Turning Beads Into Jobs

Arc of Greater New Orleans’ bead-recycling program has provided paid jobs for those in need for more than three decades.
photos by cheryl gerber

“We turn beads into jobs,” says Cathy Brown, manager of ArcGNO’s Mardi Gras Recycle Center and Retail Store.

For generations, New Orleans children have learned a variety of life skills while catching Mardi Gras beads: improving their eye-hand coordination and reflexes while catching (or dodging) fiercely tossed plastic cigars and spears, and honing their negotiating skills by cajoling their way onto the tallest person’s shoulders and maybe even hiding their loot so they look as if they have yet to catch a thing.

For young adults with intellectual disabilities, however, Mardi Gras beads have meant valuable wage-earning jobs for more than 30 years.  

At a huge warehouse in Metairie, Arc of Greater New Orleans (ArcGNO), employs individuals to collect, sort and repackage Mardi Gras throws. Along the way, clients learn skills that help make them more employable and a bit more independent.

The first week after Mardi Gras 2018, the nonprofit organization took in almost 13 tons of beads. The organization’s warehouse is stacked floor-to-ceiling with huge boxes of beads. They also collect cups, costumes, stuffed animals and trinkets.

“The recycling center is one of the social enterprises we manage,” says Cathy Brown, manager of ArcGNO’s Mardi Gras Recycle Center and Retail Store. “Central to our mission are social enterprises that provide work and real incomes to individuals who might otherwise be unemployed. Working here is a stimulating place for many of our clients. Last year we grossed $300,000. We turn beads into jobs.”

The organization’s retail store — located at 925 Labarre Road in Metairie — offers beads of every size and color in 30-pound crawfish sacks, as well as the ever-popular pearls and some krewe-specific beads. The store also sells vintage glass Mardi Gras beads and handcrafted jewelry. Items can be purchased year-round at the store or online.

“We are a family of recyclers, so the store is important to us,” says customer Kira Zoe Radtke Friedrich. “We also like supporting the Arc’s programs and simply doing something for the community. We ride in several parades and buying beads at Arc keeps our costs down so we can be more generous with the beads we throw to you.”

Two years ago, Stephen Sauer took over as the executive director of ArcGNO following the retirement of longtime director Cliff Doescher.

“After Katrina, all our efforts were just getting things up and running,” says Sauer. “We lost so much. But since then we’ve been building and improving our programming.”

The organization also assists nearly 600 individuals in the five-parish Metro New Orleans region with support that includes in-home assistance, job coaching and placement, daytime community integration, and coordination of infant care and therapies.

One of the most important components of Arc’s services is outside employment. The organization has crews for hire that perform lawn and janitorial work. Many clients also work at a variety of local businesses, including Hilton hotels and Rouses Markets.

“Working with Arc, I’ve been able to give back to the community in a way I didn’t know I could,” says Ron Iafrate, owner/chef of Chef Ron’s Gumbo Stop on Causeway Boulevard in Metairie, who employs individuals from ArcGNO.

Iafrate says dishwasher Nick Razzo, 32, is a valuable employee.

“I really enjoy washing dishes and helping,” Razzo said. “I like talking to everyone and joking around. I’ve been here six months. We have really good gumbo — everyone needs to come and try some.”

Razzo’s parents are thankful for ArcGNO’s services.  

“Because of his employment with Chef Ron, Nick has some self-satisfaction and more self-worth,” says his father, Bruce. “He’s contributing to the community and he earns a bit of income.”

ArcGNO supplies a job coach for up to six months for some of its clients and offers some companies tax credits.

“Our clients are kind, warm, conscientious, punctual and have great attitudes,” notes Sauer.

ArcGNO clients also volunteer at other nonprofits, including the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans, where they do wash laundry, clean bowls, separate newspapers used in kennels and socialize with the hundreds of dogs and cats housed at the shelters.

“We think it’s important for our clients to ‘give back,’” says Sauer. “The animal volunteer program is just one of the many opportunities Arc has created as a means of involving adults with disabilities in their communities as contributing citizens.”

ArcGNO also offers meaningful recreational and social opportunities for clients like horseback riding and Zumba dancing.

When Ann Christian, who helps market the organization, writes news releases she says she always references a person’s specific disability, such as Down syndrome, autism or cerebral palsy.

“It’s just a way of getting people to realize what I’m saying very clearly,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how many people will say we work with people who have a mental illness or mental disability, but it’s an intellectual disability.

“Arc is always big A, little r and c – it’s not an acronym for anything,” she says. “It used to stand for the Associations for Retarded Children, but the word ‘retarded or mental retardation’ was removed from language decades ago. People knew the name “Arc” though, so it was left.”

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, says Sauer, is the organizations focus on serving its clients.

“Yes, the beads are a good deal for our customers,” he says, “but we are so much more than cheap beads. They just help us meet our mission. We want to accompany our clients throughout their life journeys so that, by following their own pathways, they can achieve their goals and dreams. We want them to reach their fullest potential within their homes and out in the community.”


Arc of Greater New Orleans


Arc of Greater New Orleans works to secure for all people with intellectual disabilities opportunities to develop, function, and live to their fullest potential.


To create — through education, advocacy, and support — a Greater New Orleans community that includes, accepts and celebrates people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.


(504) 837-5105
ArcGNO’s main campus is in Metairie at 925 Labarre Road. There are a total of five locations in the Greater New Orleans area, including community centers in Metairie, Uptown and Chalmette.

Annual Budget

$6 million annual budget. A lot of funding comes from Medicaid reimbursements.

Ongoing Partnerships

Include Associated Terminals, Shell Oil, Chalmette Refining, Valero, Rouses Markets, Whole Foods and the Young Leadership Council, to name a few.

Local residents with development disabilities receive paid employment collecting, sorting and repackaging Carnival beads year-round. The beads are then sold at ArcGNO’s retail store to benefit the services provided by the nonprofit.


Success of Services

100 individuals are supported at their homes and in the community.

600 children and adults are served in Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Tammany parishes.

300,000 beads were collected last year.

National Statistics:

An estimated 4.6 million Americans have an intellectual or developmental disability.

Of those, an estimated 1.5 million individuals are affected by autism.

Down syndrome occurs in approximately one in every 800 live births, making it the most frequently occurring chromosomal disorder.


What Your Company Can Do

Recycle Beads. For a list of community dropoff sites, or to learn how easy it is to host your own bead drive, visit ArcGNObeads.org/donate.

Volunteer. ArcGNO welcomes community members, professionals and skilled labor to help with everything from refrigeration to photography, fitness coaching to graphic design, as well as electricians, mechanics and carpenters, architects, artists, musicians and theater professionals. Volunteer opportunities are available to work alongside ArcGNO clients to sort and package beads year-round.

Employ ArcGNO clients and hire Arc work crews for any lawn or janitorial needs.

Shop for beads at ArcGNO. Orders can be placed online or at the retail store (925 Labarre Road ) which is open weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.  The retail store will also be open every Saturday from 9 a.m. through 1 p.m. through Mardi Gras Day.