On a typical Sunday morning at Conetoe Chapel Missionary
Baptist Church, Reverend Richard Joyner steps up to the
podium to preach in work clothes instead of a suit. His
attire is just one way Joyner tries to connect with his
“I do this to show that I am a part of
them,” said Joyner who came to Conetoe, North
Carolina more than a decade ago to become head pastor of
the church. It didn't take long before he realized the
desperate position of the town's 300 residents. As the
population dwindled, so had the health of those who
Conetoe (pronounced “co-neat-uh”), a
predominately African-American community, is located in
Edgecombe County, which ranks
97th out of 100 North Carolina counties in health and
social/economic factors. Joyner says that the alcoholism,
poor diets, chronic diseases, single parent homes,
education deficiency, and their food desert status are all
contributing factors to the low ranking as well as a high
rate of premature deaths.
Joyner's reaction to these problems was that of local
action. “The institutions cannot be the one to
make the change,” stated Joyner.
“Change has to come from within the
communities. We decided to fight this from a grassroots
CNN Hero and Purpose Prize
winner, Joyner's grassroots movement has rejuvenated the
Conetoe community and has become one of the most
effective models of its kind across the region.
Conetoe Family Life Center
In 2007, Joyner
founded the Conetoe
Family Life Center, a nonprofit with a focus on youth
development and improving health. “We have
found that we can change the children by education and
opportunity, and that equals change for the whole
family,” relayed Joyner.
We have found that we can change the children by
education and opportunity, and that equals change for the
One of the earliest initiatives was building a garden
camp, a free summer and afterschool experience for youth.
Now in its 11th year, the garden camp has
developed into a multi-faceted program that helps
children learn key principles of being healthy and
Another focus was partnering with area hospitals to
decrease inpatient readmissions and emergency room
visits. Through initiatives like smoking cessation
classes, cooking classes, health fairs, and lay
health coaching, the center strives to make positive
health improvements for area residents.
The Conetoe Family Life Center received additional funds
from the NC Council of Churches – Partners in Health and
Wholeness. Read more about their work in the RHIhub's
Rural Health Models &
Joyner's many years as chaplain at Nash Health Care
has given him credibility throughout the county. He has
managed to recruit a team of 25 hospital staff, social
service professionals, faith-based workers, and other
volunteers to help lead the center's initiatives. The
medical community has been on-board with Joyner since the
center's inception. In 2006, the Community Benefits
Grants Program of Vidant Health awarded the Conetoe
Family Life Center funds to help jumpstart their
Kahla Hall, director for Vidant's Community Benefits
Grants Program, expressed that Joyner's exuberance for
sparking positive change is what makes the Conetoe Family
Life Center a success. “He's determined. He's a
visionary. He sees what can be done, not just in one
area, but in lots of areas. Not just in health, but in
economics,” she said.
As the garden expanded from 1 acre to 17 and from 1 site
to 4, the garden camp program grew with it. So far, 60
students ages 4 to 18 have rotated through classes
specific to physical well-being, educational enhancement,
social and human development, and socioeconomics – all
areas in which Edgecombe County lags.
Classes take an in-depth look at family genetics and how
to prevent chronic diseases. Joyner also encourages the
students to make it their goal to live as long as
possible through maintaining healthy habits. Cooking
classes and nutritional training teach the youth to be
conscious of what they are putting into their bodies. The
center is currently developing its own curriculum based
on these concepts.
The first day of the garden camp, Joyner was shocked and
inspired to see 35 students show up for registration,
given the camp's 5:30 a.m. start time. The fresh air and
calisthenic exercises had an immediate effect. By the
fourth week of the camp, the kids were running several
miles at one time. One woman who worked at the camp was
able to eventually cut her daily pill intake from 28 down
While many of the educational components are taught
through on-the-job training in the gardens, the program
also teaches subjects like math, science, financial
planning, and home maintenance.
