DENHAM SPRINGS — Every Monday at 7 a.m., Emily Seighman sets up a miniature beauty parlor in a classroom at Denham Springs Elementary.
She lays out a tiny chair, a pink mirror and a fluffy mat over the gray linoleum where students can wait their turn for a hairstyle.
But this is no ordinary salon. As Seighman braids the girls' hair, they take turns reading aloud from a book.
Seighman, a senior at Walker High School, calls the program "Books and Braids." It's a weekly volunteer activity she does to help a group of second-graders develop their reading skills and their self-confidence.
"The most important part to me is really being a good influence to these girls," Seighman said.
The project came about after Seighman entered an essay contest with the prompt: What would you do with $100 to help your community?
Seighman said she had first seen the "Books and Braids" concept on Facebook.
Neighbors Federal Credit Union, which sponsored the competition, liked Seighman's idea so much they gave her $100 to launch it.
"We ended up going shopping for hair supplies, books and things I needed for my project," Seighman said.
She chose Denham Springs Elementary because she already knew Principal Gail DeLee and wanted to help kids affected by the 2016 flood.
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At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, Seighman began hosting lessons for the girls every Monday before the first bell. Three of the four girls in her group are English language learners who speak Spanish at home.
"At the beginning it was kind of shaky like, 'Hey, girls, I'm gonna braid your hair. That's not weird at all,'" Seighman said.
But Seighman said the girls are reading better, moving from first-grade books to chapter books. And now, they help each other sound out the words.
"Its been awesome. They've definitely progressed over the weeks,” she said.
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On a recent Monday morning, three girls lounged on the blanket and a pink beanbag chair, sipping from cartons of milk, while a fourth sat in a small blue chair where Seighman first combed and then plaited the girl's hair into neat French braids.
Going around in a circle, they alternated reading pages from "Katie's Spooky Sleepover," a children's chapter book from the Katie Woo series.
"Soon it was getting dark," Viviana Dimas, 8, read aloud. "How about a ghost story."
Seighman is running the program on her own for now. But the high school senior said she would like to involve more girls to take over and expand "Books and Braids" when she graduates.
The 18-year-old was named Walker High School's student of the year and said she plans to attend LSU next fall with a goal of becoming an orthodontist.