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The Fire Starter Project
By Sherise Henry
Select teens from throughout Iberia Parish are warming up to the idea of one day returning home with a stellar set of leadership skills. The Fire Starter Project is one that has been modeled after Leadership Iberia with a younger set of participants in mind. “Leadership Iberia is for adults, and there was nothing for kids. We wanted to show the students what New Iberia has to offer,” says Neely Moore-principal of Westgate High School and one of the founders of The Fire Starter Project.
All of the founders of the Fire Starter Project are graduates of Leadership Iberia, a program hosted by the Iberia Chamber of Commerce. Like the Fire Starter Project, Leadership Iberia focuses on taking a diverse group of citizens and exposing them to all areas of the community. “The founders of the Fire Starter Project, we realized our goals were similar to that of Leadership Iberia. The kids will experience team building day, local government, community service, local education and healthcare, to name a few,” says Moore.
Organizers thought that if teens were allowed to see how the parish operated before leaving home for college, or other career pursuits, it might inspire them to return to the parish they were raised in. So far, it seems the idea is catching on. Maggie Landry, a junior from Catholic High is grateful. “The people who started this program are amazing. The Fire Starter Project is going to create some leaders and expand others,” she says. Madelyn Langham, a junior from Delcambre High School says she plans to attend McNeese State University to study optometry before returning home. “I’m so used to the culture and I’ve known it all my life; it’s what I’m comfortable with,” says Langham. Griffiin Landry from New Iberia Senior High says he plans to see what his career opportunities are, but a program like this makes him think of returning home one day. “Returning home, yes I will eventually,” he says.
While not every student gets an opportunity to participate, the group is called the Fire Starter Project for a reason. “A Fire Starter is a person who engages all the people around them. We can’t offer this to every student, but if we can work with the few that can grasp the concept of what we are trying to offer, they can go back through a grass roots effort and spread the good news of what this community is about to their peers,” says Bart Folse. Tiki Randall from Jeanerette Senior High School understands and appreciates this concept. “It’s an honor that I get to be a part of this,” she says.
The Founders of the Fire Starter Project extended applications to all the public high schools in Iberia Parish, plus Catholic High, Highland Baptist Christian School and Assembly Christian School. Project founders say they teamed up with persons who were organizing a similar effort in Lafayette for guidance in the application process to make it as fair as possible. Every school was given two spots to fill and four at- large positions. “Students were picked at the school level none of the founders participated in that process. If the school had a couple of extra students, they submitted them to the board, made up of the founders, to select the four at large members,” explains Moore. It was also important to the Fire Starter Project board to pick members who were as diverse as possible. “We purposely didn’t pick all the valedictorians in the class. Some are athletes; some are academics. We couldn’t have asked for a more diverse group. The schools did a really good job,” says Moore.
No one has enjoyed the level of diversity among the students more than the students themselves, and they readily say so. Students that were selected got to know each other through several exercises that were both fun and thought provoking. Students from every school in the parish were recently involved in a leadership building day at The Gym of New Iberia. Events included speed networking, brainstorming, problem solving a blind folded obstacle course and personality quizzes. “I do already feel the bond since we’ve been exposed to this opportunity,” says Chloe DeRouen from Highland Baptist. “ It’s nice because you meet a lot of people you can build connections with and strengthen friendships,” says Landry from NISH. “I probably would not have met these people if it were not for the Fire Starter Project,” says Langham from Delcambre High.
Students participating in this program, which is free of charge, all seem to have a sense of pride in being chosen. For some, getting through the selection process was a victory in and of itself. “Getting selected was kind of surprising because my whole junior class was invited to submit an application,” says Randall from Jeanerette High Senior High School, who says she’s apart of several activities at her high school. DeRouen from Highland Baptist Christian School says she wouldn’t call the application hard, but rather time consuming. “It wasn’t hard it just took a lot of thought. I didn’t really know who else applied, but I was happy with my submission,” she says.
Folse says one of the things that are special about the Fire Starter Project is that it opens students up to their surroundings from a perspective that not all get a chance to experience. A fact he realized while in Leadership Iberia. “It’s the thing I thought about while taking the Leadership Iberia class with all the native New Iberians who said ‘I didn’t know all this was going on.’”
Now with a broadened sense of community and how it works, the Fire Starter Project founders are hoping this well equipped group of teens can take leadership and their career goals to new heights. “We hope to ignite that fire inside them that takes them to the next level,” says Folse.
Among organizer’s goals is to have the teens in the Fire Starter Project meet with the adults in Leadership Iberia for a luncheon at some point during the teens matriculation through the program.
Students are selected in the spring semester of their junior year and graduate the program in the fall of their senior year. The Fire Starter Project’s organizers are asking that the medal they receive from participating be a part of their graduation regalia at their spring commencement ceremonies.