Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Soul of a Librarian

I was only a few seconds old the first time I met a librarian face to face. I’d known who she was for about nine months before, but because it was so dark where I lived, we hadn’t been given a formal introduction.

Then one day it was time for me to move into a place with light, and after a man in a white coat slapped me on my bottom, I was introduced to the librarian and told that she was also my mother. She held me in her arms and smiled at me, and since I was so excited, I began talking as fast and loud as I could. But she shook her head from side to side and then put her forefinger over her lips.

Then she leaned her face a little closer to mine and asked, “Don’t you think it’s time you got a job?”

Not much has changed in the forty years since that first introduction. My mother no longer works in a library, but she will always have the soul of a librarian. She still reads constantly, shelves the books in my room in alphabetical order and tapes the, “Want Ads,” to my mirror.

So this week’s career information search was a special one because my mother and I visited the library in Abbeville. We quickly learned that with additional branches in Kaplan, Gueydan, Erath, Maurice and Delcambre, the Vermilion Parish Library System is no longer a place just to check out the printed word.

In addition to books, the library lends out C.D’s, D.V.D.’s and V.H.S. cassettes. Their onsite resources include databases that provide information on everything from writing a resume to learning a language to researching genealogy. Visitors also have access to free internet and computer usage, and workshops like oil painting and dancing.

“This month we’re taking a virtual field trip to Hawaii,” said Genny Vaughn, Children and Adult Services Manager. “With the use of a web camera, participants will be able to interact with survivors from Pearl Harbor.”

If you have a library card, you can also access some of their resources from your home computer. You can learn a language while lounging in your underwear on the sofa or get help from online tutors in core classes like math and geography (You might want to wear pants to do this).

Vaughn, who is also the young adult librarian in Abbeville, is a lifelong supporter and user of the library. She spent most of her childhood summers with a book in her hand, and her love for reading influenced her career choice.

“I was a book nerd,” she said. “As a kid, a librarian made a big difference in my life. If I can help one child see how important reading is, I’ll feel like I did my job.”

According to Vaughn, the biggest challenge of working at the library is getting youth interested in their programs. She says there is a stereotype that the library is just a place for nerds.

“Awareness is difficult,” says Vaughn. “But that’s part of the fun of this job. We have all of these resources and have to be creative to make people aware of them. Especially parents because their influence and support is necessary in gaining children’s attention.”

Vaughn’s most memorable moment was when she challenged a trouble student to read a book and then give her an oral summary. In exchange, she promised him a library card.

“He didn’t seem interested at first, and I wasn’t if I’d ever see him again,” says Vaughn. “But he came back and told me what the book was about. So I gave him a library card and I see him in here reading all the time. He even shows me his school progress report.”

When I was a child, my mother read to me as often as she could. As I grew older and learned to read by myself, she provided me with stacks of books and encouraged me to finish them all. She, like Vaughn and all other librarians were only doing what their souls told them to do; educate and make a positive difference in a person’s life.

When it was time for me to work a job at the library, I decided to try something a little different. I led my mother behind the counter and then asked one of the associates to show us how to check something out. After our lesson, I ran around to the other side and handed my mother a book.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “Why did you give this to me?”

“I want you to check me out,” I said. “I think it’s time you got a job.”

For more information on the resources of the library, call 337-893-2674 or visit their Web site at A twenty-minute visit can change your life.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Strength to Make a Difference

They taught us how to read and write, and where to find Louisiana on a map. They helped us understand the difference between, “May I go to the bathroom?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?” They work long hours on their feet, and have dedicated their lives to educating others. They are the people who found the strength to be teachers.

I recently started teaching writing classes at an elementary school in Lafayette. I enjoy watching the students learn, but by the end of it, I’m exhausted. The constant standing, speaking at an above average volume, and trying to keep the attention of a room full of children, drains me of my energy.

But my sister-in-law, Rhonda Couvillon, seems to take the challenges of being an educator in stride. Over the past twenty-five years she has taught Kindergarten, first, second, fourth and fifth grades. She has a bachelor’s degree in Education, a Masters in Elementary Education, and was named, “Teacher of the Year,” in both elementary and middle school.

