Jan 23, 2013 5:21 PM by Tina Marie Macias/ AP
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - For those who catch them, the beads thrown from Mardi Gras parades are a fleeting moment of joy, a trivial trinket perhaps destined to sit in a child's toybox or hang from a rearview mirror. But for Natalie Hollier of Opelousas, the colorful plastic gew-gaws mean a chance for a normal life.
Hollier is one of hundreds of workers with developmental disabilities employed by LARC and The Arc of Acadiana to recycle and resell the handfuls of beads that rain down on Lafayette streets. The separate nonprofit organizations collect used beads, detangle and mend them and then sell the beads again, providing employment for people who otherwise might not have been able to find a steady job.
"It's a blessing," said Hollier, 32, a client of The Arc of Acadiana. "I've got good friends and I like working here a lot. I wouldn't want to go anywhere except here. I like the staff and really getting out and doing something in the community to better myself."
Before she became an Arc client about nine months ago, Hollier said she did "nothing" and had boring days. Now, she sorts beads and shreds paper at the Arc warehouse and training center in Grand Coteau.
Another client, Ramona Chevis, 54, an Opelousas native who was detangling bead donations at Arc in Grand Coteau, said she likes to think about how the beads will be used and how much joy they can bring. She has worked at Arc for about a year.
"I like watching the parades on Mardi Gras," Chevis said. "I like watching them throw the beads. I'm going to be happy to know when (revelers) catch it, it will be the beads I had."
BUNDLES OF JOY
Thousands of used beads are donated to Arc throughout the year, and workers sanitize the trinkets before beginning work on bundling them for resale.
Chevis, Hollier and about a dozen other Arc clients worked diligently last week, separating necklaces from piles of tangled beads. In front of them, a piece of paper with 10 circles helped them keep count of the number of strings needed to complete a bundle.
Sherrie Badoin, director of The Arc of Lafayette and St. Landry parishes, said the job teaches more than just responsibility.
"It teaches them counting, cognitive skills, but, most importantly, it teaches them to be part of the community," Baudoin said.
After 10 bundles are inserted into freezer storage bags and stored in cases, they're sent to the Arc's more than a dozen retail stores in Acadia, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Martin and St. Landry parishes. LARC operates Mardi Gras Beads-N-More in Acadian Village.
At Arc's Lafayette resale store, store manager Stephanie Ollison received her first shipment of seven cases last week and said calls about the beads have been constant.
"Mardi Gras beads have been a great demand," Ollison said. "Everybody's getting ready for their festivals and parades."
Mardi Gras krewes and independent groups buy beads in bulk from Arc at both their retail stores and Arc's training and employment centers. Arc has been reselling beads since its inception in 1954, said Baudoin, who was unsure how many beads it collects and resells annually.
"We're getting inundated with orders," Baudoin said. "Today, I had 10 calls. They're mostly from floats in the Independent Parade. It's just been word of mouth. That's the best form of advertisement."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Last year, Arc began hosting an annual bead drive. This year, beads can be dropped off at participating car dealerships from Feb. 13 through March 31, and The Daily Advertiser is one of the drive's supporting partners.
The Arc stores also accept donations of beads, and LARC accepts donations at any Goodwill Industries of Acadiana location.
The beads are not only an avenue for Arc to provide employment opportunities to people with special needs; the beads also support other services offered by Arc, including employment, residential and personal care services. Arc of Acadiana started as Arc of Iberia, but over the past 10 years has grown dramatically.
Its employment services include packing, document shredding, lawn care, janitorial services and placement and management of vending machines. Arc also resells used clothing, and turns unusable clothing into rags that oilfield companies purchase. Baudoin is hoping to expand that service to car dealerships.
Highly functioning people work in retail stores and sometimes do contract work, while others are taught cognitive skills, work on crafts and sometimes do simpler tasks such as preparing paper for shredding and shredding documents, Baudoin said. Arc provides transportation for their clients and pays them for their services.
Hollier said she was saving her money for a "rainy day," while Chevis had a different plan for her earnings.
"I may be saving for the Wii and I might get more games and another controller," Chevis said.
But that's only part of the program's success, Baudoin said.
"The biggest picture is being a part of the community," she said, "and not having to stay at home."