She’s been a lawyer, business owner, food entrepreneur, cooking show competitor, marketing strategist and women’s ministry leader, as well as a wife and mom. But it’s her role as open-hearted and open-handed believer that drives Elisha Joyce in the newest chapter of her life as Texas resident and executive director of Waco’s Care Net Pregnancy Center.
Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Joyce recently to talk about overcoming the odds, pushing boundaries, defying stereotypes and turning brokenness into beauty.
WACOAN: Let’s start with your name. Where does it come from and how do you pronounce it?
Elisha Joyce: I was named after Elisha, a prophet in the Bible, whose name means ‘God is my salvation.’ But while his name is pronounced Ee-lie-shuh, mine is Ee-lee-shuh.
WACOAN: Where did you grow up?
Joyce: I was born in California, in the Bay area, and we lived there until I was seven. My dad was a professional bodybuilder. If you saw the film ‘Pumping Iron,’ the guy who was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s partner was my dad’s trainer. I was raised in what’s now called the golden age of bodybuilding. My dad’s gym was one of the first boutique gyms in the Bay Area, but because of his bad business deals and drug use, we ‘escaped’ to Guam, where he was from. I lived on that tiny Pacific island until I was 18. I grew up in a literal tin shack on cinderblock stilts, that was maybe 600 square feet and had no running hot water, no bathroom sink and no room for a dining table. It was very primitive, but I have some of my best childhood memories from that tin shack.
WACOAN: How did your childhood shape you?
Joyce: I was pretty shy. Since bodybuilding was everything to my dad, we took family vacations to bodybuilding competitions where watching men oil up and pose was just normal. My parents had a terrible marriage with cheating and drugs and lots of emotional and physical abuse, and since they were so consumed with their own problems, I was kind of crate trained and left on my own. I think that’s why I’m fiercely independent and not easily deterred by challenges. I learned early that if I didn’t do something for myself, no one was going to do it. So I’m a doer.
WACOAN: What was it like to move at seven to Guam?
Joyce: When we moved to Guam, I went to the village public school. I was light-skinned, taller than most and stick-skinny with green eyes — all things that made me a target. The girls were tough and territorial, and I got bullied a lot. The boys called me ‘praying mantis,’ which there were a lot of on the island. As I look back on those experiences, I’m grateful because being an outcast forced me to be gritty and self-sufficient. I couldn’t trust anyone at home, and I couldn’t trust anyone at school, so I just figured things out. I learned how to be tough as survival mode. Loneliness forced me to read a lot, and even to this day I love exploring lives and ideas in books.
WACOAN: What’s a childhood experience that really stands out?
Joyce: My dad had been in the Army; yes, the U.S. Army because Guam is a U.S. territory. When I was going into high school, he wanted me to join ROTC, thinking that’s what would get me a college scholarship — but ROTC was only available at the all-boys’ Catholic school. I was gangly with short hair; I acted like a boy as much as I looked like one: buzz cut, high-tops, polo shirt. My dad wanted to push against the rules and get me in [to the boys’ school], so he signed me up to take the entrance exam. I will never forget walking into the testing room filled with more than 200 boys. Some knew me and just smirked and looked down, but no one called me out for being a girl. Next thing you know, my dad got a letter saying that his ‘son’ had been accepted and needed to be cleanly shaven for school. When he took me in to register, they weren’t quite sure what to do with me; I had lawfully earned my spot, so they started working to make accommodations, but also started calling the Catholic Church leadership and legal counsel. There were lots of meetings with the school and it was all over the front page of the local news. Even though I knew my dad was trying to do something positive for me, it just wasn’t worth it to me — and I really didn’t want to join ROTC anyway. I went to the all-girls’ Catholic high school instead. That experience taught me that it’s okay to push boundaries. Just because someone says something should be a certain way doesn’t mean I have to blindly accept that.
WACOAN: What did you do after high school?
Joyce: Three main Catholic universities in the U.S. recruited at my Catholic high school; I ended up at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. I remember feeling so free leaving Guam. I was barely 18, yet I was done and ready to take on life on my own. No one really understood anything about Guam, though, and when I got to college, I found they had registered me in ESL classes. I went to the department head and said, ‘Um, I speak English; I think you have me in the wrong program,’ and I got to drop the ESL classes. My junior year, I studied abroad in Italy with the Gonzaga-in-Florence program, and that’s where I met my husband, Ed. We were best friends and went everywhere together that year; by spring, I couldn’t be without him. We graduated, spent six months in Arizona, and then moved back up to Seattle so I could go to law school at the University of Washington; we got married the beginning of my second year.
