In a warehouse at the end of Labarre Road, more than 1,600 bags of Mardi Gras beads are stacked and wrapped on pallets, ready for another Carnival season.
"There's about $40,000 worth of beads in there," said Vance Levesque, controller of Arc of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting the mentally retarded.
Each plastic mesh bag of beads is separated into three categories: long, short and white.
They didn't arrive that way, however, Levesque said.
After Carnival, families drove up to the Arc warehouse in vehicles jam-packed with tangled masses of green, gold and purple strings they dropped on the curb. Tulane University students cleared out their dorm rooms and donated more than 5,000 pounds of intertwined balls of throws.
The idea was to sell the beads back to the krewes but first they had to be un-knotted and categorized.
"Let me show you to our workspace," Levesque said.
In a room across the hall, six workers stand over mountains of beads, untangling one strand at a time, measuring for size and placing each in the appropriate pile.
"My boyfriend likes to give me the green ones and the red ones," said Anna Bullock, who, like the other workers, is mentally retarded.
Bullock is part of the Arc's recycled Mardi Gras bead program that employs individuals to separate and sort throws that are resold to parade-riders in 30-pound bags. The main goals are reducing the amount of non-biodegradable waste in the landfills and providing employment for adults with disabilities, said Levesque.
"In October we're going to hire someone full time to go into elementary schools with our clients to teach the benefits of recycling and keeping the beads out of the landfills because these things never biodegrade," Levesque said. "A million years later there will be roaches and Mardi Gras beads, the two things left on the planet."
The program has been around since the 1960s but is in the process of expanding to provide minimum wage, year-round employment to at least 20 individuals. But to do that, Arc needs more beads to fund and make the program self-sustaining, Levesque said.
"When we started we had to turn beads away because we didn't have a clue how it was going to work out. But you can see we need beads now. Instead of having one room full of beads, we want three and eventually five."
The Arc helps the mentally retarded find housing and employment. Many work for hotels, fast food restaurants, landscapers and janitorial crews. But some, Levesque said, are more severely disabled and cannot function in unsupervised environments, which makes the bead recycling project a perfect alternative.
Arc-GNO Executive Director Cliff Doescher said the program instills in the mentally disabled a sense of pride and purpose while promoting the recycling of beads and a healthy environment.
Doescher said Arc eventually wants to hire teenagers to work alongside their clients to expose the youth to people with disabilities while giving the mentally retarded the opportunity to interact with other people in the community.
Arc-GNO has formed partnerships with Jefferson Parish Public Libraries, Whole Foods, Krispy Kreme Donuts, the Green Project, Boy Scouts and several public schools in Orleans and Jefferson parishes to collect and donate beads, but more help is needed.
Levesque said the more beads the community provides, the less the impact on the environment and the greater the likelihood his clients will stay employed.
"Our main mission is to get them integrated into the community," Levesque said. "These people can work. They're at a functioning level. They just can't do every job. But this is one they can."
To donate or purchase beads, call Levesque at 504- 837-5105.