It happened about a year ago.

A 10-year-old at Rose Hill Elementary wanted to kill himself. Omaha Police Capt. Shayna Ray, on patrol nearby, responded to the dispatch call.

The call shook her: How can a 10-year-old be that depressed?

Ray talked to the child and eventually he calmed down. Ray promised she would check on him. She started eating lunch with the boy, sometimes bringing the lunch. They played games like Connect 4.

She told him she’d be there for his 11th birthday. She wanted him to understand his life was worth something.

For Ray, work doesn’t end just because the shift does. The work includes being a consistent part of the community, whether it’s for one child or a roomful. It means raising up and supporting those — like the 10-year-old boy — who need that extra lift.

***

Ray’s mother, an engineer, encouraged her to go into a “male-oriented” field so she could support herself. A fan of fictional female crime fighters such as Nancy Drew and Charlie’s Angels, Ray decided to seek a career in law enforcement.

The Kansas City, Missouri, native earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in criminal justice in 1993 and a master’s in public administration in 1997. She received the school’s Alumni Excellence Award in 2011.

“Mom was thinking more like medicine or law, but I thought criminal justice would be fun,” said Ray, now 45. “And it is. I can’t wait to get to work every day.”

After working for the Omaha Correctional Center, Ray became an Omaha police officer in 1994. She quickly climbed the ranks to sergeant, then lieutenant.

Ray succeeded in a “male-oriented” field: She was the first woman to lead the Omaha Police Department’s homicide and gang units.

She said she felt it was important for gang unit officers to become more involved with youths in the communities they policed.

“We wanted to allow teens to see officers in a different setting where we’re not arresting them,” she said. “That we’re positive and approachable. We’re good.”

She asked unit officers to do two community policing projects a month. Some were already involved in such efforts, though not at the consistency Ray wanted.

One officer who flourished in the program was Kerrie Orozco. She coached a Boys & Girls Club baseball team, served as a Girl Scout leader and was involved in other ways.

“The gang unit used to be a lot about stopping the violence through arrests, but the Omaha Police Department has become more focused on prevention and intervention,” Ray said. “And part of that is working with little kids and teenagers, and working with people after they get out of jail. There are so many different things we can do.

“Kerrie was good at that.”

***

In December 2012, Ray was promoted to captain and assigned to the northwest precinct. That month, the mass murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut rocked the nation and affected Ray’s perspective as a mother and police officer.

In the past she did most of her volunteer work with the Omaha police union, participating in the Santa Cop program and coordinating other activities. She felt like she was helping kids.

“I just remember seeing (the events of) Sandy Hook on the news and I had to turn it off,” she said. “I have three kids myself. I love their schools, but that act of violence made me feel vulnerable about my own children. And you can’t be a bodyguard for them all the time, so I decided to do something to make the city a little bit better and help some kids that don’t have all the advantages that my kids have.”

Ray wanted to help in a more consistent way. Soon after the shootings, she heard about CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).

CASA volunteers are assigned by the courts to a child or siblings placed in foster care because of abuse or neglect. The volunteer connects with the child’s family members, teachers, doctors, lawyers and social workers. He or she gathers and documents information, advocates for the child in court and recommends services. The volunteers are a constant presence at a time when many people are coming in and out of a child’s life.

Ray is the ideal volunteer, said Kim Thomas, executive director of CASA for Douglas County. Thomas had met Ray when they worked together on a refugee project.

“When I came to CASA I knew I needed to recruit her. She has this incredible passion to speak for those who don’t have a voice,” Thomas said. “She really has this maternal, empathetic peace to her. She just knows when something is not right. And she’s a very collaborative individual, she’s not a know-it-all. The kids love her. She has a great connection with them.”

The court recently appointed Ray to five siblings. The 2-year-old has special needs and lives with one set of foster parents. The 8- and 9-year-olds are with a different foster family, as are the 15- and 16-year-olds. Ray spends 15 to 20 hours a month with the kids, doing everyday activities with each.

The CASA time commitment increases during the academic year because she attends school and sporting events.

“They are so much fun. I’ve been to talent shows and wrestling matches. We go out to lunch. We’ve gone to movies,” Ray said. “When I leave them, I always leave in a better mood than when I started. They always make me laugh.”

Ray also works extensively with refugee assistance groups such as Embrace the Nations and Preventing the Expansion of Meth in Refugee Youth. She helps Karenni, Bhutanese and Burmese refugees, most of whom speak a little or no English when they arrive. Corruption may be common in their homeland’s government and law enforcement, so establishing trust is key.

Ray taught a weeklong police academy for refugee children. They learned about American law enforcement, the dangers of guns and drugs, avoiding bullies and street gangs. They played soccer and concluded with a graduation ceremony.

At first the kids were quiet, not sure what to think of Ray. She worked to overcome misconceptions about police officers by talking to the kids about their lives and goals.

“You just have to sit in the middle of a group of them and listen,” she said. “You get to know them by asking questions and being interested in who they are.”

Soon, the kids began to come around.

“They’re waving at me and saying ‘Hey, Officer Shayna!’ By the end, they’re break-dancing with you and hugging you and wanting pictures with you. They want you to know all of their families, and it’s really cool.”

Said Pamela Franks, founder and director of Embrace the Nations: “She brings a real compassion and a real heart to this work. … It’s important for them to learn that Capt. Ray comes from a positive place, and in turn, they will help others come to understand that what she represents is a good thing.”

Because Ray wants her own children to understand the importance of community service, she encourages them to volunteer. Her husband, Matt, is an Omaha Public Schools administrator.

In addition to helping out with the Omaha police union’s philanthropic events, Leo, 12, volunteers in the CASA offices and Chloe, 15, is a Joslyn Art Museum “JAMbassador.” She also helps Bennett, 16, call bingo at the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home.

“A lot of my friends do not volunteer as much as I do, and I think they are really missing out,” Chloe said. “I get really excited because I know I’m making other people feel good and it makes me feel good.”

***

It happened in July.

A 10-year-old from Rose Hill Elementary celebrated his 11th birthday.

Police Capt. Shayna Ray treated him to a caramel sundae at Dairy Queen, followed by a trip to Target. The boy picked out a remote-controlled helicopter.

During the school year he wondered how Ray would find him to celebrate his summer birthday.

Don’t worry, she told him, “Police officers have ways.”

She kept her promise.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1382, cbclark@owh.com

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.