It was the low point for the 1985 Northside High grad and mother of four, who had dropped out of UL Lafayette and moved to Houston to give college another try. Without a network of family and friends in Texas, she drifted into a maze of drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness and failed attempts at recovery. Sparks lost custody of her children and descended into full-blown addiction. "It was the only way I knew to escape the painful parts of my past," she says. "Use or die ' those were the only two options that I could see."
When she was released from the hospital after her unsuccessful suicide attempt, Sparks was left with nothing but the medical gown a nurse gave her. "That's when I knew I had to make a choice to stop," she recalls, "and this time, forever." She called her sister living in Lafayette to help her look for a program and found Acadiana Outreach Center.
After completing the required rehabilitation programs at the Outreach Center, Sparks entered its Job Opportunity Training Center last year. The program was piloting a social enterprise workshop called reNEW (Noble Enterprise Workshop), an initiative of Outreach Center CEO Valerie Keller and UL architecture professors Hector Lasala and Geoff Gjertson.
"I was walking through the warehouse one day [on campus], and I saw a pile of broken and mismatched tiles," remembers Keller. "It struck me then that perhaps our clients could create new things out of discarded debris." When UL tore down a building in the College of Business, the university donated the architectural elements to the Outreach Center. Keller contacted Lasala, who had renovated the Acadiana Outreach Center campus with a group of his architecture students in 2003.
With more than 80 windows and window panes to work with, Lasala organized design students from UL to construct furniture out of the used materials. Three students were chosen to complete a class in which they earned credit for working with Outreach clients to design and build furniture. "The project provides great practical experience for the students in design," says Lasala. "It also breaks down the stereotypes that are often associated with the homeless."
For Sparks, participating in the workshop was not easy. She struggled with measuring boards, cutting wood and utilizing her creativity before bringing her project to fruition. "Being a part of something like that, and making something beautiful really helped my self-esteem," she says.
Ward Oge, a retired carpenter and member of Americorps, has been an essential part of the project and oversees the workshop on a day-by-day basis. "I never saw myself as a teacher, but giving back in this way just makes you feel good," he says. Oge loans and donates many tools to the Outreach Center and makes trips to New Orleans to gather reusable materials left behind by Hurricane Katrina. "I love to see the clients' faces when they admire the product of their hard work," says Oge.
Like Sparks, 24-year-old Acadiana Outreach client Justin Branch is learning new life skills through the program. "I learned that I got frustrated easily and would rush through my work," says Branch, 24, who recently completed a coffee table. "Building the table really helped me to focus on something, put time in it and do it well."
ReNEW is currently run primarily with money from grants and donations, but a few pieces of furniture were auctioned at last year's Palates and PatÃ©, the Outreach Center's annual fundraiser. ReNEW hopes to slowly transition into selling the pieces as a way to ensure a self-sustaining program. "The clients will be preparing artist statements sharing their stories to go along with the pieces that they create," Keller says. (Works from Acadiana Outreach Center clients will be on display during ArtWalk on Saturday, August 11.)
Nora Sparks graduated from JOTC in May and now runs her own cleaning service, Sparkles by Moms, which the Outreach Center guided her in starting last January. She has her own apartment and is no longer on welfare, and has begun the process of reconciling with her four children. "It makes me so happy that today, I am a part of their lives," she says.
Sparks still visits her counselor at the Outreach Center weekly, and has been sober for more than a year.
Casual cool for Thanksgiving
Shop Lafayette goes strong
The fight to clean up Lafayette Parish could get some added ammunition with two ordinances up for votes Tuesday by the City-Parish Council targeting litter-bugs.
A divided 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a Lafayette district judge’s ruling absolving the co-owner of a New Iberia accounting firm of liability in an embezzlement case.
Our View: It’s reasonable, temporary and invests in Lafayette’s future.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
By striking a deal to lessen the blow of health insurance changes on state workers, school employees and retirees, Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration lowered the volume of criticism but gave itself and local school boards a new budget headache.
With the airport tax coming up for a parishwide vote in about a week, the Broussard City Council and its mayor have come out in support of the proposal.
Protesters rallied peacefully in several Louisiana cities in the wake of the Missouri grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Michal Brown.
Three bedroom in Port Barre or two bedroom in Opelousas
US cities bidding on Olympics; Guard prevents more Ferguson riots; storm threatens travel and more national and international news for Wednesday, November 26, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
The U.S. rep billed LSU for work allegedly performed on the same days Congress voted on major legislation and held important committee hearings on energy and the ACA.
“I am only getting a little nervous about two projects — the proposed Sasol GTL facility [not the new ethylene plant] and the proposed G2X facility — both in Lake Charles. They need a hefty difference between oil and natural gas prices to make sense.”
Abysmally low participation by the public has prompted the council to scuttle the 2014 survey with plans to simplify it and try again next year.
The village now says the ordinance will likely be overturned and authorities will more vigorously enforce existing leash laws.
Lower oil prices also might slow the growth of oil production in parts of the U.S., Canada and elsewhere because it will no longer be so profitable.
Bill Cassidy cast an early ballot Tuesday, seeking to draw renewed attention to a race that has fallen off newspaper front pages and away from people's minds as they plan holiday meals and shopping schedules.
A Lafayette woman faces up to 20 years in prison for running up more than $1 million in unauthorized charges to her company credit card.
Signs that our state’s banking industry is undergoing a downsizing in 2014 were further confirmed today with the FDIC’s latest figures showing a third straight quarter in which Louisiana lost more banks and earned less money.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
State police say a 47-year-old Lafayette man, who collected more than $83,000 in disability benefits, is accused of operating two businesses out of his home at a time when he claimed he had no income.
Battered all night by Baltimore's relentless pass rush, Drew Brees could feel his protection collapsing and Terrell Suggs getting ahold of him as he urgently unloaded a pass to the right flat toward tight end Jimmy Graham.
After a convincing defeat at the polls on Nov. 4, Earl “Nickey” Picard has decided to let bygones be bygones with his former right-hand man Brian Pope, announcing his support for his former employee’s runoff bid to become Lafayette’s next city marshal.
Saturday the athletic department did everything possible to ensure the 2014 Ragin’ Cajun seniors remembered fondly their last home game. Rain and lightning never arrived but turbulence did in the form of the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
Even stranger than the Republican Party’s decision to hold a “unity rally” earlier this month for Congressman Bill Cassidy in a Baton Rouge bar, Huey’s Bar, was the fact that the establishment was named after Louisiana’s most famous Democrat.
Bar Code is not a gay bar.
After failing to pass a medical marijuana bill last year, state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, is telling supporters he will return in 2015 with legislation that focuses on different applications like oils and pills.
Voters, obviously, are not yet tuned into the 2015 ballot, despite the intriguing races it will host.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.