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Volunteers Put Kids in Spotlight : Festival: Cajun-zydeco event is a fund-raiser for a day-care agency. There will be dance lessons, face-painting and a Mardi Gras parade.


LONG BEACH — Providing day care for about 225 children of low-income families is the year-round task of Comprehensive Child Development--but for a few weeks each year, the Long Beach offices of the nonprofit agency become "Cajun Command Central," in the words of executive director Tammie Kyle.

For four years, the CCD has been getting increasingly involved with the annual Cajun & Zydeco Festival, which returns to Long Beach's Rainbow Lagoon on Saturday and Sunday. This year, administrators at the CCD have taken on all the responsibility of organizing more than 250 volunteers.

They will also run the beer and soda booths, will prepare the volunteer meals, and--in an activity closest to the organization's heart--organize and supervise an extensive children's area, in which kids can create artworks, get their faces painted and make masks and costumes for an afternoon Mardi Gras parade. And for the first time, the festival will offer Cajun dance lessons for children.

The festival's family-oriented nature was one of the most important aspects in attracting the CCD's involvement with the festival, now in its seventh year in Southern California.

"Children are very important in the (Cajun) culture, and in community gatherings," said Kyle.

Indeed, the afternoon children's parade, led by festival producer Franklin Zawacki, has become one of the event's most endearing traditions.

Kyle said she has become a big fan of Louisiana music, thanks to the festival.

"The combination of the food, the music, the dance and the people is really spectacular," she said. "It's a lot of fun. We have met the most wonderful people through the project."

Zawacki said he specifically chose a nonprofit group that works with children to help produce the Long Beach festival because he wanted to emphasize its family aspect.

"They were pointed out to me as a group that was very enthusiastic, and compassionate about children's issues," Zawacki said in a phone interview in which he praised CCD's "enthusiasm, energy and commitment . . ."

"This is a very special relationship. Instead of just grabbing the beer money and running, they're really helping to make this festival work. . . . "I tease them. I tell them, 'You don't always know the difference between Cajun and zydeco, but you sure put on a great Cajun and zydeco festival.' "

The group's involvement the first year was "rather minimal compared to what it would grow to be," Kyle said. "Looking back, we didn't know what the full scope of our involvement would be."

Comprehensive Child Development was formed in 1984 to provide day care for children in Long Beach, and later expanded to include San Pedro. The year-round program serves children from infants to third-graders. Kyle estimates that the group receives 95% of its income from the state and must raise the remainder privately.

The Cajun & Zydeco festival is the group's major fund-raiser, with proceeds from the beer and soda booths going to the CCD (Kyle declined to say how much has been raised).

In recent years, because of state budget impasses, the agency's allocations for July and August have been delayed, so the timing of the festival and the influx of funds works out perfectly.

As for the children's area, it is free to festival-goers. "There's no profit in that other than furthering the family aspect of the festival," Kyle said.

Volunteering for the Cajun & Zydeco Festival has become an annual task for many; Kyle said that 85% of this year's volunteers are returnees. In return for working the festival, they get free weekend admission and a meal each day.

Organizing the volunteers falls largely to Kyle's executive assistant, Connie Benjamin, but Kyle said everyone in the office takes part in the preparations.

"It's almost like I'm working with a split personality at the moment," she said.

All the hard work pays off once the music starts, however.

"The site manager and I were talking the day before the festival" last year, Kyle said. "We both agree it is difficult and a lot of work, but once the music begins the festival takes on a life of its own."

* Volunteers who wish to work at the festival or donate the use of a vehicle receive free admission to the Southern California Cajun & Zydeco Festival. Information: (310) 595-5944.

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