When people ask youth worker Ray McDonald how he found the strength to survive his hard-knock childhood on the streets of Sacramento, Calif., he responds with a story about his grandfather.
He and his grandmother had lived rough lives, said McDonald, growing up dirt poor in the Southern U.S. "One day he took me fishing, and we were riding home, on the way to his work, and he said to me, 'I don't ever want to hear you say 'yes sir' or 'no sir' to anybody,'" said McDonald, who was about eight years old at the time.
It was the first time he had ever shown his young grandson where he worked, and when they arrived, McDonald realized his grandfather was a street shoe-shiner.
"Ten minutes later, I heard him say 'yes sir' to his boss," said McDonald. "At the time, I was very angry. As I grew up, I thought, 'Man, what a strong person, to be able to show me what he meant. And what he meant was, 'Do something with your life, so you're not in a position to have to do this.'" That 'something' has taken many forms, but for the last 18 years it has meant providing support and guidance to the teens at John Barsby Community School, where he is simply known as "Uncle Ray."
At his youth worker office in the school, the phone rings constantly and a steady stream of young faces poke through the door. One teen quietly leaves with some new shoes, another is rewarded with a chocolate bar after he makes it through the day.
"You just got to see the method of my madness," said McDonald with a chuckle. "Stuff like that opens doors, so when kids have a crisis you can actually approach them. It looks like he's getting a chocolate bar, and he's happy, but if I ever see him walk through the door one day and he's really sad, I think I just opened the door to talk to him and find out what's going on in his life."
And McDonald has seen his fair share of crises.
In 2011 he was commended for helping return a 13-year-old runaway to his parents, when he used the extensive network of teens who have come to know and trust him to locate the boy.
In 2004, during an exercise in which students wrote essays about the ways he has touched their lives, student Jenny Cote described the time her drink was drugged at a party.
She had collapsed on the side of the road, and in a panic, her friend called McDonald to ask him what to do.
"She woke him up, but he immediately came and picked us up, and took me to the hospital," Cote wrote. "I honestly think that if it weren't for Ray, I would have been dead in some ditch."
Going that extra mile to help troubled youth has become McDonald's hallmark, whether it be visiting a child's parent to help work through problems at home or picking up kids and bringing them back to school when he sees them out on the street.
"Their lives don't stop because the day ends at four o'clock," he says with a shrug.
What helps him understand their perspective was his own childhood as one of 11 siblings in a home with an abusive stepfather, and a mother he describes as "the strongest person I've ever known."
It was that background that sowed the seeds for a life spent, as he puts it, "trying to give others better than what I got."
A feisty child with "a big mouth," McDonald's grandfather regularly told him, "'Son, you better be glad you didn't live during slavery because you'd be dead.'" He did, however, live during the civil rights movement. A portrait of Martin Luther King still hangs above the desk in his office, a testament to the influence of those times.
While playing senior Babe Ruth baseball, McDonald arrived in B.C. for the first time, with no idea of what the country was like.
"We had a Canadian family live across the street from us in California, and we used to always joke and say they lived in igloos. We were so ignorant, they didn't tell us any different," said McDonald.
However the country left an impression on him, and in 1975, he came back for good.
Alone in a new country, McDonald once again exercised the theme that has echoed throughout his life: He moved forward. "Being in Canada, being all by myself, I had to look forward," he said. "It's weird - if you put yourself in a certain mindframe - what you can do with those bad experiences. I don't like to look at them as something I'm ashamed of, or that I run away from. I just look at it as all positive now, because those experiences allow me to do what I do here, every single day."
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