Acadiana is a region steeped in history, culture and tradition and its people are known for their irrepressible and entrepreneurial spirit. It is with this idea in mind that we created the Acadiana Profile Trailblazers. Some of the honorees are people you’ve come to know for accomplishments in their industry or in the community. Others are either newer to their professions or have struck out on a new path — in either case, they are making waves. Acadiana Profile is thrilled to honor these trailblazing Acadianians and highlight the work they are doing in this one-of-a-kind place.
Around three years ago, Courtney Pitre worked at the pharmacy she still owns in Arnaudville. Her customers would often talk to her about their problems, frustrations and needs. Pitre decided to do something about that, and Le Bon Voisin was born.
“I’ve always had a talent for listening to others’ problems, finding out what they need and thinking of practical solutions,” Pitre said.
One frustration the 34-year-old Pitre and her customers had was the way national charities distribute their funds. The people in Pitre’s community wanted to ensure that their dollars and donations were going directly to their community. But national charities would not make any such guarantees. So, Pitre started Le Bon Voisin with the specific purpose of helping families and individuals in her area. Every dollar and item donated goes directly to local citizens. A slogan Pitre likes to use is “neighbors helping neighbors.”
“The people in this area are really generous,” Pitre said.
The work Le Bon Voisin does is diverse. In a small town like Arnaudville, there are not a lot of organized activities for children, so Pitre helped arrange outdoor movies nights for kids. Le Bon Voisin also brings Christmas gifts to nursing home residents during the holiday season. Lately, the organization has done a lot of work with its food pantry and school needs closets. A needs closet is something schools have where students lacking school supplies or clothing items can get what they need for free.
The assistance goes beyond the physical items. Pitre said when someone is need is helped by others, it gives them a feeling of empowerment. It makes them feel like they can achieve their goals and that they are part of a community that has their back when times get tough.
When she is not running her pharmacy or working with Le Bon Voisin, Pitre likes to travel in her Winnebago. Recently, she drove to South Padre Island in it and has plans for bigger trips in the future.
Pitre believes work like hers is contagious. When one person sees another doing good deeds in the community, it makes that person want to get involved, too.
“The more I work with the public, the more I realize we’re all doing the best we can … If you have any talent you can use to help others, you have to use it,” Pitre said.
Even though she is an Acadiana native, Pitre has played ice hockey for 25 years. She is a goalie for two women’s travel hockey teams and has played on the legendary rink in Lake Placid, NY where the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game.
By Fritz Esker
Mickey Smith Jr.
When Alicia Keys recognized Mickey Smith Jr. at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards in January as the winner of the music educator award, the moment embodied years of dedication to his community and the fulfillment of a long-awaited dream.
“For me, it’s beyond belief,” said Smith, 39, who for the last 15 years has been the director of bands at Maplewood Middle School in Sulphur.
He’s thrown his name in the hat four other times, making it to finals twice only to fall short. “I almost didn’t put my name in this year,” he said. “There is a lot you have to do to be recognized — a lot of work. I didn’t want it to take a toll on my family.”
As he was considering whether he would apply for the 2020 awards, he thought back to his childhood, as he often does, to offer some inspiration. “When I first picked up music, I was so terrible that my mom said get out the house and keep on going until we can’t hear you,” he said. Back then, Smith took that as a motivation to improve, and to this day he uses that experience to push himself to progress.
On the first day of school as a teacher, I played a song and it was Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.” My first sounds made in a classroom [were] by the artist who recognized me at the Grammys 15 years later.
Smith has shared that story with countless students over the years to motivate them, too. “Everybody loves band the first week until they realize they have to practice,” he said. “Few people at that age consider the amount of work that goes into perfecting that skill. I’m transparent with them and use my personal story to help shape and guide them.”
The bit of advice resonated so much that in 2018 Smith published a book called “The Adventures of Little Mickey: Keep On Going.” He wrote and illustrated the tale, which is autobiographical and recounts his rocky beginning with playing music.
This year, Smith will take his message on the road, called the Keep On Going Tour, to schools across Louisiana, Texas and Iowa to offer teachers a day of professional and personal development, focusing on skills like classroom and behavior management.
