"I want to help other struggling kids learn from their challenges.”

Roy Ray
American Leadership Forum
Slayden, MS


Celebrated veteran now devoted to helping kids avoid youth-justice system

These days, Roy works to reduce juvenile involvement with the youth-justice system and build bridges across ethnicity and cultural lines, one community at a time, in Tennessee and Mississippi. Prior to this, he spent nearly three decades in the United States Army and then retired into private-sector consulting.

“For some reason,” says Roy, “I just love trying to help organizations improve. I have seen it happen in both military and civilian organizations, so I know it can be done.”

He was responsible for two infantry companies in America, a headquarters company in Korea, and did stateside stints as Executive Officer and Commander of airborne battalions in the 82d Airborne Division. His overseas service included a tour in Vietnam for which he was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Oak Leaf Bronze Cluster, the Letter V Device and a Purple Heart. He served two tours in Germany during the Berlin crisis.

The “ideals of service” that underpinned Roy’s military achievements were seeded in early childhood, growing up in a family that had “more love and work than money.”

“We were poor — very poor,” Roy says. “My mother and father, my two brothers and two sisters, we all slept together in a three-room house in the middle of the cotton field. I’d get home from school, there’d be a snack waiting, then we’d fix fences, gather wood, feed the hogs and milk the cows, gather the eggs – everything you could imagine on a farm. That’s the way we survived.”

“I learned grit at five years old.” he recollects. “When you chop cotton all day long, day after day, in sometimes 100-degree weather, you can’t help developing character and grit.”

“I thought I was ready to retire out of everything, and start chasing my great granddaughter around the basketball circuit.” But instead, he decided to spend some of his time supporting the young people in his community who were struggling.

Roy now serves as the volunteer director for the Rotary Club’s Family Youth Initiative, helping Rotary District 6800 and the broader community to create and implement a plan to cut juvenile offenses in half by 2022. He’s been instrumental in creating a new Rotary club in the high-need community of Frayser, where the chief juvenile prosecutor has opened community prosecution and probation offices and diversion programs to help keep young people on track and out of jail.

“My biggest hurdle mentoring young people has been setting up and keeping appointments by phone, due to their phone being turned off by their mom, not having paid a phone bill, or them not wanting to commit until the last minute for fear of missing out on something else. But once we’re together in-person, it’s great.”

Roy has also been involved in Leadership Memphis’ American Leadership Forum Class, which focuses on ways to reduce juvenile delinquency, and he has developed strong relationships with many of its other participants.

One relationship in particular has borne fruit: Roy was matched with Frayser-Raleigh Pastor Charlie Caswell as roommates at a five-day retreat in rural Alabama. “Pastor Caswell is a brilliant leader,” Roy says, “Amazing, in what he can do.” Case in point: Caswell created Family Connect, with the help of local churches and all other community leaders including parents, principals, pastors, policeman, proprietors, politicians and partners, to provide a local venue where young people charged with crimes can be counseled, supported  – and avoid legal entanglement and a resulting criminal record.

“When a youth gets in trouble for something minor, rather than take them to court, now they can go to Family Connect. They get in there, meet with the child and the family, and develop a treatment plan,” Roy says. “The youth go through an eight-week soft and hard skills-training program, and the parents go through a parallel training program, too.”

The gains made in training are consolidated by mentors assigned to individual youth for the next 18 months, to help kids find their way onto the right track. Roy says, “That’s what they want anyway, they just need a little help and hope to overcome the challenges they face.”

Working together, Ray and Caswell have helped to decrease the number of young people referred to the juvenile court system in Frayser-Raleigh by more than 29 percent in one year, effectively preventing entry of many youngsters, and young men in particular, into the juvenile justice system.

“It’s hard, this crime thing,” Roy says. “Everyone’s concerned and would like to do something, but they don’t, most times, know what to do. What we are finding is that when you show people what the problem is, and explain the dynamics – why it is the way it is, with specifics – once they see a way they can help, people plug in.”

“As a very poor kid, I probably had a low self-image, early in my life, because of my perception that other people had cars and money and better clothes and all that. There was some reason I had to prove myself, I guess. In basketball, I had to make the most points; in college and grad school, I’ve always pushed to be close to the top. I realized, in my 20s, that I’m not going to let that false thinking – that others are better because they are materially secure – beat me for the rest of my life. I’m going to use it, to let it be a little whip to tap me along. I want to help other struggling kids learn from their challenges.”


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