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Everything is Connected

What do prenatal counseling, early childhood education, and safe prescription disposal all have in common? They’re just a few of the programs offered by the Children’s Coalition, a nonprofit serving twelve parishes in northeast Louisiana, and whose executive director, Dr. Lynn Clark, is this year’s recipient of the Light Up for Literacy Award.

Presented in partnership with the State Library of Louisiana’s Center for the Book, the Light Up for Literacy Award celebrates those who have reshaped the state’s literacy landscape. Past awardees include Dr. Richard Louth, who has worked to improve writing pedagogy and is the founder of the New Orleans Writing Marathon; Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell, who led an effort to replenish classroom libraries post-Hurricane Katrina; and the Sisters of the Holy Family, who began educating children of color back when it was illegal to do so.

It goes without saying that Dr. Clark finds herself in good company. What makes this year’s award unique is that her work pushes beyond reading literacy, extending to literacy in all areas of children’s lives—whether it’s teaching them to use language arts skills to understand science topics, or offering edible gardens in neighborhoods so parents and children can make healthy eating choices. These seemingly separate aspects of childhood are in fact anything but, and Dr. Clark and the Children’s Coalition are working tirelessly to provide programming that builds bridges between them for communities across the region.

When speaking about the professional philosophy that brought her to where she is now, Dr. Clark says, “It’s literacy writ large. Yes, language arts, but all these other kinds of literacies, including technological, health, history, civic, and math. What I like about integrated learning is that it really just allows those literacies to intersect.”

One example of how those literacies interact is through the Not a #Number program, a week-long curriculum created by the international human rights organization Love146. Each year the Coalition brings Not a #Number into all middle schools in Ouachita Parish, training one thousand students in human trafficking awareness through media, activities, and conversation. By the end of the program, students can recognize the signs of exploitation, rewrite social stigmas, and know the resources available for handling trafficking situations.

Yet Not a #Number is only one of the dozens of programs, resources, events, and trainings that the Coalition uses to impact the children of northeast Louisiana, often long before middle school, and in fact, long before they’re born. The Early Head Start program works with mothers and families while children are still in utero, providing a clear path for them to enter one of the five Early Head Start centers or two local partnership centers by the time they’re sixteen months old. Currently, Early Head Start centers serve 132 children while the program at large served 177 northeast Louisiana families in 2019. It’s a monumental achievement in its own right, but is only one of many that the Coalition’s exceptional team has achieved under Dr. Clark’s leadership.

Since Dr. Clark has become executive director, the Coalition’s funding has increased by a factor of six. They’re now able to serve exponentially more children in more contexts, and they’ve consolidated their offices into a building in downtown Monroe that’s wrapped by an edible garden. However, Dr. Clark’s work with the Coalition is just beginning.

“Every day we see something more that needs to be done,” she says. Nearly two hundred families are on the waiting list for Early Head Start alone. Until they have the capacity to welcome all of them, the Coalition will find other, more immediate ways to meet the needs of local families.

It makes sense, then, that expanding the region’s network of Little Free Libraries is on the Coalition’s list of newest projects. They’ve also partnered with LSU AgCenter to bring more edible gardens into communities, addressing not only book deserts but also food deserts. It’s par for the course for an organization and a director driven by multidisciplinary approaches to knowledge.

When asked if she knew at the start of her career where she might end up, Dr. Clark laughs. Of course she didn’t—who does? But looking back, one sign was there.

“I was blessed by having a mother who was a librarian,” she says. “When you grow up in a library, you know that everything is connected. Every book is its own universe, and everything is connected. That’s what I knew the moment I stepped into a classroom. Learning doesn’t happen just there, it happens everywhere. Learning is about making those connections.”

Dr. Clark will be honored at the Bright Lights Awards Dinner this spring.

Morgan Randall is a writer exploring the relationships between people, the environment, and business. You can find her at morganeliserandall.com.