Eighteen-year-old Jordan Pujol likes being around his family a lot. And not just during holidays. Now, with help from Kids' Chance, a new scholarship fund for dependents of Louisiana workers who have been killed or injured in the workplace, Jordan can afford to stay in his home state while pursuing his dream of becoming a political science professor.
One of the first 10 Kids' Chance scholars in Louisiana, Jordan is a freshman political science major at Louisiana State University. The tragedy of his youth has not deterred him from the promises of life. Six years ago, Jordan was only 12 when his mother died suddenly. Jacqueline Blanchard, 31, and another female bank teller were shot and killed during an Assumption Parish bank robbery in Jordan's hometown of Plattenville, about an hour's drive southwest of New Orleans. All three robbers were caught and convicted. Two were sentenced to death row, the third to life in prison.
"That was six years ago. I have really grown from the experience a lot, and my family and I have stuck together," Jordan recently told an official for the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bar Foundation, which administers Kids' Chance.
The community-supported scholarship fund is designed to help children (ages 16 to 25) of workers who are killed or totally disabled in an accident that is compensable under state or federal workers' compensation laws. Kids' Chance offers qualifying applicants one-year renewable scholarships -- ranging from $500 to $3,000 -- to any accredited Louisiana college or university. The need is obviously great. Each year, more than 50,000 Louisiana workers are injured and more than 100 are killed on the job. The futures of their children often are put on hold.
Jordan received $2,000 for his first year of college. It was a big moment. "I was hanging on by a thread when I got the letter," Jordan later told a Bar Foundation official. "Now all of my fees and tuition are covered, and with the extra money my rent is covered."
Jordan also works at a fast-food restaurant near LSU to make ends meet. But with a brother serving in the Marines Corps in Iraq, he now wants to transfer to state-run Nicholls State University at Thibodaux so he can be closer to the rest of his family. No problem -- according to the eligibility rules for Kids' Chance scholarships. Award recipients must attend schools in Louisiana, continue to earn a C average or above, demonstrate substantial financial need, and apply for other financial aid.
"I plan to spend Christmas with my family and extended family," Jordan says cheerfully, referring to his three stepbrothers, a stepsister and a half-sister.
The start-up fund for the first 10 Kids' Chance scholarships awarded this year was a modest $17,500. It's a good start -- but it's just a start. This program should grow. Louisiana should be proud of Jordan and the other Kids' Chance Scholars, including New Orleans native Seleigh Simon and Casey Todesco of Metairie. Helping Kids' Chance is an investment in our youth as well as our higher education system. The effort also builds strong, positive networks among the professions. In fact, the governing board that approves the scholarships is represented by people who typically get involved in workmen's compensation cases -- lawyers, doctors, organized labor and employers -- says David Bienvenu, a lawyer and president of the nonprofit Louisiana Bar Foundation.
"The governing board of Kids' Chance is a community-based committee," Bienvenu says. "Not all of them are lawyers, although we are proud to claim it as one of the Foundation's programs."
The Georgia State Bar Association founded Kids' Chance in 1988; it has since spread to 20 states, including Louisiana. The Louisiana version began just a few years ago. "It all started in the summer of 2000; I had gone to a conference in Georgia," says Gary Knoepfler, co-chair of Kids' Chance of Louisiana and a Metairie-based consultant for workers' compensation claims. The meeting was abuzz about Kids' Chance. Knoepfler listened. On the flight back to Louisiana, he says, he decided it was time for a personal commitment. Back in New Orleans, he met with Suzanne Jones, a former president of the Louisiana Bar Foundation, who helped launch the statewide program.
"I have made a living in the workers' compensation business for 14 years, and I decided I had an obligation to give something back to the innocent victims of workers' comp claims," Knoepfler says.
Feb. 28 is the deadline for applications for Kids' Chance scholarships to be submitted for the 2004-2005 academic year. The Bar Foundation and the Louisiana Workers' Compensation Commission recently held a golf fundraiser to increase the award fund to $25,000. Kids' Chance hopes to increase its fund, renew the grants of most of its original scholars, and add additional needy youths in 2005. Organizers also dream of building a self-generating, million-dollar scholarship endowment. It's an admirable goal. We're sure Jordan Pujol's mother once had dreams for him, too. Now her dreams are shared by the people of Louisiana who are helping her son toward his promising future -- while keeping him close to home.