ASCENSION PARISH, LA (WAFB) - It was a Christmas party at a community center in Gonzales. Jingle bells and oldie classics were blasting out of the speakers with 10 foot tall inflatable snowman and Santa Claus purring their little motors quietly. There were four long tables covered with sheets.
"What are those?" I asked.
"Those are the stuffed toys and backpacks full of goodies for every kid in the room. Santa hands them out, " an organizer told me.
It was the annual Christmas party for Special Tuesdays in Ascension Parish. Gumbo, perhaps the best you've ever tasted, was being poured into steaming bowls.
Atmos Energy, winner of the Capital Area United Way's recent Jambalaya Jam, was in the kitchen and whipped up the gumbo, award-winning jambalaya and more. Atmos workers were all smiles as they easily handled what was a crowd of about 300 people.
The line to get food was enthusiastic and long, and the table was heaped with nachos and gooey cheese, brownies, and pralines. There was even cake.
There were about 10 teenagers wearing bright pink shirts. They are the Connecteens. Avelina Gonzales, a junior at Dutchtown High, showed us around Special Tuesday, a program for people of all ages with special disabilities mental and/or physical.
"You're shy?" Avelina asked a familiar face in the Special Tuesday program."Well, that's OK." Avelina hugged her. They walked around and her friend motioned to a table.
"What's their names?" Gonzales asked. Her friend shrugged and then shyly stepped back.
Gonzales launched right on into conversation. "Are you excited to get a secret, a visit from Santa?" She asked a young woman in a wheelchair. "Yeah," the woman answered excitedly. "Me too," agreed Avenlina.
Gonzales is one of about 60 Connecteens in Ascension Parish. This is one way they volunteer. Connecteens is a program sponsored by Volunteer Ascension.
Sherry Denig with Volunteer Ascension said as many as 60 percent of her entire Connecteen program chooses to work with the Special Tuesday program.
"Food and fun for kids with disabilities and the Connecteens really, really enjoy working with this group. I think in the very beginning they're a little bit afraid, just because they don't know how to interact with them. But once they start, the 'kids' are wonderful and the kids really embrace our kids and they become friends."
Cameron Kelly is a tall 10th grader at Dutchtown, and because he's a little shy, people keep telling him they don't need his help.
"Want me to carry that?" he asked a woman who was pushing a wheelchair while juggling two bowls of gumbo.
"No, I've got it thank," she said while shaking her head.
An adult supervisor told Cameron to follow the woman anyway to sweep in if she needed him. He smiled a great big smile with braces gleaming.
But by doing things like this, all teenagers develop a grace and knack for approaching strangers who may need help and warmly finding a way to lend a hand.
Connecteens are not just with Special Tuesday kids at Christmas, a majority of them volunteer throughout the year. But there are Connecteens also at St. Elizabeth Hospital and more than 20 other community agencies and programs.
Teens may still be figuring out social graces as they grow up, but they do so with generosity and the power to do good. That's why Connecteens are our Power of 9 Honorees.
Capital One Bank, United Way's Volunteer Center and WAFB are long-time sponsors of the Power of 9 Awards. And it's because each story is so inspiring, so positively wonderful for our community!