A Helping Hand
When students in the Honors College Louisiana Service and Leadership (LASAL) program recently traveled to Tensas Parish, many were shocked at what they found there.
“The trip is meant to give the students a context for understanding rural poverty,” said Dr. Granger Babcock, Associate Dean of the Honors College. “There’s a difference between reading about it and actually seeing it and talking to people who are living it.”
Northeastern Louisiana’s Delta is home to three of the top twenty-five counties in the US with the highest percentages of children whose families have incomes below the federal poverty threshold — in Tensas, that number is 48%.
As of 2009, the population is 5, 609. With a median income of just $24,000, a staggering infant mortality rate (44.7 deaths per 1,000), and a high school graduation rate of only 64 percent (as of 2009), it’s easy to see why Tensas Parish is one of the poorest areas in the nation.
“In Tensas, there’s a very high percentage of people living below the poverty level, and they’re in a very geographically isolated area,” said Cindy Seghers, Experiential Learning Coordinator at the Honors College. “It really is rather stark — our students are getting to see a completely different side of poverty that I think was shocking to many of them.”
Jessica Lowe, a third-year LASAL student, expressed her shock at the living conditions in Tensas, which she first experienced when she went on the trip last year and got the chance to talk to members of the Tensas community.
“It was just crazy the stuff they were saying,” she said. “They’re so far away from these resources that we take for granted … One lady talked to us who was a victim of Katrina … she had to move to St. Joseph after the storm. She said, ‘This place is miserable to live in,’ and she tells the high school students all the time to get out.”
For the residents of Tensas Parish, there’s only one store, the nearest movie theatre is an hour away, and it’s a forty-five minute drive to get to the nearest hospital. And for those without access to transportation, their choices are even more limited.
“The only place for high school students to get a job is this supermarket, said Lowe. “The woman from New Orleans told us about how the ground meat there was usually expired, and so she would have to check to see if it was rotten … they’re forced to have bad food from this one store; it’s completely different from what we’re used to.”
LASAL is an Honors College program designed to produce leaders who are ready to use their knowledge and experience to help change Louisiana, and the only program of its kind in the state. This is the second year that LASAL students have gone to Tensas Parish to experience the effects of extreme rural poverty firsthand, and to provide service to the members of the Tensas community.Lydia Lopez, a second-year LASAL student, said she was stunned by the things she saw in Tensas Parish.
“The situation was just really sad,” she said. “I remember looking around, and there was just no life to that place. Everything was dilapidated and rundown. It was almost third world in a way — there’s no businesses, no fast food, there’s no Wal-Mart…”
Lopez and Seghers both spoke about the ramifications of Tensas’ complete lack of entertainment venues or other ways for high school students to spend their free time.
“You hear about these kids that were getting in all kinds of trouble with the law, said Lopez. “They just don’t have anything to do. I kind of got the impression that they don’t view themselves as worth very much.”
Another major problem facing the people of Tensas is public education. There is only one high school for the entire parish, and the students who manage to graduate — about 64 percent — are often unprepared for college.
“I mean, what teachers are going to want to go teach there?” said Lowe. “It’s like this cycle of entrapment: you’re born there, you have no resources to get out, you don’t get a good education, so you never leave.”
Lowe said that it’s hard to believe that such conditions, comparable to those of a third-world country, still exist in Louisiana.
“Tensas is just a three-hour drive away, and these problems are occurring that we don’t even know about,” she said. “It’s crazy when something like that is happening so close to home.”
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831