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.
School board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion can vote to fire Cooper — because we all know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
District 2 school board candidate Simon Mahan is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent and former Carencro Mayor Tommy Angelle in the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson is showing his desperation by falsely attributing quotes to his opponent and blocking journalists from his social media.
Three bedroom Acadian or a two bedroom town home
Ready to geaux in purple and gold
The governor is traveling the country laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, but his approval ratings at home hover well below 50 percent.
State District Judge Bob Downing extended the order and delayed a planned Wednesday hearing about a permanent injunction while negotiations continue between Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the waste disposal site operator.
New Louisiana higher education commissioner Joseph Rallo will be paid more than his predecessor.
The recently established Downtown Lafayette Restaurant & Bar Association will host a special viewing of the upcoming New Orleans Saints taking on the Carolina Panthers in the open air of Parc Sans Souci on Thursday, Oct. 30.
Belief in a national outbreak of the Ebola zombie virus is becoming more of a threat every day, and The Hayride — Louisiana’s one true bastion for unrelentingly conservative political commentaries — thought it wise to share a certain special someone's “important message” with readers Tuesday on what to do when, not if, it comes.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had four rushing touchdowns, and Louisiana-Lafayette rolled to 419 yards on the ground in a 55-40 victory over Arkansas State on Tuesday night.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the validators-in-chief for Democrats struggling through a bleak campaign season in states where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular.
JPMorgan Chase is giving $1 million to Louisiana's community and technical colleges, to help with workforce training efforts to match students to available jobs.
President Barack Obama is turning to black radio listeners to plead for midterm votes, a targeted approach to drum up Democratic support at a time when many candidates don't want him around in person.
WaPo Watergate editor Ben Bradlee dies; Clintons stump for Dems; Liberians stranded and more national and international news for Wednesday, October 22, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Law firm unveils newly renovated 200-year-old building.
UL grad named web developer at BBR Creative
Lafayette-based emergency department staffing and management company raises $120 million in senior credit facilities through GE Capital, Healthcare Financial Services.
High-rise apartment building, parking garage, hotel and retail part of new development.
A common thread runs through many of those we oppose: Enshrining in the Constitution protections on programs and their funding sources has had a disastrous effect on Louisiana’s most important economic development engine.
"I am extremely disheartened by the political machines that are attempting to hijack my efforts along with others that advocate for children."
Landrieu, who is fighting to keep her seat for a fourth term, said that Ebola is serious and precautions should be taken, but she accused Republicans of using the virus outbreak in West Africa to "create fear" here at home.
The number of Louisianans with jobs continued to set records in September, but the state's unemployment rate kept rising.
Three bedroom cottage or three bedroom ranch
Sheer lace perfection
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Louisiana is drowning, quickly.
Law enforcement agencies are participating in a "Louisiana Heroin Summit," designed to address the recent rise in heroin use and drug-related deaths around the state.