A couple of years ago, I spent a day sorting Mardi Gras beads at Arc of Greater New Orleans. Arc provides services and employment for people of all ages with Intellectual Disabilities (ID). I first became aware of the ID community when I was 5. My 2 year old friend Sarah was born with Down’s Syndrome. She couldn’t walk or talk yet and her tongue was always dry from keeping her mouth perpetually open (mostly for smiling) but she was one of the sweetest people I’d ever met and I loved her. In high school, I was a hugger for the Special Olympics and in grad school, I taught tumbling to children with ID and coached a group of adults for the Special Olympics. In Los Angeles, I became a Best Buddy, lunching and hanging out with my Buddy every month. It kept me feeling connected to the kid in me before I even knew what Hollywood was.
But, I’ll admit that the real draw for me was the opportunity to hang out with my Favorite Things 2012 pick for “Musical Wonder Woman,” Margie Perez who runs the bead rooms. I went with professional organizer, Lola Disparte and we got there just in time to have lunch from the Vintage Garden Kitchen. Their soups are extraordinary and made in small batches from super-fresh ingredients – many of which are grown on the property. 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 9 of the mason jars and get a free pint with your next order. There are even dairy free, gluten free and vegan options like the Moroccan Chickpea Stew ($5) I chose for lunch and the quart of Fire Roasted Tomato Basil ($9) I bought to take home. I’m looking forward to trying the salads, wraps and bowls at their new restaurant in Place St. Charles.
The cherry on top of the volunteering-with-Arc experience is helping to recycle some of the city’s thousands of tons of beads that might otherwise end up in landfills. While sorting, I love that I get to see beads and medallions from every Mardi Gras krewe, old beads found in attics, Who Dat beads and Czechoslovakian glass strands. It’s like attending every parade in the city. And I won’t even get into the thousands of stuffed animals, frisbees, cups, toys and silk flowers. Most people who buy the recycled beads are parading Krewes, but they’re perfect for weddings, party favors (stuffed animals for every kid at the birthday party!) or for visiting tourist friends and housewarming gifts for people moving to the city. A bag of stuffed animals is $20 (approximately 20 animals) and toys and trinkets are $7 a bag. The 30 lb. bags of beads sell for between $15 for “petites” to $30 for most others. Specialty beads (“good beads” for you NOLA folks) sell for a dollar a strand.
There was a group of high school kids from a mission in Colorado working alongside the Arc employees with ID. I always enjoy seeing young people learning that it takes very little to do a lot for others. Another cherry – Margie Perez sang my favorite of her many great songs, Ooh Baby La La, while we all took a short break from sorting. The last cherry on top of this already cherry-laden experience is that volunteering can lower depression and PTSD, reduce your chances of having heart disease and even increase your lifespan.
Before leaving, I took another tour of the garden out back. It has matured a lot in the last 2 years – as have the chickens who were only a few months old the first time I saw them. Now, they provide eggs to be sold at the farmer’s market as well as droppings for fertilizer. A nutrient-rich juice from a worm farm growing in a cast iron tub also provides fertilizer. The garden now includes mirliton vines and papaya trees as well a s many flowers to be sold at market. Arc also provides landscape design, construction and maintenance with free estimates and licensed workers at reasonable prices for commercial and residential clients. They even have janitorial services for hire and a vending division.
On our way out, Director Nicole Blair reminded us that we had helped employ hard working people. The cherry on top of all the other cherries – I got to be a “job creator!” Not a bad way to spend the day. I’m sure the group of concerned parents who started Arc in 1953 would be pleased to see how much the enterprise has grown in scope and the many ways it contributes to our city, its people and cuisine and even the environment!