DONALDSONVILLE — Troubled by a series of violent crimes that shook Donaldsonville earlier this year, Daryl Comery, associate principal of Donaldsonville High School, was inspired to do something to lift the community’s spirits.
Scheduled to be a guest speaker at a local church one Sunday this summer, Comery woke up the Friday night before with a slogan in mind that he typed into his cellphone so he wouldn’t forget it: “Product of Donaldsonville.”
“I graduated in ’95 from Donaldsonville High; I’m associate principal here — I’m a product of Donaldsonville. It was a good experience,” Comery said in an interview.
“I just want that community spirit and pride to come back,” he said.
Through a series of steps, helped along by social media, the motto is now emblazoned on T-shirts worn by high school faculty and alumni and residents, and appears to be playing a part in a renewed commitment by residents to build pride in the city of Donaldsonville.
By the time Donaldsonville High School had its first alumni reunion at homecoming in October, alumni from the 1970s to last year had the red-and-black T-shirts — the school’s colors — thanks to word about them spreading on Facebook.
A new step took place at Donaldsonville High the week before school let out for Thanksgiving break when Comery called 14 high-achieving juniors and seniors from their classes and presented each with a “Product of Donaldsonville” T-shirt.
He said he intends to start a tradition that will be held every nine weeks through the school year to recognize students.
Donaldsonville High student Alaina Miles, the school’s homecoming queen this year, said the shirts “stand for something great in our community.”
Michael Landry, a senior who will be certified as a nursing assistant this year and who plans to pursue a career in medicine, said it was nice to have his efforts acknowledged by the school.
“I was surprised when they called me out of class to thank me for my hard work,” Landry said.
The group of students presented with the T-shirts represented a variety of achievements, such as scoring a 31 on the ACT exam, receiving multiple athletic scholarship offers from universities, joining the National Guard, mentoring other students and serving as a volunteer firefighter.
“There’s a lot of negative stereotype about our campus,” Comery said, adding that it’s time to see the community in a more positive light.
The small city was shaken this summer by a string of homicides that didn’t put Donaldsonville in best light.
There was the “hit”-style shooting of Adoriji Wilson in June; the shooting death of Shella “Shay” Howard in July, allegedly by her husband; and the beating death in August of teenager Brandon Augusta, who would have been a freshman at Donaldsonville High this year.
In the midst of that troubled time, Comery woke up one day with his “Product of Donaldsonville” brainstorm and looked for a way to get the positive message across to the wider community.
He brought the idea to a T-shirt designer friend of his in Donaldsonville, Lionel Ashton, who made Comery a shirt with the message on it. Comery wore it the next day as guest speaker at a local church.
After Comery’s brother took a picture of Comery wearing the T-shirt and posted it to Facebook, the shirt and its message “started getting positive feedback from people in the community instantly,” Comery said.
Ashton is selling the T-shirts for $12 to $15 through his Donaldsonville business, Party Photography and T-shirts. The “Product of Donaldsonville” shirts also come in the purple-and-gold colors of Ascension Catholic High in Donaldsonville, Comery said.
Donaldsonville, a city of about 7,400 on the west bank of the Mississippi River, suffers from high rates of poverty but also is the Ascension Parish seat, with a charming, historic downtown district of handsome homes and buildings.
The city had some encouraging news this fall when the state Department of Education released its school report cards. For the first time in several years, there are no failing schools in Donaldsonville.
“Let’s make a great sound, a loud sound of the good things of this city,” said Wanda August, a parent facilitator at Donaldsonville High, who was wearing her “Product of Donaldsonville” T-shirt at the school recently.
“I always call it the fair city of Donaldsonville. It’s pretty, and that’s the way we should treat it,” August said.
Comery said local Donaldsonville High alumni met in October to form the high school’s first alumni association and will be actively supporting the community in different ways.
“We’re actually coming together for a bigger purpose now,” Comery said.
There were several floats by alumni featured in the homecoming parade, and there will be alumni floats in the Christmas parade set for Dec. 20.
“Product of Donaldsonville” T-shirts likely will be part of the holiday scene that day, said Tamiko Francis Garrison, organizer of a community group called Answer the Call, which also sprung up this summer in response to the incidents of crime.
“It’s a positive movement,” Garrison said of the response of high school alumni to the community and the “Product of Donaldsonville” rallying cry.
“We’re trying to show the kids you can be part of the community where you’re from,” she said.
Answer the Call is planning more community activities, such as Christmas caroling from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Dec. 7. The caroling will begin at the former Lowery Middle School building on Martin Luther King Drive, Garrison said.
The group has already organized a Men’s Health and Wellness Seminar from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 21 at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Donaldsonville.
Comery mentioned several people in the community who were mentors when he was in high school and are still involved with youth, through coaching in recreational leagues and in other ways.
“It’s our turn now. It’s our generation’s turn now,” he said.
Comery said he envisions Donaldsonville as a place people who leave want to move back to because they miss it so much.
“I envision businesses blossoming in this community and new housing blossoming, because it is such a beautiful community,” he said.