“This is for all teachers,” he said. “We’ll encourage and equip educators by telling them they are loved, valued and wanted. In turn they can be the same thing for their students.”
By Jonathan Olivier
While stand-alone arts electives in schools are worthwhile and important, there is also a push to integrate arts education with more traditional subjects. As education director for the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Bree Sargent helps organize the PACE (Primary Academic Creative Experiences) program, which integrates the arts into local grammar schools.
The program works with children in Acadiana elementary schools every week for the entire school year. A teaching artist comes to classrooms and merges the arts with other learning areas. For example, a math class can learn about symmetry and shape by studying cultural masks. A science class can learn about water cycles through dance.
In each case, the teaching artist speaks with the classroom teacher ahead of time. They discuss what the students will be studying for the next six weeks and come up with a balanced lesson plan involving the arts.
Sargent said the PACE program makes learning more exciting for children.
“Learning through the arts brings everything to life,” Sargent said. “It gives kids that zest for wanting to learn more.”
The 43-year-old Sargent has worked with the Acadiana Center for the Arts for 20 years. The center has been working with Lafayette Parish schools for over 40 years. In fact, one of the current PACE teachers was a former PACE student. Recently, they have expanded the PACE program to schools in St. Landry Parish, too.
On top of employing teaching artists through the PACE program, the Acadiana Center for the Arts trains classroom teachers in ways they can use the arts more in their daily lessons.
“If teachers are trained to do that work, it will grow exponentially,” Sargent said.
The work is not just an education for the students; it’s an education for Sargent, too.
“It’s different every day,” Sargent said. “I’m continuing to learn.”
The center’s work is by no means limited to the PACE program. Founded in 1975, it also supports the creation of new works of art, exhibits, festivals and performance art over an eight-parish region (Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, and Vermilion).
“Equity and access is very important to us,” Sargent said. “We want everyone to have access to our programs.”
Sargent is an avid baker. She said her colleagues at the Acadiana Center for the Arts often serve as “guinea pigs” to test her latest baking creations. “It’s become my art form,” Sargent said.
By Fritz Esker
FRENCH CAJUN CULTURE
World-renowned Scott musician, with more than 20 albums, Zachary Richard has always worn many hats.
In addition to his constant songwriting and performances, which has taken him around the world, he founded Action Cadienne, a volunteer organization that promotes the French language and the Cajun culture of Louisiana. He has co-produced and starred in documentaries about Acadian history and culture, including the award-winning “Against the Tide” and “Cajun Heat,” the latter of which explored the land of his ancestors and his attachment to his Cajun identity. He’s also written numerous books, many in French.
Richard was decorated France’s Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres de la République Française and initiated into the Ordre des Francophones d’Amérique by the government of Québec. He has three honorary doctorates, from the University of Moncton, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Ste. Anne’s University in Nova Scotia. Last year, Richard was promoted to the rank of Officer in the French Academic Palms. In 2015, Richard was named Humanist of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
And the list goes on. To label Richard a Louisiana ambassador and culture preservationist would be an understatement.
“Last year I spent most of the year on the road, almost 80 dates, including Congrés Mondial Acadien in Canada,” Richard said.
This year, Richard is staying closer to home to be with his 98-year-old mother. Spending more time in Louisiana allows him to develop poetry to incorporate into live performances. Richard’s latest book is “Zuma 9,” a collection of French poetry based on “universal truths and protests” and inspired by Beat and Oriental poetry. He hopes to provide awareness and enlightenment through the spoken word, he said.
“In a sense, being a French-speaking artist is an act of resistance.”
Richard owns a list of literary accolades as well. For his previous collections of French poetry, he’s received the Prix Littéraire Champlain for “Faire Récolte” and the Prix Roland Gasparic from Rumania for “Feu.” He was named Louisiana’s first French Language Poet Laureate.
“There’s a close relationship between poetry and song,” Richard explained. “It’s a whole new gig for me. It’s fun because I can wear another hat.”
