‘Character is the new currency’; Salute 1st Training Academy steers transformation of local students

Published 10:33 am Wednesday, August 23, 2023

VACHERIE — More than half of the male population at St. James High School was recently inducted into Salute 1st Training Academy, a first-of-its-kind initiative founded by Kendall Taylor, husband of American Idol/Grammy award winner Fantasia Barrino-Taylor.

The Salute 1st inauguration, held August 17 with attendance from numerous elected officials, coincided with St. James High School’s “Fantasia Day” celebration. Students showcased their talent through musical performances, dance routines and much more, while state and school district stakeholders reflected on the impact of community engagement through programs such as Salute 1st.

According to Principal Shane Kliebert, students are inspired to explore their potential, navigate challenges, and cultivate a sense of responsibility, ultimately contributing to their development into well-rounded individuals prepared for future success. Impacts include a decrease in behavior referrals and an increased graduation rate that now stands at 94%.

Looking toward more than 150 young men seated on stage, dressed to the nines, Kendall Taylor reminded them that while their suits made fade over time, their character will always be custom fit.

Taylor shared the story of how he was involved in a deadly shootout at 16 years old and gained nothing but fear from the experience. After committing to turn his life around, Taylor became a multi-millionaire businessman and launched a non-profit aimed at steering young men away from a life of crime and violence.

“I realize that the ultimate investment strategy must always involve our young males,” Taylor said. “With Salute 1st, they will always have a voice, a purpose and a brotherhood covering their untapped potential.”

The Salute 1st program launched at St. James High School and Sixth Ward Elementary, serving students in grades 7-12. The program expanded to Gramercy Elementary, and there are plans to grow Salute 1st across the River Region to reach St. John the Baptist and St. Charles Parish Schools. The vision is to eventually expand across the state. Taylor, along with Fantasia, have met with Governor John Bel Edwards and other Louisiana lawmakers to advocate for the mentorship program.

The youngest students at the inauguration sat in the audience and wore T-shirts bearing the words, “Character is the new Currency.” Taylor told the students that character is part of the “three ‘C’s” that also includes courage and consistency.

St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne talked about the role character has played in his life. When he was starting his business, the bank granted him a loan not because of the (lack of) funds in his wallet, but because of his reputation of being hardworking and trustworthy.

“Don’t ever think the community is not watching you grow up, what you do, and how you treat others,” Dufresne said.

Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education, told the young men that they can be whatever they dream of. She encouraged them to keep pushing for success after graduating from high school with the reminder that “higher education is the floor, not the ceiling.”

Before and during the inauguration, students shared their testimonies of what Salute 1st means to them.

“At my age, when I feel supported by others, it makes me want to stand taller and take more pride in the things I do,” said student Andreas Allen. “When I heard about how the Taylors, Mr. Shane Kliebert, and businesses were coming together because of us – all I could do is desire to be greater.”