Tallulah youths mark their goals on canvas |[7/25/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 25, 2005

TALLULAH – The larger-than-life canvases stand 10 feet tall, depicting the professions of their dreams – preacher, police officer, restaurateur, tennis pro, psychologist, nail salon owner.

Strips of canvas are colorfully painted with the quotations “I want to be a doctor,” “I want to be a lawyer,” “I want to be a teacher,” “I will make Tallulah a better place.”

It’s not just an art lesson or a summer camp program. It’s the voice of children lobbying for education and opportunities.

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With a lot of paint, a lot of creativity and a lot of hope, 20 Madison Parish children have spent the past two weeks working to create a 20-by-20 walk-in structure that represents the community college of their dreams. The canvas self-portraits will form the sides, and the quotes will comprise the roof of the structure.

The kids want the former Swanson Correctional Center for Youth-Madison Parish Unit turned into a community college, and they’re speaking out for what they believe.

“We want to change the governor’s mind and convince her to send money to make the prison into a school,” said 9-year-old Kamario Fair.

The issue of what’s to become of the former prison in Tallulah has been a hot topic for several years now, but a recent passage of legislation has made the outlook of the future a little brighter for Tallulah.

On July 11, Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed into law a bill amending last year’s legislation to authorize a local government or governmental entity to take ownership of the prison facility, which closed in June 2004, for the purpose of a learning center. Two concurrent resolutions also passed encourage Blanco to resolve ownership problems that stand in the way of the prison conversion and calling for a $25,000 appropriation to conduct a feasibility study and a community planning process for the transformation.

The Tallulah Kids’ Project, headquartered in the Tallulah Community Center, was the idea of members of the Louisiana Delta Coalition for Education and Economic Development.

Organizer Hayward Fair, Kamario’s grandfather, said the project is based on the need to teach the children how to invest in their own futures.

“These children are not just kids; they’re the future of our community. They’re tomorrow’s leaders, and there’s nothing wrong with getting them started now,” Fair said.

“Our city, state or country is only as good as its youth. We’ve already lost one generation, and we’ll lose this one if we’re not careful. If we don’t get them involved in something positive, someone will get them into something negative,” he said.

Fair said he’s seen great improvement in the children’s talent and character during the two-week project.

“They’ve learned the value of teamwork. They understand the concept of ‘I’ll help you, and you help me.’ That’s what we’ve got to get back to,” he said.

Jane Wholey, project director, said before the children started painting the canvases, they met with a visionary expert to discuss what they wanted out of a local community college.

“They had very detailed ideas,” she said. “Some of the most interesting ones were a sports complex, a day-care center and even an attached area or corridor for students to run businesses.”

Nineteen-year-old Jonathan Puckett, one of four teen interns working with the project, said having a day care for young children and elderly adults is important at the community college.

“A lot of people can’t leave Tallulah to go to college because they have family to take care of. They need a place where they can go,” he said.

Puckett’s canvas is a picture within a picture of the college hallways, classrooms and the adjacent business area for students.

“I want to be an artist. I’m thinking about going to vo-tech school. Lately I’ve been working, painting murals in Texas with my cousin. I’ve been drawing since sixth grade, and I like all of it. I’m getting better in figure drawing now,” he said.

Wholey said an important part of the community college plan is the inclusion of a learning center to allow students to catch up to speed for college-level learning.

Program participants have been guided on the project by artists in the New Orleans-based YA/YA (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) group.

Tarrie Alexis, a YA/YA alumnus serving as art director for the project, said the Tallulah Kids’ Project is part of the group’s Urban Heroes outreach program.

“Everything here is their own work. They have the ideas, we just helped them visualize their ideas and put them into a picture,” said Alexis, 28.

He said working with this group of young people has been an inspiration for them all.

“It’s been truly beautiful. They are so motivated to make a difference, and it’s very empowering,” he said.

Alexis said the YA/YAs will take the canvases back to New Orleans and put them on a metal tent frame to form the final structure.

The structure will then be presented at the opening of the community planning session for the college in the fall.

Wholey said the purpose of the project is to allow young people’s voices to be heard.

“The governor and legislators have been with us since the beginning. We just want to convince them to go the extra mile and find the money to take these last steps to build the college. These kids want to go to college, but a lot of them don’t have that opportunity. They would through this community college. They want to explain that to the governor and legislators,” Wholey said.

Moses Williams, president of the Northeast Louisiana Delta Community Development Corporation and a member of the Louisiana Delta Coalition for Education and Economic Development, said the kids’ visioning project is part of a full awareness campaign for the Tallulah Conversion Project.

“It’s really allowed them to express themselves and help us gauge their visions for the future of the community,” he said.

Williams said the general consensus of Tallulah residents is support for the project and a desire to see a better investment in education through the community college and learning center.

“We know we’ve lagged behind and haven’t done very well at focusing on educational opportunities. I think that’s also throughout Louisiana as a whole. Our focus now is to make a commitment to education on all levels. That’s why the conversion project is important,” Williams said.

If the plan succeeds, the Tallulah prison will be the first in the nation to be turned into a school.