September 28, 2015|By Steve Orr| Land
As a nature/landscape photographer with a yearning to discover new and beautiful sights, I have been fortunate to travel the world with camera in tow. In July 2015, on two of the hottest days one could arrange, I was afforded the opportunity to apply my photography skills for the benefit of The Conservation Fund in the eastern and Sandhills regions of my home state of North Carolina.

What an experience this was! I was certainly surprised to see how The Conservation Fund has altered and expanded the definition of conservation. My eyes were opened to new and exciting possibilities! The Resourceful Communities division within the Fund approaches conservation from a different perspective. They hold that successful conservation must address economic, social, and environment factors together for a successful outcome. It is no wonder conservation often takes a back seat to survival in places where poverty is rampant, heath outcomes are poor, and jobs are scarce, but great conservation opportunities do exist in places like these.

Of the six exceptional and unique Fund partners we visited in the course of two days, the work being done at the Conetoe Family Life Center particularly touched my heart and still speaks to me today. Located in the small, eastern NC community of Conetoe, which has struggled economically for more than a decade, the Conetoe Family Life Center is a lighthouse in the storm for local residents. Led by its dynamic founder and spiritual leader Reverend Richard Joyner, the Conetoe Family Life Center is transforming lives and offering hope for the community in many tangible ways. 

Conetoe-resourceful-commmunities-steve-orr-8Reverend Richard Joyner in the classroom teaching his young congregants why developing healthier eating habits is critical.

Reverend Joyner is full of energy and committed to transforming his flock and his community. After officiating at one too many funerals of church members who died from illnesses related to poor eating habits, Joyner started a healthy-eating campaign at his church. Gone were the Sunday suppers of fried chicken, hushpuppies, and sweet tea! At the center of this initiative is a local twenty-five acre property that has been converted into to a community farm, with operating support provided by The Conservation Fund. Healthy produce such as green beans, squash, honey and watermelons are grown on the farm and then distributed to local families or sold at farmer’s markets, with proceeds going back into the program or toward scholarships. More than 20 other local churches have joined in the effort.

Mikki Sager, Vice President and Director of Resourceful Communities, lends a hand on the farm.

As you can imagine there was resistance at first, but Reverend Joyner is an imposing force and not one to back down when committed to a course of action. Now, with several years of reinforcing healthy habits, Reverend Joyner can report a decline in emergency room usage of 40% and an improvement in community health risks by 50%.

While a change in the community’s health status is remarkable, my attention was drawn to the positive impact of this program on local youth. A farm of twenty-five acres requires a great deal of labor in order to yield produce. Reverend Joyner offers a unique, free after-school and summer day-camp program in which more than 60 Conetoe youths—ranging in age from nine to nineteen—supply the majority of the labor necessary to plant, weed, fertilize, and harvest the crops that they grow.

Conetoe-resourceful-commmunities-steve-orr-48-800x600Harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables is a team effort at Conetoe Family Life Center.

Joyner is not only growing delicious and healthy crops in his garden; more importantly, he is developing young men and women into leaders and helping them understand that they really can make a difference in this world. 

Marquon Pettaway, a youth leader at Conetoe Family Life Association, has taken Reverend Joyner’s advice to always lead by example. He teaches the younger children how to grow to start and tend their own gardens.

The Conservation Fund believes that conservation starts with community, and the garden that Reverend Joyner is cultivating is one that embodies that ideal. He is instilling respect for the earth and people, hard work, and healthy habits in the youth of Conetoe, and the farm now supplies food throughout the community as well as in a local food store.

Conetoe-resourceful-commmunities-steve-orr-58 800x600Healthy produce such as green beans, squash, honey and watermelons are grown on the farm and then distributed to local families or sold at farmer’s markets.

I have been universally impressed with the caliber of people carrying the Fund banner; their enthusiasm and love for their work are as inspiring as the work being done by Reverend Joyner and his team at the Conetoe Family Life Center. This story is just one example of how the Fund delivers conservation solutions locally through partnerships with local organizations with deep roots in their communities. Connecting people to the land in Conetoe, NC has helped make the community healthier, more vibrant, and provided a better future for their youth. I’m grateful to The Conservation Fund for the opportunity to participate in these first two photoshoots, and I am anxiously awaiting my next adventure in seeing how the Fund is redefining conservation.


We think Reverend Joyner is a hero, and so does CNN! (9/28/15)

This week Reverend Joyner was nominated as one of CNN's heros. If selected as one of their top 10 heros, viewers will then have a chance to vote in an online poll to make him the winner of the $100,000.00 grand prize. WATCH THE VIDEO AND STAY TUNED! Voting begins October 8, 2015 (8:30 a.m. ET) and continues until Sunday, November 15, 2015.

All photos courtesy of Steve Orr.