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Beads fly, seniors dance at Griswell Center

"Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn. On LaSalle and Rampart Street, the combo's there with a mambo beat. The Mardi Gras mambo, mambo, mambo." — Frankie Adams and Lou Welsch's song, "Mardi Gras Mambo."

That song has been sung many times over the years, many different groups and artists, including The Hawketts, The Meters, and Buckwheat Zydeco, but the spirit of the music came to Jonesboro on Friday when the J. Charley Griswell Center celebrated Mardi Gras.

As a parade of holiday-themed floats made its way around the cafeteria of the senior center, approximately 200 seniors crowded the floats with arms reached out to catch Mardi Gras beads and candy. Later, each senior took a piece of white, tissue paper and got his, or her, funk on, during a long line dance around the cafeteria.

"This is just something to expose them to a different culture, and I'm a New Orleans native, so I wanted to bring a taste of New Orleans to Georgia," said Linda McKenzie, the manager of the Griswell Center.

This is the third year the center has held a Mardi Gras party. It was filled with seniors laughing, dancing and having a good time. "This is the whole meaning of retirement!" exclaimed Stockbridge resident, Cynthia Meeks, 67.

It is also the kind of activity some seniors at the event fear may end up being lost because of a recent increase in the fees for seniors to use the county's senior centers. The Clayton County Board of Commissioners, in December, approved a fee hike that went from $1 per year, to $12 per year for Clayton County seniors, and from $10 per year, to $180 per year for seniors from other counties.

The fees went into effect on Jan. 1, but the county is honoring existing senior center membership contracts until they expire in June.

A concern for seniors who live in the county is that their out-of-county counterparts will leave, and not come back, once their contracts expire this summer. "From the people I've talked to, when their contracts expire at the end of June, they won't be coming back," said Stockbridge resident, Barbara Sweeny, 67.

But, while seniors have been appearing at county commission meetings and protesting the fee increases, Friday was a chance for them to let loose, socialize with friends, chow down on red beans and rice –– and party. "This is exactly why we like coming here," said Oreatha Hensky, 67, a Clayton County resident with a Hampton address.

Mardi Gras is an annual celebration, which is a major event in parts of southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi, that is usually held during the lead-up to the religious holiday, Ash Wednesday, which was this week.

Many seniors wore elaborate, feathered masks to get into the spirit of the event. A few of the attendees even wore costumes. "This is just a square dancing outfit from when I used to be a square dancer years ago, but everybody got a kick out of it," said Jonesboro resident, Mildred Green, 86, as she showed off the blue dress, with red lining and frilly white trim, that she wore to the event.

As Jonesboro resident, Sally Smith, 56, showed off her red, Spanish-dancer outfit, with black lace trim, she praised Griswell Center officials for the activities they included in the Mardi Gras event. Smith said she grew up in Jeanerette, La., and is very familiar with the Mardi Gras celebration

"It wasn't as big as what you see in Louisiana, but it was fun," Smith said. "The food was good, and I enjoyed myself a lot."

And, for now, officials at the J. Charley Griswell Senior Center are planning to throw out more beads and do more line dancing when Mardi Gras comes back around next year.