“I became a teacher because it seemed like a good career to have when raising a family,” says Rhonda. “I treat my students the same way I want my children, Ross and Taylor, to be treated; with dedication, compassion and understanding.”

According to Rhonda, the biggest challenge for her in teaching is the constant revision of her lesson plan to keep up with technology and the ever-changing world. But she feels that this is important to keep the students interested in learning.

“I run a lot of ideas for teaching off of my own children,” says Rhonda. “If I’m bored writing a lesson plan, I know my class will be bored when I teach it.”

The advice Rhonda would give to new teachers is to be flexible, and to use all avenues to get the point across to students. She suggests taking advantage of teachable moments, even if they are not a part of the lesson plan.

“I try to teach using all learning styles,” says Rhonda. “My philosophy is, ‘Hear it, see it, feel it.’”

One of Rhonda’s most memorable moments as an educator was when she taught a class of first graders, and then years later taught the same kids in fifth grade. She said it allowed her to see their growth and who they were becoming.

“Another memorable moment was when a little girl came up to me and said that another student had called her the, ‘F word,’ says Rhonda. “When I asked her to say the word, she answered, ‘Cow.’

Rhonda says that although her career is difficult at times, she has learned a lot from her students. They taught her to be more patient and accepting of different personalities.

“The best part of teaching is knowing that I’m making a difference,” says Rhonda. “I love it when students tell me stories about what’s going on in their lives. It makes me feel connected with them.”

Rhonda says that if she weren’t a teacher, she’d be a tour guide because she loves to travel. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, exercising and spending time with her family. She says this helps relieve stress from her sometimes hectic days.

“Where do you get the strength to teach?” I asked Rhonda when I interviewed her.

“From my children and my husband, Joey,” Rhonda said. “Your brother is my rock. No matter what kind of day he has had, he is always willing to listen to me. No offense, but I got the best one out of the bunch of you and your brothers.”

It’s Rhonda’s sense of humor and her constant support of my endeavors that makes her one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Although I never set foot in her classroom, she has always been there to guide me and help me through any challenges I faced. There are many characteristics of a good teacher, but it’s the genuine care and concern my sister-in-law shows towards others that make her a great one.

“I’m not going to argue with you about Joey being the best one,” I said. “I’ll let you take that up with my brothers and the other sister-in-laws. But as strong as you are, I know that you have to get your strength from other places as well. So I’ll re-phrase the question. What motivates you to wake up each morning, get in your car, drive to school and teach?”

“I really enjoy working with the faculty and staff at Rene Rost Middle School,” Rhonda said. “But it’s my students who keep me going back everyday. I know they are waiting for me, and for some I am the only constant thing in their lives. Their needs give me strength.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Momma of the Day

A few years ago, I was very fortunate to be a nanny for a one-year-old girl named Lea in Lausanne, Switzerland. My good friend and boss, Heather, called me the manny, but the locals called me the papa du jour (father of the day). At first I thought they were calling me a super hero or potato soup. But after the realization of what it takes to care for a child, I figured out what they meant both literally and figuratively.

During the day, I was Lea’s guardian, doctor, chef, hair stylist, photographer and favorite swing pusher. But when her momma walked into the apartment in the late afternoons, I was no longer the papa du jour. I was momma’s friend who slept in the spare room and didn’t know how to put the toilet seat down.

Lea and I would spend our mornings coloring pictures of Elmo, chasing each other around playgrounds, and listening to songs about farm animals. But right after lunch, we’d both yawn and stretch out our arms and then head to our separate rooms for naps. Her excuse for the siesta was that she was a baby, and mine was that I’d spent every second of the previous five hours watching and worrying about a little girl who was just learning to walk and break things.

But Shannon Luquette, momma du jour and owner of Le Bebe Maison takes nannying to the next level without requiring a nap. Her infant childcare center in Abbeville is the result of her imagination and love for children.

“I started the business so I’d have more time with my two girls,” says Luquette. “I love being part of a child’s development and growth.”

