Leanne Joyce ’22 thought a life-threatening congenital heart defect had taken her choices away forever. Then she remembered the kindness of a stranger, which gave a scared 12-year-old girl the strength and inspiration to make what may turn out to be the most important choice of all.
“I had no symptoms at the time. It was a complete shock, and I was extremely devastated,” Joyce said of being told she had to immediately end all rigorous physical activity because of aortic valve stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve. “When I was in the hospital, a group of volunteers gave me a gift, and it just meant so much to know people cared. I made the decision to use the time I couldn’t spend playing sports to give back and help other kids.”
And has she ever. Joyce founded “Positive Impact for Kids” as a sixth grader. In the nine years since, the energy she once used to become a nationally ranked jump roper has instead gone toward improving the hospital experience for children and teenagers.
Positive Impact for Kids has raised more than $150,000 and partnered with 118 hospitals representing every state to provide iPads, gaming systems and other gifts for young patients to help them cope with their unpleasant new reality. Joyce, who has been featured by the likes of CNN and The Huffington Post as well as multiple media outlets near her hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, began with an idea for a bake sale that blossomed because of dedication and work.
“There are a lot of youth grants out there, so I started with small things like $500 and then worked my way up to competing against professional grant writers and receiving a lot of larger grants,” she said. “I’ve just been doing it for a really long time.”
What Joyce has been able to accomplish on her own is remarkable. The question of what she could achieve with help is being answered this year at Furman as Joyce uses that experience to serve in the unprecedented role of simultaneously being a Shucker Leadership Institute Sophomore Fellow and running the local nonprofit her group works with.
The Shucker Leadership Institute is a two-year program designed to help students engage the community through partnerships and service. Sophomore fellows work in small groups with a mentor to complete a Leadership Challenge Project (LCP) by collaborating with a local or national organization.
Joyce has been leading a group of six other students as they learn to write effective grants, make fundraising pitches and otherwise help a nonprofit be impactful, which in this case is Positive Impact for Kids. The culmination of their LCP will be the “Rock ‘N Roll 5K” walk/run to held Sunday, March 22, on campus to benefit local children’s hospitals.
“Sending professional emails has all been new for people in this group, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to be the best mentor that I can,” Joyce said. “All of our efforts have been going into this 5K.”
The team includes Drew Warner ’22, who spearheaded organizing the 5K, Laura Hoeker ’22, Maddie Tedrick ’22, Sofia Siddiqui ’22, Hill Douglas ’22 and Emily Capeta ’22, who went with Joyce to Seattle in late February after Positive Impact for Kids was one of 30 selected from a pool of 428 entries to participate T-Mobile’s second annual Changemaker Challenge.
The Changemaker Challenge is a nationwide contest for youth ages 13 to 23 with the best ideas for driving change in their communities.
“Working with Leanne has been really inspiring. I got to see how much work she truly does,” Capeta, an economics major from Green, Ohio, said. “So many peoples’ projects started from a place of pain … But they knew that things were so much bigger than themselves, which was really eye-opening and made you think a lot.”
Positive Impact for Kids wasn’t ultimately one of the winners, but it did receive $2,000 in seed funding. Joyce and Capeta also met with mentors from T-Mobile and Ashoka, a global nonprofit made up of a network of social entrepreneurs, during the three-day immersive experience.
“I learned a lot about how best to utilize a team and mobilize those efforts, so that was really helpful,” Joyce said. “(Capeta) got to step into this world and see everything. I think that was really cool for her as well.”
Joyce, a German major on a pre-med track, also was awarded $1,000 for coming in second at Furman’s Innovation Hour in the fall, and her goal is to eventually fund a “teenage playroom” at a hospital in the Greenville area. If that happens, it would be almost as good as the news she got about her own health recently following a second heart surgery in a five years.
A double-balloon catheterization to widen the faulty valve is not a permanent solution, but right now Joyce feels so good she has worked her way to swimming on Furman’s club team and even recently competed in the national collegiate jump rope championship.
“I was cleared to do sports again, which was the most exciting thing ever,” Joyce said. “I went from barely being able to walk the length of a hallway when I was at my lowest point, struggling to talk during a conversation and breathe … I’m really grateful.”
Joyce won’t be running in the Rock ‘N Roll 5K, but that’s only because she’ll be too busy handling logistics. Start time is 2 p.m. from Timmons Arena. Click here to register.