NEW ORLEANS — Jason Spinks, 5, of Ponchatoula, and Anya Himel, 6, of New Orleans, became fast friends on Saturday.

Strangers before this day, the youngsters posed for photos with their faces painted — his like a gorilla, hers with a butterfly across the bridge of her nose. And together, they gently tried to catch the dozens of butterflies released into the wild at Audubon Zoo.

Because the two children are so young, neither really understood exactly why they were there or why they got to be the ones to open the jars of butterflies — but their families did.

Anya’s grandmother Gigi Himel, of Folsom, died in November. But in a final act of life, Gigi Himel’s family agreed to allow her to become an organ donor.

In Ponchatoula, little Jason was born with a condition called persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous, also called PHPV, in which the eye does not grow and develop normally.

Eventually, Jason’s right eye had to be removed. But in June, Jason became the recipient of a donated cornea, which was transplanted into his eye with a prosthetic placed over it. Still sightless in his right eye, Jason’s doctors hope the eye will strengthen with time.

On Saturday, both of these families and hundreds of others gathered at Audubon Zoo for the fifth annual Southern Eye Bank Gift of Sight Celebration to commemorate those who gave as well as those who have received. The event offered those who attended a day of food, drink, activities for kids and various memorials.

A table was set up for loved ones to display photos of their lost family members who became donors and families were invited to contribute squares for a memorial quilt.

But the highlight of the day was an emotional release of dozens of butterflies, assisted by Anya and Jason, to symbolize the metamorphosis of life.

“This is one of the events that every employee here looks forward to,” said eye bank Executive Director Billy Buras. “It kind of gives us the energy to go on. It’s a very hard job to do. I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and we deal with a lot of death, a lot of sadness. And you kind of get down. But you come to this and you just get so re-energized. You may cry, but you cry because people are happy and they’re telling stories about their family members.”

And children become friends for life.

“Jason has invited us to his birthday party, and we’re going,” said Anya’s mom, Bridget.

Jason’s mother, Sena Spinks, said her son understood what Saturday’s event was about, even if he couldn’t express it to the adults.

“We talked about it,” Spinks said. “He knows he doesn’t have a real eye like other kids. He’s well aware. And we told him that, ‘When you go to heaven, when Jesus calls someone to heaven because they’re sick or have a bo-bo, sometimes they’re needed to help other people.’ So, he has an angel with him. So, he has an angel’s eye.”

Spinks said she has no information about Jason’s donor and doesn’t know if the donor’s relatives know about him.

“I haven’t written a donor letter yet because every time I try, I cry,” she said. “But after today, we’re going to go home and I’m going to try.”

Bob Himel had a harder time talking about his late wife, Gigi.

“This just brings it all together,” he said through his tears.

The Serpas family, of New Orleans, agreed. The aunt and uncle of Southern Eye Bank employee Sara Botsay, Louis and Terry Serpas had been invited to previous events but never attended.

Then, Louis’ sister, Cathy Smith, 57, lost her long battle with breast cancer in July. Her eye tissue was donated to two Nebraska men, one age 40, the other 60, they said.

“She made the decision herself,” an emotional Louis Serpas said. “She was slightly mentally challenged, but she made the decision.”

“We said today there must have been a reason we didn’t come,” Terry Serpas said. “We were meant to be here today. It was very emotional. We just didn’t realize how nice this was. It’s really a very heart-warming thing.”