The Most Interesting People of 2015
● Published by Aimee Cormier
The 2015 circle of Acadiana LifeStyle’s Most Interesting People is a compilation of individuals who are sterling examples of the categories they represent. They are multitalented, diverse and determined to bloom where they have been planted. In addition to being marked by their passion and zest for living, each MIP shares an inherent characteristic and focus: they are excited about making a difference in Acadiana.
We invite you to read their inspiring stories, then take things one step further by making a decision to effect positive change in your own community.
Phanat Xanamane – Community Activism
“In this past year things have really snowballed for Envision Da Berry, and people are becoming more and more aware of what we are and what we do.”
Artist, architect, designer and visionary are words that can be used singularly or together to describe community activist Phanat Xanamane. Shortly after Phanat’s birth in a refuge camp in Phanat Nikhom, Thailand, the parents of the Laotian immigrant moved to New Iberia where their sponsors lived. “I grew up in New Iberia,” Phanat explains. “New Iberia is home to me.”
Phanat says he’s had a creative spirit since he was very young, and knew early on he wanted to serve as a force for positive change. He is both unique and fortunate in that he has been able to meld his interests and passions in the arts, architecture and urban design – and effectively parlay those interests into community activism.
After graduating from New Iberia Senior High, Phanat went on to major and graduate with a degree in architecture from the University of Louisiana Lafayette. After graduation he moved to New York and obtained a Master’s degree in urban design from Columbia University.
After living in New York for five years and traveling around the world, Phanat says his heart turned back toward New Iberia. He had long held a vision of what he could do to contribute to the social and civic betterment of his adopted hometown, and he purposed to translate his vision into practical action. After returning home, a meeting with friends led to the creation of a grassroots organization named “Envision Da Berry.” Organizational objectives include strengthening Iberia’s local economy by promoting small business development, re-branding Iberia as a destination for both tourists and former residents wishing to return and enhancing the diverse environmental assets of Iberia Parish. The goals posed a tall order, yet Phanat believed he and other interested stakeholders were more than up to the challenge.
Now in its third year, Phanat has watched Envision Da Berry grow into a thriving volunteer organization more than 200 strong. “In this past year things have really snowballed for Envision Da Berry, and people are becoming more and more aware of what we are and what we do,” he says.
Phanat sees himself as a “connector” who brings people and organizations together across economic, racial and social divides. Whether he’s busy helping to raise funds for Park Revitalization Project on New Iberia’s Hopkins Street, belting out standards at the monthly “Show Tunes Sing-A-Long” or spearheading initiatives on Main Street, Phanat is in the thick of things and he’s fueling his passions for the arts, architecture and urban design. “It’s tremendously exciting to be a part of this kind of movement,” he says proudly.
His most recent accomplishment is receiving a grant for more than $3,000 from ArtSpark, an Individual Artist Stipend Funding Program. Phanat plans to use the funds to create an urban design installation celebrating the life and music of jazz musician Bunk Johnson.
– By Michelle Matthews Calloway
Linda Cormier – Volunteerism
“I’m old school. I remember how my parents raised us, to keep our yard and neighborhood clean. People back then had pride and cared about how their property looked. I knew Cameron could look beautiful again.”
Review the success of a worthwhile community project or goal and you will often find two specific characteristics shared among leaders who work behind the scenes: one, they refuse to stand in the limelight and two, these are the individuals who are genuinely getting things done.
Linda Cormier aptly fits this description. Known by her peers as a “neighborhood powerhouse,” she works very quietly and with little to no fanfare. A Lafayette native, Cormier came to her Cameron Street neighborhood after her husband’s death. Soon after, she became an active participant in “The Bridge,” a local ministry providing tutoring and other services to disadvantaged and underserved children.
Her work didn’t stop there. Cormier attended a neighborhood meeting concerning Better Block Initiatives, a one-day program designed to transform the appearance of a neighborhood. She knew immediately she wanted to participate in Better Block Cameron, and attributes her intense desire to beautify her neighborhood to the way she was reared. “I’m old school,” Cormier chuckles. “I remember how my parents raised us; to keep our yard and neighborhood clean. People back then had pride and cared about how their property looked. I knew Cameron could look beautiful again. I told them, whatever you want me to do – pick up trash, whatever – I’ll do it.”
