DENHAM SPRINGS -- If you had just $100 to improve your community, how would you use it?
That’s the question Emily Seighman and other high-schoolers in the Greater Baton Rouge Area had to answer for an essay contest sponsored by Neighbors Federal Credit Union, which promised to provide funds to the student with the winning entry.
Seighman, now a senior at Walker High, didn’t need long to think up a way to help, one that combined two of her greatest passions: reading and braiding.
“I used to braid the drumline and the basketball team’s hair,” Seighman said with a laugh. “I was just that person everyone went to get their hair braided. That’s always been a hobby of mine, so I wanted to be able to share that and help students practice their reading.”
Since this school year started, she’s done plenty of both.
Once a week since August, Seighman has visited Denham Springs Elementary for a half-hour of “Books and Braids” with four second-graders, including three who speak English as a second language.
The Spanish-speaking students represent a growing trend in the Livingston Parish school system, which has seen a doubling in the number of students in its English as a Secondary Language (ESL) program in the last two years, going from 450 ESL students in 2016 to close to 900 at the start of this school year.
Seighman is trying to do her part to help ease the transition for ESL students — one book and braid at a time.
“The only time they get exposed to English is here at school,” Seighman said. “So them coming in and getting their hair done while learning to read is pretty awesome.”
She isn’t the only one who thinks it’s “pretty awesome” — Neighbors President and CEO Steve Webb expressed a similar sentiment in a press release regarding the “Books and Braids” program.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of how to give rather than how much you should give,” Webb said. “We commend Emily for her outstanding idea and efforts, and are committed to supporting educational programs in the communities we serve.”
After winning the contest, Neighbors FCU paid for Seighman to go on a shopping spree over the summer at Walmart, where she purchased a plethora of ponytail holders, hairspray cans, rubber bands, detangling spray cans, mirrors, and little boxes for the elementary students to decorate and put their hair brushes in.
“They had a lot of fun doing that,” recalled Seighman, the 2018-19 Walker High Student of the Year.
They’ve had even more fun since.
These weekly reading and braiding sessions take place every Monday morning before school starts. Seighman is typically the first to arrive, waiting in a classroom until her four young friends show up from the carpool line.
Once all five are together in the classroom, the books and braids come out.
During a recent visit one December morning, the book of choice was “Katie Woo,” which follows the everyday life of a spunky, sassy and stylish schoolgirl.
One girl sat in a chair and held her book close to her face while Seighman stood behind, brushing the girl’s long black hair with a pink brush. Two others sat on a rug nearby, their opened books flat on the ground in front of them, while another reclined in a beanbag chair, her book opened in her lap while she ate from a fruit cup.
Though the elementary students have become more comfortable with Seighman after a semester’s worth of reading sessions, the foursome was particularly shy on this day, mostly due to a reporter’s presence in the classroom.
It took some time before Seighman found a willing candidate to start the book.
“Come on Marisabel,” Seighman implored. “I’ll help you.”
Slowly, Marisabel began reading.
“Katie. Was. Having a…” she said before trailing off.
“Sound it out,” Seighman advised.
“A sleepover,” Marisabel proudly read.
“A sleepover?” Seighman exclaimed. “Do you guys have sleepovers?”
“I never have sleepovers,” another student, Viviana, said from the floor.
“Really?” Seighman asked. “We’re gonna have to have a sleepover soon.”
The four young girls took turns reading the book aloud and having their hair braided by Seighman. A reader would get stumped every now and then, but those instances occur much less often than they did in the beginning.
“They are starting to read way better now,” Seighman said. “In the beginning, it was kind of shaky, but they’re starting to improve and help each other out. It’s not really me helping them anymore. When one’s reading, another will point out certain words.”
Not only does Seighman hope to help the girls improve their reading skills, she hopes to instill a sense of confidence in them. Before every session, Seighman will write messages of encouragement on the mirror she purchased earlier this summer.
During a visit in early December, the message read: “Smile! You’re beautiful.”
“My main goal in this project is to help them read and to let them know they’re beautiful and valuable,” she said.
The four young students have grown to cherish their days with Seighman, Denham Springs Elementary Principal Gail DeLee said.
“For these girls, it’s become their favorite day of the week,” she said.