Position: Assistant Principal
School: East Side Elementary School
School District: Livingston Parish Public Schools
City, State: Denham Springs, LA
Lauren Kennedy was nominated by her friend, Sean Davis. They have known each other for nearly 30 years, growing up together and attending school together when they were younger.
"I remember meeting her for the first time a long time ago. I instantly knew she was one of those people you meet who will be a special and talented person," Davis said.
Ms. Kennedy's life of service began like most teachers, with graduation and getting her first teaching job. She began teaching at Denham Springs Elementary School, a Title I school in August 2000. She taught fifth grade there for eight years, while also coaching young ladies’ volleyball, softball and track teams. In addition, she sponsored the Jr. Beta Club, with a primary purpose of teaching students to be servant leaders. Ms. Kennedy spearheaded development programs for a variety of clubs directly benefitting the community. In August 2008, she was offered the opportunity to move to Live Oak Elementary School, where she became responsible for classroom instruction and management strategies for teachers. In this role, she expanded her involvement to include Jr. Beta Club and whole student development.
In 2010, Ms. Kennedy took on the Instructional Coach position at Eastside Elementary School, another Title I school. In that role, she served the teachers and students of the entire school. She instituted a check-in, check-out program for students who struggled with behavior. The program pairs students and adults together for morning and afternoon talks. The adults help students set goals for behavior, as well as accountability and rewards for reporting good days. She began a Math Fact Rockstar program to help struggling students gain motivation to learn their facts. She also began a Student Council to further her goal of developing servant leaders in a positive environment.
In 2013, Ms. Kennedy was promoted to assistant principal and is in this position today. She is responsible for discipline, testing staff and student morale, student data and school improvement, among other duties. Throughout her career, she has made many efforts and sacrifices
In August 2016, just as another school year was about to convene, Mother Nature had plans. The Greater Baton Rouge area, particularly Livingston Parish and its school system, were struck by exceptional and torrential rains. The Livingston Parish area received 31 inches of rain in 15 hours. Nearly 7 trillion gallons of water were dumped over a period of two days. It was a calamity and catastrophe that affected 100,000 homes and most all of the schools in the Livingston Parish System. Comparatively, Greater Houston lost 100,000 homes in an area of nearly 7 million residents. The Greater Baton Rouge area lost the same number of homes in a city of around 700,000 residents.
Ms. Kennedy did what most Louisianans did: she went to work. Many people heard through national news about the Cajun Navy bringing people to safety on boats. What people didn’t hear were the stories of the schools, homes, shelters, and government offices that were decimated during this as well. What follows is a description of what Ms. Kennedy, her school, and many of her colleagues contributed.
On Friday, August 12th, 2016, Ms. Kennedy received a message from the school superintendent stating school would be closed due to water on the roads. It had rained a lot the night before, and the district was concerned about buses being out before daylight in a high-water environment. It was still raining, but most felt it would just be a day off from school and a long weekend. On Friday afternoon, most roads were flooded, and water was entering homes. Most were raising furniture and packing valuables in attics in preparation to evacuate. Ms. Kennedy and her husband home got close to having water, but fortunately, they were spared. They took in families who were not so fortunate in the middle of Friday night. Ms. Kennedy had been through a flood during her childhood, and she had seen people show up to help her family. With great purpose and appreciation, she felt a duty to return the gift of aid to others.
The water began to recede the following Monday morning, and Ms. Kennedy gathered and coordinated a team to begin helping people deal with the shock, disbelief and work ahead. On Monday morning, she and her team cleaned up 2 of the affected homes in her neighborhood. One home belonged to a principal in the school district, and the other belonged to a teacher from East Side Elementary. The cleanup process involves removing baseboards, sheetrock and virtually everything in the home below the water line. Then, the drying process begins. More than physical labor, the greater aspect of sorting through your family’s lost belongings is a labor of emotion not easily explained until experienced. While this was going on, Ms. Kennedy and her husband, AJ, cooked everything in their freezer to feed the affected neighbors lunch and dinner for a week.
On the second day of recovery, Ms. Kennedy gathered her makeshift work crew and went to the home of an East Side Elementary student who needed help. They worked on the demolition all day, but the real damage was emotional, and Ms. Kennedy remembers giving lots of hugs.
On the third day, Ms. Kennedy set up a Facebook page for East Side students and parents to volunteer and make requests for food, aid, or anything else they needed. The response for both service and need was overwhelming, as those that could help felt great empathy to assist those that were in need. She helped to organize cooking crews, deconstruction crews and delivering crews for supplies and food. On this third day, she and her team helped over 20 families. Each morning, she organized her crew of volunteers to meet at East Side Elementary and get their day’s instruction for who needed help. They did this every day for 2 weeks following the flood. Ms. Kennedy says she was humbled by the volunteers who kept coming day after day. She lost track of the number of families they assisted because the scale of it all, both emotionally and physically, was larger than anyone had anticipated.
On the fourth day, Ms. Kennedy went to help her sister’s home who flooded.
The fifth day, another ESE teacher needed assistance, and she and her team went there in the morning. In the afternoon, it was another home.
On the sixth day, she went to two more homes.
