COEA conference exceeds expectations

Lisa Yates

The Life Planning for Persons with Disabilities conference exceeded all expectations, according to attendees like Rita Champagne of Watson, La.

"I'm the parent of two special needs children, so I needed to come," she said. "I definitely recommend it. If they do the same thing next year, I would certainly come back."

Champagne was one more than 100 people from the region attending an educational event held Saturday, Sept. 14, by Community Opportunities – The ARC of East Ascension (COEA) at the Clarion Inn Conference Center in Gonzales.

The conference explored special needs estate planning that allowed individuals to keep government benefits. Local experts familiar with Louisiana law, estate planning and needs associated with raising a special needs child served on a panel to answer questions from the audience.

The panel of experts included John Sirois, an attorney and Certified Financial Planner; Linda Melancon, an attorney and owner of The Legacy Center of Louisiana, L.L.C.; Kent Schexnaydre, Parish Councilman and parent of a special needs daughter Wendy; Joseph Prokop, founder of a law firm in Baton Rouge specializing in estate planning; and, Mark Thomas, Deputy Assisant Secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities.

One of the leading voices in in estate planning for persons with disabilities, attorney Theresa Varnet of Boston, was the keynote speaker.

Speaking during the conference, Melancon said: "We are lucky to have someone with her expertise. To attend a conference like this, I usually have to travel out of state."

Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez, Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, and Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson were some of the local dignitaries in attendance.

"It's very important to plan ahead for everyone, especially if you have a disabled child," Martinez said during a proclamation welcoming Varnet to the area.

Speaking after the conference, the founding chair Sharon Morris said: "We were delighted with the outcome. Our aim was to bring together people who have a common interest in enhancing the quality of life for persons with disabilities and their families."

She said the mission of The ARC of East Ascension is to enhance the quality of life for persons with disabilities and their families through service and advocacy that support choice, independence and dignity.

Morris said the conference would not be possible without the founding sponsor Fab-Con and other sponsors, including: Impala Warehousing Burnside, Motiva Enterprises, L.L.C., GPS Pharmacy, PCS Nitrogen, Mike Anderson's, Clarion Inn, Parish Councilman Chris Loar, Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson, Premier Lanes and Gonzales Weekly Citizen.

Other donors included: Layne's Jewelry, Bountiful Blessings Boutique, Don's Seafood, Mike Anderson's, Cracker Barrel, Donaldsonville Chamber of Commerce, All About Insurance, Donaldsonville Rotary, Tanger Outlet Mall, Ascension Chamber of Commerce, Lofton Staffing, Walmart, Popeyes, Graugnard's Furniture, and Dr. Jay Perniciaro, Massages by Dee, Jumonville's Bakery, Soft and Sassy, Rotolo's and Casa Maria.

During a special recognition ceremony honoring the conference founder, Morris thanked members of the planning committee, which included: Cheryl Rice, COEA supported employment coordinator; Kody Smith, program manager at COEA; Dolores Kepp, retired nurse, COEA Board of Directors; Allison Hudson, public information officer with Ascension Sheriff's Office; Alsie Dunbar, process and technology group chemical engineer at Motiva; Melinda Comeaux, co-owner All About Insurance and treasurer COEA Board of Directors; Norma Dukes, COEA executive director; Aanifa LeBlanc, graphic artist Gonzales Weekly Citizen; Dennis Stevens, COEA business operations manager; Randy McCoy, City of Gonzales Police Department and COEA Board of Directors; Alfred Mason, retired Delux Corp. and COEA Board of Directors; Natalie Mason, retired USPS; and, Lisa Yates, editor Gonzales Weekly Citizen.

Extended committee members included: Jo Roux, retired Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office; Lori Jackson, Regions Bank; Debra Johnson, Regions Bank; and, Robin Hasten, Ladies of Black Pearl Social Club.