Grai Gray (they/them) is making a name for themselves in every area of their lives. From featuring a watercolor piece in the University of Nebraska Omaha’s (UNO) spring juried art show to doing digital illustrations, Grai keeps their world busy and colorful.
A college junior at UNO and a Studio Arts major working toward a K-12 certification, Grai said their post-graduate goal is to become a middle school art teacher.
We met with Grai recently to learn about them and the inspiration for their art. “I like creating characters; most of the art I create is centered around characters,” said Grai.
“I like coming up with a backstory or a goal for them. When I was growing up, I liked adventure stories, so a lot of my work is sci-fi, fantasy, and characters of color because I didn’t have a lot of fun, cutesy Black characters growing up,” they said.
Tanya Smith met with us today, too, to sing Grai’s praises. Tanya was Grai’s Connected Youth Initiative (CYI) coach through CYI partner, Central Plains Center for Services (CPCS).
Tanya and Grai’s relationship spans as far back as Grai’s high school years. Although Grai and Tanya don’t currently work together due to Grai successfully reaching their goals and completing their coaching work with Tanya, they continue to remain in close touch and have since furthered a mentor/mentee relationship.
Meanwhile, Grai’s exhibition is only the tip of a colorful iceberg.
“I’ve been doing a lot of my own art,” said Grai. “I’m creating a deck of tarot cards with watercolor; I want to do all the cards. I also want to document the toys I’ve had growing up; I’d like to have a series called “Girl Toys” and have gender and toys relate to each other,” said Grai.
“I’m also teaching myself to roller-skate. I have a friend to roller-skate with, and there’s a small skate park; I’ve been learning to do that.”
Tanya said one of the most exciting things for her is that Grai’s art was featured at UNO’s art show on April 7. They’ll also have another show at the end of April in the Blackstone District of Omaha, Nebraska.
Tanya said, “How proud I am of where [Grai’s] at and where they’re headed.”
Connected Youth Initiative, (CYI) is a Nebraska Children and Families Foundation statewide program designed for youth and young adults 14-26 who have experienced child welfare, foster care, juvenile justice, human trafficking, homelessness, and other challenges.
Nebraska Children is constantly amazed by the talent and resiliency that young people like Grai display, along with the lifelong bonds they form with their former and current coaches.
Thanks to the CYI coaches’ alignment with Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP) strategies, these young people can receive support and services to fulfill their needs throughout college.
Grai said that they and Tanya were working together while Grai was in high school and that CYI’s LEAP-aligned coaching has helped them work toward many goals.
According to Grai, one of the best things about CYI is that they’re able to pay forward resources and experiences to other systems-involved young people.
Grai said, “I get to help a lot with [CYI events], and [I get to give] new students tips and tricks.”
“It’s extra supportive, [LEAP]. We have a Zoom meeting each month, and we get to see each other, check in, and follow up on how classes are going,” said Grai. “We get to know other students. During summer, before the school year, we go to a [summer event for CYI youth in college], and that’s fun. It makes the end of my summer.”
Grai said that CYI’s supports and services are especially helpful because they shed light on often-overlooked college resources.
“I feel like there’s small stuff you don’t just know, and you don’t KNOW that you don’t know,” said Grai. “So, you don’t ask for help. [CYI-involved young people] can work with each other and problem-solve, and say, ‘I dealt with something similar, you can do this.’”
In addition to bonding with peers, Grai has found some support gems.
“I learned at [a CYI LEAP meeting] that you can get therapy through the UNO Health Center, or that if you have to print things out, you can go to a more affordable place on campus, or you can get into classes with people you know and can have a study buddy,” said Grai.
“[CYI meetings are] a good place to find good friends; I struggle with getting out of my comfort zone, and there are events; we can have parties and dinner. I have good friends I met through [CYI meetings] – one of my best friends I met through [CYI],” said Grai.
When they met their best friend, Grai was experiencing roommate issues. “My friend helped me apply for a transfer,” said Grai. “That was nice. We carpooled to [CYI LEAP meetings]; we were roommates then, too.”
Tanya’s inspired by Grai’s growth, persistence, and resilience since they graduated high school.
“I can see how much they’ve grown,” said Tanya. “I look to them to help me mentor younger students, to speak, to engage, and I look to them to share their experience. They’re doing so well, academically and thriving independently. And we’ve maintained a strong relationship over the years, for almost six of them!”
Tanya said that since Grai transferred from Iowa Western Community College (IWCC) to UNO in 2019 (with help from Tanya), Grai has accomplished incredible things.
