2009-04-02 / Local & State

Commentary: A Lifechanging Experience

Editors Note: This article is the last of two penned by Waterfall resident Josiah "Josey" Newman, who with financial aid from area residents was able to participate in a school construction project in Louisiana.

By Josiah Newman

It started as a mission inspired by a dear friend. It ended in what can only be described as a life-changing experience. It is one thing to hear of such a happening as Katrina and Gustav. It is another to actually see the aftermath. Personally, I brought more back from Louisiana than I took down with me, and I am not speaking of physical objects.

I thought stepping foot in a state where so many died would have a much greater effect of grief over me. To call my emotional state one of grief would not be correct in the slightest. I felt hope, admiration, friendship, anger (as in, simply, why?), but most of all, there was this sense of significance. In a time where most of the college students in America were waking up with headaches that Goody's could not fix, we woke up every morning, closer and closer to fulfilling what we set out to do: to inspire students interested in agriculture in the great state of Louisiana.

The smiles on the children's faces in Iberville, La., were amazing. Every direction you looked, there was another kid who was happy to be spending time with a group of 15 college students (and five advisors) who traveled 1,250 miles to be with them. Even the children who were not having a good time were involved easily when just pointed to somewhere on the project. This was our project, the students at the Iberville Academy took it and made it theirs.

I envy the strength of these children, they have literally been through hell and back - and they stand beside you, assisting you in every aspect of the construction of the living wall (Iberville), the greenhouse foundation (New Orleans), and raised beds (New Orleans).

Forbes Road, McConnellsburg and Southern Fulton could all take a lesson from Iberville. The Iberville Academy is a 'Magnet School,' so they accept students by lottery every year. About 400 applicants each year means 100 new students in the school. But the students are allowed to apply every year, so after four years of application, they are almost assured admittance. These students were so well behaved, I was astonished at this having attended high school in Fulton County. Then it was explained to me why.

The schools in the county have very poor performance, with the exception of Iberville Academy. If the students get three write-ups, they are done, they are shipped back to their under-performing schools. This leads to a student body that does amazing things. On the "old SAT" scale, their average score for an exiting student is 1100. This is higher than Penn State's entrance requirement, which tells me this school is as on the ball as it looks.

I knew two of the other 14 students before I embarked on the trip. It was a very diverse group in the sense that we had students in the College of Agricultural Sciences who came from farm families with very Christian roots, and had a very conservative upbringing. We also had students from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia who had very liberal upbringings. Now you put those students together in three vans for a total of 40 hours on the road and you can predict what would happen. The funny thing is, it did not happen. No political debates. No slights against each other's religious beliefs.

In New Orleans, I saw a few students that made me shake my head a little, but far fewer than is portrayed on TV and in films. For an inner-city school, I saw no violence, cursing was commonplace (seriously, not much different than here), but the students were very polite and respectful.

We worked at what is called a 'PM' school. This is known as night school for us Yankees. The amazing part is, you have to consider what the students attending the PM school have to deal with. These are kids who have to support families, be it the one they were born in to, or the one they had started themselves. These are kids who work eight hours a day, and then go to school at night for four hours. How many adults do you know could pull 12-hour days?

This school also has an "AM" program, which is a regular seven- to eight-hour school day. Most of the kids in the AM program don't have jobs on the side, and if they do, they're part time for the most part. So, you have a kid going to school seven hours a day, and working for four hours a day. Then you have another kid working eight hours a day, and going to school four hours a day. You can predict who will be the better performing student, but you would be wrong. The PM program outperforms the AM program. Maybe this is a sign to cut back school hours and make it more like college perhaps?

The service project was so meaningful and groundbreaking (The living wall is cutting edge, and Iberville's is thought to be the first to be built at a high school in America.) that I cannot wait until my next project.

Also, I issue a challenge to the FFA at each of the three school districts in Fulton County to follow suit and build their own living wall on school grounds. It beautifies the landscape, cleans the water and helps end backbreaking garden labor. I promise you, whenever you are ready, I will be there to lend a hand, and I'm sure some of the students who went on this trip would not mind doing it again.

I'll close with a quote written in my senior yearbook that has carried me throughout college and inspired me to go to Louisiana:

"You do not need good luck, Enough for now."

—Ben Knepper

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