Working together: Community members help youth through Isaiah 43

Published 11:46 pm Saturday, November 17, 2012

By Lucy Parker

The Daily News

Several Franklinton churches have teamed up through the Isaiah 43 program in an effort to help local youth.

That sense of community togetherness could be seen Thursday night at Centenary United Methodist Church, when a monthly community workshop was held as part of the mentoring component of the Isaiah 43 program. The program got its Franklinton start at Holy Family Catholic Church. Now the church, along with Centenary and First Baptist Church of Franklinton, are working together on it.

As always, the workshop began with a meal provided by local churches. On the menu Thursday was barbecued hamburgers.

Then, facilitator Jeremy Gueldner kicked the workshop off with an icebreaker, asking the 18 mentors and 18 mentees to arrange themselves in alphabetical order without saying a word before moving on to the night’s big activity. He asked all the young people, of junior high or high school age, to draw their “fantasy island” on a piece of poster board and to list five things they would want to bring to the island and three things they would not want to take. A discussion about the activity followed.

“These are programs to help them get in touch with different things that are going on, to get them and their mentors talking,” Rev. Peter E. Hammett, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, said.

The Isaiah 43 program, which includes parenting workshops in addition to the mentoring program, came about as a second phase of the New Battle of New Orleans campaign launched by Archbishop Gregory Aymond in March 2011.

“Isaiah 43 speaks of God’s care for his children and that everybody is loved, and the name Isaiah 43 was picked to reflect the reality that both components of the program, the mentoring as well as parenting classes, are trying to help young people realize their self worth and give them positive role models and self image,” Hammett said.

Early this year, Aymond met in Franklinton to discuss the program with Hammett; Pastor Paul Watts, of First Baptist Church; Rev. Steve Bush, pastor of Centenary; and other local ministers, along with Mayor Wayne Fleming and Police Chief Donald Folse.

Right about that time, in January 2012, the first mentoring program group was launched at Holy Family, Hammett said. However, it was discovered that beginning a program in January and running it through December was not the optimal timeline.

“That proved to be a bit problematic, because right when you’re really getting started summer came along,” he said. “So now, instead of starting another one at Holy Family in January, we’re just going to make them all run with the school year. That works better.”

Thus, the new group at Centenary started in August and will wrap up when the school year does, Hammett said.

Now, Isaiah 43 is up and running in about five to six additional locations within the Greater New Orleans area, Hammett said.

Two-hour-long mentoring program meetings are held twice a month. The program begins for the year with several general community workshops where everyone gets to know one another.

Then, in the case of the Centenary group, Gueldner, who also plans all the activities for the community workshops, matched up the mentors and the mentees.

Hammett said Gueldner, known to the kids as “Coach G” through his role as assistant principal and athletic director at Franklinton High School, “did a perfect job with getting them paired off.”

“They were all thrilled with it,” he said.

After the pairings are set, the meetings are alternated, with both a community workshop and a one-on-one meeting between the mentors and the mentees held each month, Hammett said. The duos may go to a local restaurant to eat or, as trust builds, to activities like a movie, he said.

“That’s just to build up the personal relationship,” he said. “We discovered with the first group that is finishing up at Christmas over at Holy Family that sometimes this uncovers problems and we’re able to intervene and find some specialized help for kids.”

As facilitator, Gueldner acts as the “go-between between the mentors and the mentees.”

“I work in the school with most of them, so when they need something they call me,” he said. “There was a mentor that wasn’t going to be here tonight, so he called me. And I called him from the school’s phone, got the kid in and let him talk to the kid and explain why he wasn’t going to be here.”

Gueldner, Hammett said, has been “as a gift from heaven” to the program.

“Because he’s at the school, he knows the kids, so there’s that other level of interaction that really makes this program work,” he said. “It’s the schools, it’s the churches, it’s ordinary people saying, ‘I want to do something positive.’

“And that’s the awesome part of this; it’s drawing this community together, I think.”

The program, Hammett said, is operated through a framework put in place by Catholic Charities, which provides the paperwork filled out by the mentors, the parental release forms and the insurance for the program.

Hammett described his role in the program as “ringmaster.”

“I’m trying to keep this circus going,” he said. “I seem to be the liaison with Catholic Charities, with the local ministers and everything else.”

The Washington Parish School System has supported the program, and Superintendent Darrell Fairburn is “behind it 100 percent,” Hammett said. Another leader in Isaiah 43 is Franklinton Junior High School counselor Sid Zeringue, or “Coach Z” to his students.

“We have a steering committee for the program made up of community leaders from this area, and Coach Z is the head of the steering committee and is really working with both groups,” Hammett said.

Bush and Watts, along with First Baptist Youth Minister Cody Thomas, are among the mentors in the Centenary group.

Hammett said his dream is to have programs running simultaneously at Holy Family, Centenary and First Baptist.

“By next year this time I would hope that we would have 20 kids in each location,” he said. “That would be awesome.”

The children, served free of charge through the mentoring program, have come primarily from Franklinton High School’s Connections Program, which is comprised of students who are high school age but still in junior high-level classes, Hammett said. The mentees, he said, are trying to grow in their self-esteem, discipline and focus and are looking for positive role models.

The Holy Family group has about 10 mentors and 10 kids, Hammett said. All involved make a yearlong commitment, he said.

The search for the next group of mentors will begin in June, with advertisements set to go out to local churches, Hammett said. Mentors will have to attend one of two daylong training sessions, both of which will be held on Saturdays in early August, he said.

“I think people have to be willing in the community to say, ‘I will make this commitment, four hours a month for a year, for the sake of the future of our young people,’” he said. “And I think that’s really important.”

Hammett plans to begin searching for parenting workshop participants in January. Those classes “are meant to be a values-based program to give parents the tools they need for more effective parenting” and will run one night each week for five weeks straight, he said.

“When you look at how many parents we have here who are single parents, teenage parents, grandparents trying to parent their teenage grandchildren, parenting classes become quite a serious need,” he said.

For more information about the Isaiah 43 program, call Holy Family at 839-4040, Centenary at 839-3808 or First Baptist at 839-3427.