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Northeast Community Center pioneer retires

Joyce Jones sits in the lobby of the Northeast Community Center last week. Jones was a founding board member of the center. (Jesse Tinsley)
Joyce Jones sits in the lobby of the Northeast Community Center last week. Jones was a founding board member of the center. (Jesse Tinsley)

When Joyce Jones got involved with the Northeast Community Center, it hadn’t even been built yet. And on April 5, after 30 years of service to her neighborhood, she retired from the board of the Northeast Community Center and received the John Kohls Excellence in Leadership Award.

“When I got started there was nothing but a dream to build a community center,” said Jones. At that time the Hillyard senior programs were at a small church, the youth program was at an old school and SNAP was, well, homeless. “We knew we had to pay our own way if we wanted a center, and we knew we had to make sure we had people lined up to rent space here.”

The Hillyard Library was also looking for a new location, and together with other hard-working volunteers Jones helped form the board that created the organization that guided the center’s design and construction. She became president of the board when it incorporated in 1980.

“We had to save up our community development money for a few years before we could start the building,” said Jones.

The early days weren’t always easy.

“We struggled with the usual things: Who are we? And what are we doing?” said Jones, laughing. Bylaws were written up and slowly things began to take shape.

One thing that changed was the community center’s service area and its name.

“We couldn’t be the Hillyard Community Center,” said Jones. “We had to serve the whole northeast part of town.”

Early on it was decided that each neighborhood had to be represented on the Northeast Community Center board, and half the board members must be from the neighborhoods.

The Northeast Community Center opened its doors in 1982; Jones gets teary-eyed talking about the group of people who helped pull it all together – many have died since.

“I was so fortunate to work with some great professionals and some amazing volunteers,” she said. “Yes, that was a great day, but we also had some very serious things to do.”

Northeast Community Center Board President Ann Carey said at the award presentation that Jones “has kept us true to our mission and values while looking to the future. Her support has been unwavering, her guidance laced with wisdom and her dedication to the families of these neighborhoods unyielding.”

Since that first groundbreaking, Jones has participated in four others: the Head Start wing, an 8,400-square-foot child care center, dental and medical clinics and a community garden.

“I’m really proud of the community garden,” Jones said when asked which accomplishment stands out to her. “The garden was strictly my work. And I love how it combines food growing and social activity.”

It had bothered Jones for a long time that there was a patch of weeds next to the community center when, as she put it, “people are hungry and we could be growing food there.” Volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cleaned up the land, built a fence and put in the gazebo.

Many Eastern European immigrants garden there, and the lack of language skills on both sides has led to some interesting conversations over the years.

“I know the Russian word for garlic – it sounds like, well, garlic,” said Jones laughing. “I discovered that many of the Russians are Baptists and we know the same hymns, so we’d sing together: me in English, them in Russian. Christians are Christians all over the world.”

Jones initially got involved in community work when she had young children. She said she’s a firm believer that parents should be involved in their neighborhood and schools. She spent 15 years as a Girl Scouts leader and has served on countless boards over the years, including KSPS Friends of Seven, the Spokane Public Library board and the League of Women Voters.

“I’ve only missed two board meetings here at the community center,” said Jones. “One when my husband died and one when my mother-in-law died.”

Northeast Community Center director Jean Farmer said Jones has had something to do with pretty much everything happening at the community center.

“A comment we often hear from her is: You can never stop working because there’s always more to do,” said Farmer.

Still, Jones is not taking on another big project, though she laughs when asked.

“I’m tired, I’m old, I’m not planning any big things right now,” Jones said, smiling. She added that she’ll stay on the board of the League of Women Voters.

And she’s proud and happy about all the work being done at the Northeast Community Center today.

“They do some great work here; there’s always something new and interesting coming up,” Jones said.

Jones said she feels like the center is meeting the needs of the neighborhood – a neighborhood she said has changed a lot for the better.

How did she manage to keep going through all these years of volunteer work?

“It may seem like a lot, when you look at it as 30 years,” Jones said. “But remember: It’s just one day at a time. You do a day at a time.”