy aspect. I actually had to strap a cane on the side of the bike for the first couple months of riding before I no longer needed that cane.

CCN: How did you become a professional?

Stephen: Through any process there are steps you have to take. In cycling, you start often times as an individual in the sport with no team and often times with no support and you are categorized as a Category 5. Through the years, you are able to become more acclimated to the sport and depending on how fast you are, as well as your record in the sport, determines how fast you are able to move up the categories. I was fortunate to move up the rankings and categories fast through winning many races in the respected categories. I was asked in my second year of racing to come to the Volkswagen team out of Chattanooga. As I moved into my second year of racing and my first year with Volkswagen, I also unfortunately suffered a stroke three weeks before that first race. But since I fought back from worse things I knew I could still have an impact in that season. I finished that year among the top 15 percent in the country in that category and I made my way into the 3/2/1 Pro Category.Stephen Ray pic 3

CCN: Do you race now and how often?

Stephen: I actually had a hard fall in 2015 and suffered a very bad concussion and was told that it would be a good idea to not race the 2015 season. I have been in cycling events this current year but it’s been mostly fun type events, no racing. Training is at 110 percent right now with on and off road cycling and I do plan on racing in 2017 in the best shape of my life.

CCN: What advice do you have for others who have challenges to overcome?

Stephen: Challenges are going to be a part of life but it’s how we overcome the challenges that define us. Assess your own goals and determine the action that you need to take to achieve that goal. Once you have done that, then go after that goal. You are more than likely going to fail and fail and fail again but throughout all of those failures, never lose the reason that you started in the first place.

CCN: What role did faith play in getting you to where you are today?

Stephen: Faith as always been a strong base in my life, however in 2009 prior to my diagnosis, I went against God and wondered why me. Why must I go through all of these trials and why is it that I must suffer? I remember praying to God and in my prayer I thanked him for the sending of Jesus Christ who had really suffered and I stopped thinking of myself as being the center of the universe and realized that no matter how much pain I was in, it was nothing compared to the pain Jesus put on when he took my sins with Him to the cross. I always keep faith close and know now that it is the reason I am here. I am here for a much greater reason than I understand.

If you would like Stephen to come and talk to your youth group or organization, he may be contacted through Facebook or by email at SRay@mscc.edu.

CCN feature first written and posted Sept. 22, 2016 by Rebekah Hurst. Photos by Rebekah Hurst and also provided by Stephen Ray. Updated and reposted with permission.

 

 

 

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