In May 2018, I was walking in the conference room section of the Peninsula Workforce Development Center (PWDC), at Thomas Nelson Community College.  I was waved down by Dr. Val Livingston, who was the program director for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment Training (SNAP ET) grant. The goal of the grant project was to provide short-term training to SNAP recipients, to equip participants with industry recognized credentials, and to help them obtain jobs paying a livable or family wage. The ultimate goal would result in them no longer needing food stamps (SNAP).

Dr. Val’s job was to oversee the development and implementation of the program, recruit participants, enroll participants in training programs, monitor training achievements, and coordinate any required supportive services. She did great work and an outstanding job recruiting participants into the program and shepherding them to the end state of completing a credential and graduation. Dr. Livingston’s SNAP ET was the most successful of all the community colleges a part of the grant. I did not immediately give her an answer on her query for a keynote speaker until a day or so later, as I pondered relevant things and experiences that flashed through my mind. I saw it as an opportunity to pay-it-forward and give back, to inform those aspiring for upward mobility and self-betterment, that life is race…a marathon and not a sprint in the long game. And, that the completion of the their credential was the first accomplishment of many laps in their race and struggle and the prize of success comes only to those who do not quit, but keep running. I hope my words motivated and will stay with them to keep moving forward, and equally, inspire others to do so.

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Speech – Life is a Race; Don’t Change Your Pace – SNAP Graduation 2018

I want to thank you all for the opportunity to speak to you today. I want to thank up front, Dr. Val Livingston for the work that she has done and for asking me to address this esteem group. Her directions were to leave you with an aspiring, uplifting, and inspiring message. As I thought about what I might talk about today, three things came to my mind. The first thing was a saying of my father, Ambrous Wray, who used to say to me… “The race in life is neither guaranteed to the swift or the strong. But, it is given to those who endure to the very end.”

At the time that he said those words, I was young; I had no relative experiences to comprehend or to understand their meaning. The second thing that came to my mind was that in 1983, I endured the academic and physical rigors of Naval Officer Candidate School, in Newport, Rhode Island; and, was commissioned an officer, an Ensign, in the United States Navy. On that day…I reflected; my father had since passed away at the young age of 52. And, I pondered and wondered how in the world I had ended up here based on where I had come from and what I had endured. As I look at you (the audience) and you look at me, neither of us can see what each other has been through. We don’t look like our past. At the commissioning, there was a Navy Vice Admiral that spoke, and he encouraged us to always do our best, and that one-day, we will become “the they.”

The third thing that came to my mind was when I was seventeen or so, I was a member of an all male chorus for which I sang backup. The group was called the All Male Chorus of Ramseur Baptist Church, in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Anyone heard of that place? (One hand is raised and light laughter).

During the week, we would practice and on Sundays, we would go around to various churches and sing spiritual hymns and religious songs. There was a group in attendance called the Ponder Brothers, and they would sing this song called “Don’t Change Your Pace.” So, when Val asked me to speak today that song came to my mind. The words are quite simple, but they have very significant meaning. The words went to this effect:

“Keep on running hard…don’t change your pace. Keep on running hard…don’t change your pace; you may not win the race. I am glad this ole race was not given to the swift. I am glad this ole race was not given to the strong. I am glad this ole race was not given to the swift or the strong, but to the one who can hang on. Refrain: Keep on running hard…don’t change your pace; you may not win the race.”

So that is my impassioned message to you today. Don’t change your pace. The words that my father spoke and the words of that song are quite similar in message and can be seen in the story of Aesop’s fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.”  The tortoise did not win the race because he was the swiftest or the strongest. He won because he did not give up, stop, rest, or equivocate. Instead, he kept on running and note; he kept on running hard, albeit at a slow pace.  In my opinion, keep on running hard is a metaphor for never give up on your dreams or stop trying. Give your best everyday and find a way to success or make one. There are eight points for success that I would like to leave with you.

