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Loyola University New Orleans honors students celebrate Mardi Gras with the Krewe of VIPs

Loyola press release - January 31, 2016

Students help to build accessible viewing stands for community members with disabilities and special needs.

Honors students at Loyola University New Orleans are celebrating Mardi Gras this weekend with “the Krewe of VIPs” at Touro Synagogue. For the third year in a row, the students are partnering with Touro Social Action to ensure that young residents with special needs or disabilities are able to enjoy parades in comfort and safety.

“We want our students in the Honors program to use their gifts to be ‘men and women for others.’ That’s our mission,” said Naomi Yavneh Klos, director of the University Honors Program. “Our work with the Krewe of VIPs not only helps these members of our community to enjoy an important part of New Orleans life and culture, it allows our students an opportunity to engage with youngsters beyond campus and together they share a magical experience.”

The Krewe of VIPs was started eight years ago by Dr. Juan Gershanik, a neonatologist, together with the help of Hal Shephard, a manager for Taylor-Seidenbach, Inc. Both are members of Touro Synagogue. As a pediatrician, Dr. Gershanik understands the needs of children with disabilities and he thought that it was important that the children and their families had an opportunity to partake in Carnival, without facing the difficulties and dangers of crowds and busy streets. A new tradition was born, and with the help of community members, the Krewe of VIP’s corner has become a special haven.

For some of these individuals, their experience at the corner has marked the first Mardi Gras that they can fully enjoy—bringing happiness not only to them, but to their families. One child told his mother: “the 3 days I like the most in the year are my birthdate, Christmas and the day at the parades (at Touro).”

On Wednesday, Loyola students helped Touro Social Action to build “the VIP Balcony,” a special needs accessible viewing stand over the front steps of the Touro Synagogue, located on the corner of St. Charles and General Pershing Avenues, a perfect spot for seeing floats, parade-goers and bands marching by. The balcony is provided free of charge during select Mardi Gras parades to New Orleans-area children with disabilities and their families.

Carefully designed to ensure ease of transport, ease of access, and safety, the viewing stands are designed so that families may park next or close to the synagogue; then the children, some of whom are in wheelchairs, and their families are escorted through the sanctuary to the stands on the synagogue’s front steps.

Loyola students have for the past three years chaperoned and entertained the children, dressing in costumes, playing musical instruments, leading dance and song, and helping to catch beads and trinkets. Service learning and community engagement are key components of a Loyola education and a huge element of the philosophy of St. Loyola of Ignatius.

This year, the Krewe of VIPs and the Touro Synagogue organizers will be assisted by the Loyola University Music Therapy Club, comprised of students from the College of Music and Fine Arts’ Film and Music Industry Studies program; the Zany Brothers Club, a group of students who juggle, sing songs and entertain children in hospitals, among other activities, and Loyola’s beloved mascot, Havoc.

Loyola students joined Touro Social Action and the Krewe of VIP’s on Saturday, Jan. 30 to watch Pontchartrain, Choctaw, Freret, Sparta and Pygmalion parades and Saturday, Feb. 6 to see the Krewes of Iris and Thoth roll by. On Thursday, Feb. 4, the group will gather from 4 p.m. on to see the Knights of Babylon, Knights of Chaos and Krewe of Muses parades.

“It’s a way to bring children of different abilities together to enjoy a special New Orleans tradition and joyous cultural experience and for our students to enjoy creating an opportunity for the Krewe of VIPs to share in the wonder of Mardi Gras,” Yavneh Klos said. “For the parents, it’s an opportunity to sit back, relax and have fun. It’s incredibly fun for our students.”