Cook County Family Connection Enlists a Loblolly Pine to Promote Literacy



When Cook County Family Connection Executive Director Zoe Myers heard the story, Forever Loblolly, she knew exactly what to do with a project grant her Collaborative received from the Georgia Council for the Arts, which cultivates the growth of vibrant, thriving Georgia communities through the arts.

“I thought, how great would it be if we could have Loblolly Day across Cook County and combine art and literacy for the children,” said Myers, who got right to work with the Collaborative’s child care and early education partners to organize and sponsor the event. “Literacy and education are our most important goals here in Cook County.”

The Georgia Council for the Arts supports single art projects such as an art exhibit, theater production, series of workshops for children, or artist residency. The children in Cook County who benefited from the grant created artwork to celebrate the story and improve their agricultural literacy by exploring the limitless potential of the Georgia pine.

Forever Loblolly, a homegrown children’s book co-authored by Georgia authors Carmen Agra Deedy and John McCutcheon and illustrated by Georgia artist Thomas Gonzalez, was printed by RR Donnelley and Sons in Atlanta on paper sourced from Georgia, thanks to the Georgia Forestry Foundation and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Forever Loblolly is a story about a pine cone knocked off its tree when a strong wind whips through the forest. As it strikes the ground, a seed tumbles loose and lands in a pocket of soft, warm earth, then goes to sleep. When the little seed awakens at last, he finds he has grown into a tiny sprout. He sets down roots, drinks in the sunlight, and learns to bend with the wind. Years pass and he grows tall and strong. But a fierce storm changes everything, and the loblolly discovers a forever he never imagined.

Georgia’s children, like the loblolly pine in the story, often encounter storms that they can’t weather alone. Forever Loblolly provides a tangible way to get all students reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

“The loblolly started from a little seed, and that’s where we start to nurture it,” said former first lady Sandra Deal, who was instrumental in launching the book. “We have to nurture our children so that they become strong in their vocabulary as we talk to them, as we read to them—and more and more we know that early intervention is what makes the difference.”

Pre-K students at Cook Primary School kicked off Loblolly Day when they listened to the story, sang, danced, exhibited loblolly artwork, and starred in a video to share why reading matters. Myers, on behalf of the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, also presented the school’s media center with a copy of the book, which will be distributed to every public elementary school in Georgia. All public libraries in Georgia received a copy last summer.

From left: Becky Ratts of Cook County Schools; Zoe Myers, Cook County Family Connection executive director; Leslie Folsom, Cook Primary School principal; Jennifer Lovett of Cook County Family Connection; and Jeanne Dixon, Cook Primary School Pre-K director

The morning continued at Candy Cane’s Learning Center in Adel, which teamed up with Cook County Family Connection, Cook County Farm Bureau, and Packaging Cooperation of America to give the children hands-on experience making their own paper. They learned that wooden spoons, fingernail polish, and bubble gum also come from loblolly pines.

From left: Michele Waters, Cook County Farm Bureau Agricultural Literacy Program coordinator; Donnie Smith of South Central Primary Care; Chet Ballard of Valdosta State University); Candace Horne, owner of Candy Cane’s Learning Center; Zoe Myers, Cook County Family Connection executive director; Jill O’Meara of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning; and Jennifer Lovett of Cook County Family Connection

Candace Horne, who owns the center and knows firsthand about the difference early intervention makes on the children in her care, put a $20,000 literacy grant to work to support literacy in the county along with Cook County Family Connection.

“Knowing the reading scores in Cook County hurt my heart, literally,” said Horne. “So running a learning center dealing with children birth through age 3, I thought it was my responsibility to set a solid foundation for the children in my community. My husband and I added a tiny lending library to my facility where parents can check out books to read to their children at home.”

Loblolly Day culminated in the afternoon at Boys & Girls Club of Cook County and the Cook Public Library, where students read stories that featured trees and filled an exhibit space with paintings—some they created using brushes made from loblolly pine needles and incorporated pine into the artwork.

“The work of Cook County Family Connection is so important in bringing all our community partners together—and really across so many diverse sectors,” said Myers. “We’re also looking to create a healthier community and environment and improve access to affordable and equitable health care—not just here in our rural community, but by connecting rural communities across south Georgia to do that work together.”