By Trista Thurston
Joyce Ellis lives by one guiding mantra: her purpose is to help others so that, in turn, she too becomes the best she can.
“I really feel I was put on this planet to help people become better,” she says, “and upon doing so, I become better.”
That’s why, upon being named this year’s Observer-Reporter’s Best of the Best Person of the Year, she says being “the best” also means enabling others to be their best. Basking in the afterglow of a beautiful Thanksgiving meal with close family, I chatted with Ellis the day after our socially distanced feasts about what winning the honor meant to her and how she came to become executive director of the LeMoyne Center.
“I’m blessed,” she said contently, explaining she works tirelessly to alter her environment so that others can become better.
Answering the call
“I will always be synonymous with dance,” Ellis explained.
A lifelong Washington resident, she opened her first dance studio at 17, while still a junior in high school. Dance was her passion. She dedicated her life to her dancers, encouraging their parents not to spend exorbitant amounts of money on costumes and refusing to let the students wear makeup in favor of showcasing their natural beauty.
She knew that she had something special as her dancers performed the entire length of parades and kept on that path of excellence. Ellis and her dance crew performed for the Steelers, Pirates and Wild Things.
But, about a decade ago, Ellis said God called her to give up dance. Her studios would close within five years. Ellis said she pushed that thought away, that she was doing good work through her studios and changing lives. She wasn’t just teaching dance, but also real-life skills.
Then, three years after that first call from God, that voice returned, harsher and more persistent.
“You’re going to be challenged in every way, but stay true to the path and trust me,” she recalls.
Ellis questioned, how much more challenge can I handle? She says she never understood true challenge until she gave up dance. Three of her dance studios were forced to close in close succession by seemingly biblical events: a bug infestation, flood and gas line break. Her Lord was trying to get her attention.
Focus on the center
At that point, Ellis turned her attention to the LeMoyne Center. Before she took over in 2007, the community center building sat unused, damaged by arson and forced to shutter its doors because of mismanagement. Many of the windows were broken or spray-painted. But Ellis had a plan to change the community’s trajectory through this building, shifting hopelessness to hope. She was met with skepticism at all sides, even from the Black community, but carried on. The first program she established was Camp Challenge, a chance for kids to explore the world through the arts and creativity in a summer camp. It opened the world up to participants, some who had never traveled to Pittsburgh and were now afforded the chance to take field trips.
As Ellis continued, she gave students the chance to talk about their feelings, express themselves in healthier ways than fighting.
“No one wanted to believe in what I was doing,” Ellis recalls.
Many told her she was wasting her time with these kids who would never change, but Ellis understood this was a cycle. Adults would perpetuate the expectation that these children couldn’t amount to much in life, and the kids would internalize that belief. Ellis became fiercely protective of the students in her programs, kids that others thought wouldn’t make it. In times of uncertain funding, she dumped her savings into the center to keep her employees on the payroll.
Why, despite all the challenge and opposition, did she keep going?
Her drive and work ethic was instilled at a young age. The fourth of six children, Ellis said her father wasn’t present growing up, and her mother was forced to be creative to give her kids opportunities. She instilled early that her kids would finish school and go on to college. Now, Ellis said, each of her siblings is an entrepreneur.
Ellis said she saw the long list of kids graduating high school and college, some breaking the cycle of dropping out of school. Instead, Ellis saw a circle of positive change: students would attend the center’s programs and then go on to become Camp Challenge instructors.
“That’s what really pushes me,” Ellis said.
She also saw the way kids felt about themselves shifting. She recalls one girl, who she described as quite rough, altered her whole mindset because Ellis believed in her. She had never felt that way before, never heard those words before. That’s what keeps her motivated.
Of course, the pandemic has slowed the LeMoyne Center immensely. Camp Challenge averages around 200 kids each summer, but the virtual offering topped out at 80. After-school programs usually have about 120 students, but because of spacing required by social distancing, most afternoons can only accommodate 30. Some volunteers, too, are hesitant. It’s hard, but the center carries on as best as it can.
Best of the Best
Ellis recalls an Observer-Reporter employee contacted her earlier this year to notify her she had been nominated to be in the top five for the Best of the Best Person of the Year award. She was shocked but also found it hard to accept. She doesn’t do what she does for recognition, praise or accolades. She does it to better her home. But once she won, she said notes poured in via text, email and Facebook. Hundreds daily for a time reached out to her and let her know how deserving they thought she was of this honor, how she had touched their life in some small or large manner. This outpouring, she said, really affirmed that what she does genuinely helps the community – an unexpected and enlightening experience, to be sure.
Ellis said she loves the Best of the Best title and what it represents. She tells her students they cannot just focus on bettering themselves. Focus outward. Helping others will also help you grow.
“Reach back and pull someone else up,” she tells them. “In order to be the best of the best, you have to better someone so that they can become the best of the best.”