Even though Jennifer Ray only spent five years of her young life in Mitchell, they were formative years that continued to pull at her long after she left.
“We moved here when I was in eighth grade, and I consider Mitchell my hometown,” Jen said. “In fact, when I lived in California and Georgia, I went by the nickname Dakota.”
After graduating from MHS, Jen attended California State University, Fullerton, where she majored in public relations. Her love of performing led to dance and work in production. She traveled to Los Angeles for dance classes at night, attended school during the day, and had jobs in production and event planning with companies including Bunim-Murray, The Proper Image and Tenth Planet Productions. She was an event coordinator and talent coordinator, giving her opportunities to meet and learn from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but she always made her way back to the studios because teaching was in her heart.
She began choreographing and instructing her own classes at Cal State, Fullerton, and eventually moved into teaching in dance studios. After 10 years teaching dance in California, she moved to Atlanta, her home before Mitchell. She taught at Gotta Dance Atlanta and Dance 101. Her love for dance and fitness evolved into applying at the gym she attended and teaching GroupFIT classes. She worked for Gold’s Gym West Georgia for six years as a membership sales consultant and fitness instructor and says that’s where she “finally found my happy place.”
It was while she was living in Atlanta that Jen met Bryan Ray, the man who would become her husband. Bryan grew up in Douglasville, Georgia. A blue-collar guy, he had spent time in the military and had worked as a security officer. He also owned his own over-the-road trucking business, which is how he became adept as a diesel mechanic.
When Bryan and Jen found their relationship getting serious, he went to work for B&D Concrete Cutting as a mechanic, allowing him to be home at night rather than on the road. His next venture was with Ryder, the North American transportation management corporation that still employs him.
The couple married in 2014 and welcomed Brayson in 2015. It was the birth of their son that caused Jen’s homesickness to set in – she wanted her son to be able to spend time with his grandparents in Mitchell.
“I’m a small-town girl at heart,” she said.
Jen’s mom, Linda Jirsa, began putting out feelers for Jen regarding career opportunities in Mitchell. Wells Fargo was looking for a mortgage officer, and Jen’s sales experience moved her to the top of their list of candidates. She went through the interview process via Skype, and the family moved to Mitchell in spring 2016, when Brayson was 9 months old.
As a mortgage officer, Jen says her specialty is working with first-time home buyers; she loves the excitement of young and new families, and helping people buy a home of their own.
Bryan was able to transfer to Ryder in Sioux Falls without skipping a beat. He says his commute is not that different from his Georgia work commute, except for the lack of traffic on the Interstate at 5 a.m.
As soon as Jen knew that she and Bryan would be making their home in Mitchell, she contacted a good friend from high school, Dave Backlund Jr. of Wild Oak Golf Course, who was working with GreatLIFE in Mitchell. She approached him with a proposal for group fitness classes. Within a few months of landing in Mitchell, she was teaching NYAD – Not Your Average Dance – classes at Wild Oak.
Now approaching two years back in her hometown, Jen’s role as the group fitness director for GreatLIFE here has introduced a full schedule of MOSSA group fitness classes with 20 certified instructors. She would like to continue to grow the group fitness program and hopes to eventually have a larger space to offer more classes and child care.
With a busy life that includes Bryan’s substantial commute and three jobs between them, the Rays are happy to be Mitchellites.
“I have coffee with my mom every day,” said Jen. “And Brayson and I meet my mom and dad at Caribou every Friday. In a small town, they even remember our regular orders.”
“It has been great having the opportunity to slow down life for our family, and come back to Mitchell. I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. It makes my heart smile to see my parents with my little man, and I love running into people who had an impact on me way back in the late 90s!”