Luquette studied early childhood education and has first aid and CPR training. She only cares for children who are from six weeks to one year old. In addition to diaper changes and feedings, her daily routine includes recording the children’s progress with written reports and photographs.

“Leaving your child with another care-giver can be very difficult,” says Luquette. “I take a lot of pictures of the children and email them to the parents during the day.”

According to Luquette, the biggest challenge is when more than one child needs special attention at the same time. To ensure top-quality individualized care, Le Bebe Maison’s ratio of children to adults is always within state guidelines.

“We believe all children are precious and we treat them as though they are our own,” says Luquette. “My most memorable moment was the when the first baby I took care of took her first step.”

Le Bebe Maison is a beautiful craft style house filled with playful art, stimulating toys and kid safe corners and cabinets. The day I visited, swings and infant holders in every size, shape and form lined the walls, and classical music softly filled the air around the sounds of children sleeping, eating, and filling up diapers with little gifts.

My job was to change one of the babies, and Luquette did me a favor by finding one without an upset stomach. I had no doubts in my ability to do the task because of my experience with Lea. But I still felt a little nervous picking up something so small and delicate.

“Thank you for not being a sprayer,” I whispered to the baby as I safely taped the diaper closed.

Right before I stepped out of Le Bebe Maison, I paused a moment to get a final look. Luquette was rocking one of the babies, while two others played on the quilted floor next to her. The children’s parents would be there soon to get them, but until that time, the momma du jour was creating a safe and caring world filled with trust, love and clean baby bottoms.

For more information on Le Bebe Maison call 337-315-0654 or visit their website at

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Strength to Stand Up Strong

They come from out of nowhere; perhaps early in the morning as soon as we open our eyes or on the way to work or even late in the afternoon. We might be forewarned of their arrival, but sometimes they spring up like a jack-in-the-box, leaving us breathless and anxious. They are called, “the wrong side of the bed,” or “one of those days,” and they knock us down to the ground with an overwhelming force. We know they are a part of life, but where do we find the energy to stand back up? Where do we find the strength?

Last summer, my family and I went to Canada for my brother’s wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony filled with celebration, friendship and love. As we welcomed the newest members to the Couvillons, it seemed that nothing could remove the smiles on our faces.

But a couple of days after the ceremony, when I was in a hotel in the Canadian city of Victoria, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I couldn’t pinpoint what had triggered it, but anger and stress punched every inch of my body until it ached with unbearable pain.

I found myself walking through the streets of the city just before the sun rose. It was quiet outside, except for a few seagulls flying around Victoria Harbor and the occasional garbage truck sweeping up trash left over from partygoers from the night before.

But within me, my mind screamed out at the world. I had no idea where I was going, but it seemed that every problem I ever had arose from the air and joined me on my walk. I searched for someone to blame for my bad day’s existence; foolishly thinking that was the answer.

Then I turned down a street, and came upon the slap in the face I needed. It was a homeless shelter, and right in front of its door was an elderly gentleman lying in an awkward position, which looked like he had fallen and couldn’t find the strength to push himself back up. Next to him was another man with bloodshot eyes sitting on a bicycle, and at his feet was a teenage boy on his knees, searching the ground and twitching uncontrollably.

Fear replaced my anger, and I quickly turned around and headed back towards the hotel. But I hadn’t gone far when the man on the bike began following me.

“Sir!” he yelled. “Come back!”

I walked faster, uncertain of what he wanted. I had no money to give him, and wasn’t in the state of mind to face him. But I had no choice because he passed me up on his bike, and then stopped directly in front of me.

My heart pounded as I looked around for somewhere to run or another person to call out to for help. But then the sun rose slightly in the morning sky, and I could see the true cause of this man’s bloodshot eyes; sadness, but strength.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Do you need food or shelter?”

It took me a few seconds to realize that he thought I was homeless. I might have found it humorous under different circumstances, but at that moment all I felt was shame.

“I’m okay,” I said. “But thank you for checking.”

