Inside every thriving community, there are people who have a knack for identifying what needs to be done, then figuring out how to make it happen. They are the agents of change. The rainmakers. Whether on their own or by galvanizing others, they find the resources and volunteers. They organize and delegate. They push the envelope a little. They push themselves a lot. Some days they wonder how they will get it done. Then they get up and they do it.
We found a group of women we think are perfect examples of the kind of drive and spirit that defines Acadiana. They are the changemakers in their own communities, fiercely passionate about their causes and equally committed to the work necessary to carry out their missions. These women were chosen from dozens of others nominated by the people who see firsthand the impact of their work for the communities they love.
On the following eight pages, we honor Anita Begnaud, Brianna Davis, Anne Darrah, Melissa Bonin, Cindy Herring, Angie Eckman, Diane Wiltz and Julie Oubre. We think you’ll agree, these eight individuals exemplify what it means to be Women Making a Difference!
A luncheon honoring these eight outstanding individuals will be held
on June 18 in New Iberia. To purchase tickets or for more information,
If you find yourself in Youngsville for any amount of time, you’re bound to meet powerhouse Angie Eckman. As president of the Chamber of Commerce (for her sixth year) and an advertising and PR executive in charge of the city’s marketing efforts, she’s become an unwavering advocate and agent for one of the fastest growing cities in Louisiana.
“I am very passionate about utilizing my talents and skills to create the best quality of life for the community,” she says. “Every day I strive to be a leader and a visionary.”
Eckman owns and operates ADWORX, an agency that not only handles the advertising, marketing and PR for the city, but also for the Youngsville Sports Complex, the police department and the Chamber. Even outside of her agency role, Eckman is dedicated to her bustling city. She co-founded Leadership Youngsville with Mayor Ken Ritter and she serves on the Keeping Youngsville Beautiful committee. She helped spearhead events like Shop the Sweet Life (promoting Shop Small Saturday in Youngsville), Guns N Hoses (a first responders beach volleyball competition) and Certified Sweet (the newest initiative to support small local businesses).
“It’s rewarding and gratifying to be able to serve the community in this capacity,” she says of her various roles that impact Youngsville.
Eckman has a vision for Youngsville that rivals any other, and her affection for the city is contagious. She says, “I would like to see the Youngsville Sports Complex expanding, while continuing to grow and offer more youth sports and more national sporting events. I see our community having more parks and green space, and more sidewalks, where residents will be able enjoy the outdoors with family and friends.” She continues, “I see development in the downtown area, with the addition of the new Youngsville Municipal Complex, the Royville development, as well as upcoming additions to St. Anne’s Catholic Church and the Youngsville beautification streetscape project.“
It’s easy to see how this exciting city – with its friendliness, vibrance and openness to new ideas – is flourishing under the influence of a woman who shares the same characteristics.
Momentum. It’s a theme that weaves through much of Anita Begnaud’s work and life, and it’s what drives her to work tirelessly to develop Downtown Lafayette as a flagship district for culture and commerce in Acadiana. As the CEO of both the Lafayette Downtown Development Authority and its nonprofit, membership-based arm Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, Begnaud has gained a reputation for connecting the right people, advocating for smart growth, telling the right stories, and pushing for change when and where it’s needed.
“I don’t have a development background and I’m not an architect,” she says. “What I think I bring to the table is community-building. Relationship-building. Listening to people’s concerns and problems and trying to be a dot connector.”
The Church Point native earned her degree in interpersonal organizational communication at ULL and began a career that would eventually land her in the heart of Downtown Lafayette. What started as a quick text to a hometown acquaintance while cleaning out her phone contacts, led to an internship at LEDA and, through a series of positions and connections with other drivers in Acadiana development, she honed her natural ability to connect people – and dots. Today she is synonymous with Downtown Lafayette.
When Begnaud recounts a story, she never leaves out the names of the people who connected to make it happen. It’s second nature to her, and it’s how she’s helped strengthen the downtown community, particularly during COVID. With businesses, tourism and restaurants all crushed by the pandemic, she had to somehow galvanize a broken community. Her strategy was to recognize COVID, but push forward and ride on the positivity they had already built.
Her strategy worked. During the last year, Downtown Lafayette saw 31 businesses that either opened for the first time, expanded, or relocated from other parts of the city. Now they are on the other side of the pandemic, and she sees the growth and connections happening on their own. “We had to stoke the flame and push it along, but now I’m watching it bear fruit. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
If you ask Anne Darrah about her work with the Lil’ Brooklyn Neighborhood Initiative in New Iberia, she’s hesitant to accept the spotlight, even briefly. But this retired graphic artist has been an integral part of the grassroots project from its inception.