True to her word, Cormier got in the trenches and worked, picking up trash, hauling debris away and rallying the volunteer troops. Her efforts with the Better Block Cameron were so successful that City-Parish President Joey Durel took notice and selected her as the recipient to represent volunteers for the Mayor-President’s Front Yard Award.
Cormier’s shy, unassuming nature makes it difficult for her to accept accolades or recognition. Instead, she displays another characteristic attributed to genuine leaders, and insists that the praise and attention be focused on the contributions of others. To Cormier, getting things accomplished is a team effort. “You know how they say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?,’” she asks with sincerity. “I view my neighborhood the same way. It takes all of us to make our neighborhood and our city beautiful.”
– By Michelle Matthews Calloway
Todd Mouton – Music
“The idea is, we work with people from the beginning of life until the end of life. That’s what Cajun culture is; it’s something that wraps people up. Culture is kind of like the envelope and people are the letter.”
Todd Mouton is the Executive Director of Louisiana Folk Roots. He recounts his more exciting moments in life as sitting on stage at a Rolling Stones concert and playing guitar with the Al Berard Family Band at Jazz Fest. So, it’s no surprise that music is embedded into his character and woven through his DNA.
After a stint in journalism, Mouton succumbed to what he describes as a “magnetic pull” to the music industry. As the executive director of Louisiana Folk Roots, he is instrumental in producing the organization’s various events, including two large-scale camps. One of them being Balfa Week, which boasts 16 hours of programming daily. It’s an opportunity for guests, who come from 25 states and six countries, to fully immerse themselves in Cajun and Creole culture.
“There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world,” Mouton beams. “And there’s nothing like our culture in the world either. They get to be at the epicenter of the culture for a week, and you literally have people coming from Denmark, England and all the four corners of the U.S. The amazing thing is that these folks carve out time in their lives and in their budgets to come do this. It’s a part of their lives just like it’s a part of our lives.”
Mouton accredits the constant creativity in Acadiana for keeping him busy. He is one part of the driving force behind Live in Louisiana, a production company that has coordinated performances for the likes of The Malone Brothers and BeauSoleil. He coproduced “Je M’endors,” an album of Cajun and Creole lullabies that is played in the delivery rooms at Lafayette General. Imagine that: music Mouton helped create could be the first sound these infants hear.
“The idea is, we work with people from the beginning of life until the end of life,” he explains when describing his body of work. “That’s what Cajun culture is; it’s something that wraps people up. Culture is kind of like the envelope and people are the letter.”
The magic spell of music has led Mouton on a journey resulting in an accumulation of varying professional titles; most recently, he added “author” to the list. His book, “Way Down in Louisiana,” a biography of Clifton Chenier, will be released on UL Lafayette’s Press in the fall. He admits that the subject of Chenier was shrouded in mystery, but that was half the fun.
“Clifton Chenier is someone whose story really needed to be told, and I wasn’t very sure how to tell it,” Mouton confesses. “But, I figured out that through the work of other musicians, a lot of light can be thrown on mysterious subjects. When you get as close as you can to the source and start asking questions, you find this wonderful information that paints a beautiful picture and ultimately passes the information on. I believe this is the goal.”
– By Shanna Perkins
Ronnie Boudreaux – Religion
“The Knights of Columbus is a way for Catholic men to get together and learn our 4 principles of the order; charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism, and I enjoy the time I spend with the other knights and on our projects.”
Ronnie Boudreaux has a twinkle in his eye, warmth in his smile, and firmness in his handshake that makes anyone who meets him wonder what his life’s secret is. He will be the first to tell you that he has traveled many miles, both literally and figuratively, considering the roads in life that haven’t always been ideal. His paths have all had one thing in common; their travels have been guided by prayer. Boudreaux’s life has always been Christ-centered, and that has meant devoted to Christ’s Body on earth, the Catholic Church.
