Be a Fan of Joy
Colleen Ray first volunteered with Special Olympics while she was taking certification classes to teach special education students.
More than twenty years and countless inspiring stories with people with intellectual disabilities later, she has no intentions of finding a new profession and hobby.
"The athletes keep me coming back," said Ray, who has her master’s degree in special education for severely disabled students. "And they will keep me coming back past retirement. It’s fun. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t fun."
As an area director, coach and special education teacher, Ray has worked closely with people with intellectual disabilities.
Ray said the athletes’ innocence and playfulness makes it fun. One of her athletes affectionately calls her the "queen" and bows whenever he sees her. Another athlete is always smiling — no matter what happens.
"They are very loving and forgiving people," she said. "I have become buddies with them. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t seen you for months or years. They get excited when they do, and you are happy to see them."
Through that bond, she has been able to help her students and athletes grow and improve.
Ray said she sees them struggle and become frustrated with a task one day. But through training and coaching, they are able to accomplish what they set out to do.
"I feel like a mother to them," said Ray, who has been married for 41 years and has six children and 10 grandchildren. "I treat them like my own kids. I try to teach them morals, principles, and responsibility. My goal is for all my students and athletes to be able to enter society and be treated like everyone else."
One of the athletes Ray coached was very negative and argumentative when he joined Special Olympics. He was always rude if he did not win a goal medal or first place ribbon.
Ray said she and other Special Olympics coaches had conversations with him throughout the years regarding his behavior. Now, he listens, shows respect and helps at practices and tournaments.
"It takes time," she said. "But it’s a good time. It is very rewarding to experience this type of growth in our athletes’ lives. It’s hard physically and emotionally joyful."
Ray does not do all the teaching, though. The athletes have taught her to be more forgiving and patient.
"In my younger years, I would gossip about many things," Ray said. "Now, it doesn’t interest me anymore. (The athletes) are so happy with what they have and who they are. They are happy you are doing this for them. It makes you feel good."
Ray believes Special Olympics provides the athletes with more than competitive sporting events. She said it provides them with a network outside their families to strive.
"The students are always doing something, they build bonds, make friends, and open up," she said. "Special Olympics keeps them busy. It gives them a social life. It gives them interests and skills.
"It doesn’t matter where they place or if they win a medal or a ribbon," Ray said. "They just want to participate. The athletes always say, 'When’s the next one.'"