Boys and Girls Club Honors Virginia Woman With Their Top Award

Joanie Petty, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Blue Ridge, received the group's highest honor.

By Amie Knowles

November 21, 2020

A Martinsville woman recently received the highest honor from the Boys and Girls Club of America.

MARTINSVILLE – One Martinsville woman recently received the shock of a lifetime.

Earlier this week, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America contacted Joanie Petty, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Blue Ridge. They scheduled a video conference, telling her only that they wanted to film her reaction, which piqued her interest.

When she arrived at the virtual conference, none other than Jim Clark, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, greeted her. However, it wasn’t just a friendly hello. He had a special surprise in store for Petty.

Clark spoke about Petty’s drive to impact and make a difference in her community, citing the various creative ways she helped children and teenagers during the pandemic and beyond. Then, he presented her – virtually – with the Blue Spirit Award.

The Blue Spirit Award is the highest honor the Boys and Girls Club of America president bestows to a local club professional in a region each year.

This year, Petty received the top award for her role in the southeast region. The region covers Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

“That’s really cool for Martinsville-Henry County, the Boys and Girls Club of the Blue Ridge, to have that recognition,” Petty said.

The makings of an award recipient

In the video conference released on Wednesday, Clark explained ways that Petty demonstrated exemplary leadership during the COVID-19 crisis.

Petty gave a nod toward role models – both real and fictional – that made her into the vivacious, tenacious leader she became.

“I try to stay very kid-like in my way – in my heart, in my mind – I try to keep that youthful spirit inside of me,” Petty said. “But I can really see the impact that people, adults, especially when I was growing up, the impact that they had on my life put me on this trajectory of wanting to do something, of wanting to be something. Whatever that was going to be, whatever I became, it was because people saw things in me that I maybe thought about myself and didn’t really know it, or knew about myself and I didn’t know that other people saw it too, or that I didn’t know it about myself and then I started to become very curious.”

Four mentors came from literature.

“There are a couple. Mary Poppins is one. Then Jo March from Little Women is another one. And Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables is another one. And Kristy Thomas from The Baby-Sitters Club,” Petty said. “So if you think about those four women and what they did, how they were as people, they were stubborn and headstrong, very strong minded, wanted to pull people together, had a vision, whether it was entrepreneurial or business or finding a need and meeting that need, or just the spirit about them that was so fiery that they had to do this.”

Literature comes to life

Looking at her favorite characters and their traits, Petty noticed another trend.

“Most of it was around children – doing this for children who needed it because they felt in their life, like they had this compassion about them that was natural and they just didn’t know what to do with it, except either go with this and create this or oppose this and do this. You know, they weren’t afraid to stand up for kids,” Petty said.

The characters went beyond their normal societal roles and took charge of their own stories, positively impacting others in the process.

“They taught them. They taught children, they taught the community through their ways. Like Mary Poppins, she taught the family. She worked with the kids, she cared for the kids, she disciplined the kids, but she made the impact on the family. Through that, she brought the family together. Anne Shirley did the same thing. Kristy Thomas did the same thing. Jo March did the same thing,” Petty said. “And it was out of their love and their spirit and their fire for teaching, for community and for kids that they did all that. Like, those are my heroines.”

Walking into the BGCBR, kids encounter Poppins, Shirley, March and Thomas on a daily basis. They simply know the ladies by a different, singular name: Mrs. Petty.

“It’s kind of cool, when I think about it sometimes. I’m like, ‘I really am living that life,’” Petty said. “Right now, if I just croaked over, I would have achieved all of my goals.”

The pandemic hits

Even though she’s living her dream, that doesn’t mean Petty has an easy job – especially this year, with all of the statewide restrictions in place due to COVID-19. That didn’t stop her from helping when the community needed her most. In fact, it’s an area where Petty’s skills shine.

In college, Petty majored in Public Health. When the pandemic hit, she put her training into action.

“Community health, epidemiology, disease prevention, all of these things that are public health related, I feel like I’m in my element,” Petty said.

She wasted no time putting a plan into place.

“I think our response was, we know that we run effective school-aged, out-of-school programs. We knew that we had the optimal training – like, the staff that had been trained in safety protocols because our school-aged sites have been licensed and we had been operating for so long,” Petty said. “So our response was, we’re going to do whatever it takes. We’re going to do whatever it takes to try to figure out how to do this as safely as possible because our heart is for school-aged children.”

The club’s response

Petty’s group stepped in quickly and efficiently, providing resources for the kids. First, they consolidated five sites down to three, a difficult, but necessary decision. 

“We automatically knew there were going to be some issues in learning, with academic success, which is a focus area of ours,” Petty said. “I think we went straight into, let’s problem solve, let’s figure out how to find the solutions, let’s look within our spaces and see what we can realistically do that won’t put us in a financial hardship, but will also allow us to secure the resources we need to provide the education, the technology, the meals and snacks and the safe places for kids to be so their parents can go to work and so that they don’t get so far behind in school.”

The changes took the groups in-person size down from 360 children to 110. However, BGCBR still offers virtual tutoring and connecting with previous club members who are unable to come in-person. There’s also a waiting list of approximately 25 children and five teenagers to join the BGCBR.

“We also knew that our model, like our operational framework from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, just being a Boys and Girls Club, is flexible and adaptable. So we aren’t institutionalized in a very rigid way,” Petty said. “Therefore, we could flex ourselves and not forego safety because safety is a top priority for the clubs.”

Announced as the winner

When Petty received the Blue Spirit Award, she expressed that she felt excited, esteemed and humbled.

“I think it gave me words of affirmation, really,” Petty said.

The award brought her lifelong ambition full-circle.

“To get this award, being a chief executive officer who is running a program that is providing childcare for kids while their parents can go to work and keeping them safe, is exactly the type of chief executive officer I know I should be because it’s public health related,” Petty said.

Although Petty expressed confidence in her abilities, the recognition impacted her.

“Getting that award affirmed, kind of like the people that saw things in me when I was younger and I was like, ‘I think that about myself, but I don’t really know it,’” Petty said. “When Jim Clark, the president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America said, ‘Joanie, you knew what you were doing, and I choose you and I recognize what you did,’ there was a humility, like a humbleness that I felt, but I also felt very affirmed.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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