Respect is Just a Minimum: New program serves St. John Parish youth

Published 8:50 am Saturday, January 7, 2023

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RESERVE — Working in the 40th Judicial District Court, the Honorable Nghana Lewis identified a need to uplift young people who have a tremendous potential to be successful but lack the proper support.

“Respect is Just a Minimum,” a pilot program geared toward St. John the Baptist Parish youth, will deliver mentoring and instruction related to financial literacy, conflict resolution, health competency and empathic understanding.

The program will operate across 10 weekly sessions from January 25 through May 17, leading up to a graduation ceremony on May 24. The course, which will serve 35 individuals in grades 7 through 12, is being funded through a $119,000 grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice recently awarded to the 40th Judicial District Court.

St. John Parish Councilwoman and educator Tyra Duhe-Griffin has been selected to serve as the program administrator, while Dr. Adrienne Dixson will serve as the data analyst.

“The success of this initiative will be dependent upon all of our community stakeholders coming together,” Judge Lewis said.

Lewis was pleased to see strong attendance during a planning session Thursday evening, which drew participation from local clergy, retired and current educators, representatives of the St. John District Attorney’s Office, the St. John Sheriff’s Office, Child Advocacy Services, and other pillars of the community. Together, the stakeholders discussed the process of identifying 35 participants for the pilot prior to January 13.

Darlene Cooper, school resource officer, expressed that the program is much needed and that many more students can benefit from this instruction beyond the initial 35.

School Board member Nia Mitchell-Williams said securing participation will be dependent upon parents understanding that the mentoring program is geared toward a mix of student populations and is not exclusively for re-direct students.

“Unfortunately, coming from alternative ed, I’ve seen people put them in a box and sometimes they just made one bad decision. It doesn’t mean they are a bad child, but other parents may not want their children around that type of child,” she said.

While there was some discussion whether the program should be housed at the St. John Alternative Program site at 400 Ory Drive in LaPlace, Principal Dr. Kara Lawson said doing so will bring a much-needed sense of positivity to a vulnerable population of students who may often feel like they have been left behind.

“We need to bring them hope, and I think this is the perfect site to host it,” Dr. Lawson said.

Duhe-Griffin spoke more about the structure of the sessions, which will last from 4:30 to 7 p.m. each week. She said the first 30 minutes will be reserved for students to enjoy a laidback meal catered by a local restaurant. Dinner will be followed by one hour of direct instruction related to a specific topic. Students will then take part in group activities to process and re-deliver what they have learned in their own words.

Examples of lessons in the financial literacy unit could include opening a bank account, writing checks, and understanding debit versus credit.

Community stakeholders also discussed having guest speakers introduce themselves and interact with the students during the mealtime at the beginning of each session so they have a chance to talk with the students rather than “at them.”

Dayna James of United Front Transportation Services, the company offering transportation to the program for students on both sides of the river, said students will open up about the challenges they are facing when given a listening ear.

“Once the kids trust you, they share so much,” she said.