United Way sees new college as way to change lives for the better

Gets assist from First National

When River Parishes Community College – United Way welcomes students to its Boutte campus for the first time in January, it will be the culmination of what started as an ambitious, open-ended idea formed during a planning meeting.

“We really were looking for a way to make a big impact, some way to take another step in our community and really change people’s lives,” said John Dias, United Way of St. Charles Executive Director. “You always aim to do what you do a little bit better each year, and that’s important. But we took a look at ourselves and thought, can we come up with an idea to really change lives?”

A committee of planners took that question to heart. They examined the needs of the whole in St. Charles Parish, and discussions brought them to a two-pronged conclusion: there were employers in the parish who were in need of workers, and there were residents of the parish who needed jobs.

How to address that? A trip to Reserve crystalized the solution for United Way.

“We went to talk to people at River Parish Community College in Reserve. And we thought, this is really what we’re looking for, but it’s here in Reserve … so someone said (to RPCC representatives) ‘What if we could give you a building in St. Charles Parish where you operate a community college and bring your curriculum here?’ They said yes, and we got to work,” Dias said.

United Way spent two years searching for the right property before finding its site on Hwy. 90. It would need to spend $3.2 million to buy and renovate the property.

Providing an assist on that end was First National Bank USA in Boutte, which worked with United Way to ultimately become the lender to finance the project.

“We’ve had a great relationship with First National Bank and they’ve been incredibly supportive of the project,” Dias said. “They have a very local mindset and want to be part of a project that would help the people of this community. They offered us a few options and we picked the best one for us. They really worked with us every step of the way.”

Brandt Dufrene, President and CEO of First National Bank USA, said it was an easy call to help an organization he believes in.

“They’re actionary, not just reactionary … they go out, look to see people they can help, people who might have fallen by the wayside, and they make a difference,” Dufrene said. “We’ve been supporting United Way ever since they’ve had a United Way here and since we organized the bank in 1975. It’s a great cause, and this parish has one of the best United Way organizations anywhere.”

On the college itself, Dufrene believes it will be a great asset to the River Parishes as a whole.

“Not only St. Charles Parish, but the whole surrounding area,” he said. “This will help people get qualified and ready to go to work.”

The college was initially expected to be finished over the summer of this year, but COVID-19 complicated the matter and delayed the projected opening until January of 2021.

The United Way purchased a 3.9-acre site at 13143 Highway 90 for the community college’s future location. The project cost an estimated $3.3 million, including $1.4 million to renovate the 16,389 square-foot bingo hall and the addition of 439 square feet. The renovation will provide a facelift for the center section of the building.


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