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Student involvement: a spur to small town revitalization

Hammond, La., a small town northwest of New Orleans, discovered that downtown improvement projects are not just for adults. With creativity and zeal, young people in the community are actively promoting the preservation efforts.

In 1980 Hammond's mayor asked Laurie Moon-Chauvin, then a college intern with the state historic preservation office, to head a downtown revitalization project.

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''I realized there was a great deal of education to be done,'' says Mrs. Moon-Chauvin in her light-filled office at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Boston. ''I began to look for groups to generate enthusiasm within the town.''

Her first task was to mobilize the business community to support the preservation and promotion work. Next, acting on her interest in preservation education, she arranged to work as a resource teacher for a ''gifted and talented'' program at a local school.

''The children's involvement became a very important part of the whole project,'' Mrs. Moon-Chauvin says. Unlike other preservation education programs designed primarily for enrichment, here ''the children actually did the work and were directly responsible for the successful revitalization.''

During the 1979-80 school year, she spent two days a week working with 15 students aged 11 to 15. At one point more than 45 children took part.

''We worked very hard, but it was rewarding to see the results,'' says 16 -year-old Joyce Vorhees, a student in the original program. ''I find I'm more interested in the downtown than I was before.''

Students learned about the physical features of the buildings through observing, photographing, and sketching. Their historical study of the buildings included library research and interviews with senior citizens in the community. Later, each child adopted his or her favorite building and became an authority on it.

Members of the group also conducted a series of interviews with Hammond shoppers, merchants, and college students regarding shopping preferences and suggestions for improvements in downtown Hammond.

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''The children helped me accumulate a lot of data,'' Mrs. Moon-Chauvin says. ''They loved interviewing people, and they were really good at it.''

Students then organized the questionnaire results, photographs, charts, and historical information on large display boards to share with the community. To draw attention to the display boards, parents helped children bake cakes in the shape of their adopted buildings and sold them with information sheets about the buildings.

Part of the proceeds from the cake sale were used to print a series of original post cards featuring historic town buildings drawn by the children. They also made some public-information commercials at a local radio station.

''They wrote the scripts and delivered the lines,'' says Mrs. Moon-Chauvin, smiling as she recalls the students' originality. ''The commercials were priceless, and some are still being used.''

With the money they earned from their activities, the children commissioned two signs designating the downtown historic district from a signmaker and presented their gifts at the first Hammond Heritage Day.

''These kids are the ones who are going to keep this town alive and will be doing the restoration work 10 years from now,'' says Agnes Rhodes, a Hammond schoolteacher who is continuing the project. ''The adults have listened to the kids. They really take them seriously.''

''It was a great learning experience,'' says Joyce Vorhees. ''I can't think of a better way to spend two years of my life.''

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