Long Story Short: Joy Chiles

Long Story Short is a video series that celebrates the creative, ambitious, and forward-thinking people who are making North Carolina a better place. In two minutes flat, we show how fledgling ideas became thriving movements. Nominate someone for Long Story Short.

Joy Chiles, a high school teacher in Durham County, had an epiphany in the classroom: If she really wanted to prepare students for the opportunities that awaited them after graduation, she needed to go beyond academics. So she formed her own nonprofit that teaches life skills to 13- to 24-year-olds.

We sat down with Joy to learn how it all began. (We had a blast during the interview; here’s proof that Joy has an amazing sense of humor.)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your family and experiences shape who you are today?

I was born in Charlotte and grew up in Detroit. My father and mother moved around due to my dad’s job. 

With my family, I was always taught you start something, you finish it. My mother always told me, “Keep your heart and mind on things above.” My father said, “You know, life is full of choices, so you have the choice to do what you want to do in life.”

Education, education, education — that’s all I heard. I remember walking on Morgan State’s campus and I had to choose what my major was. I wanted communication, and my father said, “Going into education, you’ll always have a job. Your great-grandfather was educated, your mom’s an educator.”

So, education is where I ended up going, but I chose family and consumer sciences because it’s completely different.

Joy Chiles

Your mom once bought you something that had a lasting impact on your life.

Yes. My mom and I were in Oakland Mall in Michigan shopping when she got me a flat, herringbone bracelet. She said, “Let’s get ‘precious’ engraved on it.” 

She said, “This is precious. You’re precious. And always remember that.” She always would tell me about caring for yourself and not waiting until you get older to take care of yourself.

And I think a part of that bracelet and her giving it to me was like a little memento of that time. She’s a breast cancer survivor, and I would take care of her. I would come home from college and take her to her doctor’s appointments, and we always talked about these times being precious.

As time has gone by, “precious times” just kind of stuck.

I think with her giving me that, it planted the seed for what is here now. I called her when I presented at the youth expo and I just said, “Mom, I just want to say thank you for giving me that bracelet, because you instilled something in me at that time, and your passion for helping youth was connected to that. And I just want to say thank you and I’m doing it.”

Talk about your path to becoming a teacher.

My mother taught for 35 years, and I would go to her school after my school, or she would come home and I would see her writing the little blocks, and doing the lesson plans, or spending her money to buy pens and pencils.

I always knew it was time to go to mom’s school because she would say, “Okay, go get the stuffed animals.” She taught second grade and fifth grade, I believe. And I would clean chalkboards and take the gum off the chairs and all those different types of things.

I got my bachelor’s in family and consumer sciences, and with that you can do anything. Then I went on and got my master’s in substance abuse counseling, a psychology degree, and I just kind of put all those little things together.

I started off teaching in Prince George’s county, Maryland, and I taught a lot of minority students. There was a diverse population. Now I teach ninth through 12th grade at Durham County Public Schools, and I’ve been teaching for about seven years.

What made you decide to help your students outside the classroom?

I realized that teaching was more than just the curriculum. It was more than just a test or quiz. The kids needed something more — they needed those life skills.

They needed someone to speak about what was really going on in their life behind the scenes. They needed more options and opportunities. I heard the things youth would share with me and how they would open up and talk with me, and I saw the need that they had.

Right now is the time when youth should be shaped and molded for those opportunities we’re always speaking about and preparing them for the future. Well, we just can’t prepare them for the future if they’re in a classroom talking about science and math questions. What about the life part?

How did you go from that realization to actually doing something about it?

I got to a place where I felt like the classroom was keeping me in this little space and I couldn’t breathe, because I had to do a curriculum and take attendance and hearing these bells and going to class and all these different types of things.

The joy of what I really wanted to do was reaching out, and helping kids, and giving them a platform to speak out, and guiding them. I was limited in the classroom.

I almost felt like God was yelling at me, like, “Joy, I can’t do what I need to do with other people’s lives until you do what I need you to do.”

Preciouss Timess was just something I needed to do. It’s like when you have that “Aha!” moment. It just came together and I said, “You know what? This is what I need to do, and I need to start it right now.”

How would you describe Preciouss Timess?

It’s a non-profit organization that works with youth between the ages of 13 and 24. We provide positive experiences and exposure that leads students to options and opportunities — the recipe for a successful life.

It’s really about experiences, outreach, and community love. It’s not just about having something to do — it’s about sharing in that moment, in that time, in that space and giving up your gifts and your talents. It’s not about the money — it’s about what can you give to someone else.

