Praise Academy: Building Faith, Education and Community in Lakeside

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by Jessica Rinaudo

Every city has them – areas rampant with crime, populated by the poor, the hungry, those surviving day to day. Shreveport, Louisiana is no exception. I found myself driving into one such area of town late in September, looking past the crumbling houses and overgrown grass on Yale Street. I had been told to keep my doors locked and come straight to the address I had been provided.

When I finally located the street, I made the turn and my eyes grew in wonder at what I beheld there: a row of structurally sound, neatly landscaped, beautiful homes lining the road. And out in the front of one of the houses was a sign that proudly declared that this was the home of Praise Academy.

But the outside was just the beginning. Inside held a much more beautiful treasure: 25 neighborhood children sat with their teachers learning everything from fine motor skills and their letters, to sentence structure and history lessons. This gift, this beautiful sight, was brought to fruition by the People of Praise, and, as they will tell you, was directed by God.

David Zimmel, a missionary for the People of Praise who moved to Shreveport from Oregon, walked out of one of the homes – his home it turned out – and greeted me with a smile. Together with People of Praise member, Julie Bruber, they offered to give me a walking tour while they told me about what they have accomplished, against all odds, in the heart of a depressed community in Shreveport since 2005.

“We heard the Lord calling us to go somewhere and do something, that’s about as specific as it was,” said David of his beginning days as a missionary. “So three of us went out and looked all across the country, specifically the South… And we got lost when we toured Shreveport. We got lost in this neighborhood and just fell in love with it… We felt the Lord was saying ‘This is it.’ Within a month we bought a piece of land. We built one house, and then we started a summer camp. And every year the houses and the summer camp have grown,” said David.

Today their summer camp is a four to six week long program for nearly 150 neighborhood children.

David also gave me a walking tour of the neighborhood. He showed me where the teachers live, because their mission is not just to come, teach and leave, but to truly be a part of the community.

He walked us past the homes of residents, telling me their names and life stories, pointing out projects they had worked together on.

“How did you do it?” I asked. “How did you get to know everyone?”

David laughed, “Going door to door.”

“We wanted to do fix it projects, so we went to every house and said, ‘We will fix your house for free. If you can pay for the materials, we will provide the labor and expertise. And, in fact, if you need help with the materials, we’ll help with the materials, too.’ And nobody called us back,” said David. “And then one lady, Miss Octavia, called us and said, ‘Hey, are you serious about fixing this stuff?’”

She asked if they would come fix her bathroom vanity. The missionaries went in and repaired it for her. David laughed and said, “And the next day we had 35 phone calls. The neighbors were just waiting to see if we were actually going to do it.”

As we continued our walk, we stopped by an unassuming home on a hill. David told me they had purchased the home from a man eager to be rid of it. With home ownership being a near impossibility for most in the area, David intends to make it a rental space for families with children at the school. But, when he walked through the space, he said he would not feel comfortable living there, so he undertook the home improvement project.

When he swung open the front door of this house for me, there stood Paul, bent over a line of fresh cabinet doors, sanding their surfaces, preparing to stain and hang them. Paul stood up, lifted his protective eyewear, and greeted me with a warm smile. It turns out he was a recently graduated engineering major from Notre Dame, and spends much of his time traveling to work on home projects for the People of Praise.

After we left the house, we continued walking back. I listened to more stories of neighbors, including one of a man who they met when the missionaries first moved to Shreveport.

“One of our earliest conversations, we talked to this older man who was 84,” said David. “ We asked him, ‘So what do you think God wants us to do in this neighborhood?’ And he looked at us and said, ‘Well are you serious? … We need a whole new city, new roads, new schools, new everything.’ And that for me was God speaking. You don’t just help and leave.”

When we returned back to the school, the students were lining up for recess. Together they walked with their teachers, singing songs of glory and praise to God, loud and proud.

On the playground, I settled in next to Joan Pingel, the school’s principal and a parishioner at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans. She told me about her faith journey from being raised by parents in the People of Praise, to rebelling against her Catholic faith in her teens, until she eventually “returned home” again when she was in her early 20’s. She reconnected with the People of Praise and felt called to leave Indiana in 2003 and teach in Shreveport, despite not knowing anything about the area.

She was part of the early conversations with neighbors in the area. A recurring topic for people of the community was the need for a neighborhood school. After four years of prayer, research and discussion, they brought the idea of a school to their missionary team. Through prayer and consultation, they agreed to move forward with Praise Academy.

“The first year, maybe a couple of days before school, we had one student who applied. By the end of the first day we had five, and by the end of the second day we had eight… Every year we have grown a little bit bigger,” said Joan.

As she spoke about the school and the students there, sharing their stories, tears formed in her eyes.

“Our first year, one of our students had a temper… I went to talk to the mom to figure out what’s going on. She said, ‘I don’t know how to be a parent. Can you help me?’ She had her when she was 15. So, we’re trying,” said Joan.

During the course of our conversation, I witnessed how the teachers manage conflict and discipline. They work to teach the children to self evaluate without raising their voices. “We give them parameters, but also teach them how to think through how they want to make choices in their life and get their needs met without yelling and violence,” said Joan.

“We want them to know Jesus,” she added. “That’s a big part of what parents said they wanted other than a safe environment and a neighborhood school their kids could walk to… And so we talk to them about Jesus. We have a Bible class. Jacquie Vaughan, who used to work at St. Joseph Catholic School and has retired, she is coming in once a week and working with our kids. We do morning prayer, we teach reconciliation and forgiveness… so that it’s not holding grudges and retaliating, which is in the culture these days,” said Joan.

Joan’s experience with the school has been life changing, both for her and her students.

“Our first year we had a student who was seven-years-old and did not know the alphabet, had never heard the song. He didn’t know what to do with letters, but his goal was that he wanted to write his name, oh he wanted to write his name. I didn’t know what to do with him because I had never started with someone that old before who didn’t know letters or sounds,” said Joan.

“I called people I knew who had worked with kids his age and we figured out a new way to do it. I had a volunteer who worked just with him. Now, this is his fourth year here, he can write his name… and he is reading! We had to figure out what his strengths were and work with what we have. … And I know that this is what the Lord is calling us to do – to hang in there and be with the ones who are usually pushed aside because they can’t keep up. … The Lord keeps giving us words of, ‘I was rejected, too. I was yelled at, but love them anyway because I’m there with you,’” she said.

As we walked into the school and through the classrooms, I was greeted by children’s hugs, smiles and “What’s your name? Is that your camera?” It is clear these children know love and kindness and share both openly with all in those school walls.

“This isn’t just school and that’s the end of our lives,” said Joan. “This is a community we’re building.”

The Praise Academy continues to grow each year. It’s funded through donations and volunteers. When I asked Julie what the school needed most to ensure a bright future, she instantly and emphatically replied, “Volunteers!”

For a full list of ways to help or be involved with the school, visit https://www.praiselakeside.org/ways-to-help/. •

Who are the People of Praise?

“A majority of People of Praise members are Catholic, and yet the People of Praise is not a Catholic group. We aim to be a witness to the unity Jesus desires for all his followers. Our membership includes not only Catholics but Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals and nondenominational Christians. What we share is a common baptism, a commitment to love one another and our teachings, which we hold in common.”

From their website, www.peopleofpraise.org

2 Responses to Praise Academy: Building Faith, Education and Community in Lakeside

  1. Lisa Tychsen says:

    What a fantastic article and work of God- at Lakeside-thank you!

  2. Gina Kadera says:

    Great article! What a wonderful witness to God’s love.

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