When Mardi Gras comes to Windsor each February it takes a slightly different form than the New Orleans tradition most are familiar with.
With Windsor's youth at the heart of the event, family-friendly games, events and activities are meticulously developed in an effort to provide the community with an evening of enjoyment. But it's behind the scenes where the true enjoyment and long-term gains are made.
Windsor's Maroon and Blue Crew, a leadership program run through the Recreation and Leisure Department, create Windsor's Mardi Gras event from scratch on an annual basis, and along the way they develop skills that can be used for a lifetime.
When 16-year-old Aleesa Jones joined the group at 330 Windsor Avenue, she had no idea how to create a press release, how to seek support from town staff and employees for an event, or how to seek out space for advertising.
Through the development of Mardi Gras, under the tutelage of Youth Services Bureau Director Mary-liz Sullivan, she now has those skills and many more that she would likely not be able to gain anywhere else.
"This is a leadership program designed to give youngsters a little bit of real-world skills, because my feeling is that they get very well educated in stuff, and they get very well educated to go to college, but a lot of [the youth] don't have as much in the way of real-world skills, and we all struggle with this," said Sullivan.
The Maroon and Blue Crew was initially called Leaders in Training. It has maintained its mission of preparing Windsor's youth, but now serves as a partnership between the community's young leaders and the Windsor Police Department.
"This is a good investment for the community," explains Sullivan, who frequently calls the program's youth "the citizens of tomorrow."
"They are the tax payers and decision makers of tomorrow… and when they get involved in the immunity, they get to know about the community, they get an appreciation of their community. Even if they move away, there's a likelihood they might come back at some point, so it's a good investment."
A large part of that investment if providing the town's youth with skills that they'll need in the workforce.
"These kids are moving into a world in which it's a lot harder to get a job than it used to be," explains Sullivan.
Coupled with her experience of young adults seeking employment with her, but lacking the skill set necessary to do the job, Sullivan sees the program as a supplement to the education the youth receive in school.
When running a program like Mardi Gras, the Maroon and Blue Crew members are required to research the event's history, choose foods that are appropriate, secure a food permit, develop marketing skills to ensure a good turnout, and design the floats and setting for the event alongside Windsor middle school students.
These are all tasks that have had a lasting effect on the groups members.
"This program is really good for learning how to run a business," says 16-year-old Kejuan Carlton, who has started his own anti-virus software company with a colleague since he became involved with the Maroon and Blue Crew.
Carlton is also fond of the bond created between the program's participants.
"I like the people here. They are really good people, and we get to do a lot of things here you wouldn't be able to do, like the events and going on field trips."
"We're all a team," says participant Chuck Igidi, who believes the skills he's learning in the leadership program will help him in life.
"We're all a team… and we're learning to be leaders in the outside world. The things we do are teaching us to grow and be independent, and to work with other people."
"I have two brothers at home, and I like taking these things and teaching them this stuff too."
The Maroon and Blue Crew's Mardi Gras Family Fest will be held at L.P. Wilson from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Admission is $3, which includes a prize ticket, or $8 for a family. Events will include a bounce house, mask painting and more.
Call 860-285-1990 for more information.