Trailblazers

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’s 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.


Dr. Phebe Hayes

PROFILE BY FRITZ ESKER

The accomplishments and struggles of African-Americans have been left out of Acadiana’s history books, but Dr. Phebe Hayes is working hard to change that.

Hayes, who worked at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette as a professor of communicative disorders and as the dean of the College of General Studies, retired in 2013 to care for her ailing father. After her father and her twin sister died in close succession, Hayes felt the need to get back into the community. She volunteered at the local public library.

During her time at the library, Hayes came across a book about the great physicians of Iberia Parish from 1859-1959. The book only contained the names of white men. Hayes remembered her older relatives talking about the wonderful African-American doctors in the area during their childhood. But the text in the library was written during the Jim Crow era, when there was a concerted effort to keep evidence of African-American progress from the historical record.

Hayes used her academic research skills to learn more about these doctors and educate her fellow Acadians about them. She also founded the Iberia African-American Historical Society.

The research unearthed over 20 black physicians with ties to Iberia Parish, including the remarkable Dr. Emma Wakefield-Paillet, the first black woman to graduate with a medical degree in Louisiana. Wakefield-Paillet was born in New Iberia, but practiced in New Orleans. Hayes helped raise over $2,000 for a historical marker commemorating Wakefield. The marker went up on Nov. 3, 2018.

Another project Hayes is working on is garnering more recognition of the African-American military veterans in Acadiana. Her father was a Korean war vet and she said African-American cemeteries in the area are full of military markers on graves. She hopes to give these men their due and create a database where people can research them.

Hayes’ efforts have been embraced by the community so far. She described the feedback she has received for her work as “incredibly supportive.”

Hayes emphasized that her goal is not to remove anyone from the history books or remove any books from library shelves.

She simply wants to include missing information from the current historical record, which will in turn provide Acadiana residents with a broader and more accurate picture of their history.

“It is not a black history that’s being told; it is our shared history,” Hayes said. “If you only tell part of it, it’s not true history.”


Melissa Bonin

PROFILE BY CHÉRE COEN

Artists develop what some call a “voice,” a signature style that appears in everything they do. It requires trial and error or sometimes, as in the case of Melissa Bonin of New Iberia, a time to let go.

“I started to choose the actual physical movement of my body when I was painting,” Bonin explained. “I simply chose joy and whatever brought me joy.”

It makes sense for a South Louisiana woman of French heritage who loves to dance.

Bonin’s unique Southern landscapes include haunting colors and dreamy bayous, images in which the viewer can sense movement and emotion. Bonin began her art career as protégé to the celebrated Acadiana artist Elemore Morgan Jr. during her time earning both a bachelor of fine arts and a bachelor of arts in French from the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She’ has also studied at L’Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers and Paris, and took advanced studies from Bennington College, the Massachusetts School of Art and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Her work has been represented and sold worldwide and local collectors include Roger Ogden, Emeril Lagasse, Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds and Christian Jules LeBlanc.

Last year, Bonin participated in “Une Place à la Table — A Place at the Table” exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

Bonin’s most recent art series includes “L’Ombre d’oreé: Nature as Metaphor for the Deportation of the Acadians” and “The Francophone Feminine Voice of Louisiana,” which includes a portrait of the Baroness de Pontalba of New Orleans.

Bonin is also a recognized French poet, having studied French in both her native Louisiana and abroad. Her French poetry will appear in upcoming publications of “Feux Follets” with ULL and “Oh Malheureuse!” a collection of French writing for Louisiana women by Louisiana women.

Her list of accomplishments includes lecturing art and poetry at the Cabildo Louisiana State Museum, representing the state of Louisiana at events in California, serving as mansion artist for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and being named to Women Who Mean Business in 2015.

Bonin operated her own gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans but had to change course when she broke her feet three years ago. However, that hasn’t detoured her from her art.

“After that I said, ‘You know what, I’m doing everything on my bucket list,’” Bonin said.

She’s delving deeper into her poetry, she explained, writing in both French and English. In May, she’s heading to Italy for a residency.

