From the Appalachians to Asia and Africa: Meet a woman who has dedicated her career to improving kids’ futures
A visit back to her Kentucky roots with Save the Children brought Joy Marini full circle—and underscored the importance of the work she does with Johnson & Johnson to help children around the globe.
As a child living in Whitley County, Kentucky, Joy Marini always felt she was growing up in a “beautiful, stunning” place. At the time, she didn’t realize what she knows now: It was also one of the poorest counties in the Appalachian Mountains during that period.
Today, in her role as Johnson & Johnson’s Global Director of Insights, Global Community Impact, Marini’s gone far beyond the foothills of those mountains to traverse continents from Asia to Africa, where she builds partnerships to ensure that women, children and healthcare workers have the tools they need to survive—and thrive.
Last month, though, her job took her back to Whitley County. The reason? A visit with Save the Children, a company partner for nearly 25 years that has supported schoolchildren in Kentucky since the Great Depression.
In celebration of Save the Children’s centennial—and the organization naming Marini a Changemaker for Children—she sat down with us to share how it felt to return to her roots and give back to the place where her life of public service began.
My Old Kentucky Home: How a Small-Town Girl Became a Globe-Trotter
Joy Marini: “I grew up in southeastern Kentucky in a fairly isolated but close-knit community. It’s a place where folks really look out for one another. My high school graduating class had fewer than 40 people!
My parents were always helping others, whether it was my mom, a physician who led a local women’s club, or my dad, a pharmacist, saying, ‘I’m going to be late—I have to drop somebody’s medications off.’ Not because that was a service the pharmacy offered, but simply because somebody needed help. So I was raised in a house that valued service.
That said, my work in global development was a complete accident. I graduated college with an animal science and agriculture degree and immediately was like, ‘Whoa, I have no farm. I’ve made a critical mistake!’
I eventually ended up at a pharmaceutical company, then advertising agencies, and picked up an MBA along the way. Later, I became a physician assistant, but ultimately decided to go back to a big company—I missed the energy of it. So I came to Johnson & Johnson.
If I’m in the office, a typical day is spent working with our partners understanding what’s happening on the ground, identifying how a program can fill a gap and whether it’s culturally appropriate for that community, and then figuring out how we can then measure that work. If I’m out in the field with a partner like Save the Children, I’m usually overseeing our programs and advocating for health workers in such vulnerable communities as those in Uganda, Malawi, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
Johnson & Johnson’s Global Corporate Affairs team had a Day of Caring before the holidays last year, and employees at our company headquarters wrote letters to children Save the Children supports—the way a pen pal would. At one point, I asked, ‘Where are all these letters going?’ And they said, ‘Whitley County, Kentucky.’ I said, ‘You know I grew up there, right?’
And that’s how I wound up going back home recently to help deliver those letters in person.
I’ve always been struck by the Johnson & Johnson mission statement that states: ‘We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well.’ That speaks to how what’s happening in your backyard is so interconnected to the rest of the world.
Giving Children in the Rural U.S. a Stronger Start in Life
When I was growing up, Whitley County was one of the poorest in the Appalachian Mountains. I remember hearing that as a kid and thinking: What? We’re not poor! But when you’re in school, or playing outside with your friends, those differences aren’t obvious.
Poverty in the United States is more hidden than in other places in the world. It’s easy for us to not see it in our own backyard. You don’t know how many kids are on subsidized meals, or who doesn’t have educated or working parents. I knew families without running water, but that didn’t seem unusual.
Today, 38% of the children in Whitley County live below the poverty line. Save the Children is there supporting the county’s youngest residents through its Early Steps to School Success program, which gives parents the skills in language, social and emotional development that they need to be their child’s first and best teacher. Their literacy programs ensure these kids don’t fall behind once they’re in kindergarten and beyond. Ultimately, Save the Children wants to make sure that kids from the most disadvantaged families not only keep up, but excel. Between these two initiatives, they’re reaching more than 4,000 youngsters there.
During my trip, we visited two elementary schools to share some of the 60 letters that had been written. We each grabbed a stack and sat with small groups of kids to read the letters aloud, or have them read to us.
People had decorated their letters with stickers or drawings, and shared things about their lives, like, ‘We have mountains too, but not like the mountains of Kentucky.’ These kinds of details really sparked a curiosity in the kids. They’d ask things like: ‘Well, where is New Jersey, or New York, or Pennsylvania? How far is the beach? And what’s a bagel?’
So the letters were a great opener for a real conversation. If someone’s letter said, ‘I like to run for exercise,’ I’d ask, ‘Well, what do you like to do to get exercise?’
The kids laughed a lot as they read them. They were super engaged and curious, and their eyes would light up if you asked if they wanted to read another one. Everyone who wrote letters during the Day of Caring did a really good job at giving these children a window into what life somewhere else is like—something they may not yet have gotten to experience.
Save the Children also lends families books and suggests simple enrichment activities that can help with vocabulary, motor or critical thinking skills—fun learning moments you can do at the grocery store or at home.
I’ve always been struck by Our Credo, the Johnson & Johnson mission statement that states: ‘We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well.’ That speaks to how what’s happening in your backyard is so interconnected to the rest of the world.
Save the Children’s work in Kentucky, with support from Johnson & Johnson, demonstrates how important the early years are for a child’s development—starting with enriching experiences for a baby, then beginning reading with toddlers and continuing that thread of support all the way through primary school. Inspiring programs like this one make me proud to work for Johnson & Johnson, which places the highest value on healthy futures for children and families—whether they are across the world or right next door.”