1.) Always do your best in all that you do. The greatest of all time (GOAT) is a moniker attest that is attached only to those who have done their best. Doing your best will open up doors of opportunity for you. A quick example, in the spring of 1976, I had a conversation with my father, who asked me what I was going to be doing over the summer, while college was in recess? I said at the time, that I did not know…that I had not given it much thought. He said, you might as well stay at Wingate College and go to summer school and get ahead. I thought it good advice, but wondered how I would pay for it. So, I went to the Financial Aid Office to see a nice woman named Mrs. Vick. She told me that she had one work-study position left and to go over and see the supervisor of Lawns and Grounds. When I got to the location, there were two other men vying for the work-study position. My heart sank that I might not get the job. The position was a grounds grass cutter, of which, required operating a large riding lawn mower. Funny, a couple of years back, I had learned to operate a riding lawn mower. The supervisor of grounds said that he needed each of us to start the lawn mower; turn on the cutters; drive for about fifty feet; stop; put the mower in reverse and return back to where you started. Unbeknown to us, the supervisor of grounds had strategically placed paper in the grass in our cutting path. So the first two men followed the instruction and both mowed over and through the paper. When I got on the lawn mower, I was nervous, and all I could think about was telling my Dad that I would not be able to stay and take courses over the summer. So I got on the lawn mower and proceeded down the path of instruction, but when I got to the paper, I stopped and moved it out of the way and went on and proceeded, completing the instruction. The three of us were standing together and the supervisor of grounds, came up to us and pointed and looked at me and said, “this guy (me), has the job; you want to know why? He was the only one of you who stopped and picked up the paper. We have students on this campus who are litterbugs and they drop paper all this campus. Do you know how much extra work you create when you do not take the time to pick up the paper?”

He then turned to me and congratulated me. I humbly thanked him. To be honest, I did not move the paper because I knew of or suspected the supervisors preplanning. I stopped because I could hear my mother, Lillie Wray’s visceral voice saying, “Always do your best.” And, when cutting the grass at home, my father saying, “don’t mow over paper, because it causes extra work.” Doing your best creates opportunity.

The following spring of 1977, I finished course work at Wingate College, graduated, and joined the Navy. A few years later, I applied for

Officer’s Candidate School Enlisted Commissioning Program, which required the completion of two years of college, a requirement that I had completed and the rest became history. So, always do your best…it will provide opportunity that will open doors.

2.) If you are not fortunate to be born into money, power, and status, then success will not come without a price, without effort, and without a sacrifice. It will be a gage of your true character and commitment to the completion of your dreams.

3.) Life does not rest. It is in constant transition. What will happen on the very worst day of your life, the next day? I will tell you that the very next day, the sun will rise and the rivers will flow. The wind will blow and the grass will grow. And, the present and the future will have no remembrance of the past. So, learn from your mistakes and experiences and let your past be your moral compass for moving forward.

4.) Forgiveness is not for your offender…it is for you. I say again…forgiveness is not for your offender…it is for you, so that you can move forward and release the chains of bitterness, spitefulness, and vengefulness. Vices that color your judgment and decision-making, and can hold you back.

5.) Humility will keep you grounded to where you need to be; to see what you need to see; to become what you ought or dream to be. Think about it for a second. The tortoise had to have extreme humility (physically outmatched) to even get in the race with the hare. And, it was the hare’s arrogance and contempt for the tortoise that caused him to break his pace and lose the race.

6.) Make good decisions to end up in good places. Someone is always watching. One day, you might become those who are in charge. One day, you might become “the they.”

7.) Time will eventually make all relevant things irrelevant. So…to stay relevant, you must be prepared to be a lifelong learner. You would be extremely blessed and fortunate to land and hold an ideal dream job for the next thirty years. And, to do so in the workforce today is now the exception and not the norm or the rule. Most jobs in the future will require some kind of training or retraining, up-skilling, or certification to attain and/or retain employment.

8.) Trust God in all that you do. He has given you a mind to conceive. A heart and the will to believe and the commitment to achieve. He will correctly order your steps and light your path.

So…as I close, remember that the race of life is the long game and the only way to win it is that you must be and stay in it…you must keep running the race and do not give up or stop. Your trials and tribulations will become your testimony to give the honor and glory to God and to inspire someone in the future. You may not get that first job, but keep trying and keep running. Your accomplishments here today are merely the first steps in a long race, so keep trying and keep running. You may have a past that you are not proud of, but you can be a success story; you can overcome, so keep trying and keep running. You may have a deficit to overcome, but keep trying and keep running. You may have a barrier to overcome, but keep trying and keep running. You may have a disability to overcome, but keep trying; keep on running hard until you and only you determine what your success is. All the best and remember… “DON’T CHANGE YOUR PACE!”

The speech was given by Curtis Wray, at the request of Dr. Val Livingston, Project Director of the SNAP E&T Project, at Thomas Nelson  Community College, where 100 plus students were graduating after completing a credential to make them more marketable and increasing their chances to attain employment, on June 22, 2018.