Joy Sterneck

2012 Unsung Hero Joy Sterneck. Photo: Yana Hotter

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Light

Joy Sterneck remembers reading an essay about the dash that appears in obituaries and on tombstones between the years one is born and passes away. “It’s not so much when you lived and when you died,” she says. “It’s the dash in between that really counts.”

For Sterneck, a life-long volunteer and now a semi-retired physical therapist, that dash tells volumes. Though her dad died at age 46 of cancer, leaving behind a wife who needed to work and two young children, Sterneck grew up with an improve-the-world mentality.

As a teenager volunteering as a candy striper at what was then Jewish Hospital here, she counted among her duties transporting patients to physical therapy. “I kind of fell in love with the field,” she says.

As a result, in 1966 Sterneck earned a degree in physical therapy from Washington University. “We were always taught to look for abilities as opposed to disabilities,” she says.


“At the risk of sounding corny,” she adds, “I learned so much from everybody I ever worked with in terms of courage.” Observing such determination gave her “a perspective forever on life and what was important.”

When the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in the mid-1970s, Sterneck was part of a groundbreaking effort to help develop a program to teach so-called “typical” children how to ease the transition of youngsters with disabilities into public schools. 

At St. Louis University, where she later received a master’s degree in health administration, she served as director of physical medicine and lectured on pediatric physical therapy. She also lectured at Washington University and Maryville University, and chaired the National Risk Management Committee.

She is a member of the board of Cultural Leadership, the St. Louis program bringing together mostly African-American and Jewish high school students for a year of programs designed to promote understanding of each other’s history, religion and culture and become a “civil rights change agent and ‘a troublemaker of the best kind,’” according to the program’s website. Sterneck says she is certain graduates of Cultural Leadership, “build relationships, facilitate dialogue, recognize and resolve issues of privilege and injustice and become social justice activists.” 

She has also served on the Jewish Fund for Human Needs Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council, still assists on the Mitzvah Corps at Central Reform Congregation (where she belongs) and is a school liaison for the National Council of Jewish Women’s Kids Community Closet.

Today, as a semi-retiree with a diminished workload, Sterneck has swiftly converted potential downtime into stepped-up hours as a volunteer. For the Parkway district, she trained this year to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) to adult immigrants and refugees. “Being able to read is so important,” she says. “Coming to this country and having to start from scratch, I just admire what these people do. They have such a desire.”

Merle Oberman, volunteer/literacy coordinator for Parkway Adult Education, offers praise for Sterneck’s own efforts. “She’s always smiling. She loves what she’s doing. She’s told me numerous times that she gets more out of it than the students do,” Oberman says.

In a classroom with “maybe people from 15 countries who speak 10 different languages, she’s very patient. She’s great,” Oberman notes.

At Claymont Elementary School in the Parkway School District, Sterneck tutors students once a week through OASIS. These may be youngsters experiencing difficulties with reading, language or learning in general or ones who need an extra someone to take an interest and spend one-on-one time with them.

Sterneck’s prowess has not gone unnoticed. “She builds a relationship with a student. They really enjoy going with her,” says Carole Lander, the program’s coordinator at Claymont school. Sterneck’s husband, David, also tutors through OASIS.

With two of her own grandchildren enrolled at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, Sterneck likewise volunteers there one afternoon weekly as a teacher’s aide. “The kids call her ‘Baba Joy.’ She is so beloved,” say Cheryl Maayan, head of school. “She also makes a ‘mean’ chocolate dessert.”

Sterneck says that with the Mirowitz kids, she’s the one on the receiving end for nurturing. “The children are so inspiring. They’re always looking for projects and ways to do for others. Whether the fifth graders are collecting hygienic items for servicemen or another class is raising money for Joplin, the teachers try to instill in them what it means to do good works.”

Both Joy and David Sterneck have belonged for 10 years to an interfaith partnership dialogue group. “Instead of seeing people as ‘others,’” she notes, “you see what you have in common. That’s been a wonderful gift.” 

In awe of her fellow Unsung Hero honorees, Sterneck insists that they’re the initiators, while she is “just a worker bee.”

“Volunteering fills me up,” she says. “It enriches me, makes me feel good and makes me happier. Also, it shows you that what’s important isn’t things. It really is people.”

Returning to the essay on the dash, she ponders the legacy she will someday leave. “I really want our grandchildren to feel like I left the world a better place,” she says. “That sounds very hackneyed, but I want them to think that the world is better for having me in it.” 

Joy Sterneck

AGE: 67

FAMILY: Married 46 years to David; two married daughters—Jamie Sentnor of St. Louis and Joanna Gerlt of San Diego—and three grandchildren

HOME:  Chesterfield

OCCUPATION:   Semi-retired, she fills in for vacating and ill physical therapists at St. Luke’s Home Health Services, working mostly with seniors

FAVORITE PASTIME:  Gardening, reading, knitting, theater and getting together with friends