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.
New menu items ready for the Lenten season
The Cane Fire Film Series screens “MaidenTrip” on Monday, March 10, at the AcA.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
The vibe of the tribe done modern
The Louisiana Workforce Commission said Friday that initial claims rose to 2,125 from the previous week's total of 1,964. There were 2,887 initial claims during the comparable week in 2013.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, March 07, 2014:
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
She’s the daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, but she’s been a gifted artist in her own right for three decades, and she’s coming to Lafayette.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Prepare yourselves for sun
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
Due to the chaos of Mardi Gras and the weather, the entry deadline for this year's INDesign Awards has been extended by one week.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
Queen Evangline and King Gabriel ruled Tuesday night
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.
IND Style does Gabriel
Newsy bits for the fam
The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.