Two Louisiana residents to be honored at the White House

Two economic development and environmental advocates for southern Louisiana will receive “Champions of Change” honors on Thursday at the White House for their ongoing efforts since hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Rebecca Templeton, the executive director of Bayou Grace Community Services in lower Terrebonne Parish, and Patrick Barnes, who jump-started the Limitless Vistas inner-city employment program in New Orleans, are two of the 12 honorees this year being recognized by the federal program to honor community leaders started by President Barack Obama.

These Champions of Change honorees were chosen for their work on environmental and climate change issues.

Templeton, of Thibodaux, started the Bayou Grace nonprofit organization as an education and volunteerism project to bring communities together and educate people about the reasons for southern Louisiana’s rapid coastal erosion problems and to work on coastal restoration efforts.

Barnes is an Orlando, Fla.-based geologist and the president of the Gulf Coast’s largest black-owned environmental engineering and consulting firm.

But, after Katrina, he started the Limitless Vistas program in New Orleans to link people, especially younger people, who were displaced or affected by the storm with jobs in the reconstruction and restoration efforts and contracts that have resulted from the hurricane.

Through job training and certification work, Limitless Vistas has helped more than 300 at-risk young adults become qualified to work as environmental technicians.

“I didn’t expect it would really catch on like it has,” Barnes said Wednesday in an interview. “It’s great to be recognized at this level and, hopefully, we can turn it into more opportunities to help disconnected, inner-city kids.”

Even though he did not live in Louisiana, Barnes said he recognized that the best opportunities to do good exist where the needs are greatest.

As a result, he said, he spent more time in New Orleans for a while than he did in Florida.

Those efforts continued after the 2010 BP oil tragedy, he said.

“When I saw what happened with Katrina, like so many other people, I was compelled to want to help folks,” Barnes said.

Templeton, on the other hand, is a native of Chauvin who wanted to work to educate and unite the Terrebonne Parish communities that are at risk of being washed away from coastal erosion and hurricanes.

Land loss is a huge problem for southern Louisiana and it is being caused by more than just hurricanes and oil leaks, she said.

The damming and diverting of parts of the Mississippi River and other waterways have played huge roles in the loss of sediment and that cause of saltwater intrusion, she said.

As such, the state is losing more than a football field of land an hour through coastal erosion.

Bayou Grace focuses on a combination of education, construction and volunteer efforts that is about teaching people and getting them to become advocates for their communities, she said.

Templeton has led such efforts as the “Building Community Resilience Through Community Dinners.”

She said being recognized at the White House is a great honor that she never expected nor imagined.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Templeton said. “Everything has been happening very, very quickly. I just didn’t believe it.”

“The survivability of many communities in coastal Louisiana is at stake,” Templeton added. “It (the honor) represents every Bayou Grace team member, past and present, every volunteer, community member. …”

The Champions of Change program was created as a part of Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. Each week, the White House features a group of Americans — individuals, businesses and organizations — who are doing “extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.”