Alecia B. Bergeron
Blue Bridge ASL Academy
Alecia Bergeron is a grandmother who loves children, especially babies. She loves them so much that, while enjoying well-deserved retirement after 25 years working for the State of Louisiana, she made the decision to go back to work teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to children and families.
Alecia is a member of the Deaf Community and grew up in a time when deaf or hard-of-hearing children had few options when thrust into daycares and classrooms designed for hearing children. As a child, she experienced a sense of isolation in environments where very few people were taught or even exposed to ASL.
When a family friend founded the Blue Bridge ASL Academy in Baton Rouge — a daycare and school that is fully integrated for deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing kids — Alecia jumped at the chance to be a part of it. Now, motivated to see a change in how the broader world interacts with deaf people, she works with very young children, newborns to 5-year-olds, in a program that is the first of its kind in Louisiana.
As an advocate, teacher and volunteer, Alecia pours herself into the children she works with, and helps bridge communication with parents and caregivers. The families of her students think of her as a beloved family member. She builds up confidence in children by creating an early foundation of love from which they might choose to build any kind of life they desire. Someday soon, there will be a generation of deaf and hard-of-hearing adults who can trace the roots of their success back to Alecia.
St. Teresa Center for the Works of Mercy
Fr. Michael Champagne is a Catholic priest and the Superior at Community of Jesus Crucified — a religious order dedicated to ministering to those most in need and suffering, with priority given to those who are unserved or underserved.
Though the Community of Jesus Crucified works in many regions, their order has made a deep investment in St. Martinville, particularly after it was devastated by flooding in 2016.
The order started with a food pantry and community kitchen, serving hot meals in a region that was already struggling with widespread poverty before the flood waters.
Priest, brothers, sisters, and lay people came together to found St. Teresa Works of Mercy and the Don Bosco Oratory, community centers where volunteers work to provide whatever is needed — shelter, food, education, counseling and life skills training — for children in the area.
In just a few years, the Oratory has taught hundreds of children the skills they will need to succeed in the world: cooking, painting, carpentry, repairing appliances, financial literacy and much more.
Fr. Champagne would be quick to point out that the work for which he is being honored tonight belongs to the hands of many people. But there is one particular area in which his own spirit is especially and undeniably present: as a teacher, mentor and paternal influence. Father Champagne reaches out to young people with his whole heart, teaching them with respect and dignity. To him, it is essential that each child knows that they are important, valued and loved.
Jennifer Johnson Karle
Cane River Children’s Services
Jennifer Karle is the chief executive officer of Cane River Children’s Services (CRCS), which provides trauma-informed care for young women who have experienced sexual abuse, neglect, and adverse childhood experiences. She first joined the organization in 1991, and has remained steadfastly at the helm, guiding her team through endless administrative, policy and funding challenges over the last 30 years.
Under her leadership, CRCS has grown to include residential treatment, a transitional living home, therapeutic foster care, child advocacy to prevent domestic violence and a community counseling center. It is a unique program in the region, the only one of its kind. Often, Jennifer’s team cares for young women who truly have nowhere else to go.
Described as calm, disciplined and loving, Jennifer and her team have cared for more than 1,000 girls — all of whom entered the program after experiencing deep trauma. In her care, they receive stability, consistency and a therapeutic environment in which to process and overcome their life experiences.
Many experience true love for the first time, which is why so many young women return as volunteers, staff, or even just to visit after moving on from the program.
After her faith and family, Jennifer puts the young women in her care above all things. She is often the first to arrive and works late into the night. When budgets have been cut by funding agencies, Jennifer has gone without pay to keep the staff on board and ensure that the girls in CRCS’s care are provided for.
Without a doubt, Jennifer and CRCS have given a second chance to young women in dire need. She gives each a precious gift: the opportunity to change the path of their lives for the better.
Fostering Hope Louisiana
Before founding Fostering Hope Louisiana, Leslie Lacy was an attorney with the Children’s Advocacy Program at Mental Health Legal Advocacy Services. For 13 years, she worked day and night to represent children in the foster care system. Each client was special to her, and she showed that by providing special experiences like birthday parties and adoption day celebrations.
Intimately familiar with the services available to foster children, Leslie noticed a glaring omission in Medicaid coverage: orthodontia. As an attorney representing children who were rising above their circumstances to pursue big dreams, she wanted to give them the confidence, poise and care they deserved. So, she started paying for braces out of her own pocket.
Eventually, she was encouraged to find community support and founded Fostering Hope Louisiana, which provides braces for children in foster care, oral health education, life skills training and access to quality mental health treatment. Even with children of her own, Leslie works tirelessly to raise funds, organize Saturday workshops and collaborate with judges, orthodontists and other community partners.
Leslie is passionate about supporting children, and sees them wholly. She is a deeply kind and relentless cheerleader for those lucky enough to encounter her. She continues to support and partner with other foster care organizations, and is rapidly expanding Fostering Hope Louisiana to other parishes in the state.
Family and Youth Counseling Agency
Velika Hurst-Trahan has been a major advocate for women and children throughout Southwest Louisiana for over two decades. In her career at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana as a marketing account manager, she has had the opportunity to witness firsthand the physical, emotional and mental needs of children in the community. She has worked on the front lines to support health care and social services that promote the well-being of vulnerable populations.
Velika began her career in health care working in the Blue Cross mailroom. Through her determination and passion, she was able to work her way up to the position she is in today. She has applied that same enthusiasm and grit to her approach with volunteer work in the community and continues to advocate in the best interest of children and women in Southwest Louisiana.