Just last week, with her feet healing well, she danced.


Greg Brown

PROFILE BY ALICE PHILLIPS

Pop’s Midnight Heat is a family-run hot sauce business influenced by Greg Brown’s love of gardening. Brown grew up in Richie close to family and friends who inspired his hobby.

“My grandfather had an orchard and a garden and my dad would allow me to do gardening with them,” Brown said. “One of my neighbors, that I lived around as an adult, always had a big garden. So, I would visit with him and talk to him about gardening. That’s how I learned about most of what I do in my garden.”

Brown grows the peppers for his hot sauce in his garden in Richie. Each $5 bottle contains one type of pepper out of the six he grows. Habaneros, banana peppers and jalapeños are just half of the types of peppers used by Brown.

“The Midnight Heat seems to be the most popular flavor,” he said. “It’s a jalapeño pepper. Midnight Fire is a habanero pepper. Midnight Blaze is a scotch bonnet. Ghost is  ghost pepper and then I also have hot banana pepper.”

It takes several months for the peppers to reach the perfect ripeness. Brown typically begins planting the peppers in March and then waits until just after June to pick the plants.

“I don’t pick any of my peppers unless they are red or, for the habanero’s case, they turn orange,” Brown said. “From there, I typically vacuum pack them and then cook them for about three hours for a batch of hot sauce.”

While the family enjoys the hot sauce in their own homes, they also help with sales of the popular sauce.

“I have a daughter, Anya, who was previously living in Wimberley, Texas,” Brown said. “She was involved in telling people and selling the hot sauce in the Texas area. My other daughter, Megan, travels and sings with [the band] T’Monde. I told them to take some while they traveled to different events to sell the hot sauce. That has actually been a great marketing tool to get the hot sauce out in different areas.”

Pop’s Midnight Heat has captured the hearts and taste buds of Acadianians and has even started selling across the country. Brown’s time at cook-offs, farmers markets and festivals has led to it being sold in Minnesota, Maryland and California.

Brown busies himself with other jobs as the senior environmentalist at Boardwalk Pipeline and enjoys hunting when he is not gardening or cooking up a batch of hot sauce.


Kohlie Frantzen

PROFILE BY FRITZ ESKER

Most lawyers don’t transition from the legal world into the agricultural world, but that is exactly what Kohlie Frantzen, founder and managing member of Helical Outposts, did.

Frantzen’s journey to becoming “an accidental farmer” began when a friend invited him to California to learn about a program designed to train combat vets to become farmers. The introduction into sustainable farming was an ah-ha moment for Frantzen.

Hydroponic farming, the kind practiced by Helical Outposts, has some advantages over traditional farming. Even the most skilled farmers will suffer serious setbacks when events like the 2016 floods or the 2018 freeze occur. But hydroponic farming is done in a controlled environment, protected from the elements and insects (there is no soil involved). The plants receive necessary nutrients 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a result, they grow faster than crops planted the traditional way.

Helical’s hydroponic farm uses 80 percent less water, 90 percent less land, and produces the equivalent of as much as 3 acres of organic farm soil in as little as 5,000 square feet. It also has satellite internet access and a water filtration system.

“The threats a lot of farmers face are based on variables they cannot control, like the weather,” Frantzen said. “We mitigate the risk of conventional farming.”

Helical’s goal is to bring community farming back in a sustainable way. Frantzen said that hydroponic farming requires work, but that he is proof that people from all walks of life can learn how to do it. And there is a demand for the food. Local restaurants crave healthy fresh produce.

Community farming can also provide healthy produce to food deserts, which are all too common in Louisiana. Food deserts are neighborhoods without easy access to food, especially fresh produce. Often, people in these neighborhoods eat processed foods of the kinds one can find in dollar stores or convenience stores. Frantzen said one of Helical’s earliest clients was St. Joseph’s Diner in Lafayette, which serves people affected by poverty and homelessness.

Frantzen points out that farmers in the United States are aging quickly and suffer from a high suicide rate. If this country is going to grow its own food, then more people need to follow Helical’s lead. Frantzen hopes the combination of farming plus technology, minus the hazards typically associated with farming will appeal to young people.