“Grai had an amazing first semester at UNO, [and earned] a 3.8 GPA, and continues to secure solid grades. Grai is within a few credits of graduating!” said Tanya.
Tanya added that she’s attended CYI Legislative Days with Grai so that they could speak on behalf of bills and policies that affect young people who experience foster care.
According to Tanya, Grai’s involvement with CYI spans as far back as their relationship.
Besides supporting Grai with academic endeavors, Tanya assisted Grai in completing Driver’s Education and obtaining a Nebraska driver’s license.
Tanya has also worked with Grai to participate in a partnered Nebraska Children CYI program, Opportunity Passport™! Opportunity Passport™ incentivizes young people to learn about saving and managing money through a series of asset matches. Thanks to Grai’s participation in the program, they purchased their first vehicle!
Tanya has leveraged CYI coaching strategies and supports to assist Grai as they secured their apartment, obtained furniture, and relocated several times. Grai is currently well on their way to achieving yet another incredible milestone as they enter a thriving adulthood: Grai and Tanya are currently working toward Grai’s first home purchase!
To boot, as part of CYI supports, myriad leadership opportunities are available for young people like Grai, including serving as a LEAP Ambassador! Although this opportunity currently is unavailable, we remain impressed by the title that Grai has held. Luckily, there are still many professional leadership opportunities for young people, which you can find out more about here: https://neconnectedyouth.org/current-opportunities/current-opportunities-for-young-people.html.
“Grai was an ambassador when we first started the [CYI-aligned LEAP program] to mentor younger students,” said Tanya.
Grai said that in this leadership position, they devised activities for other young people, served as a point-person for new students who experienced foster care, and made sure they were reachable when needed.
Best of all, the LEAP logo exists, all thanks to Grai’s artistic talents!
Tanya said that one of Grai’s many winning attributes includes their ability to bounce back.
“They’re resilient; they’re a fighter,” said Tanya. “Maybe their initial year [of college] didn’t go as well as they’d hoped, but they always fought, stayed in there, and met with instructors,” she said.
Tanya said the whole time Grai struggled initially at their previous college, they were always happy to connect with Tanya through youth advocacy work and continue to meet with her.
“Grai comes from a resilient family,” said Tanya. “Mom’s an educator; [Grai’s family] has a lot of teachers. They’ve gotten skills and wisdom from them and have a good support system,” she said.
While they attended high school, Grai’s resiliency became apparent to Tanya and flourished even more in the face of their initial collegiate struggles. Today, they’re thriving!
“Grai struggled academically in high school, having to complete their high school diploma via an alternative program,” said Tanya. “They were determined to attend college, despite their high school academic experience.”
Tanya said that although Grai enrolled in classes at IWCC and had some difficulties during the first year, they worked with Tanya to gain a solid support system and services so they could graduate.
Happily, Grai graduated from IWCC in 2018, with an associate degree in Graphic Communications!
Tanya worked with Grai through the years to help with the entire process of applying for financial aid. Tanya continued offering Grai support even as they transitioned to UNO, where Grai took the lead and Tanya started to gradually step back though continued to stand by their side.
When Grai met with an advisor, Tanya was even there to ensure that they transitioned smoothly into UNO and were connected to the right resources.
This moment brings us to the present one, where Grai is happy and healthy!
“I like it at UNO. I enjoy the program and I’m learning so much. This semester, I got lucky; the person teaching my Capstone class is a middle-school art teacher, so I shared some struggles at work and got tips from someone [teaching] for several years. I’m determined [to pursue] my education,” they said.
Tanya said Grai is giving back to the community as well.
“They’re working with K-12 afterschool programming at the Boys and Girls Club,” said Tanya.
“I work at the Carter Lake Boys & Girls Club teaching art programming, and I get to work with kids 5-18, so there’s a good range,” said Grai.
Grai’s students continue to impress them. Four students placed in the 2022 Black History Art Contest and made the news!
Grai’s artwork has been featured in the UNO Art Gallery. They presented their CYI experiences to Mamadou Ndiaye, the Technical Director of Opportunity Works, a JFF/Aspen Institute Social Innovation Fund (SIF) initiative.
Tanya added that Grai is also a gifted poet.
“I feel like I’m in a good spot and ready for the next step! I’m happy [that] I’m doing what I do. I have a good group of people around,” said Grai.
Nebraska Children feels privileged that our CYI initiative could work alongside this exceptional young person as they build a bright and colorful future.