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Community strives to show appreciation for retiring agency director

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Joyce Jones speaks with friends at a gala for 18th anniversary of the STRIVE job readiness and life skills educational program at the Hilton on Sept. 20, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hundreds of community and business leaders, law enforcement and judicial officials and friends turned out at the Hilton Greenville on Thursday night to pay tribute to a retiring workforce development program director who has prepared some of the most challenging candidates for success as employees and citizens.

The event ostensibly celebrated the 18th anniversary of the STRIVE Program in Greenville, one of four job readiness programs under the sponsorship of the nonprofit LIFE of NC Empowerment Center at the Third Street Community Center in west Greenville. STRIVE enrollees ages 16-62 are taught life skills and attitude adjustments aimed at gainful employment. The organization also sponsors the successful Pitt County Reentry Program that helps individuals transition back into the community from recent incarcerations.

Most of the evening, however, was dedicated to honoring Joyce C. Jones, the center’s founder and executive director who will officially retire on Dec. 20. The Martin County native has made use of her more than 32 years experience in human services, working with special populations who are hard to employ.

A Winston-Salem State University alumnus with a degree in business administration, Jones is widely known by her community partners for holding people personally accountable for their actions, calling her approach to success “tough love.”

The granddaughter of a sharecropper who later purchased the farm that now is the family business, she learned from her family to combine a strong work ethic and self-discipline with a deep religious faith and belief in service to others.

After establishing a career with Pitt County Social Services helping intellectually and developmentally limited people find employment, Jones credited the Rev. Sidney A. Locks of Greenville’s Cornerstone Missionary Baptists Church with urging her to establish a STRIVE program in Pitt County. She hesitated repeatedly because she feared giving up the security of her established career, but Locks persisted and her husband encouraged her to answer what he said must be God’s calling.

“People need to know that others care for them, that even though they’ve been down and had many life challenges, the path they have been on is not what defines them,” Jones said. “Here at Life of NC and STRIVE, we empower, educate and encourage individuals who have never had a free and safe place to share without fear of judgment. Instead, we help them evaluate their lives and show them the positive potential of life-changing opportunities.”

Jones infused her programs with the values she learned growing up. She is quick to show each participant that her programs will not enable self-pity, but will reward hard work.

“They will have an opportunity to show a potential employer what they mean when they tell them they’re a hard worker,” she said. “Does that mean you’ll give me an excuse when your car breaks down, or blame circumstances or someone else? We teach them how to have a backup plan, to network with others and help each other.”

But Jones tempers her toughness with compassion.

“I’ve never known what it means to be homeless or to go without food, but I know that for the grace of God, I easily could have,” she said.

Jones has spent an equal portion of her 18-year leadership of LIFE of NC building community partnerships with and reinforcing her message to employers, community leaders and the courts, arguing that the taxpayers’ money spent to support the unemployed and prison population could be saved by giving well-trained and willing people a chance to be productive and self-sufficient contributors to the local and regional economies.

She was thinking about workforce development issues long before it became a priority in Pitt County, said Wanda Yuhas, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission.

“She brought a group of us together and showed a clip from a 60-minutes episode about the new STRIVE program,” Yuhas said. “She said, ‘We can do this here.’  She got the development commission and the Chamber of Commerce involved and pulled in everybody in the business and industry community she could think to talk with about it.”

The first 9-week program graduated 10 people, Yuhas said.

“It was tough and still is tough, but it was so effective that local industries, like Grady-White Boats, brought her in to work with their existing workforce. It’s a program that employers believe in because it combines kindness with high expectations and demands of its participants.” 

As the hub of eastern North Carolina, Greenville and Pitt County must be responsible for uplifting all parts of the region, Jones said.

“We have the most brilliant people at our thriving medical center and university, but we have a poverty rate that is higher than the North Carolina rate, one of the highest in the country,” Jones said. “We hold all program participants accountable to high life standards and to the law and don’t hold back any punches. But we can’t stick our collective chest out while we have homeless and hungry individuals or people coming back into the community as former offenders and we don’t give them opportunities for a second chance. We can’t afford to do that.”

Pitt County Superior Court Judges Jeff Foster, Marvin K. Blount and J. Carlton Cole and District Court Judge Mario Perez were at the banquet to present Jones with a first-time legacy award named in her honor.

“So many people get in trouble with the law because there are gaps in opportunities that are available to most people,” Foster said. “Joyce fills in all those pieces and is an important resource for us. You really can’t put a value on somebody with her institutional knowledge. You don’t want to say someone is irreplaceable, but Joyce is about as close to that as you can come. She’s such a wonderful lady.”

Kandie Smith, former Greenville mayor and current District 1 City Council member, was impressed early on by Jones’ willingness to put her credibility on the line and reach out to companies to give her first program graduates a chance to work.

“Most people wouldn’t spend their time doing that, but without her programs, Greenville has to put more money into its police and other resources for crime prevention efforts,” Smith said. “And she puts more people into the workforce economy. We all have to support that.”

Mayor P.J. Connelly described Jones as “a very special woman,” who has served the people of Greenville and Pitt County for 18 years.

“I truly believe that the STRIVE mission to help women and men achieve independent lives is absolutely amazing,” Connelly said. “This is the city’s greatest investment in job creation. Joyce Jones has been a beacon for our community and this program would not have been a success without her leadership.”

Bernita Demery, former Greenville financial director and Jones’ close friend for 34 years, described her as “persistently consistent.” in pursuit of her goals.

“She could bring a diverse group of people together like no other,” Demery said. “ Her (late) mother instilled some great family and work values in her and would be so proud of her, especially tonight.”

“It will take a special person, someone with her skills and passion, to replace Joyce and keep the program going,” Yuhas said of Jones.

Event host Lynette Taylor of WITN News lauded the graduates, including Dominique Peterson, Linwood Mann, Sandra Brown, Martez Lamont Sherrard and 2018 Graduate of the Year Ronda Barnes. 

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.

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