Zachary Richard was raised in a devout Catholic household. When he was 14 he was sent to seminary to become a priest. “I lasted two weeks,” he said. “It didn’t take.” He has since learned the rosary in French so he can pray with his 98-year-old mother. “We hold hands and pray and we reminisce,” he said.
By Cheré Coen
Corey Jack has committed most of his adult life to the service of the underprivileged, particularly youth throughout Acadiana that deserve more opportunities.
“If there is no one to encourage them, then they just get lost and don’t reach their full potential,” said Jack, 33, who lives in Lafayette.
In the past, Jack has helped kids stay on the right track through his nonprofit he created in 2015 called the Youth Literacy Foundation of Acadiana. It began as a literacy program that exposed children in underserved communities to books, what Jack saw as a path to success based on his own experience. “I began reading at about five years old,” he said. “It enhanced my vocabulary, as well as my social and emotional intelligence.”
This year, he’s relaunching the nonprofit under a new name, the Legacy Institute for Economic Attainment, which will focus more on entrepreneurial training, financial literacy and workforce placement that also extends to young adults.
“The goal is to increase the intergenerational mobility of families living in underserved communities,” he said. “We want to introduce opportunities early on so that by the time they are in their early 20s, they’re making more than their parents ever did.”
Although I love speaking in front of large crowds, serving on various panels in front of audiences, and conducting workshops, I’m still quite the introvert.
Jack knows how these kids feel. He’s from Mamou, a small town with few economic opportunities, and he grew up in a single-parent household. When peers around him were engaging in activities he saw as negative, he decided instead he would read and study. He truly believed that he’d make something of himself if he worked hard. Always, his grandmother’s words were in the back of his mind. “She told me I would be this great man and to always remember where I came from, and to remember to keep God first,” he said. “She encouraged me and always saw something in me.”
Jack’s commitment to helping the community doesn’t stop with children. Through his consulting business, Jack & Associates LLC, he assists people as they start a business or nonprofit, and aids in creating business plans. He’s also the manager of Lafayette Chamber Affairs at One Acadiana, an economic development organization.
“I’m in a good place right now in life because everything I do is connected,” he said. “It’s all about entrepreneurship, financial literacy and exposing families to economic growth. Every time I do something, I’m advancing my purpose.” –
By Jonathan Olivier
Chef John Folse
Chef John Folse grew up in St. James Parish along the bayou, learning early the basics of Louisiana cooking and culture. The knowledge he acquired growing up in a culinary mecca, coupled with a lifetime of experiences, have taken him around the world. He has been an acclaimed restaurateur, spokesman, and has appeared at the 1988 Presidential Summit and the 1989 Vatican State dinner, among other accomplishments. The Louisiana Legislature called him “Louisiana’s Culinary Ambassador to the World.”
Folse has hosted the international “Taste of Louisiana” TV series produced by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and created one of the largest food manufacturing facilities in the United States. He published cookbooks, a novel and two children’s books but is best known for his encyclopedic tomes detailing the history of Louisiana cuisine with hundreds of recipes. Folse also operates White Oak Estate and Gardens in Baton Rouge, an event space that doubles as a working plantation where visiting chefs from around the world immerse themselves into Louisiana cuisine and history.
These days, Folse’s focus is on the expansion of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, the only bachelor of science degree in culinary arts in Louisiana. He helped the Louisiana Board of Regents start the pilot program 20 years ago.
“There were no chefs back then with master’s degrees so we had to create people who could teach at that level,” Folse explained.
Folse instructs seniors with a class on “History and Culture of Louisiana’s Seven Nations.” He describes the state’s iconic foods, explains where they originated, how they came to be and why it’s important.
Folse’s four oversized cookbooks — more like coffee table art pieces — examined Louisiana cuisine from several angles. The series began with “The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine,” followed by “Hooks, Lies, & Alibis: Louisiana’s Authoritative Collection of Game Fish & Seafood Cookery,” “After the Hunt Louisiana’s Authoritative Collection of Wild Game and Game Fish Cookery” and “Can You Dig It: Louisiana’s Authoritative Collection of Vegetable Cookery.” Like his other books that delve into the history and culture of everything we eat in the Bayou State, — Folse hopes his fifth and final book on desserts will be the definitive guide on Louisiana sweets.
