August 2016, Cover Story

Kelly Stomps: Louisiana Teacher of the Year Uses Music to Inspire Her Students

by Susan Brown
The Stomps Family.
The Stomps Family.

In the early morning, students pour into Woodlake Elementary School in Mandeville – a kaleidoscope of cultures, worldviews and life experiences. Moving to a common cadence, they begin to focus and embrace the day. Gathering the students for music in the morning is key: it creates community, wakes up the mind and fosters positive attitudes, according to Louisiana Teacher of the Year Kelly Stomps who said, “There’s something about the music.

As Teacher of the Year, Stomps has traveled and played a role in structuring policy to promote music education, a passion that was nurtured through her early involvement in the church choir. “The music always calls you. Even as a young kid, you don’t understand all the words, but you feel the emotion of the music,” she said.

The lessons poured into her at an early age now resonate as character-building tools with a new, diverse generation, not only through the notes but through her passion for their well-being. Through their involvement with music, Stomps and her sisters learned important life lessons: the ability to see value in each person and the art of patient encouragement.

“I felt the music, and my parents encouraged me to be a part of the choir. We were always there on Sunday, so I was singing,” said Stomps, now a member of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Mandeville. At her childhood church in Fairhope, Ala., she was given the opportunity to be the cantor – once. “I got so nervous, I was sitting there shaking. It was bad,” she laughed. “I wasn’t ready for that step, but they still kept encouraging me.”

“Actually, I was the kid you would not expect to be a music educator. I had a lot of problems with my hearing when I was younger with ear infections that affected my speech and singing. But, I was drawn to music,” she said. “I wasn’t a kid who naturally sang on pitch; it was something that had to be developed. So in church choir, they built that matching-pitch ability and singing really helped me.”

“I see myself in my students a lot and it reminds me constantly – don’t just take what is. This is where the kid is now, but if they have that passion, they can go so much further. It’s just my job to help them find that passion in themselves,” Stomps said.

Stomps and others are greeted by President Barack Obama.
Stomps and others are greeted by President Barack Obama.

As Teacher of the Year, Stomps had the opportunity to take that message to Washington, D.C. through national policymaking meetings. She advised the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and compared notes with Louisiana first lady Donna Edwards, a former music educator. She sees a renewed emphasis on music in schools under the “Every Student Succeeds Act” signed into law by President Obama in December 2015, which includes new accountability for schools regarding music programs.

“It’s opening up grant funding so we can develop these music programs; there are a lot more options,” she said. [U.S.] Secretary of Education John King has talked about the benefits of music, so I see the tide turning. It’s been exciting to be a part of that.”

“You really need music in the early ages because it involves language development as much as the music. I really, truly believe that every kid should have music in their schools, especially at the young ages, just as they have P.E.,” she said.  “We have Special Ed, so I teach all of them. We think it’s something that every kid, no matter their background, can come in and feel successful doing. They need to feel successful at something.”

“I teach in the public schools, so you don’t openly talk about your faith, but it’s a part of me. It’s who I am and what I do, and I think the lessons from church definitely spill over to teaching things like forgive and forget,” Stomps said. “That’s so important as a teacher. Kids are going to make mistakes and they come in and think you’re angry. But I can say, ‘Let’s move on.’”

Kelly Stomps is pictured with her mother in front of Vice Presitdent Biden’s house during the State Teachers of the Year Washington trip.
Kelly Stomps is pictured with her mother in front of Vice Presitdent Biden’s house during the State Teachers of the Year Washington trip.

“As a music teacher, I teach students of every religion, and I do have students that cannot partake in certain holiday songs or patriotic songs. But no matter what I do there’s always development of respect for everybody with diverse backgrounds,” Stomps said. “I have the ultimate opportunity to be that role model and teach kids how to respect people.”

Stomps believes parents can also build confidence in kids through music. “Music was a part of my home life. And my parents say they’re not musical, but my mom would sing little ditties and things around the house. I was drawn to music.” After her positive experience with her own elementary music teacher, Cheryl Walls, in Birmingham, Ala., Stomps saw the value of music as a life tool.

“I want the kids to see how music is connected to everything. I love that, as a music teacher, I can be a bridge to the community,” she said. “I take these students out to the community to do performances for things like Relay for Life. We performed in the past for Veterans Day programs and a 9/11 program, so the kids see that they can serve through music. That’s one of my favorite things.”

Woodlake Elementary is located near the Dew Drop Jazz & Social Hall, which was originally established as a community aid organization, and is arguably the oldest jazz hall in the country. “Louis Armstrong played there. It’s really cool because on field trips the kids can sit and have the jazz musicians talk to them,” Stomps said. “I think it’s great for their community outreach.”

