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Celebrating Differences, Similarities

Staff and volunteers honor diverse communities

AARP Colorado staff member Jeremiah Mora, left, will work with Sylvester Bibbs Jr. and Annie Walker at the Juneteenth Music Festival in Denver, CO

AARP Colorado staff member Jeremiah Mora, left, will work with volunteers Sylvester Bibbs Jr. and Annie Walker at the Juneteenth Music Festival. AARP staff members will also participate in PrideFest. — Photo by Matt Slaby/Luceo

Wearing capes in rainbow colors and emblazoned with the AARP logo, members of the AARP Colorado staff performed spinning routines on Segways as they navigated the parade route of the 2011 Denver PrideFest.

"What was meaningful for me was that the seniors in the crowd were so ecstatic that we were involved," said Cathy Lasnik, senior program assistant for AARP Colorado. "They would shout out, 'AARP's here!' "

See also: How much do you know about gay history?

In previous years, AARP Colorado sponsored PrideFest, which celebrates and promotes the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Staff members distributed information, including an AARP publication for the LGBT population, "Pride Comes in All Ages," but didn't walk in the parade.

Last year was the first time staff members participated in the parade. Seven staffers were available and joined in, irrespective of sexual orientation.

AARP engages with as many diverse communities as possible "because we celebrate people's differences and the things that make us the same," said Morie Smile, AARP Colorado state director.

Denver's two-day PrideFest is the third-largest pride festival in the United States. As many as 250,000 people view the parade. It's organized by the LGBT Community Center of Colorado, a nonprofit that provides support for the state's LGBT population.

"We thought it was a great opportunity to show unity and support for the GLBT community," said Jeremiah Mora, the AARP Colorado program specialist who organized staff participation in the event.

"The crowd cheered for us … so it encouraged us" to plan to be a part of the 2012 parade, he said.

Many older people who attend the parade have never had an affirmation of who they are in such a public celebration, said Shari Wilkins, program manager of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) of the Rockies, which is affiliated with the PrideFest organizer. "AARP was one of the first non-GLBT groups that ever participated and advocated for them and stood up for them … which sends the loudest message you can imagine."

For this year's PrideFest parade on June 17, AARP staff members will dress as Wizard of Oz characters in keeping with the theme they chose: "Over the rainbow is hope and acceptance for all."

For years, AARP Colorado has also joined in other cultural events, including Juneteenth, which celebrates June 19, 1865, the day slaves in Texas learned they were free.

On June 16, a parade will kick off Denver's Juneteenth Music Festival, billed as one of the largest in the nation. Held in Five Points, the traditional heart of the region's African American community, the event features music, food, art and information booths, including one staffed by AARP employees and volunteers.

Multicultural outreach

Roberto Rey, associate state director for multicultural outreach, said participating in events such as Juneteenth helps demonstrate AARP's interest in and services for minority communities.

He said it's an opportunity for festivalgoers to "get information on the issues we are working on."

This year, those staffing the booth will highlight the AARP You've Earned a Say forums, which invite people to voice opinions about strengthening Social Security and Medicare.

Volunteer John W. Joffrion, 72, a member of the Queen City Chapter 995, helped hand out literature at last year's Juneteenth event. "Most people knew about AARP membership, but they didn't know about all the benefits," he said.

Juneteenth project manager Norman Harris said, "What we're trying to facilitate … is a dialogue between the younger and older generations. Having organizations such as AARP involved is critical."

You may also like: Discover your African American roots.

Cynthia Pasquale is a writer living in Denver.

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