Former Rescue Mission CEO Finds New Passion: Fighting Climate Change

Joy Sylvester-Johnson has a new “mission.”

After 31 years as the CEO of the Roanoke Rescue Mission, the shelter started by her parents in southeast Roanoke City, Joy Sylvester-Johnson has a new mission: helping to create a local non-partisan group that wants to educate others about the impact of climate change, something she claims is a fact that is becoming less and less challenged as time passes.

Sylvester-Johnson and Journey Church pastor Michael Duval – who initially slept at the Rescue Mission when he came to town without resources from Bluefield, West Virginia to plant a church in the valley – are volunteers for the Citizens Climate Lobby, which has 400-plus chapters nationwide and was created about ten years ago (

The local chapter held its initial public get together at Mill Mountain Coffee on Starkey Road and has a Facebook page (Citizens Climate Lobby Roanoke) for those that want to get involved in Roanoke.  Sylvester-Johnson calls it “a grass roots organization … that encourages citizens to establish the will for our country to engage on climate issues.”

She says the lobby has come up with a plan that encourages a move away from carbon-based fuel sources while recognizing the economic realities of doing that. “Our goal now is to help regular American citizens to be educated about climate and to support this [carbon dividend] plan, to write their representatives and let this plan come to fruition.”

Duval recites a well-known mantra, that “97 percent of climate scientists believe that, based on the evidence, that human-caused global warming is happening.” He points to research by organizations such as NASA that back up that claim; Sylvester-Johnson says climate change has impacted the Virginia coast – causing sea levels in the Hampton Roads area to rise by 17 inches in recent decades as polar ice caps melt.

“We humans are not ready to change anything until we hurt,” says Sylvester-Johnson, perhaps drawing on her experiences over many years at the Rescue Mission, which grew from just being a shelter for the homeless to a complex offering many recovery services. “When [people] start feeling the pain that’s when they start looking for a solution.”

Duval points to other evidence like stronger hurricanes and extended droughts, saying also that a “minor faction” still holds on to the contention that humans play no part in global warming, that climate change is all cyclical in the life of the planet. “The vast majority of scientists believe [in the human factor].”

Duval also says a bi-partisan Climate Caucus in Washington now features 18 lawmakers from each of the two major parties. “We’d like to see that group increase in size,” adds Sylvester-Johnson, “when we talk about something as significant as climate we cannot solve it with 48 percent of the population. We need everyone on board. Getting everyone to the table in the front end… is really important.” She contends that the Citizens Climate Lobby makes its case without ranting, raving or demonizing those that might have a slightly different opinion about climate change.

Sylvester-Johnson, who says climate change issues are allowing her to channel the passion she had for saving people to saving the world, believes the argument about global warming and the effect of carbon-based fuel sources is changing: “If you would have asked Congress a year ago I think you would have found more people debating the science; now it seems the people who didn’t accept the science in terms of its happening [have changed] – now the debate is about why it’s happening. Even the critics are softening up to the idea.”

Gene Marrano