2007 Cenla-ian of the Year: Joanne White

Posted June 2007

By Holly Jo Linzay

Joanne White has been called many names – crusader, champion of the underdog, community leader and philanthropist. And now, she can add a new title to the list.  We are proud to announce that she has been named the 2007 Cenla-ian of the Year.

“I was shocked beyond anything to be selected for this honor,” White humbly explains, while rocking in her plush overstuffed chair in her Alexandria home.  “There are so many people who give so much of themselves who don’t get any recognition. But I am thankful and I give all the glory to God for everything I do in my life,” White adds.

Her life reflects her lifelong passions – helping others in any way she can. White’s accomplishments and successes are her legacy of love toward others. Central Louisiana is a much better place to live as White has left her gentle footprints embedded in its soil. Yet, whenever an organization or group wants to recognize White for her work or generosity, she exudes humility.  “There isn’t any joy greater than the joy of carrying out the mission of your life,” says Joanne, with eyes sparkling.  “And getting the lagniappe in life is helping out and making a difference in someone’s life.”

One of a dozen children, White was born and raised on Compromise Plantation in Lloyd’s Bridge.  “Even as a child, I think I was molded to help others. I went to church and school with so many poor people. I knew one family who slept on corn shucks,” White remembers.  She graduated from Lecompte High School and in 1950 earned a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Her first job after graduation from college was teaching Speech, English and Social Studies at Bolton High School in Alexandria. It was during this time, she met Paul, her husband of 56 years. Eight months after meeting at the First United Methodist Church, they were married. Paul joined the Army, and the couple moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas. After completing his service in the military, the two returned home to Alexandria.

Paul started selling real estate and Joanne returned to Bolton High School to teach. In 1963, Joanne left teaching to become a community volunteer and a full-time mother. By 1966, five of their children had been born, Paul Don, Charles, Lamar, Paula and Martha. In 1970, Paul started his own real estate business with apartment complexes. Today, he is the president and founder of White Properties and White Development. Joanne is the vice president of White Development, and has for years served as the chief of interior design and landscaping.

In 1971, their son, Wallace, whom they called “Wally,” was born. However, tragically, in July 1973, Wally fell in a swimming pool and nearly drowned. The incident left him in a coma from which he never recovered; and in 1974, he died.  “Pain teaches you lessons you never forget. If you use it properly in grief, you can go on and help other people. No one understands losing a child unless they lose one,” White explains about the tragedy of losing her baby.

The Whites have created large endowments internationally and nationally in the arts and music as a memorial to Wally. Unfortunately, just a few years ago, the Whites experienced another tragic loss as another son, Lamar, was killed in a traffic accident. They established an endowment at Perkins School of Theology to train clergy in practical homiletics in memory of their son. Lamar had graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  Despite her losses, Joanne has been able to maintain her strong sense of faith and keep a positive attitude.  “Our tragedies have led us to do good things to help other people,” Joanne explains, adding that God has “blessed” them so they can be a “blessing to others.”

Their oldest son, Paul Don, is now training to assume the role his father serves in their company, while son Charlie, who is an architect and builder, is also working within the family business. Joanne said she is still a full-time “meddler” working in the community and has the full support of her husband.  “Paul has always supported me in whatever I’ve started or created. He has always helped me fill in the gaps,” Joanne beams.  The “gaps” are references to the many needs she has taken an interest in and has helped find the solutions and resources to fill those “gaps” in the surrounding areas. 

At 78, Joanne is still much sought after for her wisdom and creative energy. Recently, the Rapides Parish School Board has asked her to speak at a workshop designed for parents of at-risk children and youth. Her telephone seems to ring constantly with requests for advice and resource information. A recent motor vehicle accident, five eye surgeries and several knee operations this past year have not deterred White’s passion to help others. While she has taken the time to recover, it has not stopped her efforts to help, and she has quite a history of helping.

For years, White served as the investment board chairman of the executive committee for Louisiana Works, which is a program designed to educate and train people 16 years old and older for employment. The committee sorted out issues and analyzed strategies to get the investment board properly launched.

In the 80s, White met with the Rapides Parish School Board superintendent who told her about a gap in the education of special needs children from 6 weeks old to age 3. White heard about the need, the “gap,” and started a program called “Angel Care” to help. She discovered a program at the LSU Medical School in New Orleans that matched “typical children with atypical children” to help teach them.  “The children could teach the other children a lot better than adults. The School Board provided the social services,” White explains, adding that an “angel” in mental health quit her job to head the program for the parish.  “That’s how we got the gap closed,” White says, adding, “God has given me a gift and a mission when there’s a gap, I have to go there and help organize to fill it.”

The Shepherd Center, an ecumenical ministry of 56 churches and two synagogues, was founded by White. The center, which has helped thousands, ministers to the needy and helps connect people with resources to become independent.

White researched a need, and with the help of Sister Olive Bordelon and St. Francis Cabrini Hospital, started the first school-based health clinics. The first one was established in Boyce. White also launched the “Care and Share” tutoring program. It is a summer tutoring program served through area churches that pair intergenerational teams together to learn.

Hope House, co-founded by White, is a 24-hour residential facility for homeless and battered women and children. It is now funded by HUD and provides training and life skill training for the women.  “Christmas Cheer for Children” was also founded by White. It provides computerized cooperative aid to more than 4,000 children annually.  “No child should have to stand in line for a present at Christmas, and all children deserve to believe in the magic of Christmas,” asserts White.

She was the co-designer of the Aiken Optional School, an alternative school program to help youth at risk of dropping out of school or who have already dropped out. Through the years, White has been involved first-hand in too many faith-based and community initiative programs and projects to mention. She was instrumental in the behind-the-scenes groundwork to establish LaChip, which is a health insurance program that provides benefits for children under age 19 in Louisiana. Even during her recovery time from the vehicle accident, White said she stayed up on the current changes and added benefits to the program.

She helped start the Habitat for Humanity program in the Rapides Parish area and she organized the regional Professional Women’s Organization.

White is a “starter,” “an idea person” who brainstorms a concept and finely executes the organization. The Whites have spent their own resources funding a program to help the needy or to jumpstart a project and then established the resources to keep the programs afloat.  “All my life, God has amazed me with the miracles he’s done with the funding and with the people who came to lead. I’d leave a project as soon as I was positive it would run on its own. I could not have done it without God,” White exclaims with strong conviction.

God, according to White, places a mission within the soul of everyone. And indeed, White has found her true calling, a mission she said is always “God-led.”  When asked if she would consider retirement, Joanne quips, “Why on earth would I retire? All this keeps me alive!”

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