“If we’re going to get the next generation into growing food, we’re going to have to make it at least as sexy as Snapchat,” Frantzen said.


Clare Cook

PROFILE BY FRITZ ESKER

Lafayette native Clare Cook is helping Acadiana residents get in touch with their inner artist at Basin Arts, a collaborative arts space in Downtown Lafayette.

Cook journeyed to New York City to pursue an MFA in dance from NYU. After graduating, she had success as a dancer and choreographer. But eventually, Cook and her husband, also a Lafayette native, wanted to come home to be closer to family.

When she returned to Lafayette, she wanted to find a place where she could develop her own art and nurture her creativity. She figured that if she was looking for a place like that, then others in the area must be as well. So in August 2016, she opened Basin Arts.

“It felt like a good opportunity to share things I’ve learned with the community,” Cook said.

It’s hard to describe everything Basin Arts does in a paragraph. There are five artists-in-residence who have studio space in the building.  There is an arts classroom on site. There are also drop-in dance classes for skill levels ranging from beginner to professional, similar to how gyms have drop-in fitness classes or yoga studios have drop-in yoga classes. In addition, Basin Arts has its own professional dance company. The company will put on a performance in 2019 called “Sports Suites,” a dance show inspired by, well — sports.

Cook started the BARE Walls program to help local painters. Painters, like almost all artists, want to be paid for their work but often find themselves receiving offers to display their work simply for “exposure.” Businesses pay a subscription fee to the service, and they can choose art every three months from local artists to display in their businesses. The artists take home 50 percent of the proceeds. It is not  as much as a sale to a private collector, but it still puts money in artists’ pockets while giving them exposure.

BARE Walls is also helpful to businesses. Some small businesses may not have the money to purchase artwork from galleries,  but still want to beautify their spaces. The program gives them an affordable option that also showcases the work of local artists.

The work remains challenging and exciting for Cook. She loves the variety, the creativity and the collaboration with other artists.

“Every day, every week, every month is different,” Cook said. “The heart of Basin Arts is that it’s creating a very open dialogue about creativity and the value of the arts. It helps people tap into their own creativity.”


Earlene Broussard Echeverria

PROFILE BY CHÉRE COEN

Earlene Broussard Echeverria hails from Marais Castille, a region located between Kaplan and Gueydan. Naturally, her first words were not English.

“I spoke French as a first language and learned to speak English when I went to Kaplan High School in 1955,” Echeverria explained. “I have continued to speak the French I learned in Vermilion Parish. It’s beautiful French and very precious to me.”
Which is why Echeverria dedicated her life to preserve, honor and inspire respect for the authentic Cajun variants of French.

Echeverria lived for a time in New Orleans but returned to Acadiana and it was her reintroduction to home that inspired her to share Cajun French with the community for residents to feel proud, see their language as value and to highlight the uniqueness of the region. In the 1990s, she was a French announcer on KRVS and was artistic director of Le Théâtre Cadien in which she wrote several plays in Cajun French.

“With Théâtre Cadien, people would see or hear French on the stage,” Echeverria explained. “It would inspire them to speak French and be proud of being Cajun.”

Echeverria has also worked as a translator for the children’s book “Cajun Folktales” by Celia Soper, published poetry and taught French in Vermilion Parish, the Academy of the Sacred Heart and LSU. In 1996, she started the literary project ABC 2,000 to teach 2,000 Cajuns “to read what they know how to say” by the year 2000. And for several years Echeverria headed the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL).

“You can’t speak of it in isolation,” Echeverria said of one effort to advance Cajun French in America. “It’s a huge tapestry. You need to see and be proud of it through stage, radio, music and by reading books.”

For her work, Echeverria received numerous honors, including the Ordre des Francophones d’Amérique from the Conseil de la vie française en Amérique of Canada, the Ordre des Palmes Académiques from France and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.

Today, Echeverria is leading a literary French table in Lafayette to teach those who speak Cajun French a chance to read the language.