When she retired in early 2020, Darrah set her sights on helping to beautify her city – in particular, the area on and around Henry Street known as Lil’ Brooklyn, where generations of families have lived for over 150 years. A friend connected her with Tammy DiBiasi, a third-generation resident of Henry Street, who had been trying to revitalize the neighborhood for years. “I never could’ve done this without the money and structure behind it that Tammy was able to bring,” says Darrah. “She understands everything about housing and loans and renovations. And I know everything about how to make things look beautiful together.”
Darrah is not possessive of her work. Only passionate. “We have been embraced by the neighbors as people who just want to help them do what they’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “This effort is also about community. This is about black and white people working together in harmony and teaching other neighborhoods how to do the same.”
Darrah knows everyone in the neighborhood by name (including the mailman) and doesn’t miss a beat as she answers our interview questions while bending over to pull weeds growing from underneath a house. “We can’t keep up with all of the beautiful things that are happening for us right now.”
Darrah and a volunteer group that continues to grow have touched more than ten homes in one way or another, painting them in a lively, Caribbean palette or making repairs or landscaping. “We each have our own skills, but joining forces to do something is a powerful thing. We never intended to just come in and leave. We want to empower others to learn the skills, so that they can take over.”
The initiative is gaining steam, but still relies on volunteers and donations. Darrah hopes others will find them on Facebook @Lil’ Brooklyn Neighborhood Initiative to learn more.
If you see a group of kids from Boys & Girls Clubs (BGC) of Iberia laughing and learning about life, you’ll almost always see Club director Brianna Davis right in the middle. The New Iberia native attended BGC as a child and returned as a young adult to volunteer. It was then, she exclaims, “I fell in love with the place.”
With a three-tiered mission of Academic Success, Healthy Lifestyles, and Character and Citizenship, BGC has become a way for Davis to help improve the parish she loves. “Working with the kids today means I get to help make my community better tomorrow,” she explains. “Boys & Girls Club gives me a unique opportunity to combat the issues I see in my local community, while helping kids identify and accomplish their goals.”
She is passionate about the kids who attend Club and about the need for a more unified approach to the issues that negatively affect her community. “I hope every kid in our club walks away understanding the importance of finding whatever it is they love and setting a smart goal to become better at it,” she says. “I would like to see more cohesive projects amongst community leaders. We have great, strong leadership, but things won’t change until we fully commit to working together to serve a common goal.”
In addition to her favorite part of working with the kids (making learning fun, especially with their edible STEM activities), the most meaningful BGC program for Davis is a teen panel, which not only teaches the kids how to identify their needs, but also results in a host of new services. For example, in response to the kids’ request for more tangible skills, Davis says, “Now we are helping more teens have healthy conversations about their futures, we started a paid Junior Staff program, and we assist them in finding jobs.”
Davis has two children of her own and likes to stay involved in community groups, like the 16th Judicial Children and Youth Planning Board, Leadership Iberia, and Kiwanis Club. “But,” she says, “I’m always looking for other volunteer opportunities.”
Real estate broker and Kiwanis president Cindy Herring was recently described by a fellow Kiwanian as a “workhorse for our community.” That was especially true over the last year, during the height of the COVID pandemic. “I’m a widow. Real estate wasn’t busy. And there I was, the president of Kiwanis” she says. “So I started asking what we could do to help.”
When others were paralyzed by the challenges of the pandemic, she forged ahead and began spearheading campaigns and programs that would help those that needed it the most. She learned that New Iberia Medical Center was desperate for face masks, so she sourced supplies and approached local Rotary and Optimist clubs to split the cost of the masks with Kiwanis. While working with the hospital, she discovered the workers, who were spending countless hours on the floor, were not eating well. She organized a fundraiser with her neighbors that fed the hospital workers for four Saturdays. She found out the parents of kids at Boys & Girls Clubs were having difficulty paying a temporary tuition increase (made necessary by the extra COVID precautions), so she found funding through Kiwanis and paid the difference for the families. She led the partnership between Kiawanis and the Disch-DeClouet Social Service Center (where she also volunteers) for a huge food drive. Add to the list her work with Little Free Pantries and the Bayou Teche Museum, hosting an artist during Plein Air week, and serving as treasurer for the Realtors Association of Acadiana and board member of the Louisiana Realtors. And she somehow found time for three missionary trips to Haiti with Father Glen Meaux.
“I feel like if you’re going to be in something, you need to really be in it, and not just sitting on the sidelines,” she says. Perhaps Herring’s drive can be best understood by something a friend shared once that she still carries as motivation: “The service we do here on Earth is in exchange for the space we’re in while we’re here.”
As far as the future goes, she says, “I think I’ll slow down. But retire? No.”
With a population of 7,000, the town of Franklin (named after Benjamin Franklin) depends heavily on a small group of people to help it sustain growth and preserve history. Native Franklinite Diane Wiltz is one of those people, and she’s doing all she can to restore her hometown into a vibrant place to live – one building at a time.
