Parade Grand Marshals Spread Love of Reading in Coweta County
By Shiann Sivell
The LaGrange Daily News
Becoming grand marshals for the Sweet Land of Liberty Parade in LaGrange is not only an honor for Nicole Kennedy and Gail Gordon, but it is perfectly in sync with the work they do with children on a daily basis.
Kennedy, more affectionately known as “Jungle Jama,” and Gordon, known as “Reading Ranger,” when they scope the county in the Jungle Bus bookmobile, have an unshakeable passion for teaching the county’s youngest members the importance of reading.
“I’ve always had a passion and love for reading,” Gordon said. Gordon’s passion for reading started long before she ever stepped foot on the Jungle Bus.
Gordon previously worked in the Coweta County School System as a kindergarten teacher, moving on to the Troup County School System, teaching kindergarten once more, and then becoming an elementary and a high school counselor before taking time off to stay at home.
As she was headed back to apply to work in the Troup County School System, she accepted an opening for the Success by 6 Coordinator’s job under United Way of West Georgia roughly four years ago.
Kennedy has also had a passion for reading her whole life. Now, she uses her persona as Jungle Jama to spread the importance of reading throughout the community.
“A lot of people don’t know…to still read to their [child],” Kennedy said. “For families that don’t have the means to know the importance of early learning, we try to really be more visible.”
Kennedy currently works as the Title I Parent and Family Engagement Coordinator for the Troup County School System and has worked in the public school system for nearly 30 years as a teacher, administrator, assistant principal, and central office leader.
Her role with the Jungle Bus began in 2016, after she met Gordon at a conference and later they attended a Get Georgia Reading for Campaign Grade-Level Reading meeting in Tifton together. The two collaborated on the idea to create an accessible route for children to obtain books and received support and the proper funds, plus were gifted the over 40-year-old bus-turned-book mobile, for the project.
The two officially launched the bookmobile in 2017 and have been traveling throughout the community to give out free books and stress the importance of reading, especially to children who are still too young to attend school.
“We were seeing a lot of families that didn’t come to the school and libraries,” Kennedy said. “We just brainstormed a way to get children ready for school, and the Jungle Bus came to be. It gave us a way to go out into neighborhoods and into community events instead of them having to come into the schools.”
When COVID hit the area, Gordon and Kennedy had to pause their extensive operations, but still managed to continue their goals and passed out books to the community.
“We would go places and set up tables and instead of letting them [touch] a book, we kind of just gave them one,” Gordon said. “[In 2020], we gave away almost 5,000 books to the community.”
Gordon added that children in the area may have lost the pathway that gets them to read early due to COVID, but that it’s only made her and Kennedy work harder.
“We feel like they have missed out a lot the last year, just from not being at school and not socializing and not having that structure,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t beneficial, but that’s part of our goal to keep encouraging reading and keep getting books out.”
Gordon has always said that parents are their child’s first teachers, and the first years of life are critical in a child’s future success. “I’ve personally been to Head Starts, early learning centers, and parent meetings and I may ask ‘How many books do you have in your home?’ and it’s amazing to me when many say they have none.”
With COVID settling in the area, the Jungle Bus duo picked back up their efforts to physically get books out to children. “A lot of parents may have transportation barriers and can’t get out to the library, so we thought, let’s take the library to them,” Kennedy said. “We want all children to be exposed [to reading] and all families to be exposed.”
This summer, the Jungle Bus is offering storytime and free books to children at summer camps, the Troup County School System summer programs, Vacation Bible Schools, sporting events, and wherever kids are gathering. Follow The Jungle Bus on Facebook to learn more.
Read “Gordon, Reading Ranger, has strong passion for reading” from The LaGrange Daily News.
Read “Jungle Jama gets books to children who need them” from The LaGrange Daily News.