“I see a community that is beginning to be healthy,” said Rev. Richard Joyner. He was overlooking the expanse of garden that makes up the Conetoe Family Life Center in rural Edgecombe County. He told the story of the Center as the joyful laughter of children carried over the field from the greenhouse.
Just three months earlier, Joyner was telling the same story. This time, he was on stage being honored on national television in the annual CNN Heroes tribute. Following a celebrity introduction, he told the world of the Conetoe Family Life Center.
In his first year as the pastor of Conetoe Baptist Church, Joyner officiated over 30 funerals. The experience of burying that many community members inspired him to found the Family Life Center.
The Center began as a simple community garden initiative. “We started out with what we have,” Joyner said. “We started out with the land.” It now serves as a community approach to fighting disease, food insecurity and the cycle of poverty in the impoverished community where the average household income sits at just $21,000.
What began as once a simple community garden has blossomed into a force for youth development that is sustenance for the entire community. “Our goal is to serve the whole family,” Joyner said of the unique approach the Center takes to comprehensive community health. “We just want to see a community holistically helped.”
That approach is now nationally recognized. “CNN validated that this is significant,” Joyner said.
Using the community garden as the centerpiece, the Center teaches generations about sustainability, nutrition and economic development through local vegetable sales, community supported agriculture and the widespread production and sale of their famous honey. The funds generated all return to the local community, funding the program, benefitting scholarships for the students involved and providing organic food for local residents in need.
Involving parents, grandparents, children, religious leaders and many other members of the community, the Conetoe Family Life Center is pioneering a new kind of local resource. “It does not belong to me,” Joyner said. “This belongs to the community.”
The Center’s unique approach empowers the Conetoe community with the knowledge, tools and support to take preventative steps to ensure educational success, prevent disease, reduce crime and combat the cycle of poverty.
“Our goal is human development and self-sustainability,” Joyner said. “Because we’re a food desert, we’re working to get as much locally affordable food in the homes as possible; that means making sure that not only the youth, but even our adult population can go down to the garden and harvest food as much as they want.”
Joyner is already beginning to see that goal in reality. “I know young people that started in this program that are in college,” he said. “I know people whose lives have been saved because they changed the way they eat.”
The Center is a groundbreaking community resource that the North Carolina Community Foundation has invested in since the beginning. “This partnership is a breath of fresh air,” Joyner said. “It’s not like the Foundation is just giving us money; they’re giving us a relationship and that doesn’t go away.”
That bond extends back to the humble roots of the Center, when NCCF affiliate leaders from the Futrell-Mauldin Foundation for Greater Rocky Mount partnered with Joyner to fund the first tractor. “It’s because we have become family,” he said.
The Family Life Center has developed to the extent that Joyner can now focus his work and watch as his prayers are answered. “I think that I’m becoming more of a worker now and not a leader,” he said. “Other people you see, they’re leading, and I’m fading.” Those emerging leaders include the Center’s new Executive Director Dr. Garrie Moore, who’s working to shepherd Joyner’s vision.
Joyner’s newfound role in the Center is thanks to the involvement of the community. “These leaders live in this community and their kids are in the program,” he said. “It’s not Richard Joyner’s. It’s the Conetoe Community’s.”
That development would not have come to fruition without the support of the many community partners supporting the Conetoe Family Life Center. “It’s like pinch hitters,” Joyner said. “You got the bases loaded, but can you get them home?”
“That’s what the Foundation has done for us,” he said. “We could get the bases loaded. We just couldn’t get them home. Now we can.”
By Louis Duke