RICHMOND, Va. — Ray Neblett relishes the tranquility of Byrd Park.
“It is just a beautiful place in Richmond, man,” said Ray. “It’s totally relaxing. Totally relaxing. I am able to get my mind straight. Be able to erase some things. Delete some stuff.”
Fountain Lake one of his favorite spots.
“If you know my story then you know I’m blessed man,” said Ray.
But the Richmond native finds total bliss three miles and a world away. Holding court in Gilpin Court.
The 57-year-old Parks and Rec employee doesn’t just organize pickup games. Ray shepherds his growing flock.
The referee — and sometimes player — knows his way around the baseline blindfolded.
“Basketball will always be important to me. Basketball allowed me to get an education,” said Ray.
During the 1980s, Ray carved a reputation as a standout guard at Virginia Union University.
“We were the only team in the history of Virginia Union that ever won thirty consecutive games,” said Ray.
He dishes on-court advice at every turn. But Ray’s guidance doesn’t always involve perfecting the jump shot.
“We want to put some components inside them that are already there, and maybe ignite those components. We don’t want them to go through life as a hollow tree.”
At his week-long, free camp children are coached, mentored and fed. Nourished on the inside and out.
“We are slowly, but surely, we are making an impact in the lives of the youth of the city of Richmond, man.”
Ray saw a need for a safe space for children exposed to the harsh realities of the streets. From the age of nine, Ray grew up in Gilpin with his nine brothers and sisters.
“This is my home man. This is my home,” said Ray.
His motivation all these years later is to fill a large void in these children’s lives.
“What we give them is hope. What we give them is a guarantee that somebody in our community cares,” explained Ray.
Ray also provides a road map of what not to do.
“I tell kids all of the time one bad decision got me 14 and a half bad years in prison,” said Ray.
In 1991, Ray was arrested for armed robbery and sent to prison.
“Out of 14 and a half years, not one minute was good. None of it was good.”
But Ray made the most of his time on the inside tutoring and mentoring fellow inmates.
“You know I’m a lucky guy. I’m a blessed person because people didn’t just give up. They didn’t give up. They didn’t give up,” said Ray.
Ray’s mission of helping others gained momentum upon his release in 2005.
“We’re trying to change the inner city by transforming the inner man that live inside these kids,” said Ray.
The Ray Neblett Inner City Foundation encourages children and teens to achieve success through hard work while avoiding a life of crime.
“A lot of times it is fools gold. They got a saying that we’re going to get rich or die trying. All of our kids are dying trying.”
When Richmond Police Officer Farrhard El-Amin met Ray seven years ago, he knew his friend’s dedication was second to none.
“The camp is one week long. But Ray is in the community constantly,” said Officer El-Amin. “Look I’m blessed just to know the man. He’s been one of my mentors. Like I said he is a hero to the city, not just to me.”
Ray sees himself in the faces of every child he guides.
“That is what is going to stop the violence. You got to change from the inside,” said Ray.
Beverly Tarrant assisted Ray in launching his foundation. She said her life-long friend imparts lessons that are lasting.
“And his spirit says that I need to give and he does it,” said Beverly. “This is about taking responsibility and owning your actions regardless if you’re 8 or 18.”
Helping others is Ray’s calling. It is his oxygen. His inner peace.
“We want to find something they like so we can get their ear. Once you have their ear you can reach their heart,” said Ray.
It has been a long journey for this former hoop star. But his rough waters finally calm.
“I take a moment to focus on my spirit. It is beautiful to be able to do that,” he said.
Ray Neblett, a man that thrives on keeping children from dribbling out of bounds in life.
“I’m the richest man you ever met,” said Ray. “I’m the richest man you’ve ever met if you’re calculating it like that.”
If you would like information on Ray’s Foundation and camp, click here.
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