Velika is known to someone in almost every room she enters, and her commitment to community has driven her to serve on the boards of several organizations providing vital services to children, including the Family and Youth Counseling Agency (FYCA). She has supported FYCA in innumerable volunteer roles through critical moments of growth, helping it to provide support services for abused and neglected children, grief services for children suffering the loss of a loved one, and mental health services for everyone in the region.
After reaching her term limits, Velika continued to serve on the advisory board of the Shannon Cox Counseling Center, a division of FYCA, where she advocates for mental health services for children, youth and families.
Velika is known as loyal, cheerful and determined to her family, colleagues and the many, many people privileged to call her a friend.
Youth Empowerment Project
Melissa Sawyer is the kind of person that gets things done. With energy and empathy, she is someone who does not stop asking the question, "What can we do about this need?" And for the span of her entire adult life, she's been doing just that for some of the most vulnerable children in Southeastern Louisiana.
When Melissa first came to New Orleans from Canada in 1998 through Teach For America, she spent two years teaching special education classes at Booker T. Washington High School. After, Melissa worked with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). It was through this work that Melissa saw many formerly incarcerated youth struggle and too often become victims of violent crime — without any programs to help them make the difficult transition home.
And so, at the age of just 27, Melissa and two of her JJPL colleagues started Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) in 2004, the first youth reintegration program of its kind in the state of Louisiana.
In the 18 years since YEP was founded, Melissa has grown it into a comprehensive youth development organization that has been a part of the lives of thousands of children across the Greater New Orleans region.
YEP provides supportive mentoring relationships, enrichment programs and educational support to young people. Many children have found their path in life through YEP programs, and many stay involved after graduating.
Melissa’s dedication shines through even in difficult moments — the program expanded during Hurricane Katrina and COVID shutdowns. She has grown the program to meet the needs of children at home, which includes providing wraparound services and family support to access food, shelter and other essentials.
In the midst of the incredible challenges of poverty, systemic racism and violence, Melissa has created a safe space of belonging for the city's young people — many of whom consider it a second home.
Jan B. Daniels
Children’s Coalition for Northeast Louisiana
After a family friend lost a son to suicide 17 years ago, Jan Daniels decided to take action. She founded a program called SOS: Signs of Suicide, an evidence-based approach to teaching young people how to recognize suicidal ideation in their peers, what to say to communicate support, and how to connect them to a trusted adult and mental health resources.
Jan received training at Columbia University to deliver Signs of Suicide, which is housed at the Children’s Coalition for Northeast Louisiana. She works not only with students, but also parents, caregivers, educators and others working in child welfare to support healthy youth development.
Shockingly, as many as one in six students makes a suicide plan each year — a number that has only grown as students remained isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly twice as many as in 2009. Thoughts of self-harm do not often come during business hours, which is why Jan is available all day and night to support others in proximity to a child considering suicide. She has provided resources and referrals to thousands of people in crisis in Northeast Louisiana, and the Signs of Suicide program has been taught to more than 55,000 students and professionals.
Jan connects with young people and adults alike through her infectious charm, positivity and sincerity. She has founded or worked on many other programs to support students in living healthier lives, with an emphasis on mental health. Having already helped to save many, many lives, she will continue teaching and advocating until every child knows how to recognize the signs of suicide and has access to support to help them in times of crisis.
Bella Bowman Foundation
Kim and Trey Bowman founded the Bella Bowman Foundation after losing their daughter, Bella, to pediatric cancer and side effects from treatment in 2011.
Bella was her parents’ delight — bright, girly and in love with anything “princess.” In her final ten days, a community of people showed up for Kim, Trey and Bella to provide comforting support and to help them create lasting family memories.
When Bella passed, her parents were determined to give that same level of support to other families with children facing complex or terminal illnesses.
The Bella Bowman Foundation provides comfort care for children in hospitals across the state — everything from blankets and toiletries to toys and iPads. Volunteers (including Kim) visit children both in the hospital and at home, dressed in costume as their favorite characters.
The Foundation has also raised significant amounts of money for pediatric cancer research. It has partnered with hospitals to create special environments for sick children, such as "Bella’s Room" — a place for children in palliative or hospice care and their families, where their every wish is met . Time spent in Bella's Room fosters beautiful, loving memories that parents can turn to for comfort after losing a child.
Kim walks with every family through the complicated journey of childhood illness, regardless of its outcome. She connects parents to resources, celebrates milestones like the end of a child’s chemotherapy, and is often a shoulder to cry on. Her wish is that no family should feel isolated while facing the possibility of losing a child, and she will keep working until that is reality.
Robert "Robby" Fritscher comes from a swimming family. In school, swimming was a big part of his identity and community — practice, meets and camaraderie.
In 2001, the family lost Robby’s nephew, Joseph (“JoJo”), to a drowning accident. In the midst of grief, Robby was inspired to start JoJo’s Hope, to provide swimming lessons to children with physical and developmental disabilities.
The program has spread across the region and is currently anchored at Franco’s Athletic Club, where Robby is the aquatic director. Children of all levels of ability participate in lessons, but also competitive swimming at local and national meets as part of the Special Olympics and USA Swimming. Many have gone on to become champion swimmers.
Swimming has become a therapeutic outlet for the children, just as it was for Robby. A community of swimmers and family has built up around JoJo’s Hope, supporting and cheering on children who often lack access to team sports or activities. Regardless of cognitive or physical ability “on land,” each and every child gains additional mobility in the water, a delight that has some participants swimming for two hours each day.
For his part, Robby knows each swimmer in JoJo’s Hope by name. Like any good coach, he gives love and patience, but also a little goodnatured teasing to bring out smiles. Robby runs JoJo’s hope as a second, but unpaid, full-time job — arranging practices, bringing the kids to competitive meets, and anchoring the swimming family around him — all of which has had a profound impact on the children in his care, and all of it in honor of JoJo’s memory.