Ian Gray is on a mission to share his life experience, to connect with others who’ve gone through what he’s gone through, and to help them the way others once helped him.
What he has gone through can accurately be summed up as trauma—the trauma of abuse, drugs and the lack of a stable, supporting family structure. But he’s not about blame. Far from it. Responsibility and accountability are his bywords.
Where did someone who grew up in group homes and hospitals across Westchester learn that?
"BOCES was a checkpoint for me in my life,” says Mr. Gray, now 29 and a peer specialist with the Mental Health Association of Westchester.
The difference BOCES made for him is the crux of the message he hopes to share with state legislators on BOCES Advocacy Day Feb. 26 in Albany.
Mr. Gray first encountered SWBOCES through one of its special education programs as a youth. Later on, when his life was off track and he found himself at the Westchester County Department of Correction around 2008, there was SWBOCES again.
The Incarcerated Youth Program SWBOCES operates at the county jail was like an escape, an exclusive club he now ways he was privileged to join. There he met counselor Kevin McAllister, who showed such genuine concern for him and who he credits with giving him the tools to put his life back on track.
“The empathy, the sympathy, the authentic caring,” said Mr. Gray. “No sugar coating, just genuinely caring about the next human being really helped me.”
He was hard-headed when he arrived there, he admits now. But the love he was shown enabled him “to recharge my battery” and set a path for his future.
“I didn’t get it right then and there, but I did get it,” he says. “That was my starting point.”
Jail saved his life, he says. It was no place anyone would want to be, but it shook him back to reality. He knew he'd end up back here if he kept living his life the same way. The creed he was taught as a member of the youth program still resonates with him.
So does a certain project assigned by Mr. McAllister: Write your own mission statement.
“The simplicity of him explaining that this is temporary. This is stationary, being in jail,” he recalled. “But when you get out, the big question is what are you going to do?”
Telling his story isn’t easy, but it’s the challenge he has taken on. He talks at high schools, hospitals, the police academy, even private businesses. Now 29, he hopes to develop an outreach platform specifically targeting victims of trauma and abuse and those with mental health issues.
He wants to help others shine their light the way he says the teachers and counselors at SWBOCES helped him. Their authenticity and credibility made an impact, and he wants to pay that forward.
It comes down to blame versus responsibility, Mr. Gray says.
“It doesn’t matter who did what to you or what you did,” he said.”It doesn’t matter, but it’s my responsibility to move forward.”