“The average Cajun doesn’t have instruction in French,” she said. “It’s another extension of what I’m doing, helping people to learn to write in French. If you know how to read, you can read a story to your grandchildren, to participate more.”

Echeverria ties everything she does to her roots, defending the Cajun she learned and spoke growing up.

“I’m not going to be embarrassed about the French I learned from my mother and father,” she stated emphatically.


Jonathan Williams

PROFILE BY ALICE PHILLIPS

The Blue Monday concert series has brought people of all ages together with live music and purpose for two years. Jonathan Williams, Acadiana native and founder of the event, attributes his inspiration to his love of the area and people.

Growing up, music became a large part of Williams’s life.  

“Music always inspired me,” Williams said. “My mom passed away a couple of years ago. When we cleaned the house on Sundays, she taught me to dance.”

“When I was made aware for the need of local musicians and artists to have life care services,” Williams said. “I felt like we owed it to them to help them. These are the ones that created our entire Acadiana culture.”

The event is held every second Monday of the month at the Rock’n’Bowl in Lafayette. The crowd of typically 150 people enjoys tunes from local musicians and can even taste some of Williams’ cooking with the “Blue Plate Special.”

“Not only do they get an amazing show by some of the best musicians we have in this area but people come with a purpose and a very positive attitude. It’s such a diverse group of people. It feels like you’re at your grandma’s house,” Williams said.

Williams wanted to create a space for older people to feel comfortable to come to as well. He has always connected with the older community and opened Quality of Life Services in 2014 with his wife, Kathryn. Quality of Life Services provides day-to-day care of the elderly with services like basic computer assistance, simple meal preparation, sitter services and in-home safety checks.

Blue Monday is a way for the public to help provide these services as well as interact with the elderly community.

“I believe everyone that comes to Blue Monday knows they are there for a purpose. So, when they come, they know that their presence is part of something,” Williams said.

Blue Monday has become a large part of local artists’ and Williams’ lives and continues to flourish. Musicians gather together each month to connect and grow while supporting the Blue Monday mission.


Gregg Martinez

PROFILE BY ALICE PHILLIPS

Rhythm and blues singer Gregg Martinez has been singing since he can remember. A winning high school talent show performance drove him into fame with his peers, and he has not stopped since.

“I grew up on a farm and my mother loved to tell stories that I sang to the cows,” Martinez said. “But, my first solo in public was at church. At midnight mass, I sang ‘Silent Night’ when I was eight years old. So, I never stopped singing. I started singing for a living when I got out of high school.”

With influences of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and local Louisiana legends T.K. Hulin and GG Shinn, Martinez’s voice continued to grow since his first performance. He attended his first two years of high school in seminary school in Cincinnati before returning home to Cajun country.

“Junior year I was back in Lafayette,” he said. “Nobody knew I sang. I didn’t know anybody at the school when I went there. In the spring, we were having an event and some moms knew I sang at weddings. They asked me to sing in front of the entire student body. I was terrified. But, that day changed my life. I was popular the next day and about a week later I had a prom date and I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to do this.’”

Martinez first professionally sang at local Lafayette restaurant Chez Pastor, now the Blue Dog Café, when he was 18 years old. With little to no experience, Martinez played there for two years before starting his own band and performing and living all over the country. He spent the ‘80s in New Jersey before returning home again.

His style has been described as swamp pop, bayou blues and blue-eyed soul and has remained the same throughout his career.

“I’ve changed direction many times,” he said. “It probably hurt my career listening to what other people said I should be doing. I was always singing blue-eyed soul and R&B. But, in the ‘80s, we did top 40 dance music. To make a living, that’s what everyone was doing.”

In February 2019, Martinez was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He credits his honor to his body of music as a whole rather than his lack of national hit records. His band, The Delta Kings, is on tour this spring. Recently, Martinez began playing an acoustic duo with his son performing in New Orleans and the surrounding area.  

“It’s been almost 13 years since I’ve been back home and I’m still so happy to be here,” Martinez said. “I really love where I’m from.”