“We hope it will be like the ‘Times-Picayune Creole Cookbook’ and always be on the shelf,” he said.
John Folse creates the spirited recipes for his Jones Creek Distillery located at his sprawling, historic White Oak Estate and Gardens. He uses the clear water off Jones Creek in Baton Rouge and develops the rum and bourbon products through smell “and a little tasting on the tongue.” For the most part, however, Folse doesn’t drink alcohol. “I have a distillery but I don’t drink,” he said with a laugh.
By Cheré Coen
When Tim Rebowe took over as head coach of the Nicholls State University football team to start the 2015 season, the squad was coming off a 0-12 campaign in 2014. They had also lost the last six games of the 2013 season. They would lose the first five games of Rebowe’s debut season. But the team quickly turned things around and made an FCS (NCAA Football Championship Subdivision) playoff appearance in Rebowe’s third season. They would follow that effort with two Southland Conference championships.
Rebowe had applied for the head coaching position at Nicholls multiple times. Even though he had been passed over in every previous attempt, he told himself he would give it one more try in 2014. That last try landed him the job. He knew it would be a tremendous challenge, but he believed in himself, his staff, and his players.
“We knew if we stuck to the process, we could have success eventually,” Rebowe said. “But we didn’t put a timetable on it.”
The 56-year-old Rebowe has been coaching football since he graduated from LSU in 1987. A graduate of Destrehan High School, he said he figured out that he wanted to stay around the game even though he was not a great player. His former Destrehan coach, Chipper Simon, gave him a job as a scout, and that started him on the path to coaching.
Players are obviously important to any program’s success. Rebowe said the relationships he cultivated over decades of coaching high school and college football in Louisiana served him well in the recruiting process (he was previously an assistant at Nicholls, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana-Lafayette).
“If the coaches trust you, they’ll trust you with their players,” Rebowe said.
Once the players are in the program, Rebowe said the challenge is finding the way to motivate each player as an individual.
“You don’t treat them all the same because no two people are the same,” Rebowe said.
Players today don’t respond to a drill sergeant approach the way older players did, and Rebowe said it’s a coach’s job to adjust to this. A coach must find the balance between tough love and friendly support.
Rebowe stated that being a good coach involves constant learning. It’s about remembering what worked and what didn’t work from every season in every job. A willingness to be flexible is also important.
“Nobody is a finished product,” Rebowe said. “What worked last year might not work this year.”
Coach Rebowe is an avid runner who participates in 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons in his spare time.
By Fritz Esker
From a young age, Emile Ancelet learned to appreciate the grandeur of nature as a hunter and angler. Many mornings were spent gawking at swarms of ducks circling overhead or reeling in speckled trout from the bow of a boat.
“That was always a part of me — it’s in my veins,” said Ancelet, 31. “My dad was passionate about it and that really instilled in me a passion.”
As a teenager, Ancelet carried with him that thirst for the outdoors, spending summers away in a program called Adventure Treks, living out of a tent while rock climbing, backpacking and sea kayaking in the Pacific Northwest. Over three high school summers, he learned outdoor survival skills, Leave No Trace principals and obtained a Wilderness First Aid certification. He also was involved in a leadership summit for a month in Alaska, taking away an appreciation for wild places and an awareness of the bond that humans form in close-knit groups in the wilderness.
As much as I love the outdoors, I’m actually terrified of snakes and spiders. I respect their existence but want nothing to do with them.”
It made sense that Ancelet would pursue related areas in college earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s in environmental science. Everything seemed to coalesce — French, his affinity for nature and people — when he landed his first gig for the Bayou Vermilion District (BVD) at Vermilionville in 2012 leading watershed tours, and then later on the bayou crew cleaning trash and debris from the Vermilion River.
After working at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries near the Vermilion Bay as a marine biologist, Ancelet returned to the BVD and is now the director of water quality. “My job is to coordinate the efforts of federal, state and local agencies to work toward improving the water quality of the Vermilion River,” he said.
