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Chef Soiree: The Purpose Behind the Party

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Chef Soirre Benefits Youth Service Bureau

Chef Soiree, the Northshore’s longest-running, high profile charity event entices guests with gourmet food, top shelf libations, two live music stages, fireworks, a new car raffle and a vibe that energizes Bogue Falaya Park. It’s no wonder Chef Soirée has grown into a household name over the last 38 years, now drawing approximately 3,000 revelers. And while scores of volunteers work tirelessly to create a night of frivolity for guests, the motivation is the ongoing, serious purpose of the beneficiary. The dedicated staff at the Youth Service Bureau (YSB) relentlessly provide advocacy, counseling, education, and intervention for St. Tammany and Washington Parish youth and their families.

“The effects of the pandemic have escalated substance abuse,” says Cleveland Wester, MSW, YSB President and CEO. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in our Options program as well as our FINS program.” Wester explains that YSB administers many programs: CASA—special advocates for abused and neglected children; TASC addressing truancy; FINS aimed at juvenile delinquency prevention; Crossroads for juvenile delinquency intervention; and Options, which offers outpatient substance abuse treatment for teens. “Overall, there’s a twenty-five to thirty percent increase in the need for our services from a year ago. Our programs are for all families and kids who need it. If they can’t afford program fees, no one is turned away for services. The Chef Soiree is our major fundraiser and critical to our advocacy. It allows us to make sure kids and their families reach their full potential.”

Crossroads

Crossroads Program Director, Mary Kay Walden, concurs, “Crossroads offers delinquency intervention for those who have broken the law to keep them from entering the adult system. We work to get them off the road they’re on and steer them towards becoming a productive part of society. The pandemic has definitely increased the amount of youth we’re serving. There are increased mental health issues like learned helplessness. Our clients feel like they have no control over anything going on, and they are dealing with depression from lack of ability to socialize. In addition, demographics play a role with some parents feeling they are unable to manage the pressures of remote schooling from home. The types of crimes we see are cyclical, and now we’re seeing more substance abuse including the use of marijuana and dab pens as a way to cope. Both the children and their families need help.”

Walden said that their low recidivism rate is their success story. “Not seeing them again is how we know we’ve done a good job. Eighty-nine percent finish the program and eighty-five percent don’t re-offend. Those numbers are really phenomenal.” The dedicated director also reports a ninety-four percent satisfaction rate from the program’s clients and their parents. Last year, Walden’s exceptional work was recognized with the Judge John W. Green Award for Outstanding Agency Contribution for 2021. 

In her youth, Walden actually met Judge Green, but under very different and serious circumstances. “Right after I turned seventeen, I stole a vehicle and was convicted in Judge Green’s court. I was sentenced to two years in the St. Gabriel penitentiary. He granted me a suspended sentence with three years probation. Unfortunately, I stayed with a bad crowd and got arrested again for drugs. Once again Judge Green believed in my rehabilitation and arranged treatment at Odyssey House in New Orleans.” 

Carrying on a Legacy

Walden says she was shocked to receive the award but honored and humbled to make Green’s judgment correct. “Because one man had the insight to help change the trajectory of my life, I have the opportunity to pay forward that belief he had in me. I truly believe my past was a blessing and God’s plan all along.” Walden says it took time, but she eventually got married and raised four children, then earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration. After retiring from education, Walden joined YSB. “I wish Judge Green was around to see my life come full circle by receiving the award named for him. I did meet him after he had retired and thanked him for his life-saving work. I’m proud to carry on his legacy.”

Walden and Wester both stress the importance of the Chef Soiree to YSB’s mission. As a non-profit, the bureau relies heavily on grants, and fundraising – of which the Chef Soirée is by far their largest endeavor. Says Wester, “This event is so important to ensuring our troubled children and families get the critical services they need.” Walden adds, “The Chef Soirée is an amazing way for the whole community to come together and support a mission that’s important to our very future. I feel it’s my true purpose in life, and I know all involved with the bureau who work tirelessly all year long rely on the emotional and financial support that comes with the outpouring the event brings.”

For more information about Youth Service Bureau and its programs and events, call 985-893-2570 or visit ysbworks.com.

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