Growing up in a family dedicated to Church service, Boudreaux learned what was expected of him as he followed in the footsteps of older family members. He was in the first group of altar servers for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in 1949. Now, one of the primary ways in which he serves his Church is through the international organization known as the Knights of Columbus. Boudreaux says that the age at which a man can join the organization is 18, and he well remembers his 18th birthday and his father giving him his membership form to complete. There was no doubt that he would continue a family tradition, and his 3 younger brothers did the same.
According to Boudreaux, “The Knights of Columbus is a way for Catholic men to get together and learn our 4 principles of the order; charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism, and I enjoy the time I spend with the other knights and on our projects, such as collecting food for the needy.”
Boudreaux did much more than become a member of the Knights and study its principles. His devotion and enthusiasm were recognized by others and he was chosen to lead the councils to which he belonged in many capacities. He explained that there are 9 councils of Knights in New Iberia. Boudreaux was instrumental in starting a council in Lydia and served it as Grand Knight. He served as Grand Knight of the Council at Our Lady of Perpetual Help as well. He served as District Deputy of 5-6 councils for 5 years. For 10 years he was Area Coordinator of 6 districts made up of 35 councils. He was elected State Warden and then as State Deputy. “That meant I did a lot of traveling all over the country, representing all the Knights in Louisiana.”
In addition to his work as a Knight, Boudreaux is a lay person who fully assumes his role as a member of the Church who serves, prays, and evangelizes. He is a Eucharistic Minister in his parish, a Lector, an Usher, an Altar Server, and Funeral Sacristan. The pastor, Fr. Mark Derise, knows that he can depend on him and that he will regularly appear in the sacristy just to see if he is needed. Boudreaux was recently honored as a recipient of the Bishop’s Medal given for his outstanding contributions to the diocese.
Boudreaux has served on the parish council and as president for 5 years. He assumed an important role in the parish in the past few years when he served on the building committee during the restoration of the church. Because of his longevity as a parish leader, parishioners had faith in him and his decisions.
When not working on his church committees, Boudreaux enjoys his family, especially camping with them. He has developed a reputation as the man to go to when someone is in need. He is never known to turn anyone down. That’s the source of the light in his eyes and his strength of character that makes him a jewel to his fellow church members and all who know him.
– By Anne B. Minvielle
Lance Strother – Education
“God is love. If we all took that divine truth and applied it to how we live our lives and how we approach and treat others – just think of the worldwide transformations that would take place!”
Converse with Lance Strother, and you will soon realize you have come in contact with an individual who overflows with the joy that springs from a genuine love for God, his family and his students. Strother is a football coach and the Campus Director of Ministry at St. Thomas More in Lafayette. A graduate of STM, Strother believes the decision to choose passion over personal ambition strategically placed him in his current position, something he views as a divine assignment. “We journey together in our study of God and our faith,” Strother says of his students and other campus leaders and minsters. “I’m a small piece of a team that is committed to sharing Christ with everybody we come in contact with.”
Strother’s Campus Ministry team is quite large, comprised of 20 faculty members and other adults that have ministries within the school. The Team also includes approximately 580 student campus ministers and a number of STM alumni, young adults who give back to the students via ministries designed to lead them to Christ.
“We seek to form servant leaders in our campus ministers,” Strother says. He continually points his students to the foundational truth captured in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” Strother expounds, “If we all took that divine truth and applied it to how we live our lives and how we approach and treat others – just think of the worldwide transformations that would take place!”
In addition to teaching campus ministry classes, Strother develops and works on events in collaboration with team leaders. Students go on retreats, take mission trips to Puerto Rico and experience an annual “Faith Adventure Week” in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The students enjoy natural adventures such as whitewater rafting, zip lining and rock climbing – all designed with an overarching spiritual purpose. “Our students learn how to discover God in these adventures,” Strother explains.
Strother is a living testimony of the effectiveness of the Faith Adventure Weeks. During the summer leading into his junior year of high school, Strother attended a summer adventure trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “It was there,” he says, “that my heart really changed and transformed. I truly had a transformation of heart and perspective. I had a deep appreciation that my life is a gift, everyday is a gift, and I need to be a good steward of that gift.”