On days 7 and 8, Ms. Kennedy was finally able to get to her mother’s home in St. Amant, LA, which had just seen its waters recede enough to get around. The increasingly normal process of deconstruction of homes and construction of resolve was needed here as well.
On Day 9, Ms. Kennedy met with the School Board Superintendent at ESE and learned they may be taking in another school that had flooded. She began planning for that integration and continued to monitor the Facebook page for supplies needed for students and teachers.
On Day 10, she went to the Food Bank at Live Oak United Methodist Church and volunteered to distribute food and supplies there. This was an absolutely incredible operation in its own right. A local grocery store and the Church teamed up to give away thousands of dollars of food and supplies to those who had lost everything. There were multiple 18-wheeler trailer loads of food, clothing and supplies being distributed on a daily basis.
On Day 11, she went to the home of her friend's mother and ripped out cabinets and sheetrock. She also recalls helping to pack up family heirlooms that could not be thrown away, regardless of the water logged condition.
On Day 12, she became a delivery person and picked up items and supplies that people wanted to donate to teachers and students whose homes were flooded.
On Day 13, she went back to the Live Oak Methodist Food Bank to volunteer.
On August 29th, 2016, every available staff member was asked to report back to campus to begin preparation for students. They were also asked to report to two other schools in the district who were flooded and attempt to salvage whatever supplies and materials they could.
On September 1st, 2016, the School Superintendent told ESE they would be taking on Denham Springs Elementary's students in preK-2 for an unknown period of time. Denham Springs Elementary took on 7 feet of water. Preparation for this began by partnering the Kindergarten teachers to make room for the new students. They put 4 classrooms in the gym, using wire and tarps to separate the classes. They collected $10,000 in donations for books, gift cards, bulletin board materials, rugs, lamps, school supplies, shelves, cubbies and toys for the oncoming Denham Springs Elementary studetns and staff.
On September 6th, the first faculty meeting occurred with the new joint ESE and Denham Springs Elementary Staff. Ms. Kennedy recalls it being a special moment for her because she had spent significant time at both schools, and they were now both under one roof. She says they laughed, cried and prayed together with lots of hugs because all of the Denham Springs Elementary teachers had lost everything in the flood and were now being asked to go back to teaching and try, in some small way, to help the elementary students process what had just occurred in their lives.
Ms. Kennedy says the outpouring of aid was something she remembers most. The hallways of ESE were filled with school supplies so teachers could “shop for free” and use these items in their classrooms for the upcoming year. There were thousands of books and supplies that students needed for their return to school. This all had to be coordinated, received and distributed, and Ms. Kennedy was an important part of a very large undertaking. She remembers this day in particular and says “it was a pretty awesome day!”
On September 10th, she remembered a second grader from St. Tammany Parish asked if he could bring some donations to the school. His mother said he asked only for pajamas, stuffed animals, a blanket and books for his birthday so that he could donate them all to the kids in Livingston Parish who had lost everything. To him, bedtime would be the hardest part of losing his home, so he wanted to make bedtime a little brighter for the Livingston Parish kids.
"He was a LifeChanger to me that day! We can learn a lot from kids," Ms. Kennedy said.
On September 12th, 2016, ESE was chaotic, crowded, emotional, and a safe haven for 750 students and 125 faculty all seeking a glimpse of normalcy. The coordination of two schools and buses worked from day one. They had to get creative with the scheduling to feed breakfast and lunch to all 750 students, but they did it. They even had recess! This was the number one request from the students. All the students made it home safely that afternoon, and step one in the return to normalcy was complete. It could be done.
Denham Springs Elementary and East Side Elementary were one school for 5 emotional and complicated months. When it was time for them to return to their normal campus, East Side went with them. The East Side staff helped them hang bulletin boards, sweep floors, and make buss signs. Ms. Kennedy remembers on the first day without the students, a lot of the staff drove over to the new Denham Springs Elementary to see the classrooms and because they just weren’t ready to say goodbye.
A little more than a year later, Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area. Déjà vu, all over again. As Louisiana was remembering the catastrophic anniversary of flooding a year earlier, Houston was seemingly upping the ante, with 55 inches of rain from Harvey. Ms. Kennedy jumped back into “show up” mode. Her school, including students and staff, collected school supplies, along with pajamas, stuffed animals and books to help the students at Bear Creek Elementary in Katy, TX. Ms. Kennedy was chosen to deliver these items to the school and saw the all-too familiar situation of teachers, parents and students needing help. She said the sweet 2nd grader from St. Tammany Parish during the 2016 flood was their inspiration to pay it forward.
"Lauren would tell you she was blessed with the opportunity to 'show up' during the Flood of 2016 and return the favor people did for her family so long ago," Davis said. "She would say she was one tiny part in a huge group of people who just wanted to help and take care of people. She would defer and say the School Board and Staff did an amazing job of getting students back to school as quickly as possible. I would say she’s right. But I’ve also met Lauren and can tell you, she was a ring leader and is hard to say no to. It was her effort, spirituality and grace that made something so difficult for so many, be just a little bit easier to manage. She and her husband AJ, I am proud to say, are great friends of mine and are certainly, LifeChangers."
Lauren Kennedy in the News:
Eastside Elementary assistant principal credits school, community for LifeChanger of the Year nomination