University honor students help special needs children celebrate Mardi Gras

Emily Branan

For Juan Gershanik, Mardi Gras is more than just a time of celebration.

Every Mardi Gras for the past eight years, Gershanik has been helping children with special needs see the parades.

Gershanik, medical director of neonatal services at West Jefferson Medical Center, said Jay Goldsmith, neonatologist, brought the original idea to him. Gershanik said he was inspired by the accessible stands he saw in Metairie. Goldsmith and Gershanik were both active members of Touro synagogue, and Gershanik was a member of the board, so he shared their idea with the other members.

The board members decided the idea fit the mission of their social action committee and it was approved to begin.

Now, a viewing stand is built for the Krewe of VIPs, these kids and their families every year.

“Of course, we got a place that is superb for the kids,” Gershanik said.

Naomi Yavneh Klos, director of the university honors program, agreed that it is a perfect place and a “safe haven” for the kids to watch the parade.

Yavneh Klos said kids in wheelchairs can roll through the sanctuary up to the stands and those with sensory disorders have a quiet place to go if they need to during the parade.

She found out about the Krewe of VIPs when she moved to New Orleans and joined Touro.

She thought it would be a good program for honor students to volunteer with. She said her students help set up and take down the stands, entertain the kids before the parades start and help them catch the fun throws.

She said helping with the Krewe of VIPs fits in with the mission of the university honors program.

“We encourage our students to use their gifts with and for others, and not just intellectual gifts,” Yavneh Klos said.

Gershanik said it takes a lot of effort to put on the event every year. Volunteers, members of the synagogue and Loyola students donate their time to help this event be successful every year.

“It’s the price of seeing these kids smiling,” Gershanik said.

Yavneh Klos said participating with the Krewe of VIPs is just another way to experience Mardi Gras.

“Everyone enjoys watching the parade; it’s not this great sacrifice,” Yavneh Klos said.

This year, the Krewe of VIPs enjoyed the Pontchartrian, Choctaw, Freret, Sparta and Pygmalion parades on Jan. 30, the Knights of Babylon, Knights of Chaos and the Krewe of Muses on Feb. 4 and the Krewes of Iris and Thoth on Feb. 6.

“We take so much for granted. These are precious moments,” Gershanik said.