Honoring 45 Years of Service

John Wray has been a pillar for Special Olympics in Stanislaus County for nearly 50 Years

In 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver recognized a need to support individuals with intellectual disabilities with the founding of Special Olympics in Chicago, believing that, through sports, they could realize their full potential and develop the skills needed to succeed in life.

Five years later and halfway across the country, Modesto teacher John Wray identified a similar void in his own community and decided to take action. Thus, Special Olympics was born in Central California.

“In the beginning there was an issue because there weren’t a lot of programs, after-school programs or anything really available for our population,” said Wray. “There was a need in the community and I wanted to see that need met.”

Wray helped found the Stanislaus County Special Olympics program in 1973 and has been deeply involved with the movement ever since, celebrating 45 years of service next year. Along with being a long-time coach for track and field and softball, he also oversees the county program as the volunteer area director.

“As the area director I make sure that all of the programs are in compliance and that the coaches are managed appropriately for their sports,” explained Wray. “Then we have to make sure it’s all funded so we host fundraisers and solicit different organizations, businesses and corporations to keep it going. We have people that want to be here – they’re not here to get paid, they’re here to work with the program. You have to enjoy being with the population and you have to do things right.”

Wray was a special education teacher for 35 years and has witnessed the evolution of opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, both through Special Olympics and in society. He said that as the general population has grown, so too has the number of people with intellectual disabilities present in his area. Wray estimates that while there were roughly 200 eligible athletes in 1973, there are now nearly 4,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities in the region. 

“There has been a big change in the engagement of the community and the opportunities available for our population,” he said. “Special Olympics raised the profile of the population so much that we kept doing it and as we kept going, there were more and more programs that came out and provided services. A lot of people have come together and tried to emulate the Special Olympics program.”

Throughout his 45 years with Special Olympics, Wray has coached at numerous local, regional, national and even international competitions. He attended the World Games in Brockport, New York in 1979; the World Summer Games (formerly the International Special Olympics Summer Games) in Baton Rouge, La. in 1983; and annually leads Stanislaus County at the Special Olympics Northern California Summer Games in Davis.

“We work in a small community with a limited number of athletes,” said Wray. “One of the things that I like is that Special Olympics brings us out into other communities. To see athletes from all over the U.S. and all over the world was really something. The commonality between everybody and seeing so many athletes involved was most memorable.”

A cattle rancher and long-time competitive runner and triathlete, Wray has combined his background in education and sports with an unstoppable work ethic and passion for individuals with intellectual disabilities. He looks forward to working with the Special Olympics Northern California Schools Partnership Program this year to get involved with more area schools and continue to impact the lives of athletes – something he has done for nearly half a century.

“I still have some of the same athletes that I started out with 45 years ago, and my main group of volunteers has been with me for almost as long as I’ve been here,” he said.   

Special Olympics will soon celebrate its 50-year anniversary and has grown and prospered thanks in large part to dedicated people like Wray and the volunteer program area. Today, the organization supports more than 5 million athletes in 172 countries worldwide. Learn how you can get involved in a Special Olympics program near you !

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