Chermaine Roybiskie remembered as a fearless advocate for the West Bank

Published 9:15 am Saturday, November 26, 2022

Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Fall 2022 edition of River Parishes Magazine now available at the L’OBSERVATEUR office, 116 Newspaper Drive in LaPlace.

 

EDGARD — Chermaine Roybiskie was the heartbeat of the West Bank of St. John the Baptist Parish, a fierce advocate who fought tirelessly to see her community rise to its greatest potential.

It was a loss to the entire community when Roybiskie departed this earthly life on August 22, 2022, following a valiant battle against a number of illnesses. Even in her last days, confined to her living room or a hospital rehab center, she could often be found on the phone, checking in on local schools and keeping tabs on the West Bank’s needs as always.

Her daughter, Farrah Rochon, said she spent more time taking care of the community than she did taking care of herself.

“From the moment she woke up, she was thinking about ways to make the community better. Her philosophy had always been that just because you’re from a small community, it did not mean you could not do big things,” Rochon said. “She knew how people saw Edgard from the outside — a small, agricultural community, mostly Black, and they were not really expecting much. She just wanted to prove people wrong and show them that this small community could be great. That’s the type of person that she was.”

Roybiskie dedicated 35 years to teaching English and social studies to thousands of students at West St. John High School, where she also sponsored the cheerleader and pep squad and sold tickets at Friday night football games. Many of her students can attest that she never fully retired from teaching, as she continued tutoring and prepping students for standardized tests long after she left the classroom. In 2016, Roybiskie’s legacy in education received special recognition from Governor John Bel Edwards.

Roybiskie was a member of the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church for all 72 years of her life. There, she was devoted to teaching religious education, serving on the Altar Society and Ladies Auxiliary, preparing the annual feast for Confirmation, and hosting the rosary during devotions each May and October.

A true pillar of the community, Roybiskie was involved in several charitable organizations. She was a founding member of the Wantu Wazuri Civic and Social Club as well as the West St. John Civic Association, where she served as president for 10 years. She was also a member of the West St. John Stakeholders, the West St. John Band Boosters, and the St. John Retired Teachers Association.

While Rochon joked with her mother that her involvement was born out of a need for control rather than the goodness of her heart, the reality was that Roybiskie loved helping others with no expectation of recognition. Now, months after the funeral, Rochon is still learning of contributions her mother made to the West Bank, including her essential role in doubling the size of West St. John Elementary School and securing a public splash park. She had a major role in coordinating annual Easter egg hunts, Dr. Martin Luther King Day marches and Black History Month programs.

Beyond being a larger-than-life community advocate, she was a matriarch who held the family together. The third oldest of 11 children, she took on the role of a mother hen and found inspiration in how her parents, Olga and Norman Borne Sr., gave freely of their time and resources.

Rochon said her mother was an exceptional cook who spent many years catering local events alongside her aunt Lois Sterling. Oyster dressing, red beans and candied yams were among her specialties.

Roybiskie was also a devoted grandmother to Jasmine, Lauryn and Brandon. While her grandchildren lived in Dallas, she saw them more than people who had grandchildren living an hour away. She would send for them constantly during the summer and almost every holiday.

Christmas was Roybiskie’s favorite time of the year. She had a grand Christmas village that started with one piece found at a store in Destrehan years ago. Over time, the village expanded to well over 100 buildings, inclusive of roughly 500 pieces.

Rochon has always held these personal memories close, and she didn’t grasp how much her mother meant to others in the community until she saw the altar filled to the brim with flowers at her funeral.

“It was one of those things that crystallized in my mind that she was my mom, but she was so much more to so many other people in the community. It made me feel good to see it,” Rochon said.

Parish President Jaclyn Hotard, a former student of Roybiskie, read a proclamation at her funeral. Seemingly 50% of the community was made up of her former students, a population that included St. John Parish Registrar of Voters Russell Jack.

Jack knew Roybiskie as a distant relative, a teacher and a mentor. Once he became a member of the St. John Parish School Board, she became his contemporary, and he saw firsthand how passionate she was about advocating for West St. John. So much so that when a bond issue did not include plans for school expansion on the West Bank, she rallied the public to vote down the bond issue until the list of projects was revised to serve both sides of the river.

“We worked tirelessly together. One of the things we did, when Katrina hit, was invest almost $1 million in technology and computers,” Jack said. “She was instrumental in getting the pavilion at West St. John and very, very outspoken about us getting the new elementary school.”

Roybiskie and Jack disagreed on some issues, but they always held a mutual respect for one another. Jack admired how she offered a helping hand wherever possible, at times extending beyond the West Bank. When Hurricane Isaac flooded low-lying areas of LaPlace, she rallied members of the civic organization to cross the river and serve food to storm victims.

“If anyone was in trouble, she was there to come to their rescue. She just had such a giving heart and was there to help people,” Jack said. “I think that’s why she was so respected by the community and all of the kids in the parish that she taught. I was happy that she was part of my life. She brought out some of the best qualities in me and everyone around her, especially her students and her peers. Some people are born to be leaders. That was her.”

Rochon believes it would take a multitude of people to fill the shoes left by her mother’s absence. She sees her mother’s selfless traits reflected in the people whose lives she touched, a sign that the community will carry her torch and continue fighting for a brighter tomorrow.

One of those individuals is Rochon’s cousin, Courtni Waguespack, who shares Roybiskie’s idealistic outlook and a desire to highlight the history of the community. Meanwhile, many members of the West St. John Civic Organization are poised to continue her good works.

“I think a lot of the members have learned from the example she set,” Rochon said.