The group of Tara High School students who were rewarded for academic and personal growth with a trip to the Saints-Cowboys game on Thursday, Nov. 29.

After weeks of uncharacteristic success both in the classroom and beyond for a group of Tara High School students, Baton Rouge businessman Jim Bernhard rewarded the teens with a trip to the Saints-Cowboys football game Thursday night. 

Early this fall, Bernhard challenged the students — who administrators had identified as high-risk and under-performing — to show up to class on time, pass their tests and partake in employment opportunities on weekends. If they could meet his expectations, Bernhard promised to fly them on his private plane to the NFL game. Eight of the 12 young men attended the game Thursday on the businessman's dime, many taking their first flight. 

"For most of them this was their first professional football game, for it to be at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, it was the best," said Aishala Burgess, the executive director of Truce, the parish's latest anti-violence program that focuses on redirecting young men out of a life of crime. "They lit up. They kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”

Burgess and her team have been working with the students since August, meeting with them every Wednesday for lunch, often accompanied by guest speakers, like Bernhard. Bernhard is the founder and partner of Bernhard Capital Partners, a Baton Rouge-based private equity firm, and a donor to and supporter of Truce. 

While Bernhard asked the students to show academic improvement and behave at school, he also wanted them to gain experiences in the workforce. On Saturdays, he set up intern-like experiences for them, sometimes at local restaurants like Phil's Oyster Bar and Bistro Byronz and other days at Epic Pipefitting in Livingston. 

"It’s giving them an opportunity to decide and explore jobs," Burgess said. But she also said the entire experience, about two months of progress and success and motivation, went way further than the treat of attending the Saints game in Dallas. 

“Now there’s hope for them," Burgess said. "I think they finally realized … the community actually believes in them and would like to give them a chance." 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.