Savannah Vinsant Thompson

PROFILE BY FRITZ ESKER

In 2012, Lafayette trampoline gymnast Savannah Vinsant Thompson made one of her most cherished dreams come true when she represented the United States in the Summer Olympics in London. In 2015, she made one of her oldest dreams come true when she opened her own trampoline gym, Hangtime TNT Gymnastics, in Scott.

Even though Thompson wanted to own a gym since she was 7 years old, she still was a little hesitant to open Hangtime. She credits her husband, Christopher, for the extra encouragement and support she needed to take the leap and open the gym. It opened in 2015, but moved into its current location in 2016. It serves children ranging from 18 months old to 18 years old.

While Thompson was running the gym, she made a foray back into the world of trampoline gymnastics as a competitor. She initially retired in 2013, but she came back and finished in first place at nationals in 2018. She was offered a spot on Team USA, which would be the first step towards qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics. However, Thompson declined. She wanted to focus on her family and her business, and she felt winning the nationals was a nice way to end her career as a trampoline gymnast.

Part of Thompson’s teaching philosophy is to communicate with the children on their level. While discipline and structure is important, it is also important for the children to be able to express themselves. It’s critical to make things fun for children who are shy and tentative and for children who are more confident and assertive.

“We try to channel our inner child,” Thompson said. “We ask ourselves ‘If you were 5, 6, or 7, what would be fun for you?”

The fun aspect is important, but so are basic skills and safety. It is not easy to learn how to control one’s body when flying through the air above a 17-foot by 11-foot rectangular trampoline. Students have to focus and listen to instruction. While it is challenging to work with groups of children, it is intensely rewarding work for Thompson. Seeing the students grow and learn while having a good time is a lot of fun for everyone.

“[The children] are so full of life and joy. It’s such an honor to be able to make a mark on their lives,” Thompson said. “They teach us so much more than we teach them.”


Alex “PoeticSoul” Johnson

PROFILE BY CHÉRE COEN

Alex “PoeticSoul” Johnson believes that children should be taught two things: to breathe and to cope with circumstances, whatever they may be. Growing up in Lafayette and needing help during adolescence, she could have used both lessons.

“I would have loved to have had someone there to love me unconditionally,” she said.

Johnson dedicates her life to helping others, specifically young people navigating the rough waters into adulthood. She has served as host and organizer in the annual literary Festival of Words,” was a featured panelist on “Language of the Unheard: Rural Children of Color” during the 2016 Split this Rock Poetry festival in Washington, D.C. and leads Lyrically Inclined spoken word performances every third Tuesday in Lafayette.

Johnson’s poetry has been featured in The Southern View Magazine and she has published an album of her spoken word performances titled “Scattered Thoughts.” She has performed at the Acadiana Center for the Arts and Cite des Arts in Lafayette, at Nuyorican Poets Café in New York, 100,000 Poets for Change and You Got Served in Chicago. She has been featured in the Blood Jet Poetry Series in New Orleans and as a featured poet for the Unlikely Saints tour in 2016.

Recently, Johnson empowered youth at the Lafayette Parish Juvenile Detention Home to create a poem titled “Eyes of the Sun,” which will later be made into a mural at two Lafayette locations, funded by the 24 Hour Citizen Project. Because the incarcerated youth cannot be seen in public, Johnson is working with the Lafayette community to design and paint the murals which will carry their words.

“This is our payment back to [the youth],” she said.

Johnson has also worked with youth in rural areas to expose them to the literary arts, in organizations such as Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective, Project S.O.U.N.D. and The Thensted Center of Grand Coteau.

For her work, she has received the ABC Fund 2018 ICON Rising Star Award.

“I feel myself rising every day, slowly but surely, and sometimes not so slowly,” she said with a smile. “I feel motivated. I feel like I have been making a difference.”

When she meets some of the youth she mentored in prison, she realizes she taught them the two things she believes most adolescents need growing up.

“I often see juveniles and their idea of life is no longer one of stress and chaos,” she said. “I’ve helped them cope. And cope is a strong, powerful tool.”