He has built up skills for jobs because those contribute
to health as well. If you don't have money, you can't
afford to buy food or pay for medication. They all play a
part in social determinants.
Hall commented on Joyner's educational focus,
“He has built up skills for jobs because those
contribute to health as well. If you don't have money,
you can't afford to buy food or pay for medication. They
all play a part in social determinants.”
Out of those who have come through the garden camp, high
school graduation rates have improved from 40% to 100%.
This year alone, four students are receiving full ride
college scholarships. Students are pursuing majors and
careers like agribusiness, electrical contracting,
physical therapy, and culinary art – all skills that have
been introduced through the garden camp.
You Reap What You Sow
The students who attend the garden camp are not immune to
the social disparities that haunt the community. For
instance, a majority of the students involved do not have
a father in the home. To break these kinds of negative
patterns, the camp's courses use gardening principles to
teach social and human development.
“You have to sow the things you really want to
reap,” teaches Joyner. As with all of his
lessons, Joyner gets at the soul of an issue to bring
about lasting change. “It starts with
respecting others and respecting yourself.” His
strategy is working. This year's graduating seniors will
be the first group with no unplanned pregnancies.
Because Edgecombe County ranks
so poorly in socioeconomic factors, the garden camp
teaches youth the benefits of producing their own food to
avoid prolonged dependence on government aid. The
students are being equipped with business skills by
learning how to sell their produce to local hospitals,
schools, restaurants, businesses, CSA operations, and at
farmers' markets. Ninety-eight percent of their sales are
used toward the development of youth and families in the
Conetoe community. These sales also make it possible for
much of the produce to be given away to area youth and
families in need.
Setting an Example
The work of the Conetoe Family Life Center isn't always
easy. With the long days, hard physical labor, and
emotional effort, Joyner, now age 63, has considered
giving up many times. Tationa Hymana's story recently
re-inspired him to continue.
Hymana's father passed away from high blood pressure,
diabetes, and dialysis complications several years ago.
As a result, Hymana and her siblings joined the garden
camp program to help prevent the onset of similar health
problems in their own lives. At age 8, Hymana became a
bee keeper for the center's 60 hives (the bees are a
project the youth started to pollinate the gardens and
produce honey to sell).
“They kept pushing me, saying that I could do
it. I wanted to set an example,” conveyed
Hymana on her reason for becoming certified so young. Up
until that point, the minimum age for certification was
11 years old. It was Hymana who successfully petitioned
the County Commission to change the age requirement. Now
13 years old, she teaches others to work the hives.
Hymana's respect for Joyner is one of the reasons she is
so committed to carry on the work that he started.
“He is a man who would do anything to teach
kids. He will put the kids before himself,”
Making Lasting Changes
They are inspiring the community to make lasting changes.
Because of the principles the youth bring in, families
have changed their eating, cooking, and lifestyle habits.
Joyner says that the economic and health improvements in
Conetoe are because of the youth. “They are
inspiring the community to make lasting changes. Because
of the principles the youth bring in, families have
changed their eating, cooking, and lifestyle
habits,” he said.
Their impact has extended far beyond Conetoe. The garden
camp has become a model for 21 other garden programs with
a similar mission that have launched throughout Edgecombe
and surrounding counties.
The center's partnering hospitals have also seen positive
results from Conetoe Family Life Center's active efforts
to decrease health risks for area residents. The number
of emergency room visits has dropped. Patients are better
managers of their chronic disease conditions, reducing
their need for medication while consuming healthier food.
The Conetoe Family Life Center is partnering with the
Brody School of
Medicine at East Carolina University to measure and
evaluate additional results to continue the effectiveness
of the center's programs.
As for Hymana, her aspirations are high. Joyner predicts
that she will become a master beekeeper (the greatest of
3 certification levels) by the time she graduates from
high school. “Her new story is that [she and
her family] are now monitoring their health through
nutrition to make sure they overcome the genetics that
have plagued their family for a long time,” he
said. “That's living