School Counselor Provides ‘Ray’ of Sunshine for 30 Years

Growing up, Sylvia Ray had a wonderful life. She lived in the small town of Sinclairville, N.Y., where she swam, skied and rode her horse. Her father – a former World War II pilot and prisoner of war – ran an animal feed and hardware business, moonlighting as the town’s mayor for several terms. Her mother was a nurse who eventually gave up that career to support the family business.

After graduating from Cassadaga High School, Sylvia left home to discover some different experiences. She earned a degree at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, then took some time to travel in Europe, visiting Denmark, Sweden and France. While it may seem that she was at an ideal place in life to “find herself,” she returned home still uncertain of the career path she wanted to follow.

Suddenly, she realized her inspiration had been right there at home the whole time.

Sylvia’s mother suffered from mental illness. It affected her mother significantly at several points throughout Sylvia’s childhood. Her mother was even sent to Buffalo on multiple occasions for treatment when those episodes reached an extreme.

“I remember her waking up with a glazed look in her eyes,” Sylvia recalls. “She would often become so debilitated, and that was very tough to see.”

She and her brother, Larry, were adopted, so it was not something they had to worry about, personally. Yet, it would be forever stitched within them, given the bird’s eye view they had at home.

After seeing her mother’s struggles from the vantage point of an educated and mature individual, Sylvia was inspired to go to St. Bonaventure University and earn a master’s degree in School Counseling.

Upon graduating, she was quickly hired by WCA Hospital in Jamestown (now the University at Pittsburgh Medical Center, or UPMC). For three years she worked as a mental health counselor in their new adolescent psychiatric unit, and she enjoyed the experience tremendously.

“We had a great team there, and I always felt like we were making a difference,” she says.

However, after giving birth to her son, Jonathan, in 1992, she realized she needed a more family-friendly work schedule, so she began to see what other options were available nearby.

“I found an opening right here at Randoph Academy, and I’ve been here ever since,” beams the Randolph Campus school counselor who has served the district for three decades.

Sylvia has experienced so many things during her time here. She has helped hundreds of children with emotional disabilities, whether they lived just up the road or hailed from the farthest ends of the state.

“They really do well here,” she says of the district’s students, most of whom respond positively soon after they walk through Randolph Academy’s doors. “One student just started to come here recently – and he loves it, because he’s no longer picked on.”

She credits the Academy’s smaller classes and access to counseling for turnarounds like this, along with its genuine, caring culture.

Sylvia Ray enjoys a laugh with some students during the 1997-98 school year.

“Our team here is so special,” she emphasizes. “Our teachers and administrators are supportive and want to help students understand and overcome their challenges. The patience and kindness they show is really unique.”

Sylvia has also found that some students just latch on to her, often without a whole lot of conversation.

“Today was the third day in a row that this one student asked to have lunch with me. I guess I just make him feel comfortable,” she surmises.

Reflecting on her 30-year career, Sylvia feels there have been far more highs than lows, and she’s grateful for all the experiences she’s had. She became a single parent just two years into her tenure here, and her Randolph Academy family helped make that transition much more manageable.

She thinks back to Sept. 11, 2001, and the emotional trauma that ignited as they all watched the tragedy unfold live. It was especially hard for residential students, many of whom called New York City home. The academy brought in outside counselors to supplement Sylvia and her team, and the conversations in the days that followed were actually quite powerful and beneficial for everyone, she recalls.

Sylvia’s mother finally found a psychiatrist in Jamestown who could help her. It eventually gave her some happiness and peace toward the end of her life. So, Sylvia reminds us that – like her mother – most of these students are managing lifelong issues which will follow them long after they leave these halls. That means maintaining good habits with medications and teaching them about the many other services available outside of Randolph Academy.

“Communications with their families is key,” she advises. “We’re talking with families all the time.”

Sylvia actually retired in August 2020. Yet, she found she was missing the socialization and camaraderie on campus, something her beloved espionage books couldn’t quite replicate. So, when a position suddenly re-opened, she jumped at the chance to come back.

“Our students just take to her. It’s really something to see!” Superintendent Danielle Cook marvels. “And our staff loves her as well. She is a ray of hope and sunshine. She’s always so positive – even on our toughest days – and brings happiness to our school culture.”

The feeling is mutual, Sylvia insists.

“I must love it, because I’m still here enjoying every second of it!” she laughs.

Still, Sylvia knows this second time around won’t last too long.

“This (school year) is probably going to be it, because I’m getting old!” she chuckles.

She’s also looking forward to watching the theatrical performances and sporting contests of her grandchildren – plus, she has a new one on the way!

She knows she will miss things here again and reflects on her career with appreciation and satisfaction. She has always connected deeply with her colleagues and students, feeling quite fortunate to work with and know them all. “We have wonderful people here,” she says. “I have had the best life in the whole wide world!”

Ray (fifth from left) with her 2003-04 school year colleagues.