Strother is also keenly aware of the gifts God placed in his life: his parents and siblings, his wife Katherine and their three children; Maddie, 11, Landon, 8 and Gracie, who is 5. “My wife Kat is the single most transformational figure of my heart and my life,” he says proudlly. “She has a unique way of bringing out the best in me.”
When he’s not teaching and coaching, Strother can be found singing with his brother-in-law Shawn Carter, with whom he recently released a CD. Strother is also an inventor. His product, a training apparatus for football receivers, can be found in Academy stores.
– By Michelle Matthews Calloway
Caitlin Sonnier – Environmentalism
“I would love to be a well-known comprehensive sustainability resource for Lafayette and South Louisiana. How-to guides, tips on different ways to be greener, all with a Cajun flair.”
Caitlin Sonnier is the sole force behind the environmental blog ecocajun.com. The 29 year old is a self-proclaimed “eco-geek” and “lamp turner-offer;” she has been called, to her face, a “Cajun tree hugger.” But more than that, she is someone who believes that small actions can make a big impact. Sonnier believes the Earth is worth preserving, and she’s started her work right here at home in Acadiana.
Sonnier’s passion for sustainability started at a young age, before the “green movement” was trendy and marketable. Like most children, she learned by example. “When I was a child, my family used cloth bags at the grocery store and we used the city curbside recycling bins. So, it became second nature to me early on,” she recalls. “Back in the 90s, you still had to sort recycling by paper, glass and aluminum. Then in middle school, one of my teachers read simple tips about conservation and pollution. It really stuck with me.”
After graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Sonnier felt a “calling” to start a blog – and ecocajun.com was born. She has a “Why not be greener?” approach to environmentalism and her website serves as a way to teach South Louisiana that it is, in fact, easy being green.
“I started the blog about six years ago. I wanted a way to share my ideas and show others how I was taking steps to be greener.” Explaining how her idea has grown, Sonnier continues, “My blog and social media audience is growing pretty steadily. I enjoy interacting with people who have similar interests and goals. I love when people point out specific posts and share how it helped them in some way. I’m also getting questions on how to go about things, like recycling at apartment complexes, and I enjoy researching to find people their answers.”
Being born and raised in Lafayette, it’s no surprise that Sonnier focuses so much time and energy on keeping her hometown beautiful. She is on the board of Keep Lafayette Beautiful, remains involved in multiple Project Front Yard activities and recently received a “Best Of” Award from City-Parish President Joey Durel at the Mayor-President’s Front Yard Awards.
“When I was invited to the award ceremony I thought it was because they wanted me to write a blog post about it, and I was flattered. During the award ceremony, Joey Durel announced I was one of the ‘Best Of’ recipients. I couldn’t believe it,” Sonnier gushes. “I don’t do this for awards or recognition, but it’s very affirming to know that ‘big wigs’ are taking note of the site and my commitment to living an eco-friendly life.”
– By Shanna Perkins
Geneé Hebert – Community Service
“We all have talents; you just have to want to do it.”
In Geneé Hebert’s world, culture encompasses a number of genres across different segments of Acadiana’s richly diverse populations. The Breaux Bridge native got her start in 1991 serving on the Board of Directors of the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival Association. Hebert was stirred to action by a desire to do what she could to assist her daughter and other children in Breaux Bridge.
“My daughter Megan was very young, and she was playing softball at the time. We needed things for the kids to do,” she reminisces. Seventy percent of the proceeds from the Crawfish Festival were earmarked for improving Park Hardy, where her daughter and other children played. Hebert says, “I started volunteering knowing that the park would be improved for the kids.” Hebert’s service on the Board now includes working directly with Crawfish Festival vendors. She’s also responsible each year for finding and coordinating 40 other volunteers who assist with the festival.
