When I was 5, I became friends with Sarah, a tot with Down’s Syndrome. She couldn’t speak and her tongue was always dry from keeping her mouth perpetually open (mostly from smiling) but she was as kind as they come and I loved her. Throughout my life, I’ve involved myself in the Intellectual Disabilities (ID) community in various ways, from working with the Special Olympics to getting a Best Buddy in L.A., so when it became clear that the best way to have lunch with my friend, singer Margie Perez ,was to volunteer for Arc of Greater New Orleans, I was thrilled.
Arc was the brainchild of a group of concerned parents in 1953 and has grown in reach and scope, providing services and employment for people of all ages with ID. I was given a tour that included a lush garden complete with chicken coop. Apparently, Arc has gotten into the soup business, growing many of the ingredients in that very garden. Added after Katrina put many local charities in a position to find new ways to help and to create revenue, the garden is fertilized with a rich juice provided by a worm farm growing in a cast iron tub as well as with the chicken droppings. The chickens hatched on Easter Sunday so everyone looks forward to them being mature enough to provide eggs.
Turns out, with all this gardening, Arc has gone into the business, providing landscape design, construction and maintenance with free estimates and licensed workers at reasonable prices for commercial and residential clients. They even have janatorial services for hire. Who knew? Before moving on, I saw a beautiful butterfly on a flower in the garden. Butterflies are always such a perfect metaphor for the beauty hiding inside every person and situation.
There’s a joke in New Orleans about why all the houses are sinking – it’s all the Mardi Gras beads in the attics. Maybe so, but the beauty hiding inside the excessive leftovers of Mardi Gras is the bead recycling program at Arc. People bring their beads to collection centers throughout the city and new purple and gold bins will be placed soon to make collection easier. The beads are then sorted by people with ID and volunteers from high schools, people working community service hours and anyone willing to give up a few hours for a good cause and a free lunch.
A delivery arrived from a generous woman and Margie and I went through the many bins of beads, boas and toys. You’d be surprised how many of the beads were what we call “good beads,” beads with Krewe medallions or Who Dat trinkets attached. While I was working on a pile, a group of 3 high school students came in and looked at a few of the items in the gargantuan box next to me. One picked up a fake water-balloon-like boob and asked what it was for. I laughed it off, “It wouldn’t be a Mardi Gras without boobs.” I kept working without looking up as another picked up a small plastic pile of poop, “Why is there poop?” I smiled, “Oh, maybe it was for Krewe de Vieux or one of the other political satire parades. You never know what they’re gonna throw.”
There was silence and more digging in the box then a girl’s voice, “Is Mardi Gras fun?” That’s when I stopped working, “You’ve never been to Mardi Gras?” I mentally rewound the things I’d said, realizing it had no context and stunned that people would do this work only knowing the trash end of the parades. “Oh, yes. Yes, it’s very fun. You must come.” They were from Michigan, working with a group called YouthWorks, a group striving to “be like Jesus.” I’m always encouraged when I see young people giving back to the community, learning that it takes very little to do a lot for others and that it has the added benefit of making you feel better. In fact, as I reported in NOLA Defender last year, there are actual health benefits to volunteering.
Then it was time for lunch, soup with an optional salad. The Vintage Garden Kitchen is Arc’s newest venture and certainly its tastiest. I eat a fair amount of soup and we, in this city, can afford to be picky so when I say this soup was amazing – I mean amazing! I ordered the hearty Smothered Chicken with Rice and Greens but look forward to trying many more, including office favorite, the Fire Roasted Tomato Basil. The great news for New Orleanians is that the soups are available to the community and Arc even delivers on Wednesdays. Prices start at $4.99 a pint with free delivery for orders of $15 or more. Return 6 of the adorable mason jars and get a free pint with your next order. There are even dairy free, gluten free and vegan options.
There was a sunny charmer with ID who wanted to show me his dance. He brought it up several times, reminding Margie to get the boombox. After lunch, as she went looking for the boombox, I walked into the sorting room and found him dancing the Cupid Shuffle as all the high school students sang acapella. I remember high school being a place where differences were targets for ridicule so it delighted me to see these kids singing for him, letting him show his stuff.
Margie and I joined the sorting room and went to work on the specialty beads wall. Most of the beads are sold in 30 pound bags but the specialty beads sell for a dollar a strand. There were so many I’d never seen and it was fun discovering them all. A highlight was finding a rare Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indian medallion as well as some old Czechoslovakian glass strands with the tag still on.
As I was going through the pretty, often funny, beads, I started thinking of all the things they’d be perfect for. Sure, the majority of people who buy the recycled beads are parading Krewes, but I thought how fun they’d be at a wedding or as party favors at a children’s birthday party, how they’d make great housewarming gifts for people moving to the city or for visiting tourist friends. And, they sell for a fraction of the price of Bourbon Street shops. You can get a bag of stuffed animals for $20/bag (approximately 20 animals) and toys and trinkets for $7/half bag. The 30 lb. bags of beads sell for between $15 for “petites” to $30 for most others. All told, Arc sold 90,000 lbs of beads last year and hopes to expand this year.
I also learned a little more about parade culture volunteering at Arc. Turns out the most popular beads are “pearls” and green beads. The pearls are a huge favorite for the Zulu parade, one of the biggest Mardi Gras to-do’s. And the green have to play double duty. Mardi Gras’ colors are purple, green and gold and St. Patrick has a number of parades featuring almost entirely green beads.
The Arc of Greater new Orleans need volunteers so I hope you’ll consider giving your time (and beads!) in exchange for a great bowl of soup and coworkers guaranteed to make you smile.