Ponchatoula’s Student Outreach Celebrates National Event
By Kathryn J. Martin
Thursday, October 24, Ponchatoula Community Center was abuzz with excitement when loved ones joined their children to participate in the annual “Lights On Afterschool” celebration.
The national Afterschool Alliance organized the event twenty years ago and is America’s only national rally for afterschool programs.
More than a million people were expected to be involved at some 10,000 locations for the evening to celebrate the program’s success as well as its 20th anniversary.
Showing support for this educational outreach, such landmarks as the Empire State Building, Times Square, parks, etc., were bright for the evening with blue and yellow lights.
At the local level, Professor Gadget from Mad Science held the attention of adults as well as students as he performed what looked like magic tricks but explained along the way as “science”.
First Lady Kim Zabbia was so amazed at his teaching skills, she complimented him by saying, “If I’d had you as a teacher in school, I would have definitely majored in Science!”
Having three children of his own, the professor knew how to hold attention and had eager volunteers, including every student at some point, individually and collectively in teamwork.
“Volunteered” by the children’s exuberant “Ma-yor! Ma-yor! Ma-yor!” and “Li-sa!, Li-sa!, Li-sa!” were Mayor Bob Zabbia and Human Resources Manager Lisa Jones, who along with Director May Stilley, have made the afterschool program dream a reality.
Contained in the presentation was encouragement to “do schoolwork, learn something new every day and show appreciation to those who care for you.”
In real life “Prof” said his wife was an engineer with the Corps of Engineers in Dallas and he was in the mortgage industry but both were looking for ways to give back to their community.
When they discovered “Mad Science”, they knew it was for them and relocated to New Orleans. They “perform” at parties, schools, zoos and library functions and look forward to being part of parish library summer programs.
Everyone enjoyed a delicious meal with Jambalaya prepared by Donald Lanier and Jimmy Schliegelmeyer and other foods brought by parents and teaching staff.
Parents interviewed beamed as they expressed appreciation for the Ponchatoula Afterschool Outreach Program and the big positive difference it is making in the lives of their children.
After a rousing family game of Bingo, the city’s third annual “Lights on Afterschool” ended on the same positive note it had begun – a celebration of success.
Westminster Place is such a quiet apartment complex in Ponchatoula that many people do not know it exists.
But to the people who live there, they are “residents” and not “tenants” and its 44 units are “home” and not “apartments”.
Thanks to Tangipahoa Parish Library Archives, Rev. Dr. James Anderson’s “History of Westminster” tells the story of the dream for Senior housing that began in 1980 and led to Groundbreaking in 1985 and Ribbon Cutting in 1986.
The years between were filled with frequent meetings locally, across the state and nationally in an effort to follow all guidelines and meet all regulations set by Federal, State, and Local governments as well as the sponsoring Presbyterian Churches of America.
With Westminster Tower already in place in Kenner, the Louisiana Presbytery saw the need to minister to older Seniors and the handicapped in this area and efforts were nonstop by the Board led by President Anderson, Vice-President Audrey Gabriel and other prominent members of the community.
Early plans for a nursing facility met with disfavor and changed to “Aging in Place” – housing for people 62 and over and the handicapped, each capable of independent living. Months stretched into years of researching and negotiating over sufficient acreage, construction bids, meeting the latest codes and arranging funding while the dedicated board kept the faith.
Local churches, civic organizations, businesses and individuals chipped in and finally, all working together at the sacrifice of time, energy and money, Westminster Place came to be.
In basics, it is a somewhat typical private quiet apartment complex but it offers far more to those who wish to participate.
The office building houses a private coin laundry, a salon with reduced rates for residents but open to the public and a community conference area with a small kitchen available to visitors serving hot food for special occasions.
Volunteers offer games and prizes and area supermarkets and food businesses donate produce, vegetables, fruits, bread, pastries, and pizzas.
A lawn service “manicures” the grounds weekly and the only outside yard work is if residents choose to have plants in their own wood-fence enclosed patios.
Mailboxes are centrally located and, thanks to the Council on Aging and the City Administration, parish and city buses make regular and pre-arranged stops, giving transportation to those without vehicles.
Each unit has plenty of storage, a galley kitchen, living room, bedroom and full bath with special side-entry tubs for showering.
Safety and security rank high with Neighborhood Watch, fences, brightly lighted grounds at night and frequent police patrols.
Emergency cords stretch to the floor. One pull and a security monitoring company immediately attempts to call the resident while dispatching emergency help.
