By Lauren Adams
Success was uncommon on the rough streets of East St. Louis when a young Jackie Joyner-Kersee tuned in to the 1976 Summer Olympics. Joyner-Kersee was determined to make it out of this city, where at the age of 11 she saw a man gunned down and where it was the norm to become pregnant by 14. Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol like many of her peers, she found solace in athletics, hoping one day, she too, would grace the television screen.
Today Joyner-Kersee is known as one of the best female athletes of all time. A four-time Olympian, she has stood on the podium a total of six times, medaling in the heptathalon and the long jump.
“Failure was never an option,” she said in her keynote speech at this year’s Destiny Awards at St. Phillips School and Community Center.
The 12th annual awards luncheon benefitting St. Philip’s School and Community Center was recently held in downtown Dallas at the Belo Mansion. The Destiny Awards celebrate those who have bridged the gap between economic and racial communities. Past recipients include the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, Fort Worth Avenue and Development Group, Rev. S.M. Wright II and Rev. Calvin Wright, and Barbara Lord Watkins.
Joyner-Kersee is an ambassador for St. Philip’s and has been a friend to the school for more than 15 years. “She really understands and values what we do,” said St. Philip’s Advancement Director, Anyika McMillan-Herod.
St. Philip’s School and Community Center in south Dallas provides more than 280 children an education founded in Christian principles and community service. The Pre-K through 6th grade school lays a strong foundation for success, as 97 percent of alumni graduate high school and 88 percent attend college.
The school’s community center serves more than 1,200 south Dallas residents, providing sports programs and social services. It was in a similar center that Joyner-Kersee learned that hard work can make your dreams a reality.
“If you believe it, yes, you will achieve it,” she said at the luncheon, which benefits St. Phillip’s.
Joyner-Kersee’s early athletic prowess at East St. Louis Lincoln High led to her qualifying for the 1980 Olympic Trials in Long Jump as a senior, and earned her a basketball scholarship at UCLA. There, she starred in both track and field and women’s basketball for five years, taking one season off to concentrate on training for the 1984 Olympics.
Through all of her success, Joyner-Kersee has not forgotten her roots.
“We’re all a product of somewhere and someplace and it’s up to us to embrace it and to share it – our gifts – with the world,” Joyner-Kersee told her audience at the awards ceremony.
The Belo mansion came alive the day of the Destiny Awards: uniformed St. Philip’s students played the violin and cello, held open doors with unwavering smiles, and recited the school’s creed. The school attempts to foster a love of learning and a sense of gratitude in the students, who come from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, say school officials. About 400 people attended the luncheon.
While working to blur the lines between races and social classes, these individuals and groups have created a better future for children like those at St. Philip’s, and have allowed those children to have dreams like Joyner-Kersee’s.
St. Philip’s Executive Director and Headmaster Dr. Terry Flowers commended Joyner-Kersee for her work in creating The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis, a town, he said, the world tried to forget.
Throughout her keynote speech, Joyner-Kersee shared the struggles she overcame by participating in athletics and concluded that destiny begins with a dream and ambition.
Joyner-Kersee’s dream defied all odds. An asthmatic, she had to don face masks at times while competing, struggled with a pulled hamstring, and tragically lost her mother to illness at 18, but she never dabbled in anything that could deter her from reaching her goal.
“I never drank, smoked, sipped champagne,” Joyner-Kersee said. Such things were not of interest to her. She had a dream and she knew what her destiny was to be.
Keynote speaker Joyner-Kersee’s encouraging spirit filled the ballroom and left the guests inspired.
Flowers described Joyner-Kersee as a “divine fire”.
Mistress of Ceremonies Pat Smith said she would take Joyner-Kersee’s charge and improve her own hometown in Virginia: “I heard God speak to me through you.”
These awards serve as a reminder, said McMillan-Herod, that everyone’s destiny is linked.
Lauren Adams is a sophomore journalism student at SMU minoring in fashion media, sociology, and French