Later that morning I ate breakfast at a restaurant overlooking Victoria Harbor. My body was exhausted and confused about everything that had happened. I felt like the weakest person in the world, but didn’t feel like I had a right.

When the waitress came over with my check, I sat silently and stared straight ahead. She poured me another cup of coffee, and then picked up my empty plate.

“Is everything okay?” she asked. “Can I help you with anything else?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but the words never came. Instead a single tear rolled down my cheek and fell into my lap. As I wiped its remnants off of my face, I took a deep breath and filled my lungs and mind with the memory of the morning.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m just having one of those days. But I’ll be okay.”

I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed since that day, and know that I will do so in the future. The stress of life guarantees it, but it’s something that I’ve accepted. For I know that the truly wonderful moments like the celebration of my brother’s wedding outweigh those of fear, anxiety and anger.

But most importantly, I realize how fortunate I am for the friends and family who support me through the hard times. I’ve been blessed with strength, and when I forget, I think back to that morning and a phrase that my mother often preaches.

“You complain until you look around. Then you put a piece of tape over your mouth.”

I realize that I’ve made myself vulnerable by sharing this private moment with you. But my goal this year is to promote strength so that we may all be able to face the challenges of life. My hope is that whenever you are knocked down, you will take the time to look around. You may see devastation, but if you look closely, you will also see good fortune, support and love that will help you stand up strong.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Truth About Tires

I was in high school the first time I ever changed a flat. It was on my grandma’s 1965 Ford Galaxy, and as I jacked it up, my imagination took over and I was on the crew of a Nascar racing team. The tire was changed in under fifteen minutes, and I was filled with pride as I drove off.

But my bubble quickly burst when the car started wobbling like a cow with a hurt leg. I stopped driving, and discovered that I hadn’t screwed a couple of the lug nuts tight enough. Nothing was damaged, but I had failed one of the biggest tests of a farm boy’s life.

It became the truth to me; that I was ignorant when it came to working with my hands. I was the runt of six boys, and would never be as gifted as my older brothers were at changing a tire. All of them could do so flawlessly with their eyes closed, while simultaneously eating a plate lunch, dribbling a basketball and shooting a bird out of the sky.

So for the next several years, fearing that my incompetence might be revealed, I stepped back any time a flat presented itself. This was surprisingly easy to do, because there was always someone else around ready to take care of it. Either they knew of my disgraceful first attempt, or they too were imagining being on a Nascar tire changing crew.

But a couple of weeks ago, I had to face my fear head on. My momma and I had just gotten back from running errands in her car, when I noticed that there was a flat on the back of mine.

“You told me that you used to pick cotton when you were a little girl,” I said to my momma as we stared at the flat. “I don’t guess during that time you learned how to change a tire?”

“We didn’t have a car then,” she said. “I can show you how to change a wagon wheel.”

I thanked my momma for her generous offer, but knew I had to face the flat alone. So for forty-five minutes of self-doubt, I clumsily changed the tire as I thought back to all the times I watched someone else do it. My hands were dirty, my face was sweaty, and I think I swallowed a pebble. But at the end, I changed it.

The next morning my momma and I drove to Kaplan so I could get my flat tire fixed. As she sipped on a soft drink, I tightly held the steering wheel wondering if I’d done everything correctly. My biggest fear was that the spare would fall off and the car would suddenly drop to the ground, causing both shame and my mother’s Diet Cherry Coke to splash all over me.

I made it to Big D and Little F Tire Center successfully, but needed reassurance from a professional that I hadn’t endangered people’s lives. So I confided in a man named Rufus Harrington as he jacked up the car.

“I was a little scared that I put the spare on wrong,” I said. “Did I do everything right?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s fine.”

It wasn’t an A+ or a sticker with a smiling face, but I felt proud for getting the seal of approval from him. It inspired me to learn more, and so I revealed my ignorance, and asked him about the best place to put a jack.

“It depends on the car,” he said. “Some of them, like yours, have grooves that the jack fits into. If they don’t, you want to put it under something solid, or it could cause damage.”

