A K-State alum’s journey to giving a hand up to forgotten members of society
Winners never quit; they learn to adapt. These are the words that Wes Ray, Kansas State University graduate in social work and current director at the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises for the state of Wisconsin, lives by each day. They are at the heart of what drives him to help others, and they were materialized during his time at K-State.
“From the time I was in fifth grade, my dream was to be an architect,” Ray said. “I followed my dream to K-State, and it was there that I met one of my biggest mentors and discovered my true purpose — a life devoted to social work.” Ray credits a K-State summer program and Professor Robert Burns for helping him discover his purpose.
“Robert Burns was my professor in our community planning class, and through him, I was able to sign up for a summer community service program. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life,” Ray said. “With Professor Burns, I and a handful of other students were able to travel to Kansas City, Kansas, and lead a summer youth program in the Chelsea neighborhood.”
As a member of this team, Ray gained a wealth of life-changing experiences and discoveries, which ignited his passion for social work. “Through working in that community, I was able to discover not only a new avenue I wanted to travel down in my life but a passion for something that I had never felt before,” Ray said. “I had such excitement for what I was doing. We were not only able as a team to instill our K-State values of giving back and caring for others into that neighborhood, but we were also able to mentor the high school students who were there with us so they could create a summer youth program after we had left. It was such a vital experience that would shape me into who I am today.”
After this experience and consulting with Professor Burns, Ray switched his major to social work — a field he is thriving in today. “If there’s one thing that Professor Burns and K-State taught me, it’s that winners never quit; they learn to adapt,” Ray said. “I had to remind myself of that as I stepped out of what I thought was my dream and into what would become my life’s work.”
Ray immediately excelled in social work through his grit, determination, and the mentorship of another of his professors, Jacque Gibbons. “I am extremely thankful to Jacque Gibbons for everything he’s done for me,” Ray said. “Much like Robert Burns, Jacque Gibbons took the time to invest in me. He saw a kid who had a thirst to learn, a thirst to grow, and a thirst to help others.”
Professors Burns and Gibbons have maintained a relationship with Ray throughout his life. This has led not only to lifelong friendships for Ray but many awesome opportunities throughout his life. “I am so blessed to have Bob Burns and Jacque Gibbons as mentors and friends,” Ray said. “Because of them, I have had the opportunity to do some awesome things such as getting a practicum at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center, among many other cool things.”
Currently, Ray is the director at the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises for the state of Wisconsin, where he gives inmates the opportunity to work and earn wages during the time they are serving. “I bring all the lessons Robert Burns, Jacque Gibbons, and K-State taught me into my current position,” Ray said. “The biggest thing that those men and K-State gave me was an opportunity, and that is what I want to give these inmates. Just like K-State and life has taught this farm kid from Kansas, I teach these inmates — winners never quit; they learn to adapt.”
Ray proudly donates to the social work program at Kansas State University. “I give all my donations to the school of social work,” Ray said. “I want to enable the school administration to have the freedom to fund those students and faculty most in need or most deserving of my donation.”
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By James Dalton Burton