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Sweet Land of Liberty parade

Freedom had a new definition to the citizens of Troup County as hundreds came out to support the 37th annual Sweet Land of Liberty Children’s parade Saturday.

The parade, known for its unique children-led participation and complete lack of motorized vehicles, made a comeback from last year’s virtual event as children marched through LaGrange’s downtown to participate and celebrate the festivity.

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton voiced his delight on the return of the parade, and its significance in LaGrange’s and surrounding areas’ recovery from a previously dark year.

“It’s incredibly exciting to see people coming out for the parade and to see the children…” Thornton said. “…we’re still in the pandemic, but we’re making progress and still coming out of it, and I think this is  a milestone that we’re returning to some kind of normalcy.”

Thornton also spoke on the history of the parade, which was founded in 1985 by Junior Service League member, the late Annette Boyd.

“She started the parade as the Sweet Land Liberty parade for youth and that’s actually the origin of the Sweetland Amphitheater name,” Thornton said. “When we built the theatre here in Boyd Park we wanted to recognize Sweet Land as being the original title given by the Boyds for the parade.”

Parents and teachers alike assisted participating children with adding the finishing touches to their vehicles and wardrobes early Saturday morning prior to the parade.

For parents like Jena McClendon, the parade was not only a return to a familiar normal for her and her children, but also a return to a family tradition.

“We’ve been in it every year but this is the first time they’ve been big enough to ride their own bikes,” McClendon said. “We didn’t participate in the virtual one last year … so we’re excited to be back. It’s fun, it’s just a really good tradition.”

First timers such as Martha Stuart, who brought her three-and-a-half year old son, Jason, to the parade were thankful for the experience.

“It’s his first time [at the parade,]” Stuart said. “He learned to ride a bike last year, so it’s something my husband and I thought he’d enjoy. He’s liking it so far.”

The children participants, who either walked or rode on bikes, scooters or even in wagons, started at the entrance of the Sweet Land Amphitheater before walking down Ridley Ave. The procession then circled Lafayette Square where they were greeted by the cheers and applause of the hundreds of visitors and family members awaiting them.

The precession stopped in Layfayette Square for Thornton’s speech commemorating the day, as well as bringing recognition to recipients of the Troup County Pat on the Back recipients and this years’ parade leaders, Jungle Bus duo Nicole Kennedy and Gail Gordon.

Kennedy and Gordon, known as “Jama Mama” and “Reading Ranger” when in their Jungle Bus roles, were recognized for their ongoing efforts to bring reading into the community.

The Jungle Bus bookmobile makes a variety of stops to neighborhoods, schools, early learning centers, and community events throughout Troup County where Kennedy and Gordon they give out free books to children.

This effort continued during the pandemic, and the Jungle Bus duo were able to give away as many as 5,000 books, Gordon said.

During Thornton’s speech, the duo was rewarded with an honor from Gov. Brian Kemp who commemorated July 3 as “Gail Gordon and Nicole Kennedy Day” in Troup County.

“It was so surprising…we did not know about any of that,” Gordon said after receiving the honor.

Following Thornton’s speech, the parade procession returned to Sweet Land Amphitheater, putting an end to the parade and a holiday that felt relatively normal.