Christiaan Mader

PROFILE BY FRITZ ESKER

Christiaan Mader is looking to fill a news void in the Lafayette area with The Current news website.

Mader, a Lafayette native, has a degree in journalism from Emory University. Writing always came naturally to him, but his first dream was to be a rock star. After graduating in 2006, he even toured as a musician for a while. But he began freelance copywriting to make extra money and then entered the world of journalism.

The Current was originally a culture magazine printed by The Independent in 2017. However, three months after its start, The Independent shut down. But Mader asked if he could keep The Current brand and The Independent granted him permission to do so. Mader started The Current in its current (no pun intended) incarnation in April 2018.

The website’s stated mission is “to understand the people and forces that move Lafayette.” Mader felt that Lafayette residents were being left out of the information loop on many issues that were affecting the community. He is particularly proud of reporting that revealed the city of Lafayette was trying to privatize management of the city’s public utility system.

“People aren’t getting the information they need and the analysis they want,” Mader said.

While studies show that many people in the social media era consume national news based on how much it confirms their preexisting beliefs, it is easier to attract people of all political ideologies on local news stories because these issues affect them in more tangible ways. A general philosophical debate about taxation is different than an article about a possible tax increase to improve roads in the area. The 35-year-old Mader acknowledges that it’s impossible for humans to entirely avoid subjectivity, but that news outlets can still strive for fairness in coverage.

Journalism is not an easy career to pursue in the current media landscape. As of the writing of this profile in March the business model for The Current was a combination of underwriting, memberships and advertising, similar to a nonprofit. Mader said however that soon, he was planning to announce that The Current is filing for full nonprofit status.

“We feel like it has legs because of the response we’ve gotten [from the community],” Mader said.

Providing Lafayette with quality local news coverage is a labor of love for Mader. He enjoys talking to and meeting new people. Lastly, the work allows Mader to satisfy his natural curiosity.

“The best stories are the ones where I’m answering a question for myself,” Mader said.


Katie Hebert

PROFILE BY FRITZ ESKER

University Hospital and Clinics is the primary hospital for many Lafayette residents, especially those using Medicaid and those who are underinsured. But in 2018, the hospital’s future was very much in doubt due to a state budget crisis. However, Katie Hebert, CEO of University Hospital and Clinics, started a grassroots effort to save University, and it succeeded.

In 2018, when Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards was trying to balance the budget, there was serious discussion about cutting off funding to University. The results would have been catastrophic for many people. About 800 employees would have been out of work. 55,000 patients would have needed a new hospital.

Of those 55,000 patients, more than half use Medicaid. University’s willingness to treat Medicaid patients is an important distinction. Many doctors will not accept Medicaid because the reimbursement is so low. If University closed, there would have been no care for Medicaid patients in the area.

“The care that we provide…the work that we do here is so important because of the number of patients we see,” Hebert said.

UHC’s closure would not have simply affected its patients. Aside from its importance as a healthcare provider, it is also a teaching hospital that helps train doctors and nurses. There is a shortage of healthcare providers in the country, and UHC helps to rectify that. Hebert, a St. Martinville native who has worked in healthcare administration since 1994, is particularly proud of the way UHC educates future physicians, some of whom may work at the hospital one day.

“When I need [doctors], I want to be sure we have the best,” Hebert said.

If the state closed UHC, it would have also flooded the remaining hospitals with over 55,000 new patients. The state’s already overworked healthcare system would have received even more strain.

Hebert started the Save UHC campaign. The initiative aimed to increase public awareness of all the good the hospital did.

They set up tables outside of all of the hospital entrances, handed out flyers, and spoke to patients about what the state was considering. They encouraged people to send emails and letters to state legislators. There was also a social media campaign with the #SaveUHC hashtag. More than 1,000 people ended up participating.

The deluge of support worked. Governor Edwards eventually came to UHC and spoke of its value to the Lafayette area and the state itself. The hospital would be saved.

“I’m just real passionate about caring for our patients and providing resources for them,” Hebert said.


 

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