By Joel Hall
Willie Russell, 73, of Rex, has never turned down an opportunity to enjoy life. At the J. Charley Griswell Senior Center, where more than 100 seniors celebrated Mardi Gras on Friday, Russell joined other handkerchief-waiving senior citizens dancing in the "second line."
"I don't let myself get old," Russell said. "My mom was 82 when she passed and she said, 'Never stop enjoying yourself.' The only thing that gets old are clothes ... that's what she used to say. You are only as old as you feel."
Letting loose and having fun was the central theme of the Griswell Center's Second Annual Mardi Gras Celebration. On Friday, the halls of the senior center somewhat resembled Bourbon Street, with sights, sounds and food reminiscent of the New Orleans tradition.
New Orleans native and Griswell Center Program Coordinator Linda McKenzie organized the center's first Mardi Gras celebration a year ago. She said the event, while technically a few days after actual Mardi Gras, was way for seniors to get out and enjoy themselves, outside of the regular activities at the center.
"I just wanted to give the seniors a taste of Mardi Gras," McKenzie said. "Most people have never been to New Orleans and it's a new experience for them. It's a fun experience and it is safer. They don't have to worry about getting trampled on. They are among peers."
Friday's celebration treated participants to red beans, rice, and other dishes, as well as an indoor parade featuring mini Mardi Gras floats constructed by center staff members and volunteers. Costumed party goers, dressed in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold and green, threw beads to spectators wearing their own unique costumes.
"There's a lot of energy here," said Jan Howtsma, a member of the senior center. "This is my first time. I heard about it last year and I wanted to attend. I just seems like a time for everybody to get together and celebrate, especially after all the snow we've had."
"It was so much fun last year," said Denise Woods, of Jonesboro. "They're getting a lot of exercise. We get tired just watching them."
Boa feathers flew as masked senior citizens dove for first-choice bead necklaces, thrown by the parade's king and queen, Frank and Linda Thomas. Frank Thomas is the maintenance supervisor at the center and Linda Thomas is a volunteer.
Bobbie Irvins, a quilting instructor at the center, said fun activities like the parade are just as good as exercise for seniors.
"Laughter is medicine," Woods said. "There are about 100 people here and for 35 to 45 minutes, they focus on joy, laughter and excitement. It means something to be blessed and see another Mardi Gras, and we want to celebrate."