Death to comfort zones Joel Greene III of Bridge Ministries of Acadiana says family is what you make it.

Photo by LeeAnn B. Stephan

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Perched on the three-point line of her Four Corners schoolyard court, Joel Greene III is sunshine personified, from her megawatt smile down to her bright yellow shirt.

As the director of Bridge Ministry of Acadiana and a member of the Leadership Lafayette class of 2018, she has more than a few ideas about the future of our city — which makes sense, because she comes face-to-face with it every day.

Greene, 41, runs a nonprofit organization that includes, among other services, a weekday aftercare program with approximately 100 children and a new K-5 Christian school.

Suddenly a blur of red, white and blue polo shirts darts across a wide-open clover field, as children burst from their classrooms to scale the jungle gym and jump into an octagonal box to play what Greene says is called “Gaga ball.”

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It’s the end of a busy day for Greene. As she takes a beat on a shaded picnic table, she’s constantly interrupted. There are questions from volunteers, hugs from the kids and even a visit from her mother. While she showers her attention on anyone who engages her, Greene opens up about her love for Lafayette, her approach to education and her new philosophy about comfort zones.

What influenced you to join Bridge Ministry?

My family. They’re all educators or ministers. Even if I was going to run away at some point, I was always going to come back. My background is in social services. I’ve always wanted to help people. I’m a project of the Four Corners neighborhood. I grew up in this neighborhood. My dad’s parents and mom’s parents live here. Most of my friends and family are here.

Who would you consider to be your biggest role model?

My dad (I’m named after him) is a retired educator and pastor. When I was younger, he was a chaplain at a nursing home. He would provide the teaching, and I would provide the music. He never required me to do anything — he always asked. My dad taught me that you first help others, then yourself.

How does being a woman, being a mother, inform and impact your job?

I am a divorced single parent. I want to show women any obstacles you face, you can still do what you want to do. Your family doesn’t only have to be those related to you. Family is who you make it. I learned how to foster those relationships. I have a 19-year-old son who is in his second semester in college and a 10-year-old daughter. All of these children that come through Bridge call me “Auntie.” Being able to relate to me personally affects the kind of discipline I practice.

What do you do to help foster diversity and inclusion within your program?

We pride ourselves on including people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. This is not a black-white zone. We yearn for more relationships with other churches and other people in Acadiana. This is an organization that survives and thrives with help from the community. I find that when people come here to volunteer, they realize they need the kids more than the kids need them. We have a model like no other. The after-school program is not just for low-income families, but for all of Four Corners. The school is for anyone.

Do you have any advice for people trying to teach children how to rise above unconscious bias and prejudice?

I always remind the kids, they are the people of tomorrow, not today. They have to look at today’s challenges and then focus on the people they can grow to be. We educate them on the reality of things, but tell them that reality doesn’t have to be yours. Kids are already told what they aren’t going to be. My job is to prove those people wrong.

How do you define success at Bridge?

We have some kids who come here because their family situation was always revolving. They’re staying with grandparents, or in and out of foster care, and we have provided a consistent family lifestyle. Kids who wouldn’t look you in the eye are hugging you and sharing about their lives. We don’t have bullying here. We walk into this as a family. If one kid gets in trouble, they all get in trouble. We have accountability across the board.

What do you think needs to change within the education system to meet the unique challenges kids of today face?

We need to allow Christ back into the classroom. I’m not saying all schools should be Christian, but no one should get in trouble for praying. If more systems had an open-door policy for parents who want to come and help, or an approach of inviting families in instead of keeping people out. We need more dialog between parents and teachers.

Why do you choose to live and work in Lafayette?

Lafayette has always been home. I’ve lived in Florida and Virginia and other parts of Louisiana, but there’s something about the people here. Despite racial tension and financial issues, we can put those things aside and say, “How can we help each other?” Everybody here is a cousin. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. That’s who we are. There’s nowhere in the world like this.

You’re part of the Leadership Lafayette class of 2018. What piqued your interest in the program, and what do you hope to gain from it?

Lafayette is growing, and I want to be a part of the leadership and shape what the next era of our society looks like. I hope to learn and hope to impart knowledge on our leadership family. And to be a better person and step outside my comfort zone. As my friend says, #deathtocomfortzones!

What are your hopes for the future of Lafayette?

I think I see us going back to the days when it takes a village to raise a child. I need us to go back to the village mentality. I want to see more equality for women and to see us catching up to the rest of the world in tech, finance, fashion, foreign languages. We should all know French. Maybe we need to create a French immersion pop-up?

Marie Elizabeth Oliver

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