Lifelong Catholic makes difference in seniors’ lives

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Al Robichaux is of the generation who heard President John F. Kennedy say in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

But it’s another phrase in the speech that impacted how Robichaux has conducted his life: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

When people wonder why God lets things happen in life, Robichaux answers, “We’re (God’s) eyes, his hands, his legs and his mouth, and he gives us the ability to solve all our problems. We just need to find it. Just like Christ, we’re here to serve, not to be served.”

No matter what path he’s chosen, Robichaux has tried to mirror Jesus’ actions.

“Every morning, we have an opportunity to make a difference in a person’s life,” he said, giving an example of small ways (such as letting someone pass in traffic) that can make someone smile.

Inspired to make a difference

Robichaux vividly remembers his mother encouraging faith and treating others with respect. He witnessed her praying daily novenas in her rocking chair; she even prayed one novena in hopes of conceiving a daughter to supplement the many males in her family.

She fulfilled her promise to name her Mary Ann, honoring the Virgin Mary and her mother, St. Ann. Mary Ann, five years Robichaux’s senior, also is a devout Catholic. When Robichaux’s mother died, he requested her rocking chair as a reminder of her faithfulness.

Being baptized, attending elementary school and  taught by nuns at St. Joseph Parish in Gretna – where he still sings in the choir –  strengthened his Catholicism.

Robichaux said he rearranged his classes at Southeastern Louisiana University to attend daily Mass at St. Albert’s Chapel. He strayed from the faith for a while until he heard Father Pedro Nunez preaching at Christ the King Church in Terrytown in 1977.

“He was the most religious priest,” Robichaux said. “If you could say someone was touched by God, he was the person. When he did the consecration, he was so reverent. He is responsible for me going back to church.”

Robichaux said Father Nunez was not the first priest to impact his faith.

“I’ve been close to priests most of my life,” he said.

Another was Father Donald Hebert from Lafayette, a connection Robichaux made through his interest in history (including biblical history) and genealogy.

Father Hebert, with whom he traveled to France to research the Acadians, was a serious genealogist and had published several genealogical books on Acadians, including the 52-volume Southwest Louisiana Records.

Robichaux said he met Father Hebert through Alice Forsyth, a former secretary for the rector of St. Louis Cathedral.

Robichaux said he volunteered, helping her archive cathedral records as he did at other several Catholic parishes in the archdiocese. He also indexed and translated archives for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, all free of charge.

“I wanted to make records available to people,” he said. “It’s important for people to know their heritage and honor their ancestors. 40% of my Acadian ancestors died during deportation on two boats (from France when coming to the United States), and I have benefitted from their misery. By tracing them, I am honoring what they went through.”

Robichaux believes the Catholic faith, passed on by Christ’s followers, is validated through historical accounts of the time. History and archeological findings verify major biblical events such as the great flood.

Council on Aging his favorite

Robichaux’s career path has  included teaching at his alma mater, West Jefferson High School, for six years and working in Jefferson Parish Public School System’s administration department.

His master’s degree in educational administration and his background in planning  (six hours short of a masters) qualified him for several promotions.

After retiring from the school system, he was asked to reorganize the parish’s transportation department, which after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, returned to service within a few weeks and offered free transportation for a year – through a grant – to Jefferson Parish residents while they rebuilt their lives.

Now 73, Robichaux is executive director of the nonprofit  Jefferson Council on Aging.

“Of all the jobs I’ve had, it’s the best job,” Robichaux said. “This one is most rewarding.”   

What’s so gratifying is the gratitude he receives from Jefferson Parish senior residents participating at the agency’s 10 senior centers or receiving its services.

“It’s a mission here,” he said. “It’s not a job. That’s what I impress on all the employees here.” 

Caring for his elderly mother and being on the PACE Senior Centers board for the Archdiocese of New Orleans made him keenly aware of the challenges of aging, he said.

As he did at the helm of other positions, Robichaux reorganized and updated the department with computers and trained staff to use them; raised salaries to minimum wage; and trained the agency’s three assessors to record their notes directly into laptops, increasing the number of assessments and reducing the council’s waiting list.

Through its Meals on Wheels Program, Jefferson Council on Aging (JCOA) serves 1,000 meals to qualified residents age 60 and older during the week on 70 routes. The average person receiving a meal is 82 to 83 years old, and numbers are growing due to the parish’s aging population.

“Our whole mission is to assist Jefferson seniors to age with dignity and independence in the place of their choosing,” he said. “All our services are geared for that.”

In addition to meals, JCOA provides care and wellness services (home cleaning twice monthly; personal care such as a bath; bedding changes; and distribution of adult diapers and nutrition supplements); transportation to and from senior centers; field trips; senior employment services; and other aging and disability resources.

Robichaux recreated the agency’s logo to better reflect the parish and seniors’ abilities to accomplish great things after age 65. The new slogan, “Ability is Ageless,” is incorporated in a logo depicting a purple martin, the migratory bird that stops to rest along the Causeway bridge in Jefferson, and three colored ribbons representing the bodies of water in the parish.

“The bird is a symbol that this is a great place for people to grow old in and enjoy their golden years in retirement.”

Recognizes what’s important

“When we pass away, it’s not what titles we have amassed for ourselves during that life span, but how many people we touched in a positive way.”

He said he stresses that his greatest resource is human resources and says everyone – from the 100 volunteers who deliver meals to the department heads – is equally important to JCOA’s mission.

“There is no greater person … than the people who deal with the seniors day to day,” he said. “We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers.”

“Al is great,” said controller Chuck Sabin. “He cares. We’re all passionate about what we do … For us, it’s a calling more than a job.”

Robichaux not only credits staff and volunteers, he counts JCOA’s board of directors as essential. They had a vision to create a fundraising event, “Senior Moments,” which recently celebrated eight years, to help fund the senior  centers, he said.

Future projects include building a new senior center on the north side of I-10 in East Jefferson.

Robichaux was recently recognized by the Louisiana Council on Aging Directors Association with the Thomas Laughlin Memorial Award for his dedication to seniors in Louisiana. The award was named for his JCOA predecessor, Tom Laughlin, a long-time champion for aging in Louisiana.

He said he strives to keep active, both physically and mentally, and now takes piano lessons. He doesn’t see  retiring anytime soon.

“As long as I can make a contribution, and I have a staff and board that supports me, I have no plans for retirement,” he said.

For details, contact Al Robichaux, executive director, at arobichaux@jcoa.net or call 888-5880.

On the Web: https://jcoa.net

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

 

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