In fact she and her physician-husband Gary were recognized by the St. Mary Chapter of the Louisiana Landmarks Society with the Historic Preservation Award in 2019. The honor recognized their work renovating historic, dilapidated buildings on Franklin’s Main Street and turning them into thriving businesses. The first to benefit from her work, over ten year ago, was the old Wetern Auto building, which they transformed into what is now a bustling reception facility. Since then they have renovated a second building, in which they opened Lamplighter Coffee House & Bistro, and are working on a third, where they plan to open an ice cream parlor.
“I don’t participate in negative talk. My thing is, if we can make this happen, let’s make this happen,” says the retired educator. “I always wanted to be a part of the solution, in anything that I’m involved in.”
The Chamber of Commerce named Wiltz St. Mary Citizen of the Year, as well, but you won’t get Wiltz to list the reasons why. “When you’re doing stuff and working hard, you really don’t have time to keep track of everything you’re doing,” she explains. “The lift is heavy, but it can happen.”
She had a short stint in New Orleans, when her husband was in medical school and she was glad to come back. “Franklin has a charm and intimacy to me – that muddy water that flows through the Bayou Teche right behind Main Street. There’s something about the smell of that water. It’s part of me.”
As for the effect she hopes her efforts will have on the community she loves, Wiltz says, “For those who feel hopeless [about Franklin], I’d like to think they now feel hopeful about the possibilities.”
Sometimes the impact a person has on her community is the result of a ripple effect that begins with the simplest and purest of ideas. That’s how New Iberian Julie Oubre started what has become known as the Shadows Bend Rosary Group, an initiative that has brought comfort and hope to a neighborhood community.
On March 13, 2020, when the world began to realize the magnitude of COVID, Oubre invited a group of fellow neighborhood walkers to join her under an oak tree next to her home to recite the Rosary and pray for the pandemic to end. From that day forward, every day, Oubre and a growing number of neighbors and friends have gathered in the same spot to pray (by name) for the sick.
“The pandemic hit, and what other way to get through it than prayer? Little did I know, the group would last over a year,” Oubre says.
The Rosary Group still meets every weekday. People arrive on foot, by car and by golf cart in the same spot under the oak tree where it began. They come to recite and to pray: an act that has become both selfless and comforting.
“My grandmother said the Rosary ten times a day in French,” Oubre recalls. She and husband Glenn attend Mass daily at Sacred Heart, where she’s a eucharistic minister and lector. On the one-year anniversary of the first Rosary group, Father Ed Degeyter came to say Mass under Oubre’s oak tree. It was both a commemoration of the group’s inception and a celebration of the unwavering faith displayed by their act. “We’re very blessed with so many people of faith and friendship and love in this neighborhood,” she says.
Oubre, who has two grown children and two grandchildren, retired less than a year before COVID from her 30-year position with Aggreko selling generators. She was one of the first women in sales in the oil and gas industry. “I had to fight,” she says of being a woman in a male-dominated field. “There were 100 salesmen, and I outsold them for ten years,” she says with a smile.
It’s evident in Melissa Bonin’s ethereal paintings of moss-draped oaks and winding bayous just how much she loves the land and waterways of Acadiana. The professional artist has studied and exhibited her work throughout the U.S. and abroad. She taught art to the underprivileged and mentored the gifted and talented. She was the first woman to exhibit art and present poetry at the 2019 Acadian World Congress in Canada. And she was the official mansion artist for Governor Kathleen Blanco.
Bonin’s deep connection with Acadiana also manifests in her lifelong work to preserve French language and culture in Louisiana. She has been particularly active with Alliance Française, Feux Follets (a literary and artistic review published in French by University of Louisiana), La Table Française, and the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. She is currently working on a bi lingual (French/ English) compilation of her artwork, poetry and essays.
“I’d like to see cultural bridges built between parishes, instead of competition between areas,” she says. “Acadiana is unique and has much to offer to the world. If the parishes within the region unite and form a cohesive vision, then the whole area could be more culturally vibrant, connected, and have more to offer.”
Her commitment to Acadiana also includes work with Hilliard Art Museum, Acadiana Center for the Arts, The Humane Society, C.J. Jung Society, The Innocence Project, A Festival of Words, Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, and Friends of the Humanities. Bonin hopes to see the role and contributions of women in Acadiana valued even more in the coming years. She explains, “For a long time, Acadiana has sent ambassadors from our area to represent us throughout the world. In the past, our food, art, literature and culture have mostly been represented by men.”
In the meantime Bonin looks forward to presenting two paintings and reading her poetry, along with poet Darrell Bourque, at an exhibition in July dedicated to Evangeline. “I have been told that she was the first female heroine to appear in all of Western Epic Poetry. Brava les femmes acadiennes,” she exclaims.