Because most residents “stay”, the waiting list is long and it can take a couple of years to get to the top. Breaking the record at the longest stay is the first resident who stayed for 30 years but has now gone to live with a daughter and celebrating her 103rd birthday!
Once an applicant’s name reaches the top, there follows a thorough background check in every area of one’s life. As for rent, some units are regular rent, but most are subsidized based on prospective resident’s income.
Manager LaTasha Pitts Banks brings a deep sense of caring and compassion along with her education and experience in health care and business management – a perfect fit as she wants residents to age in place knowing they are “home”.
A native of Amite, a product of Independence High School, LSU, and SLU, she also earned national certification as a phlebotomist and medical technician, working from Pediatric to Adult Day Care before becoming a property manager in Greensburg and coming to Westminster.
She stays updated on the latest rules and regulations and laws through such annual training as Rental Rural Housing Association and National Church Residences on-line or at regional seminars and attending Fair Housing National Conferences.
In addition to a monthly newsletter keeping everyone informed, Ms. Banks has an open-door policy to residents even as she utilizes community resources such as Quad Area and Homeland Security to bring helpful hints for safer healthier living. Some agencies offer free aids, discounted services or help with utilities.
“If I need anything, all I have to do is call Mayor Bob Zabbia or Rhonda Sheridan at City Hall and they’re here or it’s done,” she says. “Police Chief Bry Layrisson looks out for residents and even cooks an annual meal for us. We maintain good relationships with them and with contractors, vendors and residents’ family members.”
Working along with Ms. Banks is Rev. David Williams who, while part-time, does everything from simply changing a light bulb for a resident to general maintenance in repairs, painting, and installations, picking up and delivering Our Daily Bread groceries and other items donated by the community.
To report a needed repair, a resident simply calls a national 800 number and a work order is sent immediately to the office here for Rev. Williams to get started or Ms. Banks to make plans with a contractor.
At Westminster Place, a resident can choose to participate in everything from a Bible study, a learning session to entertainment and games – or stay inside and participate in nothing.
After all, it is home!
If you’d like to donate gifts, your time, items for the upcoming yard sale fund-raiser or create a special event, contact LaTasha Banks at [email protected] or 985-386-4819.
David Opdenhoff Honored for Years of Service to Ponchatoula
By Kathryn J. Martin
When high school graduate Dave Opdenhoff enlisted in the military in 1968, he never dreamed he would be wearing uniforms and working with water for the next 50 years — 20 in the Navy and 30 for the City of Ponchatoula.
Recently Mayor Bob Zabbia, City Hall Staff and fellow City Workers gathered to honor him for his years of faithful service while wishing him their best as he retired to part-time status.
Young Opdenhoff’s original plans were to do four years and be done, but after bootcamp and Hospital and Corps School training as a Navy Hospital Corpsman, he had found his niche.
At that time, a Corpsman could do almost anything including sutures and minor surgery, more like today’s Nurse Practitioner under supervision of a doctor.
More training and work at Naval Hospital Pensacola led to a stint in the Marine Corps Training Center at Camp Pendleton, California, learning to be a field Corpsman in preparation for Vietnam. Field sanitation and water quality were all part of general knowledge and would be put to the test in the field where “you make do with what you got”.
From Third Marine Division to First Marine Division, he put in 13 months in Vietnam where he turned 21. Finding water wherever he could in rivers, rice paddies and ditches, he had to be even more creative to purify it for sterilization procedures, wound cleansing and for drinking, all while working under fire to treat and hydrate his patients. Atop one mountain, a top fire support base, he and his men dug holes to make bunkers. With no water and no way to show themselves to look for any, helicopters (water buffalo) brought water to them,
After Vietnam, in the Naval Hospital in Long Beach, California, he met Corpswave Barbara McMurray, a Ponchatoula gal and his wife to be!
Next came the 9th Motor Transport Battalion in Okinawa as Senior Medical Department Representative with hands-on treatment of patients needing minor care. Those needing more care were sent on to the Air Force Hospital.
Then it was to the Marine Corps Reserve Center in Lima over patient care and record keeping until he was changed to the Naval Reserve Center in Toledo, over immunizations, wounds and exams.
Afterward, in Portsmouth, Virginia, he did Independent Duty Training preparing to go to units or aboard ships which had no doctor. This meant he was also responsible to oversee and instruct on disposing waste, field sanitation, how to distill, purify and conserve water.
