DENHAM SPRINGS -- Nearly 18 months have gone by since the Great Flood of 2016, but Lauren Kennedy still remembers the little boy from St. Tammany Parish.
That little boy who, upon hearing of the calamity in Livingston Parish, immediately put himself in that situation and thought of what he’d miss most: bedtime.
That little boy who, on his birthday, collected pajamas, stuffed animals, blankets, pillows and books so those who had lost everything could enjoy his favorite time of the day.
That little boy whose gifts eventually found their way into the homes of Denham Springs Elementary students needing something — anything — to lift their spirits after experiencing the worst natural disaster to hit the area.
That little boy from St. Tammany Parish, Kennedy says, is a true life changer.
And though she’s reluctant to admit it, so too is Kennedy, an assistant principal at Eastside Elementary who was one of just five educators from Louisiana nominated for National Life Group’s 2017-2018 LifeChanger of the Year award.
Since its inception in the 2011-12 school year, the LifeChanger award has honored K-12 educators, teachers and administrators who have made a positive difference in the lives of students and their communities.
Kennedy was one of hundreds of nominees nationwide, chosen for both her work in the classroom and the work she helped organize in the aftermath of the August 2016 flood.
But the former teacher, who’s been in the Livingston Parish Public Schools system since 2000, is up against some stiff competition.
Kennedy said she recently started following the award’s official Twitter page and tries to read a few of the blurbs of her fellow nominees each day. So far, the stories have “amazed” her.
And though she’s not one to ever take credit, choosing instead to quietly go about her business, so too is Kennedy’s story.
But during a recent interview in her office with The News, she stressed it wasn’t just her story.
“Our school was amazing, our students and teachers were amazing, their families were amazing,” she said.
“This is not my story — this is our school’s story.”
When long-time friend Sean Davis first approached Kennedy with his idea to nominate her for the LifeChanger award, she initially said no.
Actually, Eastside Elementary Principal Kelly LaBauve says, Kennedy said no “three times.”
“Her response was, ‘I didn’t do anything other people weren’t doing,’” LaBauve recalled her friend and “work wife” saying.
But the difference, LaBauve told Kennedy, was that she does it “everyday,” no matter the situation — whether that meant organizing relief work in her community or giving high-fives and a cheerful “hello” to students passing through the hallways.
Kennedy has certainly left her mark wherever she’s gone.
Her teaching career started at Denham Springs Elementary in 2000, where she taught fifth grade for eight years while also coaching girls’ volleyball, softball and track teams. During this time, she also sponsored the Jr. Beta Club and spearheaded development programs for other clubs geared toward helping the community.
In 2008, Kennedy moved to Live Oak Elementary and became responsible for classroom instruction and management strategies for teachers, a role she’d keep for two years before taking the Instructional Coach position at Eastside Elementary in 2010.
At ESE, Kennedy 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 to help students set goals for behavior, as well as accountability and rewards for reporting good days.
She also started ESE’s Math Fact Rockstar program aimed at helping struggling students gain motivation to learn their facts. On Monday mornings, she high-fives all the students who pass their time tests.
When LaBauve was named ESE principal in 2013, Kennedy was promoted to assistant principal, and she’s been in that position since.
“She’s phenomenal,” LaBauve said of Kennedy. “I knew without a doubt I needed her there.”
But three years after becoming assistant principal, Kennedy — as well as everyone in the Livingston Parish Public Schools system — encountered an obstacle that no amount of classroom experience could adequately prepare them for: the Great Flood, which dumped more than 30 inches of rain on Livingston Parish in less than a day.
Though Kennedy and her husband A.J.’s home in Creekside Estates didn’t flood, many connected with Eastside Elementary did, leaving the spared couple with one option — to get to work.
But Kennedy, who had experienced two floods to her family’s Watson home as a child, knew one thing — they’d need help.
The help came in force.
In the two weeks after the flood, ESE teachers, students and their families would gather at the school each day at 9 a.m. and from there spread out, going to the names and addresses Kennedy had written down on little index cards.
Maybe you knew the person whose rotten baseboard you were pulling up, and maybe you didn’t. To Kennedy, none of that mattered — what did was that you were there, pulling up that baseboard.
No one knows exactly how many houses they helped gut and clean during those two weeks schools were closed. And though it wasn’t necessarily the best of times — watching others throw away a lifetime of memories was trying — Kennedy described it as an “uplifting experience” she’ll never forget.
“Just watching the compassion that people had for each other during that was amazing,” she said. “I’m sure there were some bad stories, but I didn’t experience that. I only saw people coming together and taking care of each other.”
When Denham Springs Elementary spent 91 days at ESE while its temporary campus was being constructed, LaBauve said it was Lauren who became consumed with school morale, constantly thinking up ways to boost everyone’s spirits.
One day, Kennedy called CC’s Coffee House hoping to get a truck to come serve both ESE and DSE staffs. But once again, the communal generosity Kennedy remembers was on display: When she offered to pay, CC’s declined, instead giving the schools 100 cups of coffee for free.
Both Kennedy and LaBauve cried at the gesture.
“It was all very impactful to watch,” Kennedy said.
When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston last August, Eastside reached out to Bear Creek Elementary, a school ESE librarian Chrystal Gauthreaux attended as a child. Though the school didn’t flood, most of the student body did.
But for this project, Kennedy “stole” an idea from another — Callahan Arch, the second grader from Mandeville Elementary who used his birthday to collect bedtime items for DSE students after the August 2016 flood.
After “filling every crevice” in her Tahoe with donations ESE collected, Kennedy and Gauthreaux made the trip to Katy, Texas, bringing pajamas, games, stuffed animals, gift cards, blankets, backpacks, lunch boxes, toiletries and a check for $1,600, collected from a free dress day.
When they arrived, they saw a familiar scene, Kennedy said.
“It was just like it was here: piles and piles of stuff on the road, and people coming together to help each other,” she said.
All this led Kennedy’s friend, Sean Davis, to nominate her for the LifeChanger of the Year award, something wholly unexpected for the humble assistant principal.
Even more unexpected — she now has a chance to win.
A representative from the LifeChanger of the Year award said in an email that the five grand-prize finalists will be announced during surprise events at their schools in the coming weeks. The finalists will then be flown down to Bermuda in mid-May before attending the awards ceremony, where the winner will be announced.
The winner will receive $10,000, according to the website, with half of that going to the winner’s school. Other finalists will each get $5,000 to be split between them and their schools.
Though her name is on the nomination — and will be on the award if she wins — Kennedy continued to stress that she did nothing by herself.
As they say at Eastside, “it takes a village.”
“We do a good thing around here, and we have a good story to tell,” Kennedy said.