A different kind of rodeo

“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a fishing rodeo, but those are the kind of rodeos we have down south,” smiles Louisiana native Briana Kent. “You know, going out and catching the biggest fish you can.”

The second-year Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) student is laughing at the memory of the watery rodeos that mostly took place near her grandparents’ house on Grand Isle, Louisiana – and noting how different they are from the round-ups that surround her these days at UND’s satellite OT program in Casper, Wyo.

Although her “home” is technically Prairieville, La., Kent says that she spent the summers and most holidays of her youth on Grand Isle, a skinny, seven-mile long island in the Gulf of Mexico that serves as the state’s almost southernmost tip.

“You can barely see Grand Isle on a map,” she says. “But it’s kind of this little paradise that not many people know about.”

Disaster Relief

Today, though, Kent is almost afraid of what she’d see were she to make it back to her “little paradise.”

Less than a month ago, Grand Isle, along with much of Louisiana, was hit hard by Hurricane Ida, the 40th serious hurricane or tropical storm to hit the state since the year 2000. As of this writing, the Associated Press estimates damage from Ida to be at least $50 billion.

“Ida hit Grand Isle bad, and the communities around there,” Kent says of the storm that boasted a larger diameter than even Hurricane Katrina. “They were right in the eye of the hurricane. Even though my family was okay, there was a lot of structural damage to the community. I was in touch with my family the whole night. They were calling me, giving me updates. Trees were falling everywhere. That Sunday morning, my dad sent me a link for a video camera on our street in Grand Isle. There was a pole with a camera on it. I watched the feed, but all I saw was water, so it was flooded by then.”

In the end, Kent says, flood waters reached as high as 12 feet on Grand Isle: “Because of the storm surge, the island was almost buried by sand – there was nearly three feet of sand across the whole island. That was devastating.”

Both seeing and feeling the devastation, even at a distance, the UND OT student jumped into action, getting to work almost literally the day after the storm by organizing an online fundraiser for her community. Thus was “Briana’s Wyoming Fundraiser for Grand Isle” born on social media.

“The first thing (OT instructor) Nicole Harris said to me was ‘If you need anything or want to do anything for your home and family, let me know’,” Kent continues, adding that all program faculty in Casper and Grand Forks have been very supportive. “I was going to send out resources to people so they could donate things like gas or food to me or other organizations, but I came to the realization that money would be the most valuable thing because I couldn’t ship gas or ice to Louisiana. So, that’s where the idea of a [social media] fundraiser came from.”

Setting the bar at a modest $5,000, Kent, a first-time fundraiser, says that as of this writing she has pulled in nearly $1,400 — “a drop in the bucket.” But she’s still at it, advocating for hurricane relief as her school schedule allows.

“My classmates are graduate students, and it’s hard to donate your student loans,” she jokes. “So my main goal was to just share the fundraiser far and wide so it can get out to people. Everyone has been very supportive in sharing the link.”

From Louisiana to Wyoming

So how does a kid from Louisiana end up in the least populous state in the Union anyway?

“My aunt lives in Buffalo, Wyo.,” explains Kent, who earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Louisiana State University. “She moved from Los Angeles to that tiny town a while back and just loved it. I went to visit her once and fell in love with it, sort of the way she did. So, I wanted to try to find a way to get back to Wyoming and ended up finding the OT graduate program here and applying through UND.”

Noting that she had “read a lot of good things about UND,” Kent jumped at the chance to get a doctoral degree from the only OT program in the state of Wyoming.

And one year in, so-far-so-good.

“I really like the environment,” she muses, admitting that she’s still considering her specialization options. “I thought I knew what I wanted to specialize in, but since I got here my preference has moved around a bit. They do a good job of educating you on the different settings for practice, and for me, coming from a populated area to a more rural setting, my focus has changed a bit.”

Next steps

Assuming she can meet her general fundraising goal, Kent says that all the money she raises for hurricane relief will be given directly to the City of Grand Isle through its leadership team.

“My dad contacted the City Council, and they recommended a personal fundraiser, and I just happened to be on Facebook,” she says. “When the event is finished we’ll send the money to the residents of Grand Isle through the council, who will distribute it in the way it needs to be. Anything helps. Even if we can help one or two families or get some folks some supplies, that’s useful.”

After all, says, Kent, there aren’t many places on the planet that qualify as “paradise.”

“Grand Isle has a lot of palm trees and a beach right on the Gulf,” she notes of the island accessible by a single road: Highway 1. “I know you can go to Florida and get a beach, but Grand Isle is more peaceful—not so full of people. And I have a lot of memories there—fishing with my dad, holidays. I have a lot of memories there.”

So until Kent can make it back to her own version of paradise to help in-person, perhaps over the Thanksgiving holiday, she continues both to fundraise for Louisiana and study occupational therapy theory and practice in Wyoming.

Maybe she’ll even take in a rodeo.

To contribute to Briana’s fundraiser for Louisiana hurricane relief, see her fundraising site online or contact her at briana.kent@UND.edu.