T’bonne’s Bayou Grace helping locals succeed

Bertha Walters
February 8, 2010
Saints capture win, students celebrate by staying home
February 10, 2010
Bertha Walters
February 8, 2010
Saints capture win, students celebrate by staying home
February 10, 2010

For Dulac native Monica Parfait, it was an envelope that changed her life. While not all stories gleam with success, hers appears to be heading in that direction.

At age 24, Parfait is a wife and a stay-at-home mother of three – Alvin Jr., 5, Monique, 3 and Cheyenne, 1. And until last week, she didn’t have a high school diploma. An example of a rising trend across America, she became pregnant while attending Ellender Memorial High School, which cut her academic pursuits short and forced her to dropout in the 10th grade.

The young mother is now a resident of Senator Circle on the eastside of Houma, a place where Bayou Grace – a local non-profit organization – is changing lives. Among numerous outreaches, the outfit gives area residents the chance to earn a General Education Degree (GED) through its Project Learn program, which operates in five different communities throughout Terrebonne Parish: Dularge, Dulac, Chauvin, Montegut and Pointe-aux-Chenes.

By offering things like post-hurricane relief and conducting environmental outreach programs, Bayou Grace is making a name for itself in the community.

However, the organization’s focus falls largely on rural, minority populations that generally don’t have access to things like higher education.

Most of these people are underserved and don’t have a car, or money to ride a bus, says Daniel Lirette Jr., the director of development for adult education at Bayou Grace. For that reason, “…it’s better to bring the program to the people.”

Bayou Grace started its GED program at Senator Circle in January 2009. Passing out flyers door-to-door allowed the program to garner a small amount of interest.

Parfait is the first and only student to complete the coursework, take the test and obtain a GED.

As a mother, her time was limited. She attended classes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 to 9 a.m., which ultimately proved to be worth the sacrifice. Traditional GED programs are generally held five days a week, something that people in Parfait’s position likely can’t commit to.

“It’s not the quantity of classes, it’s the quality of classes,” explains Lirette.

The organization uses GED coursework designed by McGraw Hill, but it also develops student-specific curriculum that “…fills the holes the book may leave,” the director said. It also conducts testing to determine where students stand in certain subjects, like math or science.

With all the work Bayou Grace does, it’s still up to the student to perform. “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” notes Lirette. “It’s one thing to be down on your luck, but it’s another to be down on your luck and not do anything about it.”

But Parfait did something about it.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays her mornings started early. At the crack of dawn, she would get ready for the day in a house of sleeping children. After spending two hours in class, she would return home, fix lunch, do the dishes, clean the house and run errands. “And it would just start all over again the next week,” says Parfait. “It was hard, but I made it through.”

Adding to the laundry list of struggles, the student was pregnant with her third child – Cheyenne – when classes began. But now, holding her framed certificate, Parfait says, “If my kids ever think about dropping out, I can tell them, encourage them to finish school. I want them to say ‘Well, momma’ did it, so we can do it’.”

On a day just like any other, Parfait walked to the mailbox. Inside: a large manila envelope that contained a letter saying she had passed the GED exam.

“I was all excited. I just checked the mailbox like normal and pulled out a big yellow envelope. After I read it, I ran to the car and told my husband, ‘I passed! I passed!'”

Her husband of two years, Alvin Sr., is a drummer for the local Cajun band called Treater, which has performed in multiple states.

If she can overcome financial barriers, Parfait says she would like to become a nursing assistant. While her future is uncertain, it’s clear that new opportunities are on the horizon. “The program really opens up new doors, ones that were closed before,” says Lirette.

Although the young mother has passed the exam, “It’s going to take a while to sink in,” she says.

The certificate? “I’ll hang it on my wall,” adds Parfait.

There are currently two students in the program at Senator Circle. More flyers will be handed out soon to draw in new students. “This is a great resource that will definitely benefit and help a lot of people,” says Troy Johnson, a public housing manager for the Houma-Terrebonne Housing Authority. “Monica is living proof.”

For those who didn’t finish high school, Parfait says, “…Go back, because education is really important, especially nowadays. In most cases you have to have a high school diploma or GED to get a job.”

But many are hesitant to take classes or return to school. According to Lirette, “The answer is both simple and complicated.

“For many it is easier to just say ‘I could get it if I wanted’ than to risk trying and failing, thus playing into [a] negative self-image,” explains the director. “Remember for most, the education experience was not a positive one, which is why they quit in the first place.”

While illiteracy rates continue to rise, Lirette says, “We simply have to get the word out that the classes are available, free and non-threatening.”

Using students like Parfait as an example to inspire and influence others is the first step, he said.

Monica Parfait (center), 24, receives her GED certificate at a ceremony held last week at Senator Circle. Parfait was the first and only student to graduate from Bayou Grace’s GED program held at the housing complex. * Photo courtesy of HOUMA-TERREBONNE HOUSING AUTHORITY