South Charlotte

Volunteer keeps Odyssey program on track

As the News Operations Manager for WSOC TV, Dick Raley, 67, was used to juggling budgets, schedules and lots of moving pieces.

It is a background that serves him well in his retirement, now that he does all of that and more in a volunteer position that consumes almost as much of his time as his full-time job did.

Raley is the central regional director and the state webmaster for North Carolina Odyssey of the Mind, an international creative problem-solving program for kindergartners through college students that culminates with a regional, state and world competition.

His daughter has long since grown up and left Odyssey of the Mind behind her, but Raley, who lives in Kingswood, continues to devote up to 30 hours per week to making sure other children get to participate in this unique test of their creativity and team work.

Teams consisting of up to seven members work together to solve one of five long-term problems and then present their solutions at local, state and world level competitions.

The long-term problems, which change every year and include a slew of scoring components, limitations and rules to follow, fall into five categories: mechanical/vehicle, technical performance, classics, structure and performance.

Raley first got involved in 1990, when his daughter, Elizabeth, was a sixth-grade student at Montclaire Elementary.

"I was trying to find a way to get her engaged and challenged," Raley said, "and I heard about Odyssey of the Mind at a PTA meeting presentation by Tina Jenkins, the CMS gifted and talented coordinator at the time."

Raley coached Elizabeth's team that year, but they never even made it to the competition.

"I didn't know how to keep the team focused or elicit their creativity," Raley said.

The experience didn't take for Elizabeth, who participated one additional year while a student at Charlotte Country Day School but then moved on to other interests. But Raley was hooked.

Attending an organizational meeting for tournament officials, Raley was surprised to learn that nothing was done on the computer.

All of the schedules, volunteers and participating teams were coordinated by hand on a huge, cumbersome spreadsheet.

"That's what I do," Raley said, volunteering to take the job over. "I'm an organizer."

Luckily for the 300 volunteers, 245 coaches and 1,033 students who participate in this region's Odyssey of the Mind program, he has been doing it ever since.

Raley and his co-director, Bart Austin, line up the hundreds of volunteers who do everything from overseeing the judges' training to putting together a tournament schedule for all of the teams participating in the central region tournament to coordinating the logistics of the awards ceremony and getting qualifying teams to the state and world competitions.

Raley is proud to report that "our region sends 15-18 teams to world finals each year, significantly more than any other region."

This past year, two central region teams, Myers Park High School and Beverly Woods Elementary, won first place in the performance problem called Full Circle.

Although he is proud of the winning teams and how well they represent the region, Raley sees great value in the experience for all participating teams, even those who never make it to the regional competition.

"Odyssey of the Mind brings kids out of their shells or provides those who have behavior problems with an outlet for all their energy," he said. He sees great parallels between the skills that are developed in Odyssey of the Mind and those that are needed in life.

"The kids that go through it are learning how to survive in today's world," he said. "The future is all about networking, teamwork and using creativity to solve problems."

Raley's favorite part of the regional tournament is the awards ceremony, when the auditorium at Wingate University, where the regional competition is held, is filled to capacity with hundreds of students, teachers, coaches, volunteers and parents.

"The thing that I love about it is that the kids who win act like they've won the Olympics," Raley said.

Their excitement is contagious, but no doubt Raley also appreciates the fact that the ceremony marks the culmination of all his hard work.