Wednesday, February 6 is the 10th anniversary of Baldwin High School’s Mardi Gras Diversity Day.Founded by BHS educator, Laura Beaulieu, Mardi Gras Diversity Day seeks to bring awareness and advocacy about disabilities. A core component of the day is integration of BHS students and students with more significant disabilities from Baldwin and ten surrounding schools- connecting together and learning from one another. Ms. Beaulieu initiated Mardi Gras Day to honor her parents and her sister. Ten years later, the program is going strong directed by Sheila Vander Tuig, East Central Kansas Cooperative in Education, and BHS social worker Cydney Novotney. Ms. Vander Tuig notes that while she and Ms. Novotney provide the administrative infrastructure, “the leadership for Mardi Gras Day belongs to the BHS students.” 

BHS students start planning for Mardi Gras Diversity Day in August. Each year, Mardi Gras Diversity Day organizers select a specific theme to highlight. Past themes have included a focus on Down Syndrome, autism, vision impairment, and physical disabilities. This year’s focus is mental heath awareness with partners DCCCA, Headquarters Counseling Center, LMH Health, Aetna, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, BHS Psychology Class taught by Ms. Sunny Allen, Baker University, and National Alliance of the Mentally Ill (NAMI).

The day kicks off with an “All School Diversity Presentation” by Dr. Julie Connor, TED Speaker, a collaborative leadership expert who “helps others build bridges of understanding through communication, collaboration, and inclusion.” Following the presentation,  the BHS Commons is filled with student-designed booths that encourage skill building and social activities that emphasize social and communications skill building. The BHS Culinary Team provides lunch and the day concludes with a Jazz Parade by the BHS band.

Along with funding from the Baldwin Education Foundation (BEF), funding for Mardi Gras Diversity Day programming comes largely from the sale of Kettle Korn at the group’s Maple Leaf Festival booth. Mardi Gras student organizers partner with Joe Steffy, owner of Poppin Joe’s Popcorn, to provide the Kettle Korn. Mr. Steffy will be part of this year’s Mardi Gras Diversity Day. Mr. Steffy is a young man with autism and Down Syndrome. His business was established to show that Joe could work, and he is the CEO of his Poppin Joe’s.  Each year, Mardi Gras Diversity Day highlights a business  that is owned either in Baldwin or in the region whose owners have a disability.

In addition to Mardi Gras Diversity Day, USD 348 held a diversity awareness week Dec 10-14. Various agency representatives visited the high school and talked about mental health resources in the community.  Students learned from a presentation done by Jennifer Levinson (SPEAK UP) : Suicide Prevention Education for Kids United as Partners, a not-for-profit charitable foundation created in 2015 by two families that both suffered the devastating loss of a child to suicide. Ms. Levinson gave a presentation to students, USD 348 staff, and also to the community in the evening.

A desired outcome for this year’s Mardi Gras Diversity Day share SPEAK UP’s goal “to provide education and awareness, bridging gaps between our community, schools and parents” regarding children’s mental wellness. Anyone interested in learning more about Mardi Gras Diversity Day, please contact Sheila Vander Tuig, svandertuig@eckce.com, 785-594-2737 ext. 204.

Mardi Gras Diversity Day in Pictures