11 Jan Houma woman adds new vision to sanctuary of statues
Diane Baker stands next to a statue of her parents, Shirley and Richard Jones, outside her home Friday in Houma.
Diane Baker has created what she calls “Shirley’s Sanctuary” in her backyard, 17 acres she’s restored in the shadow of the East Park Avenue overpass.
The sanctuary, named after her mother, is a quaint assortment of life-size, detailed statues and sculptures, most of which depict members of her family, each with their own anecdotes attached.
A statue of one of her brothers, for instance, has him carrying a fishing pole because, Baker says, “he was always skipping school to go fishing.”
There’s a statue of her parents when they were a young couple standing together holding hands. Another is of them in their later years, seated together on a bench, hand over hand.
Then there’s a big gorilla in the distance.
“Well, you’ve got to have a little fun,” Baker says, laughing.
Baker’s property is divided by Tupelo Street. Across the street is where Baker, 66, is planning her next project: a 3,000-square-foot pet-adoption center that will be open to the public. The center is meant to be an upgraded version of My Heart’s Desire, a nonprofit pet-adoption center at 246 N. Hollywood Road, which Tracy Lapeyrouse has been running for 12 years.
When Baker first proposed to Lapeyrouse the idea of building a new adoption center on her property for Lapeyrouse to manage, she was overwhelmed.
“My mouth almost hit the floor,” Lapeyrouse said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
Baker had been a regular at the adoption center. But one day, Lapeyrouse said Baker dropped by and began asking her questions about her goals for the center.
“I told her that I hoped to have a place of my own some day,” Lapeyrouse said. “Some place more ideal for taking care of animals.”
Baker made up her mind that she wanted to help Lapeyrouse achieve her goals and provide a sanctuary for animals.
The two have been working out a vision for the center ever since, which would include dog runs and provide more space for animals.
“She has got such a big heart,” Baker said of Lapeyrouse. “She’s devoted her life to rescuing animals. So many perfectly healthy animals are put to sleep. All they need is a home. It breaks my heart.”
Lapeyrouse worked for seven years in animal control in Houma. She quit to open My Heart’s Desire, which works primarily to rescue animals from other shelters, where the pets were scheduled to be killed.
What Baker is doing is “immensely considerate,” Lapeyrouse said.
“For a person to really believe in what we do,” she said, “and wanting to take this huge financial endeavor … it’s just beyond my wildest dreams. I will never be able to thank her enough for doing this.”
For Baker, the center would not be complete without a statue of some kind. So she’s having a life-sized bronze monument constructed depicting a Vietnam soldier with four war dogs — what she says is the first of its kind in Louisiana. Financed entirely by Baker, she expects to break ground sometime this year.
“I’m doing this so people can educate themselves about these animals and what happened to them,” Baker said. “They really got a raw deal.”
Baker is passionate about war dogs. She tells stories from books and articles she’s read about how nearly 5,000 dogs served in Vietnam and saved up to 10,000 American servicemen through their scouting and sentry duties.
Sadly, Baker says, when the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, many canines were left behind — declared “surplus armaments” — and either put to death or left to unknown fates.
Baker said the center and monument is something she hopes will also give east Houma residents something to be proud of.
“It just puts a smile on your face, you know? Helping,” Baker said.
Baker would like to honor those veterans who were dog handlers in the Vietnam War by adding their names to the war-dog monument. If you are such a person, feel free to email her email@example.com.