I felt smarter when I left, but realized that there was so much more to learn. So a week later, armed with my pad and pencil, I went back to Big D and Little F and interviewed the owner, Davis Harrington.

“The D stands for Davis, and the Little F is for my daughter, Francesca,” says Harrington. “It’s always been my dream to have my own business, so when this opportunity became available, I went for it.”

Started in 2005, Big D and Little F sells both new and used tires. Their services include 24-hour roadside assistance, and repairing, rotating and balancing tires.

“The biggest mistake people make when changing their own tires is starting the lug nuts wrong,” says Harrington. “This can strip the threading on the stud, and it will need to be replaced.”

According to Harrington, the best tire for your automobile is the one suggested in the manual or on the interior of the door. The wrong size or model can negatively affect gas mileage, and cause an inaccurate speed odometer reading.

“You should rotate your tires every 3,000 miles or whenever you get your oil changed,” says Harrington. “People also need to pay attention to their spares. If it’s a small one kept in the trunk, check the air pressure in it every two to three months. If it’s a big one exposed to the outdoor elements like in the bed of a truck, it may dry rot after a few years.”

Rufus Harrington, Davis’ brother, and the man who’d given me the seal of approval on my tire changed, brought my information-gathering interview to the next level. With a machine that looked like the child of a giant pair of pliers and a fancy walnut-cracking device, he showed me how to remove the tire rubber from the rim. Although I can’t explain the process to you, rest assured that unless you have one of these machines, it’s not information you’re going to use too often.

By the end of my visit with the Harrington brothers, confidence had filled me. I would probably never run a tire business or challenge any of my brothers to a competition. But I gained knowledge and something else even more important; the truth that unless you give up trying, you never truly fail.

For more information on the products and services offered by Big D Little F Tire Center, call 337-643-8310. For 24 hour roadside assistance, 337-652-0447.

Strength to Dance Forever

The word, “dance,” is as much a part of our Cajun language and heritage as gumbo, Mardi Gras, and the phrase, “Comment ca va?” Babies learn to cut a rug as soon as they take their first steps, and grandparents proudly showcase their jitterbugging talents anytime a song with a fiddle or accordion plays.

But what if a physical tragedy suddenly stops a person who has danced all their life? Where would they find the courage to get back out on the floor? Where would they find the strength?

Beatrice Bertrand Herbert, an eighty-six year old great grandmother, who started dancing as a child, found herself in this situation about three years ago. When she was leaning over to pick something up off of the floor in her Kaplan home, she fell and broke the ball in one of her hips.

“I didn’t want to stop dancing,” Herbert says. “But my hip hurt so much, I didn’t think I’d ever dance again.”

After her fall, Herbert spent a week in the hospital, where a surgeon replaced the ball in her hip. She went through a rehabilitation program for two weeks, and after about a month was able to walk again.

“I wanted to be active,” Herbert said. “If I would have stayed sitting in that wheelchair, I might not be walking today.”

About six months after Herbert’s fall, her friend, Alex Mire took her to a dance at The Sunset in Kaplan. One of her favorite musician’s, Donnie Broussard, was playing, and Herbert felt it was time to get back on the dance floor.

“I was scared,” she said. “But I found the will power to be the person I am.”

Herbert’s advice to someone who finds his or herself in a wheelchair is to not stay still. We all have the courage inside of us to attempt the challenges we face, even if they seem impossible.

“I always try to do whatever I want,” says Herbert. “If I can’t do it, at least I know I tried.”

While I interviewed Herbert and her friend, Alex Mire, the two of them spoke to each other in French. They seemed to be as Cajun as one could be, but not because they used words like, “chanter,” (to sing) and “danser” (to dance). But because of their sheer toughness, and determination to not let anything stand in the way from living life.

It’s an aspect of my own heritage for which I am very proud, but sometimes forget. Mire and Herbert reminded me that even I, a forever wimpy kid, shouldn’t let what may seem as obstacles prevent me from using the physical and mental strength given to me by my parents, and the brave men and women who first created their own world in Louisiana.

“Where did you find the strength to have that first dance with Mr. Mire?” I asked Herbert.