The river, which snakes through Lafayette, was at one time heavily contaminated with fecal bacteria. Ancelet and his team identified the source of much of the problem — faulty sewer systems draining into a coulee feeding into the river. After leading a door-to-door campaign to inform residents, Ancelet declared the problem much improved, saying, “While some people see the river as a negative, dirty resource, we want to change that perception. It’s a beautiful natural resource.”
By Jonathan Olivier
When you’re going through a crisis, whether it’s a physical or mental health one, it can be hard to know what to do. You’re stressed out, so you’re not thinking clearly. The steps to get what you need can seem insurmountable even in a city with as many resources as Lafayette. At Beacon Community Connections, executive director Holly Howat helps people in need receive assistance for a wide variety of issues.
Howat’s journey to Beacon started in 2015 when she was the executive director for the Lafayette Parish Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. Initially, she focused on the over-incarceration of mentally ill people. But she realized the work she was doing could be expanded to the community at large and focus on more holistic health and wellness issues. In 2018, Beacon Community Connections was born.
How does the program work? Beacon receives a referral for someone in need navigating the healthcare system (physical or mental) or criminal justice system, then contacts the person. They find out what they need, then connect them with the appropriate resources. They make sure to actively listen to what’s important for the person instead of telling them what’s important.
Beacon’s services vary. Howat said they were able to help a recently divorced woman who was living alone and suffered a broken ankle. Since she lived alone, she had no one to drive her to doctor’s appointments. Beacon was able to arrange rides to the hospital for her. In addition to this, Beacon’s navigator (the liaison who helps individuals get what they need) noticed the woman seemed depressed, too. The navigator arranged for the woman to speak with a mental health counselor.
Howat also pointed to a case where Beacon was able to help a man recently discharged from a mental health facility. He had been homeless for a long time. Beacon contacted the man’s sister and helped set him up there temporarily while assisting him in finding work and an apartment of his own.
“We helped him every step of the way to get his life back on track,” Howat said.
While Howat is proud of her own work with Beacon, she said Beacon’s mission is consistent with the values of the people of Acadiana.
“One of the reasons Beacon has been so successful is because of the principles of Acadian culture,” Howat said. “If a neighbor is in need, you help them…This is what can happen when we work together.”
While Howat attended classes at the University of Texas at Austin, one of her classmates was future movie star Matthew McConaughey.
By Fritz Esker
Dr. Taniecea Arceneaux Mallery
You might not expect to find someone with a Ph.D. in applied and computational mathematics in an Office for Campus Diversity — but throughout her higher-education experience at Princeton University, Dr. Taniecea Mallery learned what it was like to navigate a male-dominated field as an African American woman.
“When I went to graduate school, it was a culture shock in so many ways,” Dr. Mallery said. “I still say to this day that I wouldn’t have made it out of graduate school without the diversity office at Princeton. I got a very personal look at what diversity officers do, and I really developed a passion for it.”
Dr. Mallery felt called to provide the same resources she’d received to other students who may not support. A position became available in her hometown at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, enabling her to return to Acadiana as the Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives & Chief Diversity Officer.
“A diversity officer really does touch every aspect of the college campus,” Dr. Mallery said. “The work that I do interfaces with students, whether it’s helping to educate them about the importance of intercultural understanding or how to engage across our differences. We even push it a bit further and educate our faculty and staff about how to be more effective at being culturally responsive and inclusive in the classroom.”
Dr. Mallery also pushes students and faculty to challenge notions of what professionals in certain fields look like; dismantling these stereotypes, she said, plays an important role in empowering students to pursue careers that align with their passions.
“We were all raised in a world where television and programming influence our perception of the world,” she said. “Those messages influence our students, and they even influence the idea of what a professor looks like. Diversifying faculty is a challenge across the country. At UL Lafayette, we’re really trying to shift the culture to think more inclusively and to redefine our notions of what a successful student looks like — or what a successful faculty member looks like.”
“The university is very tied to our com