WACOAN: After you graduated from law school, how did your career path roll out?
Joyce: I passed the Washington bar in 2000 when I was five months pregnant. Ed was working at allrecipes.com, which was a tech start-up then, but in 2000 the tech boom was beginning to bust. Allrecipes started laying everyone off — including Ed — so we decided to leave the Pacific northwest and move to San Diego. Our daughter Selah was born at the beginning of 2001. Since I had passed the bar in Washington, I continued to look for jobs there, but Ed started looking for jobs in San Diego; that became a pivotal point where God orchestrated my life past my own plans. Right when I received an offer to become the first female attorney in a Seattle litigation firm, Ed got an offer to lead the finance department of a massive real estate development company in San Diego. We decided that I’d forgo a legal practice and stay home with Selah, and he’d take the job. I’ve never looked back on that decision or regretted it one bit. I’ve been a licensed lawyer since 2001, and while I haven’t practiced law, I can say that I use my law degree every single day.
WACOAN: You mentioned God’s hand in your life. Tell me about your faith walk?
Joyce: I didn’t grow up a believer. There was ‘Jesus’ in my house, but my parents would have Bible study while they smoked dope and then beat each other up. I was like, ‘Keep your Jesus as far from me as possible.’ I spent my late teens and early 20s at Catholic schools, yet with zero prayer, faith or church. But when I was 27 and Ed and I were in San Diego job-hunting and struggling, with a brand-new baby, I found myself on my knees asking God for help. By that time, my dad had been born again for about eight years and I had watched his character and life truly transform. He would call me and encourage me — pray with me and for me — and I think my heart was just really tender at that time.
One day I opened my Bible and landed on Isaiah 58. It starts out with God telling Isaiah to call His people out as rebels and sinners. God says something like ‘You keep seeking me … you seem so eager to know my ways as if you really care to do right. You ask for justice and want me to come near … and you say, Look, Look! God, see we’re humbling ourselves!’ He says ‘Humble yourselves? You mean check the boxes with what you think I want, then turn around and fight and quarrel and abuse each other?’
It sounded like my family. We were so ‘religious’ and wanted to be seen that way, but behind closed doors, we were awful. So I kept reading to see God outline what He is asking for. He says, ‘What I’ve called you to is to bring justice and remove burdens from others and stop oppressing people; feed those who are hungry and help those who need shelter.’ When we do what the Lord really wants, then He will guide us always; He will satisfy our needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen our frame. We will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Our people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; and we will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. Then. It was then that changed my life.
WACOAN: How did that scriptural revelation change you?
Joyce: I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to pretend I’m OK anymore. I don’t want to act; I want God to repair all the broken walls and streets of my life.’ I wanted Him to be my Savior so that I didn’t continue the brokenness for another generation. After that, I really began studying scripture to more fully understand His character and His heart. My faith is what grounds me, and not a day goes by that I’m not grateful and aware of my salvation through Jesus Christ and the transforming power of His presence. I should have been a statistic, yet He was a gentleman for 27 years before He revealed Himself in a way where I was willing to accept Him. Now I see Him all over my life literally every moment of every day.
WACOAN: What about your foray into the food business?
Joyce: In 2014, I had created a whole-food energy snack called ‘Smarty Bars,’ little bite-sized nuggets made of quinoa, gluten-free oats and fruit that came in a cup. At that time, no one really knew what quinoa was, so I set out to educate people on its health benefits as part of marketing. I got a spot on Portland’s live morning TV show to cook with quinoa, and the host introduced me as ‘Elisha Joyce, the Quinoa Queen.’ After that, ‘Quinoa Queen’ stuck and I even wrote an e-book called ‘The Quinoa Habit’ that you can still buy through Apple Books. I was a little ahead of the health bar craze, and ended up closing down the business after about three years. Now I see almost the exact same bar concept all over the place for double what mine cost at the time.
WACOAN: Is this where we’re leading up to your landing a spot on the reality TV show ‘Food Fighters’?
