By Jillian Eskew
A glowing dragon swoops playfully into the crowd, scattering laughing parade-goers. Space vikings dance and spin to a thrumming baseline, the glittering accents of their costumes trailing behind them. A UFO, decorated with panels of rainbow LEDS, bathes its entourage in bright flashes of color. This is the bright, nerdy extravagance that defines the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus.
However, the same noise, lights, and crowds that make Chewbacchus exciting can quickly become overwhelming for neurodivergent people. Kate Lacour, co-founder of the Stomp Troopers sub-krewe, was working to help young people on the autism spectrum become comfortable with this level of chaos – by showing them how to have fun while marching in the midst of it.
“New Orleans just seems like a rotten place to live if you don’t get access to the culture that makes this place special. And parties, whether it’s a block party or a concert, are a huge part of life here,” Lacour said.
Lacour, along with her partner Sarah Ambrose, founded the NOLArts Learning Center and, by extension, its Stomp Troopers project. Lacour, a clinical art therapist, helped participants fabricate costumes and instruments, while Ambrose, a special needs music instructor, helped participants learn how to drum to the parade’s beat.
On how she created a comfortable environment for neurodivergent children within the chaos of Mardi Gras, Lacour said, “We serve people all across the range of abilities, cognitive styles and sensory styles, which is obviously sometimes a challenge. But, the great thing about parades is that I can bring my four-year-old and you can bring a world-class celebrity – anybody can enjoy a party. You just have to make sure you provide something for people to access, from the flamboyant end to conservative end aesthetically, and quiet to loud in terms of noise. And people can choose what they’re comfortable with.”
As an example of this, Stomp Trooper volunteers provided participants with optional headphones and sunglasses. Participants could use or return the aides as they saw fit, but their presence helped cultivate a comfortable environment within Mardi Gras’ inescapable hustle and bustle.
In a similar vein, participants were provided a range of options while making instruments. Some participants were happy with putting stickers on a cowbell, while others were interested in fabricating a multi-tonal Congo drum. As Lacour said, “People will inevitably choose what they’re up for in that moment.”
By letting Stomp Troopers participants determine how far outside their comfort zone they were willing to step or how involved their creations would be, participants could comfortably create impressive projects and showcase their workmanship and creativity. “It’s been really cool to be able to reset people’s expectations around what teens on the spectrum would be into and are up for,” Lacour said.
Involvement with the Stomp Troopers sub-krewe helped both participants and their parents grow more comfortable with engaging with other large and loud gatherings such as the Renaissance Faire. In addition, Stomp Troopers’ musical focus inspired some participants to take music lessons, and its fun atmosphere encouraged many others to continue meeting up socially.
Considering that many Stomp Troopers participants were interested in fantastical words like that of Star Wars and Pokemon, Chewbacchus was a natural choice for a parent krewe. Additionally, Chewbacchus helped the Stomp Troopers by providing them a spot near the front of the parade, away from the worst of the Mardi Gras chaos.
However, this past year, Chewbacchus’ sub-krewe dues have increased by $20 per person. As membership costs increase, so do the financial burdens on krewes run by non-profit organizations, such as the Stomp Troopers.
While NOLArts has a “pay what you can” program in place for Stomp Troopers participants, hopefully these increasing dues will not prove problematic for the finances of the Stomp Troopers’ future marches.