What kinds of things do you do?

I’ve taught kids how to sew, the basics. We go on workforce or workplace development outings, feed the homeless with the Durham Rescue Mission, make sandwiches with Meals on Wheels of Durham. I’m looking to do like a health fair where they actually learn how to cook.

Kids also need an outlet for real conversations. I’ve used my lunchtime for kids to come and listen to me speak, and I’ve created talk sessions where kids can come and actually have anonymous questions, whatever’s on their hearts and minds.

We talk about relationships, we talk about why my mom is this way, mental health, substance abuse … all down to different types of foods and how it changes your body. So it’s just giving them that outlet I think they need.

A lot of kids sit at home during the summertime, and they have nothing to do. I want to take kids to the beach. I want them to go to the mountains. I want them to visit the Biltmore. I want to take them to Kings Dominion. I want them to go sit and have a nice meal at Ruth’s Chris, because you never know where you’re going to end up.

What’s the most important thing you’re trying to share with students?

Be genuine, follow your heart, and be good to others. Everything else will fall into place.

Also, be honest. I think one of the main things the youth really enjoy when they speak with me is that I’m just honest. I see you as a person. If you’re doing something that’s harming yourself, don’t get upset that I’m telling you this — it’s something that you need to hear.

I also share with students that it’s really important to take care of yourself, to have that self-pride and self-appreciation. And to value your goals, and aspirations, and family.

How did you know you were on the right track with Preciouss Timess?

When kids started texting me, emailing me, saying, “Miss Chiles, we want more of you. We want to talk to you.”

When kids stopped going to their lunches, when kids wanted me to stay after school, when kids started looking for me in the morning time — I knew I was onto something.

What has been your biggest hurdle?

One hurdle has been helping people understand that kids need this. There’s demand for life skills and for students to be taught the importance of life and family and choices, and the decisions that need to be made.

Time management can also be a hurdle. I think life experiences and choices have helped me grow and understand discipline. Self-discipline is so important when you’re trying to begin anything.

It can be hard to take that first step and believe that you can do it. I would just talk to God and say, “You know what? I don’t know how to do a web page, but I’m going to try it, and however it turns out, I know you’ll send someone to help me.”

After I’ve started doing that and filing my papers, and working on my website, or just in general speaking to people, things opened up like it’s just the beginning.

Your husband has been one of your biggest champions.

Yes. I often tell people that I’m so thankful to have my husband as a support. He roots me on. “Okay, you should do this” or “Yeah, I think this is good.”

Not necessarily telling me what to do, but making suggestions and giving me different options or choices, a way to look at things.

It can hard to juggle everything because I have babies — that’s my world. My husband stays home with the babies and I go out and I do the work, and then he works in the evening time where he does his music recording. 

He’s God-sent, and I understand that. Ten years we’ll be married in September. We have three kids.

I understand that love is not boastful, and I try to keep my composure about the excitement and appreciation that I have. But sometimes I just want to share with the world. Like, you can have this too, and it’s just a lot about respect and honesty and just living your life, but yet coming together for that whole journey in what he wants to do and what I want to do and make it work.

My husband is always seeing a bigger picture. He’ll say, “You know, somebody will walk in and cut you a check tomorrow, Joy.” And my brain is like, “What? Who’s just going to cut me a check?”

You never know until you try. And I think that’s always been his approach: “You never know until you try.” Don’t think small. Think big.

It’s so amazing because after the 98 kids signed up on March 3, I said, “I need a building.” But he’s been saying all along, “You need a building.”

Speaking of that, what are your goals for the future?

My vision for Preciouss Timess is that it’s a household name.

I want to have a big center with resources for all ages, primarily middle school through young adults. You’ll have the sewing center, the cooking lab, an area for talk sessions. You’ll have a therapist there if you need to speak with someone.

I’d like to have substance abuse education courses students can take. I want to work with kids and young adults in prison services and prevention.

I want the youth to always have someone to greet them when they come in. “Have a good day” is one of the things I always value when I meet the kids.

I want to be able to have up-to-date kitchen and appliances for them to actually learn how to provide healthy meals for themselves or others. I envision nice couches for them to sit down and actually enjoy conversation.

That’s my vision — a building where I can go to and check in and lock the door and unlock the door, knowing that I’m actually doing what I’m supposed to do and what I started out to do. And I’m accomplishing those goals. I know I’m actually helping the kids.

Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.