Joyce: That was such an amazing experience, and I still can’t believe I got to do that. ‘Food Fighters’ was a brand-new show for NBC. You can still watch it on Amazon and what you see is for real. I didn’t know any of the chefs beforehand; I really cut myself in the competition; and it all happened in real time. They decided my episode should launch the series because it had the most drama and tears, I guess.
Being on ‘Food Fighters’ took me down a whole new path into acting and production. I got an agent; I was cast as a home cook in two Frigidaire online campaigns, and then I did some other commercials. I got to see how production works behind the camera, from storytelling to crew building to execution, and that’s what led me to Relish Division, the production company I co-owned for years before coming to Texas.
WACOAN: Tell me about your family and about that journey from Oregon to Texas.
Joyce: My husband Ed and I have been married for 25 years and we’ve got three kids: Selah, McKenna and Sebastian. I tell people that Texas chose us before we even had it on our radar. When our oldest daughter, Selah, began applying to colleges, I was teaching Bible study and one of the women shared Joanna Gaines’ testimony, produced by Baylor University. I had never heard of Baylor, and we had never stepped foot in Texas, but I started digging around and found it wasn’t just faith-based but was a big-school experience, so I pressed her to throw her hat in the ring. Selah was accepted and fell in love with Baylor; two years later, McKenna was accepted.
Homelessness, drugs and crime were all exploding in Portland by the time Kenna left for Waco. Not only were we missing her and Selah, Portland was flat-out getting dangerous. My studio was downtown, and I’d walk through homeless camps and drug deals just to get up my building steps. It was horrible. Plus, my son is a baseball player and we felt he needed more athletic and academic challenge. Every time we’d come to visit the girls in Waco, we felt so welcome and safe. Then, when Seb toured Midway [High School] and saw its facilities, he said, ‘I’m in.’ Next thing you know, we had a sign in our yard to sell the house in Oregon, and here we are. We love Waco.
WACOAN: You’ve been executive director of Care Net since April. Tell me about its mission and services.
Joyce: Care Net is a life-affirming pregnancy center that helps women and men facing unplanned pregnancies. We provide free, compassionate and informative services that give them information to make the best decision for them. At our medical site, women can get pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, STD testing vouchers and counseling on their pregnancy options. Our support site provides free diapers, wipes and formula; case management and counseling; a small boutique; and a full calendar of classes available to parents of children from birth to three years old. By taking classes, moms and dads can earn points for free resources that include diapers, wipes and baby clothes — and then when they graduate, they can earn a large item like a crib, bassinet or stroller. We also have a guest house for displaced pregnant mamas and their children up to a year post-birth. We don’t require that people using our services align with the Christian faith; we bring all kinds of people through our doors. But what makes us different is that all of our employees have a personal relationship with Christ, and we see what we do as a ministry.
WACOAN: What’s the legacy of Care Net and its previous directors, including your predecessor, Deborah McGregor Caperton, who was in that position for 16 years?
Joyce: Care Net turns 40 next year, so we’ve served central Texas for nearly four decades. Deborah did a great job building Care Net into the multi-site, diverse service ministry that it is; she retired last December. The board [of directors of Care Net] saw an opportunity with me — since I come from a marketing and storytelling background — to help reframe messaging in this post-Roe world while still honoring our founding mission and ministry. Care Net is a pro-abundant-life organization. When you need to make the choice of how to handle an unplanned pregnancy, we’re here. We have resources, case workers and housing to let moms and dads to know they’re supported in parenting; we’re all about empowering women and men with hope and practical resources.
WACOAN: What do you love to do?
Joyce: I love to cook and bring people together to the table. I didn’t grow up with manners and placemats or mealtimes, but I love that Jesus always brought people together around the table. It’s a really good time for me to feed family and friends. Other quirky things I love are a good cigar and mid-century art and furniture.
WACOAN: What’s your take-away from this crazy patchwork quilt that’s been your life so far?
Joyce: Instead of trying to plan your future, just hold your hands open. Be aware of what gifts you’re blessed with, and lean into those gifts. When you do that, life starts to happen in amazing ways. Even the bad can play into good; it’s challenges that build your strengths and channel your passions. Ask yourself, ‘How have I been equipped?’ and honor that.