Article originally published on July 31, 2017
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County served up an epic gala fundraiser at the Marriott West in Middleton on Thursday night. With donors, sponsors, children, parents and mentors on hand, the annual fundraising event went off without a hitch and attendees were treated to a very special keynote speaker.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a six-time Olympic medalist, is widely recognized as one of the greatest female athletes of all time. Since retiring from competition, Joyner-Kersee has focused on working with children through her Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, based in East Saint Louis. Kersee’s Foundation lets youth as young as five years old participate in dance, basketball, soccer, softball, chess, art and track & field.
Kersee’s Olympic resume along with her towering presence in lives of today’s youth made her an easy choice to be the keynote speaker for Big Brothers, Big Sisters annual gala fundraiser.
“When the Gala began we had a sports figure, someone to draw people to the organization,” CEO Sandy Morales said. “It’s been football players and male athletes. Then last year we had Nancy Lieberman and this year it’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee. We want to be able to highlight both men and women that can really inspire the crowd in terms of mentoring. Everybody has been mentored by someone in their lives.”
Morales said that having Joyner-Kersee as the keynote speaker signals a shift in the thinking of Big Brothers Big Sisters to being a more inclusive entity. Joyner-Kersee being a woman of color is also very important.
“Most of our mentors are caucasian so we’re always trying to recruit more volunteers that look like our kids,” Morales said. “About 86 percent of the kids are kids of color. And that’s just here in Dane County.”
Fourteen-year-old Diaveon Hairston has been dreaming about meeting Joyner-Kersee for years.
“She is a really big inspiration because I like track and field a lot and I’ve watched her on Youtube videos and stuff,” Hairston said. “It’s just really awesome to be able to meet her and sit at a table with her.”
Hairston, who has been in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program for three years, had the honor of introducing Joyner-Kersee to the Gala during the event. As a girl of color, Hairston understands the importance of both having a mentor and being able to look up to someone like Joyner-Kersee as an inspirational person who also looks like her.
“I think the most important thing I’ve learned from my mentor is just to be yourself and just work hard and know your goals,” Hairston said.
Joyner-Kersee knows the feeling. Well before she was a national champion and Olympic Gold medalist, she looked up and saw a mentor who both looked just like her and provided direction.
“For me, Wilma Rudolph is someone I admire and she took me under her wing,” Joyner-Kersee said in an exclusive interview with Madison365. “She said the sports world is great but there’s gonna be a lot of people tugging on you, pulling on you. Never let yourself lose sight of who you are and your true goals.”
Joyner-Kersee chuckles softly as she reflects on her position in the lives of young girls like Diaveon.
“I had great teachers, coaches, mentors and people that helped me through a community center that became part of my extended family,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I feel extremely blessed and I don’t take the position I’m in lightly or for granted. To be able to share myself with people is really a blessing. My message, my knowledge, my advice!”
It would be easy to look at the eight shining Olympic medals in photos of her on the internet and think that Joyner-Kersee had the whole world at her feet. Today when one googles the phrase Greatest Female Athlete, Jackie Joyner Kersee is one of the first results and is often the picture shown.
But Joyner-Kersee finds it easy to give back today because she knows she never had the world at her feet. She never had a free ride or easy success or a straight path to victory. Her freshman year at UCLA, 1980, was one of the low points of her life.
“I lost my mom that year. I was so far away from home,” Joyner-Kersee said. “Really the best thing I had going for me was a dorm room and all the food I could eat because I didn’t really have a place to live when I came back home. Then being diagnosed as an asthmatic. It all started coming crashing down. I started to think, you know, maybe I’m not that good. Maybe I’m just good in Illinois.”
Joyner-Kersee realized then that even with all the goals she had set for herself and all the time people had spent trying to help her, she was going to have to apply all that she had learned from others. No one could do it for her anymore. The whole point of mentoring someone, she found, is that you prepare them for the moment in which they’ll have to do it on their own.
But now that her own moment was upon her, she wasn’t so sure she could do it.
“I was having a really rough year,” she said. “Then when I transitioned from basketball to track, all of a sudden I just wasn’t jumping the way I thought I should have been jumping. I remember calling back to my high school coach, Coach Nino Fennoy, who said just remember I went to college for an education. You know, like, he didn’t really care. That’s when I had to figure out what I was doing because UCLA was my school of choice. But because something wasn’t working right I almost wanted to give up.”
Joyner-Kersee’s words hung in the air. Is that what ended up happening? Did she give up and find some other path to the glory we know she had later? Kersee sat reflectively looking at the table providing no hint. When asked what she did next, she laughed dismissively and waved her hand.
“Oh, I stayed and worked my way through it, became a national champion and went on to the Olympic trials!” she said laughing hard. “You know!? I realized that you go through things and that was a really big defining moment for me. I didn’t know it at the time but it was. Because you’re gonna have to figure out how you’re gonna deal with it. You can’t run away from all your problems.”
Joyner-Kersee fought through injuries in the 1984 Olympics to win her first Silver Medal. From that moment on, she knew she could overcome anything and achieve her goals.
“I just had to go through that and learn that I have the ability to do this,” she said. “But it takes more than the ability. You gotta have the total package. And the total package to me is once your body is in shape, when we all line up it’s the one that’s the toughest mentally that will succeed. I focused on what I needed to do. And if that process was going to take forever, it was a process that I needed to go through. That process taught me a lot about being humble and staying appreciative. And learning what it is I need to do to get to the next step or the next day.”
Today, Jackie Joyner-Kersee looks like she could still compete. She has stayed in shape and continued to be focused on daily goals. Now, at the forefront of community work, she displays the same intensity that led her to hold world records.
“When I’m doing work in my community center, you know now you’re dealing with human beings,” she said. “So it’s motivating and inspiring them to be the best they can be because the better they are, the more relatable they can be for the young people they’re working with.”
As perhaps the face of women’s sports to an entire generation, Joyner-Kersee deeply recognizes her role in the lives of young girls she mentors.
“Some of the things I see is that young girls need to learn to communicate better with one another,” she said. “How we talk to each other and also understanding what it truly means to have respect for yourself. A week from now I’m going to be doing a girls’ symposium with elementary, middle and high school girls. One of the things we’re going to talk about is how they can mobilize to do different things and give back.”
Kersee said that this generation is not any different than previous generations in terms of guiding them, mentoring them or motivating them to do well. We just think they are!
“I don’t think they’re more difficult, I think we as adults just claim that they are,” Kersee said. “So we give them ownership of that and then they take on that ownership. So it’s really how can we change the narrative and meet them where they are while also challenging them to do more.”
Joyner-Kersee said that’s the message she wanted the children at the Big Brothers and Big Sisters event to receive.
“You know, I think it basically is about persevering, hard work, dreaming. Believing in the dream and know that the dream is forever evolving,” she said.
Big Brothers and Big Sisters serves approximately 600 matches between children and mentors every year, with another 300 kids on a waiting list.
Sandy Morales hopes that through fundraising gala’s and speakers like Jackie Joyner Kersee, more people will be inspired to both volunteer their time and their finances to help them serve more children.
“Usually we have about 250 to 300 kids who are waiting to have a big brother or big sister,” Morales said. “And so we need the resources just to go out and recruit, to interview, to match. By 2021 we want to be able to support a thousand kids from Dane County and have all the kids stay matched all the way through high school.”
Diaveon Hairston wants to go to college and make her parents happy and have a happy life. Being paired with her mentor is allowing her to do just that.
“Sometimes all the kid needs is just a little bit of your time,” Joyner-Kersee said. “To know that you care. And that one minute of time could mean a lifetime of happiness for that young person.”