On October 8th at 8am ET, Anderson Cooper will reveal who the 2015 Top 10 CNN Heroes are.
In the running is Reverend Richard Joyner, a local pastor from Conetoe, North Carolina. He isn’t just one person’s hero; he is a hero for a whole town.
He is the founder of the nonprofit Conetoe Family Life Center. But before diving into what he does, let’s go back to why he does it.
Conetoe is a very small town, with 300 primarily African-American residents, one hour east of Raleigh, North Carolina. It isn’t a bustling area. In fact, it was mainly empty land and the closest grocery store is 10 miles away! As such, fresh and organic food wasn’t something that the community had easy access to. It was classified as a “food desert”!
The town was seeing huge health issues and Joyner was tired of seeing his fellow parishioners pass away from seemingly avoidable diseases. He said:
“Diabetes, high blood pressure — when we first got started, we counted 30 funerals in one year. I couldn’t ignore it because I was spending more time in funerals than anything else.”
However, in the last ten years there has been a huge shift. The people of Conetoe, lead by Rev. Joyner, have set an example of what healthy living and united community means.
He started out small, with a local community garden and found children in the area who were willing to come and help him tend to the harvest.
From there, more and more people showed interest in being involved and everything erupted from there. The center now manages over twenty plots of land (one of which is a huge 25-acre plot). There are over 80 student volunteers and thank goodness for that because they harvest 50, 000 pounds of fresh, organic food every year.
The majority of the harvest is given away to locals. The same locals who were in desperate need of accessible, fresh food now have access to locally grown fruits, vegetables, herbs and more!
The students sell the remaining food to businesses and restaurants. The proceeds of those sales go right back into the community to purchase school supplies and provide scholarships to students at local schools.
At one point, the kids approached Joyner with the proposition of bringing bees and hives into their garden. He was sceptical, thinking the gain was outweighed by the risks, but he was outvoted. So they went to a professional beekeeper, Mr. Hines, and asked for help.
Hines offered to give them ONE hive if they completed safety training. Before long, 12 of the students were certified beekeepers. What started out as one hive is now 150 hives that provide 5,000 pounds of honey every year. The kids sell the honey to different stores and restaurants in the area.
There are levels of benefits that Joyner has brought the community with the Conetoe Family Life Center. People are learning how to cook food and make healthy, nutritious choices in the kitchen. Emergency room and hospital visits have declined. The community is healthier and happier. Joyner said:
“Growing food calls us to work together. By nourishing plants, you’re nourishing community. It’s one and the same.”
But the garden has also done a great deal of good for Joyner himself. He grew up watching his father work day in and day out on the land for very little financial return. But what Joyner is now realizing is that the return didn’t need to be monetary. The work was food for the body, but also food for the soul. He said:
“Working in the garden has been a healing place. This has given me the opportunity to appreciate what my father took pride in teaching me about the fields. At this point now, I like the garden. It’s a place we can play. It’s a place where we can produce. And it’s a place where we can live.”
Even if he goes unrecognized by CNN as one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes, he is a hero by my standards and I’m sure he’s a hero to everyone in Conetoe North Carolina!
To learn more and support the Conetoe Family Life Center visit their website:
CNN “CNN Hero Richard Joyner” Youtube. 24 September 2015. Web. 30 September 2015.