Published on April 18, 2017

Richard Joyner Named Healthcare Hero

Richard Joyner

Chaplain Richard Joyner of Nash UNC Health Care has recently been honored as one of 22 Healthcare Heroes of 2017 by Triangle Business Journal. Other winners, including doctors, nurses, administrators, and volunteers from WakeMed, Rex, Duke, and UNC hospitals were honored at a banquet and awards ceremony held at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, NC.

Joyner is not a stranger to the people of eastern North Carolina, but he has never sought recognition for initiating and leading his health programs and sharing with all; nevertheless, he has received a $25,000 Purpose Prize grant from to help support his wellness projects. Nationally, he was named one of CNN’s top ten Heroes of the Year, and locally, he received the “Make a Difference” award from Nash UNC Health Care for working tirelessly to help low-income families and their children.

Reverend Joyner shares the details of his programs with anyone who will listen, including 21 area churches who have adopted Conetoe’s community garden concept, and countless other groups, including a team from Princeton University.

Joyner’s story starts eleven years ago, when he went to help a 93-year-old pastor at Conetoe Missionary Baptist Church in Conetoe, North Carolina, a role he was soon to assume.

He knew Conetoe was a small Edgecombe County town of about 300 people. But as he got to know and love the members of his congregation, he became alarmed at the number of funerals he was performing. He also realized that the primary cause of death in many instances was due to poor nutrition and poor health care.

“Much of their diet consisted of food bought from discount stores, which was high in sodium, and a lot of alcohol. We had at least 20 funerals per year. It just started to feel unconscionable that you would see someone 100 pounds overweight on Sunday and not say anything about it. Then they’d die of a heart attack,” recalls Joyner.

In addition to the high rate of obesity within the congregation and community, many were uninsured, unemployed, and living in poverty. With 62 families, they were averaging 96 visits to the emergency room every quarter.

A Pitt County native, Joyner grew up as a sharecropper’s son. For most of his life he hated farming. When he left home he went in the Army and National Guard, then to Shaw University Divinity School. He became a minister, one with no desire to go back into farming.

But now, he knew exactly what he must do.

One Sunday morning, Joyner announced to his congregation with great enthusiasm that the church was going to have a camp for kids to come and learn how to grow vegetables. While the church and the Conetoe community did not have a great deal of resources, they did have lots of land for gardening.

Before he could actually make a plan, kids were showing up for camp and thus was born the Conetoe Family Life Center that now feeds an entire community with healthy, organic vegetables and produce. Joyner says, “I couldn’t believe it. Children were showing up at 6 o’clock in the morning to work in the garden!”

The Center has started many community initiatives, including an after-school summer program for area youth ages 5 to 8. Their young people work in the gardens, planting and harvesting produce, which is later sold at roadside stands, restaurants and farmer’s markets. Students tend 15 plots of land, with a 25-acre garden that includes four fields and two greenhouses.

The youth also manage around 150 beehives to aid in the pollination of the crops. Most of the honey is given to low-income neighbors, with some sold at local stores to help fund the purchase of school supplies, educational materials, and scholarships. They also serve the healthy food at many church events, utilizing “right-sized” portions.

As relationships in the community have grown around gardening and learning about healthy dietary practices, nutrition, and portion control, Joyner says he now loves farming. For him, healthy relationships are the key to producing resources. "What we can't do with money, we can do with relationships."

Joyner is a man of great commitment, to his faith and to the people he loves in Conetoe. There have been difficult times. Bears and floods have destroyed beehives. Flooding has ruined crops. But Joyner is a man of tremendous optimism and his spirit is contagious.

The success of the garden and how it has improved the health of the community have drawn the attention of the Brody School of Medicine at ECU, which is attempting to measure the impact of the project. Joyner’s church is also participating in a diabetes and heart disease study conducted by the medical school.

Joyner concludes, “Healthy food has translated directly into empowerment, tools for strengthening community bonds, and healthy living. Our visits to the Emergency Department have now dropped from 96 to 24.”

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