Assigned to the USS Hermitage LSD-34 at Little Creek, Virginia, he found 150 officers and enlisted naval personnel with another 150 Marines to embark with no doctor aboard. Here he was over two younger corpsmen. And, as on any ship, one of his jobs as Corpsman was to convert saltwater to potable.
Its first deployment was to the North Atlantic, Germany, England and back to the U. S. Its second was a Mediterranean cruise with a good-will stop in Rota, Spain, and on to Haifa, Israel.
Next was the Suez Canal but an uprising in Lebanon brought them to Beirut where they evacuated U.S. personnel and locals before anchoring off Lebanon for 4 months. With a Marine contingency on board, they saw the Hilton Hotel windows blown out and heard the “plunk” of bullets hit the ship, so anchored farther out before heading back to the U.S.
With the ship in dry dock for overhaul, Opdenhoff was transferred to 4th Marine Division in New Orleans. The administrative structure was for him to go across the country to Marine Reserve centers and inspect each to see if ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
Promoted to Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman, he was transferred to the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in New Orleans, retiring in May of 1988.
In September of ‘88, he answered a local ad for someone with sewer and water experience. Not being from here with local certification, he started right away going to classes to earn certificates. For three or four years, Monday-Wednesday-Friday nights from 6-8 he attended classes taught by different certified operators. Water, then exams. Sewer, then exams.
There are four Class 4 certifications:1. Water production 2. Water distribution (wells and piping in city) 3. Wastewater collection 4. Wastewater treatment.
After earning the certifications, one must train annually to maintain them. Attending annual training from Shreveport-Bossier, Alexandria, Lake Charles, New Orleans to Baton Rouge with 16 hours training in water and 16 hours in wastewater.
A town of 10,000 or below is considered Class 3 and population above, Class 4.
Thus Ponchatoula is Class 3 but Opdenhoff earned and maintains 4 Class 4 Certifications, meaning he could easily be over Sewer and Water in our state’s biggest cities.
The certifications belong to the person earning them but the city uses them. Through the EPA, DEQ and DHH, they can be transferred to other states, but Opdenhoff says, “The city of Ponchatoula has been good to me and I’d like to continue to assist the city by retiring with consulting aspect.”
A city always pays for the training but, knowing he was about to retire, he insisted this last time he pay for his own.
With Opdenhoff being a Michigan native, he said the most difficulty at first was not being one of the locals and hearing himself referred to as “That Yankee.” But he’d just laugh and as people saw he was a man of his word and got things done when possible, that mostly faded. Mostly.
He’s seen and helped initiate and bring about many updates and upgrades to the sewer and water systems. He’s gone from the days and nights of driving to check and adjust gauges on all 26 pumps in town to have the right pressure and government required chemicals to installing the SCADA system. (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition)
This system monitors the sewer system every two hours and the water system every two minutes, showing results on a large screen in his office. This tells what each well is doing, how much water is being produced, volume in a tank, pressure, how much chlorine, etc. In addition, it gives the ability for his cell phone to make adjustments from wherever he is.
It is obvious Opdenhoff’s heart is in his work the way he lights up when talking about it and in the way he can rattle off complicated terms, mathematical figures, codes and laws quicker than some folks can recite the alphabet!
To Dave Opdenhoff, you are greatly appreciated. While you’ll still be on call, you and Barbara enjoy more time for the ‘round-to-its, woodworking, playing with your ’62 Austin Healey and being with your 2 children, 8 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren!
With so many city projects completed and more underway, Ponchatoula is already leading lots of other cities much larger, but the recent hiring of a new employee is adding even more excitement to future plans. Nobody loves a city better than its residents and that’s what Ponchatoula has in new Director of Downtown Revitalization, Faith Allen.
The city is financially strong, debt-free. Some towns have to work at meeting just the general monthly expenses. But we are frugal with expenditures and thanks to Rhonda Sheridan and Judy Cordoba, we put some back in reserve this year.
Traffic and greenery at the junction of I-55 and U.S. Highway 51 hide one of Ponchatoula’s great feats of modern technology – its Wastewater Treatment Plant. A recent private tour of the facility was a real eye-opener as to how advanced the city is in yet another area of caring for its people.
The City of Ponchatoula again participated in the national “Lights On Afterschool” event with its “Family & Friends Night” at the Ponchatoula Community Center for a time of celebrating the growth and positive results of its own after-school program. Called “Ponchatoula Student Outreach,” the program’s motto is “From Afterschool to Bright Futures” and according to reports on improvement in behavior and grades, the future is looking much brighter for some who have needed that extra encouraging nudge.