“Love,” she replied. “It will keep me dancing until the day I die.”

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Other Jacques

I always feel a little uneasy walking through the front door of a funeral home. The thought of someone’s death suffocates me like I’m wrapped in a heavy wool blanket. But usually after a few minutes, the darkly lit parlor filled with flowers, friends and family relaxes me, and I join in the celebration of a loved one’s journey to the next life.

A few weeks ago, I had a different experience when I accidentally walked into the back office of Vincent’s Funeral Home in Kaplan. Within a couple of seconds, I realized that I’d stepped into a new world. The lights were brighter, and people walked around quicker than in the parlor. Then all of a sudden, a familiar face appeared.

“Hey, Jacques,” the person said.

“Hey, Jacques,” I said back.

It was Jacques Vincent, the funeral director of Vincent Funeral Home. He was the other Jacques in Vermilion Parish; the cooler Jacques. Each time we cross paths, we greet each other the same, both amused at hearing ourselves say our own name to address someone else.

“How’s your family?” The other Jacques asked. “Is everything okay?”

His face tightened for a second, and I was reminded of where we were standing. So I quickly assured him that everyone was fine. His concern was genuine, and I knew that he had reached out to me as a friend. But my interest was also peaked by his profession as a funeral director.

“We have funeral homes in Kaplan, Abbeville and Gueydan,” Vincent said when I interviewed him a week later. “My dad, John Vincent, opened the first one about forty-five years ago. I started helping him with small jobs, like mowing the yard when I was a teenager.”

After graduating from high school, Vincent attended the Commonwealth College of Funeral Services in Texas, where he was class president and salutatorian. He completed fifteen months of classroom time, passed a board exam, and then had a yearlong internship. Upon completion, he became a licensed funeral director and embalmer. Then in 1990, Vincent joined his father’s business.

“The most important aspect of being a funeral director is supporting and guiding the families during the funeral process,” says Vincent. “Knowing that we’re helping them during this difficult time is what makes my job so gratifying.”

Vincent’s Funeral Home assists the family of the deceased with every aspect of the burial. They will submit the obituary to the newspaper, arrange police escorts, order flowers and provide help with any paper work including insurance benefits.

“As a funeral director, you not only deal with the deceased,” says Vincent. “You’re also helping the survivors, all who have different situations and needs.”

Vincent’s advice to anyone interested in becoming a funeral director is to work as an assistant first. He says that the situations of the business are very unique, and exposure beforehand will ensure a person is able to deal with the realities.

“The thing that had the most impact on me as a funeral director was when I lost my brother,” says Vincent. “It helped me realized what the families of the deceased are going through.”

The interview had changed. The man across the desk from me was no longer Vincent, the funeral director. He had become the other Jacques again; a friend, who because of his own loss, could now help others.

“I read your column,” he said and smiled. “Aren’t you supposed to do a job at the place you’re writing about? I have an idea.”

The smile on his face alarmed me, and I began to feel like the wool blanket had been wrapped around me again. What kind of job could I do in a funeral home that wouldn’t freak me out?

Vincent brought me to a brightly lit room and pointed at a white table with a hose sticking out of it. He suited me up in rubber gloves, a paper coat, and a plastic mask that made me feel like I was wearing a Return of the Jedi Halloween costume.

“It’s the embalming table,” he said handing me a large scrub brush. “Now clean it good or I’ll tell your boss at the paper you aren’t doing your job.”

We spent the next few minutes laughing, and then headed to the lobby where Vincent’s
wife, Dawn was busy managing the day-to-day operations of a funeral home office. We all knew each other from high school, and I was reminded of weekends spent driving up and down Cushing Boulevard and hanging out at the Sonic.

Although I learned a lot from my interview with Vincent, it was the time I spent with the other Jacques and Dawn that gave me a real look outside the darkly lit parlors of the funeral home. Death is difficult for everyone, but life has to continue. It sure feels good to know that we have friends and family there to remind us and help us through it.

For more information on the services provided by Vincent Funeral Home, call 337-643-7276 or visit their Web site at Service info line: 337-225-5276