Kenta Edwards was 3 years old when Hurricane Katrina ripped him and his family from New Orleans.
It proved hard to embrace the next four cities that were temporary homes at best, but Baker gave him roots, and it’s trying to equip the recent high school graduate with the wings he needs to thrive in adulthood.
Edwards, a Baker High graduate, and three Baker High seniors are the inaugural Chamber of Champions employees working for the city and Baker Chamber of Commerce. He and his fellow champions are learning, growing and giving the benefits of youth and enthusiasm back to their city.
Life dealt a tough hand to Edwards in 2005 before he ever started school in New Orleans. Entire communities and a big part of the Big Easy’s infrastructure was destroyed in the aftermath of Katrina. Immediately after the devastating storm, his family relocated to Kentucky through a program that helped them establish a home, and Edwards’ father was able to find work.
Edwards said his family was in Kentucky for a year when his grandparents became seriously ill. The family moved to Denham Springs to help take care of them. After his grandmother’s death, they then moved to Walker.
In 2008, Hurricane Gustav hit.
“Our house got destroyed again,” Edwards said. “I think that was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry.”
After their home in Livingston Parish was destroyed, the family moved to Baton Rouge for a year before moving to Baker. It was their fifth community since leaving New Orleans. Edwards attended Bakerfields Elementary School in third grade and stayed in Baker schools.
Edward said he was involved in the Beta and DECA clubs. DECA, or Distributive Education Clubs of America, was how he learned about the Chamber of Champions program. DECA seeks to improve educational and career opportunities in marketing, management and entrepreneurship for students.
“We had our own little cookie company,” Edwards said. “We would get cookies from Otis Spunkmeyer and sell them to the students and the staff.”
That business venture allowed the Baker team to go to Florida to compete in a DECA competition just a few weeks ago. When Edwards returned, he heard about this summer work program from his entrepreneurship teacher Chante Rice-Graham. Two weeks later he was called for an interview with the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Baker.
Amelia Georgetown, human resources director for Baker, said the Chamber of Champions program is a collaborative of the city and the Baker Chamber of Commerce led by Executive Director Paula Turner.
Baker Mayor Darnell Waites told Georgetown he felt it vital that the city embrace students like the Champions and prepare them for the real-world challenges and adventures waiting after high school. The city has worked with the summer youth employment program in the past, but those opportunities didn’t impact Baker students.
“The mayor and I discussed it and tried to figure out ways that we could provide employment opportunities, mentorship programs for our Baker students,” Georgetown said.
The city reached out to the Chamber of Commerce so the partnership could be supported and funded by local businesses and the program could pay salaries to the student participants. “The City of Baker along with the Chamber of Commerce said we would work together to make this happen,” Georgetown said.
Turner solicited chamber member businesses for their support to help fund the students’ salaries. The first business to help fund the program was Exxon-Mobil Plastics. Other local businesses have pledged support.
An application process was developed that involved scholastic achievement, references, and a summary of career goals. Georgetown said they hoped the interview process would mimic real-world experiences. Ten applicants vied for five slots.
The five champions are now working six hours a day, four days a week. Every two weeks, there’s an in-service covering career preparation. First will be a student from SLU to talk about college prep. Turner will discuss business and career matters in the second session. In the last session, the mayor will talk about management and leadership.
Georgetown was excited to hear a student express an interest in human resources, and Baker 2019 salutatorian Frank Spears is working in her department. Spears plans to attend Southeastern Louisiana University, major in nursing and become a trauma nurse, but he aspires to develop human resources experience. “I felt that Human Resources was also for me when I interviewed because it helps employees, and I felt this would help me be more involved,” Spears said.
In addition to the human resources placement, the participants are working in marketing and public relations, public utilities, the museum, mayor’s office and the chamber. “We are able to place them where their interests laid and not only is it helping them, it is helping us,” Georgetown said. “We hope to grow to accommodate more students and, then we would like to place them in businesses.”
The three remaining Chamber of Champions participants will be returning to Baker High in the fall for their senior year. ZaMyrie Smith is working in the chamber and mayor’s offices, Tramonta Spears is working in Baker Public Works, and Adriana Allen is working in the utility billing department.
Edwards requested a spot in public relations or with the mayor’s office. He is shadowing Cedric Murphy, director of public relations for the city, and working at the Baker Heritage Museum. His interests include graphic design, animation and marketing, so the program is helping provide hands-on experience.
He doesn’t know if he will be at LSU or Southern in the fall, but he has a very different plan for each. If he attends LSU, he plans to major in graphic design. He is especially interested in EA Sports, the technology and gaming firm that has offices on the LSU campus. If he attends Southern, he will major in marketing with hopes of working in sports marketing. “I love basketball, I love football ... I love baseball, I love sports!”
Murphy, a marketing graduate of Grambling State University, lights up at the thought of all he has to pass on about marketing and the benefits of working with a young, enthusiastic student.
“I feel like it’s nice,” Edwards said of the opportunity. “Mr. Murphy is already joking that I could take his job. He feels that I’m prepared and I’ve taught him some things about the computer.”
“It’s like a win-win situation," Georgetown said. “With our employees, we like to grow our own. We are helping our kids — because they are our future — to move Baker forward.”