By RITA LEBLEU, Lake Charles American Press
LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) — The Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance has helped over 100 small businesses through its Pathway to Small Business Recovery grant. The program was initially made possible by a $150,000 seed grant from Sempra Energy foundation. The Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana donated the second round of funds, and Cheniere Foundation donated $100,000 for the third round.
Tina Higgins, Cruise Planners, is a full-service travel agent that plans cruises and land travel. Like more than 300 others, she did not receive the $3,000 grant when she submitted her application the first time around, but those applicants were considered during the next funding cycle.
“COVID-19 killed my business,” Higgins said. “Everything came to a screeching halt. Everything that I had booked I had to spend about two to three months canceling and losing money, but I’m still here.”
Higgins is retired and works from home to stay busy. She, like many others, needed a new roof after the hurricanes, but feels like she did better than most. As soon as her power came back on, her cable and Internet were available. “If anyone would have wanted to book anything they could have,” she said.
What she is seeing now that restrictions have been relaxed is people wanting to get out of the house.
“I’m researching Hilton Head for a client now,” she said, “It’s a trip for someone who wants to go to the beach, but doesn’t want to go to a busy, overpopulated beach.”
Pricing is up on flights, and Higgins has not been able to reschedule some of the canceled vacations for the same price point. Travel to South America and Mexico resorts is very affordable now, according to Higgins.
Since her business is a franchise, Higgins earmarked her grant money for franchise fees.
Another grant recipient, Ronald Dorsey, RD Hoopsource Academy, runs a training program for all ages by hosting camps, leagues and special training sessions. The busiest time of year is the summer and school breaks.
“It’s very hands-on,” Dorsey said.
From March 2020 to March 2021, everything was on hold because of COVID-19. Hurricanes damaged the gyms used by Dorsey and his team. They lost shooting machine, agility ladders and basketballs. Another gym has been located to host training and the Spring Break Camp was a success, according to Dorsey.
“I applied to other sources for help and didn’t hear anything back,” Dorsey said. “This is the only grant I received. It was a blessing really and allowed us to replace basketballs and the agility ladders. We’re slowly getting it together.
Dorsey is a past McNeese player, professional overseas ball player and former teacher. To see more about this program with the slogan, “It’s bigger than basketball,” check out his social media sites @ RB Hoop Source.
“It’s all about teaching respect to youngsters and reminding them that you have to be passionate about what you want to do. You have to be committed to be successful,” Dorsey said.
The third grant recipient also has an impact on little ones. Toddler Junction was the first licensed daycare in the state to reopen after catastrophic damage. Erika Buxton is owner. It is the only licensed daycare in DeQuincy and max capacity is 41 children.
“COVID forced us to close,” Buxton said. “We reopened in June and stayed open until two days before Hurricane Laura.”
The roof collapsed. Mold was everywhere. Buxton had to completely gut the structure to the main beams to determine if the beams were structurally sound. Then she has to contact her insurance company for a second adjustment. It was a stressful time.
“Thanks to amazing contractors, MGS Development and BECK Industries and an insurance company that paid fairly quickly, we were able to rebuild,” Buxton said.
Toddler Junction opened once more on Jan. 4. Fifteen days later Buxton tested positive for COVID. Three staff members who were asymptomatic tested positive. Toddler Junction closed again and reopened Feb. 1. Through it all, parents waited. Employees waited without pay and returned.
“It’s been tough but it’s only by the grace of God and prayers that it worked out this way,” Buxton said.
She received an SBA Idle Loan from the Baton Rouge Chapter of Volunteer America that qualified her to receive educational supplies through Kaplan Early Learning Center.
“When I qualified for the SWLA Economic Development Alliance, I decided that whatever I got I would use to give my employees a bonus,” Buxton said. “They stuck with me through COVID, through the hurricanes and every time I reopened, they returned.”