“I knew by the time I went to college I wanted to share music with others,” Stomps said. With three kids in college at the same time, she needed a scholarship. Her skill as a percussionist earned her a spot at LSU, her top choice. “I came to LSU for the music programs, and I stayed,” she said. Her career has included teaching violin and literature. “I love Louisiana. I love the fact that music is everywhere.”

Kelly Stomps.
Kelly Stomps.

She finds inspiration from Mother Teresa who said, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”

“Nobody gets to see that Super Bowl – throwing the touchdown in your classroom – although you feel it all the time,” Stomps said. “You’re doing all these small things. But as Teacher of the Year, I had the opportunity to do great things with great love. I was sharing my passion and what I believe all students need.”

“They’re not all going to be professional musicians. They’re not all going to join bands or choirs, but if they’re in the congregation singing along, they’re making music – showing their faith through the music.”

Cover Story, February 2016

Catholic Charities Fulfills Its Mission of Mercy

by Lisa Tramontana

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” — Matthew 25:35-36

DSC_0951-2These words from the gospel of Matthew illustrate one of the most basic tenets of all religions — mercy. Defined as compassion or forgiveness toward those in desperate situations, mercy is something all of us have the power to extend. At Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, staff and volunteers are constantly performing acts of mercy to create hope and healing in our community.

“Our strength is our diversity and the number of programs we offer,” said Carol Spruell, communications coordinator. “We touch the lives of people of all faiths as we serve those who need our compassion.”

Indeed, Catholic Charities ministers to pregnant women, prisoners, refugees, seniors, families in crisis, and many other populations. The agency covers a 12-parish area and since 1964 has improved the lives of thousands of people. Catholic Charities also partners with local nonprofits, other faith groups and churches, foundations and universities to provide financial, educational and spiritual support.

Spruell highlighted three of Catholic Charities’ ministries — pregnant women in crisis, refugee resettlement, and prisoner support.

“Sanctuary for Life is a housing program for pregnant women, many who don’t know where to turn,” said Spruell. “This is a time of high crisis. Some women are abandoned by their families, and some of them are encouraged to have abortions. It’s one thing to be pro-life but another to actually support pregnant women and new mothers. They need jobs, housing, counseling and medical care. We help with all of those things.”

DSC00289-2Refugee resettlement is another ministry often associated with Catholic Charities. After the fall of Vietnam in 1974, Catholic Charities took the lead in providing services to refugees. This includes establishing housing, employment help, financial advice, and guidance to help them acclimate to a new culture.

“These family arrived in the United States with only the clothes on their backs, having fled violence and war in their home country,” said Spruell. “We make sure they have a place to live, hot meals, clothing, and eventually jobs. We help them find schools for their children, learn the bus routes, handle emergencies. We offer English classes so they can speak the language. There is a lot involved. Fortunately, we have a great number of resources, and if we don’t have a way to address a need, we can refer to other agencies that can help.”

DSC_0124-2Since Louisiana has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, Catholic Charities sponsors a program to help former prisoners adjust to life in mainstream society. Imagine what it’s like to leave prison after 20 or 30 years and walk into a society that has completely changed. The challenges of successful reintegration are staggering.

“Our Joseph Home provides traditional housing for homeless men after they’ve been released from prison,” Spruell said. “Each man has his own apartment, but lives in a community with other men in the same situation. They can receive counseling, join support groups, and attend substance abuse meetings. Without emotional support, newly released prisoners are five times more likely to re-offend.”

One of Catholic Charities’ best qualities is its ability to match people of means to people with needs. And not just wealthy patrons, but working families who have a little extra to share with those less fortunate. A good example is The Community Comes Together for Christmas. Over the holidays, the program helped more than 500 families and seniors. Sponsors and donors signed up to purchase gifts such as clothing, blankets, shoes, gift cards and toys for children.

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Catholic Charities has been a blessing to the community for more than 50 years, but it relies on the support and generosity of others, and always will. Volunteers are needed in so many ways. Do you own a business that needs workers? Can you teach English? Do you have baby clothes packed away in boxes? Are you knowledgeable about finances? Are you a counselor? Can you help someone with his tax return? Do you like to spend time with the elderly? Can you provide transportation to someone in need?

Everyone has time, talents and gifts that they can share with others. If you are interested in volunteering or making a donation, contact Catholic Charities at (225) 336-8700 or visit www.CatholicCharitiesBR.org.