Jackie Joyner-Kersee shares about value of philanthropy during inaugural Women of Elon Weekend

Joyner-Kersee, recognized as one of the top U.S. track and field athletes of all time, participated in a keynote discussion with President Connie Ledoux Book at the Women of Elon Weekend.

Standing atop the Olympic podium as a gold medalist in track and field, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was overcome with emotion as the national anthem began to play.

She recounted to a room full of more than 100 participants in Elon’s inaugural Women of Elon Weekend on Friday, March 15, that she like other top athletes was feeling invincible and tough leading up to that moment, but that even the toughest shed tears of appreciation during such a meaningful milestone.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, center, poses for a photo at the Women of Elon Weekend luncheon at The Inn of Elon, March 15, 2024

“All of these tears of joy start coming out because I am so grateful and thankful for the people who helped me get there,” Joyner-Kersee told the crowd.

Joyner-Kersee’s conversation on Friday with President Connie Ledoux Book was a highlight of the two-day Women of Elon Weekend event that brought together dozens of women to connect more deeply with the Elon community and foster personal and professional growth. The conference extends Elon’s efforts to engage women in philanthropy and was organized by the Women of Elon Advisory Council, which includes a diverse network of alumnae, parents and friends of the university.

Across the two days, participants connected with one another in networking events and breakout sessions with topics including building networks, inclusive leadership and practices, harnessing the science of happiness for well-being and growth, and other topics.

At Friday’s keynote luncheon, Kebbler McGhee Williams ’98, member and secretary of the Elon Board of Trustees, explained that Elon hosted its first women’s philanthropy event in May 2017 and that since then, the engagement of women in philanthropic efforts at Elon have grown. Out of that growth came a desire to host more events specifically for women, which led to the creation of the Women of Elon Weekend, which had the theme of “Celebrating our Impact and Transforming Student Lives.”

“It is important to measure our impact and to celebrate the short-term wins as well as the longer-term gains, to remember the years and years of impact that philanthropy has had on Elon’s overall success as a university and specifically how philanthropy has transformed so many of Elon students’ lives,” Williams said.

She counts her own among those lives changed by Elon and philanthropy, and she recounted how she was able to attend Elon as a North Carolina Teaching Fellow. “I have gone on to receive two additional degrees from two other universities since my graduation from Elon, and it is my education and my experience at Elon that has made me who I am today. I cannot possibly pay back the philanthropic efforts that supported my education here, but I can definitely pay it forward.”

During her discussion with President Book, Joyner-Kersee likewise credited the investment of others in her for the success she saw as an athlete and the impact she has been able to make as a philanthropist. Through the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, she has founded and continues to expand a youth center in her hometown of East St. Louis that is changing the lives of scores of young people.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee visited with the Elon University Track and Field team in the Gill Room, March 14, 2024.

Joyner-Kersee said her mother was a guiding force as she was developing as a student and an athlete and was critical in helping her understand the power of an education. “She helped me and poured into me everything she could,” she said. “I never forgot that as I moved into a position where I could do the same thing for someone else.”

Drawing from questions suggested by those in the crowd, Book asked Joyner-Kersee to offer advice for young people today who are trying to perform and achieve at a high level. “You have to get out of your own way,” Joyner-Kersee said. “You have to trust. Faith is a part of everything I do. When you run into difficult situations and circumstances, it’s easy to abandon all you know. … I am a believer in focusing on the things I can control and not worrying about the things I cannot.”

Joyner-Kersee shared that she experienced racism and sexism as an athlete, some of which was designed to distract her from being able to achieve what she wanted to achieve and knew it was within her to achieve. Talking recently with a young athlete about dealing with negativity, Joyner-Kersee said she shared with the girl that it’s best to think of those people as the clowns at the carnival that are just trying to distract you. “People are going to say things to really stop you from focusing on what you need to do,” Joyner-Kersee. “Those are the clowns trying to distract you from getting to the top, from getting to where you want to be.”

Janet Williams, Vice President for Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer, left, chats with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, right, at the Women of Elon luncheon at the Inn of Elon, March 15, 2024

It was as a student-athlete in high school that Joyner-Kersee said she really started to learn about the importance of giving back. Her coaches reiterated the importance of sharing what you have and what you know with others, she said. “They taught me that whatever we were learning at the next level, come back and share it with the next generation,” she said.

More than a decade ago, Joyner-Kersee formed a partnership that leased 60 acres of land in the St. Louis area that was used to grow a variety of produce including corn, soybeans and radishes. The agricultural venture offered an opportunity to help provide fresh produce in an area that was underserved and provided students served by her community center in East St. Louis the opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship and agriculture. That initial effort has now led to a new effort to build an innovation center adjacent to the community center in collaboration with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “It’s very important for our students to know where food comes from,” Joyner-Kersee said.

She is continuing the expand the capacity of her foundation to serve young people in a variety of ways — academically, athletically, civically. “I want them to be great human beings,” Joyner-Kersee said. “If you’re a great person, you’ll do great things in life.”