Hebert’s desire to help soon spread to other cultural associations. She began volunteering with the Louisiana Association of Fairs and Festivals, helping on the decorating committee for LAFF’s annual conventions. She was recently elected to serve on the LAFF Board of Directors as the District 3 Director. One of Hebert’s projects is producing a brochure describing and listing all the fairs, festivals and associates that are members of LAFF. The shy and unassuming Hebert was shocked, yet thrilled when she was elected to the LAFF Hall of Fame in 2013. “I couldn’t believe it!” she exclaims. “I don’t work for the recognition, but it was such a great honor.”
A Registered Dental Hygienist, Hebert’s volunteer work extends across other cultural divides. For more than 20 years she has provided dental services to children and adults with disabilities. Through her volunteer work, Hebert cleans teeth free of charge and also holds educational workshops on dental hygiene. She has long-term patients with disabilities who come to her regularly to get their teeth cleaned. Hebert says she is grateful for the support she receives from her employers, Drs. Bennett Fontenot and Ryan C. Terry. “They have no problem with me using the office facilities to see these patients,” she says warmly. “They encourage me in everything I do.”
When she’s not serving on various Festival boards and providing free dental services, Hebert loves “glamping” – a fusion of glamour and camping – in a camper she restored herself. She can also be found creating stained glass and pottery pieces, crocheting, snow skiing, scuba diving, riding on her Harley and fishing with her husband Jimmy Durio. She brushes off admiration for her talents and ability to engage in such a vast multitude of activities. “We all have talents; you just have to want to do it. I try to get to everything in one year,” she laughs. “Let’s go!”
– By Michelle Matthews Calloway
George Marks – Art
“A lot of the projects we do are trying to shape society in a creative way. It’s a movement that’s happening right now around the world. Artists are actually inserting themselves in positions that they weren’t in before, and they’re shaping society.”
People say that the renaissance of Arnaudville can ultimately be traced back to one man: artist George Marks. Tell him he’s referred to as “The Pied Piper of Arnaudville,” and he responds, “That story ends badly.” Marks is the co-developer of NUNU Arts and Culture Collective, a self-serving concept that evolved into a hub for inspiration and community growth.
Marks says becoming a career painter wasn’t a choice, but an obligation. In retrospect, he realizes that his childhood mischief was his first experimentation with mediums, and his disinterest in college business courses was because “art was all that made sense.” He describes his paintings as minimalistic, but his inspiration is far from minimal.
“People inspire me,” he says as he sketches on a scrap piece of paper. “How we move through space; how we impact the world we live in. In my work you’ll see a lot of comforting colors. It’s like a medicated reality. A lot of times it’s concealing something that may be hard to look at.”
Marks returned to his hometown of Arnaudville 10 years ago and quickly realized if he was going to stay, he had to create something positive for himself and his loved ones. Thus, the encompassing force that is NUNU began to churn. NUNU is the town’s biggest influence masquerading as an art gallery. Its success is rooted by the enforcement of one simple rule: “Be nice.”
“We serve as a community space where people can gather and exchange ideas. You have to respect the differences in others,” Marks proclaims. “As a result, when we do events we have a very mixed audience. Actually, it’s not really an audience, they’re participants. We celebrate the fact that we’re frayed and flawed, and we’re OK with that.”
Marks instilled the concept of connections in NUNU’s foundation — connecting people, connecting cultures and even connecting economic growth to arts and humanities. “Our tax base has increased 34 percent since 2002,” he affirms. “That’s the impact.”
Marks’ work may have begun selfishly, but its positive impact has spread across the community like a spider web with NUNU poised at its center. In February, members of NUNU will assist in creating seven micro homes that will serve as overnight accommodations for their residency programs. Members work closely with the New Orleans French Consulate and CODIFIL.
Volunteers and residency artists from around the world trickle through NUNU, assisting in its growth. Arnaudville was one of 14 communities in the nation selected for the “Creative Places Making Report.” These and countless other accolades and programs have resulted in NUNU becoming Marks’ grandest sculpture.
“I like to think of myself as a social sculptor,” he muses. “A lot of the projects we do are trying to shape society in a creative way. It’s a movement that’s happening right now around the world. Artists are actually inserting themselves in positions that they weren’t in before, and they’re shaping society.”
– By Shanna Perkins