Roma Prejean, 66, a native of Church Point and 36-year resident of Zachary, has been named Zachary’s Citizen of the Year for 2014.
The award, given by the Zachary Rotary Club at the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet, will be presented to Prejean on Thursday, Oct. 16.
Many know Prejean as the Zachary Food Pantry Lady, and she says that’s just fine with her.
“I am so humbled by this…I really don’t understand it. They must have run out of people to ask is all I can think,” Prejean said, her voice accented by her deeply rooted Cajun heritage.
The youngest of three children, Prejean’s father took his own life in 1949.
Her mother later remarried, moving the family to Cankton and soon after to Mire. Prejean, who was 12 at the time, was close with her siblings, especially her older brother and his best friend, Harold Prejean, who would later become her husband.
“Our great-great- great-great-grandfathers were brothers,” Prejean said. “You wouldn’t believe how many times we had to clarify that for our sons’ teachers. They didn’t think I knew what ‘maiden name’ meant.”
After the two childhood friends married, Harold moved his new wife to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where the couple lived for two years.
“It was country come to town,” Prejean said. “Things were much different there than in Louisiana.”
Soon, Prejean gave birth to a son, John, and four years later, another named Scott.
Deciding she didn’t want to be at home after her children were left the house, she obtained her GED, and in April 1975, she began taking classes at a surgical technical school in Lafayette. She earned her degree and took a job at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital.
Meanwhile, Harold worked various jobs before becoming employed at Amoco, and it was while working there that the Prejeans were transferred to Port Hudson in November 1978.
She began working at Lane Memorial Hospital in April 1979 and stayed for the next 25 years.
“Every time I tried to quit, they would call me back to help out when they were shorthanded,” Prejean said.
Eventually, she found out about the food pantry in Zachary and that if Richard Findlay, who founded the pantry in 1988, didn’t receive any assistance, the food pantry would have to close its doors.
“Eleven years ago, I went to volunteer, found that I really enjoyed the work, and I’ve never left,” Prejean said.
The Prejeans’ son John is married to Jean Perez. The couple lives Metairie where they operate a computer business. Their son Ryan, a senior at Tulane, is getting a degree in computer science, and other son Andrew, a freshman at Tulane, is going into a medical field, Prejean says of her grandson.
Her son Scott, who worked for Georgia Pacific for many years, moved to Franklin, Texas, and began working for Luminant. He married Julie Lacy, a Zachary High graduate who also works for Luminant. The couple has two sons, Grant, a junior in high school, and Jacob, a fifth-grader.
“Besides my love for my husband, sons, daughters-in-law and four precious grandsons, I love helping people, and I suppose that’s how I ended up at the Zachary Food Pantry,” said Prejean.
Nominations for Zachary Citizens of the Year come from residents in the community who send in letters about someone they feel worthy of the honor.
“Roma meets the qualifications for Citizen of the Year,” Prejean’s friend Tonya Stroud wrote in a nomination letter. “She is active in the community, an active member of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, helped start the CODOFIL chapter in Zachary and is the backbone of the Zachary Food Pantry.
“Roma has diffused many crises in the operating room with her skills, sense of humor and thick Cajun accent. She has adopted several families helping them to relocate after Hurricane Katrina, driving them to medical appointments and helping where help was needed and becoming their family away from family.”
Prejean also volunteers at her church on a bereavement committee assisting families in their time of grief by organizing food for funerals and helping those in need.
One of the members of her ‘adopted families’ died and Prejean recruited friends, residents and volunteers, anyone she could think of, to help with funeral costs, a place for a reception and refreshments.
“Zachary people were wonderful in helping make it all happen. The Men’s Club donated the use of their building for the couple’s family and friends to gather after the funeral,” Prejean recalled. “I called every person I knew, and they all helped.”
Prejean’s hobbies include crocheting, cross stitching and matting and framing. She’s an admitted genealogy geek who researches her family’s history and spends time putting together jigsaw puzzles on her iPad or her computer.
Prejean also belongs to a pokeno club that meets every Thursday and has done so for the last 30 years.
“Eight of my old bowling buddies and I get together and play cards. We have a motor home that we love to go camping in or to softball tournaments in,” she said. “We also go to the country where we visit other friends and family.”
She pokes fun at her earlier years in Zachary but says to be recognized for something she loves to do, to be honored as Citizen of the Year, is very humbling.
“I don’t understand how this all happened, but I am very grateful, and I want to thank everyone who felt I deserved it,” Prejean said.
She says she will do her best to make everyone proud.
“I thought perhaps the Rotary committee had run out of people to give this award to and that was the reason I received it ... because God knows I don’t feel like what I do is worthy of all this fuss,” Prejean said. “I’m blessed with a great family, friends and good health to do what I do and what I love doing. Again, thank you, Zachary.”