Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
The models in a luncheon-fashion show Oct. 9 at Chateau Golf and Country Club in Kenner had the crowd clapping and cheering as they twirled, waved and sashayed down the runway sporting the latest fall fashions.
The 20-plus models were special in more than one way. Not only were they individually beautiful and uniquely animated for attendees, they also are members of Special Connections, a nonprofit created in 2004 to give developmentally challenged adults (age 21 and older) an outlet for social interactions and creativity.
Special Connections founders are all are Catholic. Frances Lozes is a parishioner of St. Angela Merici in Metairie, as was Ola Becnel, who died recently. Linda Vernaci is a member of Divine Mercy Parish (formerly St. Elizabeth Ann Seton) in Kenner, and Caron Anderson of Metairie is a St. Catherine of Siena parishioner.
The women originally brainstormed in 2004 about creating the organization after their children had graduated from high school. Its premise was for their adult children and others with special needs to have an active life filled with social and fun events on weekdays.
They first partnered with the Jefferson Parish Recreation Department and had program space at Jefferson Playground. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the site a year later, but activities didn’t cease. Classes were held at Lozes’ house, just to maintain some continuity for members until a new space was found at the Vineyard in Kenner, said Vicki Lee, board president for the past five years. Lee is the daughter of founder Linda Vernaci.
Lee said the founders’ children – Wayne Anderson, Margaret Becnel, Charlie Lozes and her sister Lisa Vernaci – are still active today in Special Connections.
Leadership, new ideas
Many of Special Connections’ board and employees have a vested interest in the group. Marie Evans, whose son John is a member, is current program director. She is a board member, as is Lozes, Anderson and her husband J. Wayne Anderson, who is treasurer.
Today, Special Connections’ activities include intermittent art classes, sign language taught to music (by a board member), arts and crafts, movie watching, line dancing and a weekly iPad skills class taught by a volunteer. They take suggestions from members, too.
“They love the line dance and iPad classes,” Lee said.
When looking back at Special Connections, Lee remembers how she got involved. An abstract artist, she was invited in 2007 to teach art classes. She was immediately blown away by the art talent of Special Connections members.
“I went to paint still life with the members … and their work was amazing,” Lee said. “While they didn’t exactly paint what was on the table, it was a beautiful array of colors and shapes that they saw. When I started to collect their work, I realized how these beautiful works just came out of them. Members (unlike most abstract artists who think and plan their paintings) didn’t have to think about it.”
Lee convinced parents of members and the board to consider an art show and boutique fundraiser in 2008 at the Foundation Center at Lafreniere Park.
“The board wondered if anyone would buy their work,” Lee said. “We dressed our artists in black with black berets, and it was a huge success. The members think they are great artists. They are competitive and really work to sell their art.”
More fundraising ideas came when Lee’s sister, Susan Pisciotta, and friend Rosemary Hernandez joined the board about five years ago. They devised a fashion show and boutique, which also has become successful.
Special Connections alternates the two major fall fundraisers every other year.
The 2019 event was the Oct. 9 luncheon/fashion show with raffles, one-of-a-kind handmade items (ceramic plates, notecards, special wraps and aprons imprinted with member are and fall décor). Some members’ works were totally sold out.
She has been amazed by how supportive the public is of the self-funded nonprofit.
“We don’t believe it ourselves,” Lee said. “Did we just have 300 people come out and watch our children model and buy their art? We do these major fundraisers because we have to pay our staff.”
Pisciotta and Hernandez also created a special donor designation called Special Friends. Those who donate $25 annually receive an annual Special Connections newsletter. Those making a one-time $200 donation are considered lifetime members.
Small, but significant effort
Special Connections is open to adults over age 21 with developmental delays. Currently, there are 28 participants who range in age from 25-65.
“I think the members genuinely enjoy each other’s company and have something meaningful to do every day,” Lee said. “They enjoy just getting together for their activities. It gives their parents a peace of mind that they are in a safe place until they pick them up, and they are happy. It’s as much a peace of mind for the parents as it is fun for the members.”
Lee has seen her shy sister Lisa blossom in the program. And, she’s not alone.
“One parent said their son now talks about art when they are out, Lee said. “He probably would not have done that had they not been exposed to it. You don’t think they are absorbing but they are.”
For details on how to get involved with Special Connections, call Lee at 494-6185.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.