This fall, every first-grader in Macon-Bibb County will receive a free book and a lesson in teamwork from Mercer women’s basketball Coach Susie Gardner. 

Gardner’s children’s book, “1, 2, 3 Team!” – illustrated by her longtime friend Tina Mullen and published by Mercer University Press in 2016 – will be handed out to about 2,350 first-graders in public and private schools across the county in the coming weeks. The book distribution kicked off Aug. 12 with a media event at Hartley Elementary, during which Gardner read her story to children there. 

The book giveaway is made possible through additional support from the United Way of Central Georgia, Piedmont orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bill Barnes, Macon philanthropist Beverly Knight Olson, Mercer University Press and an anonymous donor, Gardner said. 

Gardner said her interest and love for children’s books was piqued while reading stories to her sister’s five kids when they were growing up. She noticed that some of the stories offered great life lessons. Gardner’s sister started a tradition of giving her a new children’s book for her personal library each Christmas. 

Fast forward and Gardner was reading “Your Life Calling” by journalist Jane Pauley while on a road trip with her team. The book asked readers what they would do if they didn’t need money and could do anything with their life. Gardner’s answer was to write a children’s book. She told Mercer University Press Director Marc Jolley about her idea, and he suggested she write a story themed around teamwork. 

In her research, Gardner discovered there weren’t a lot of books about teamwork for younger children, and she knew she wanted to create a book that would engage her readers. 

Coach Susie Gardner, second from left, is pictured with supporters of the book distribution project and Bibb County School District staff at Hartley Elementary on Aug. 12. Photo by Leah Yetter

“1, 2, 3 Team!” follows a young athlete named Zoey as she learns a valuable lesson. When Gardner reads the book aloud to kids, they’re encouraged to yell “team” after she says “1, 2, 3” and get in a huddle. 

“(The Bibb County School District) has a great focus on building character education, and this book is all about the main character Zoey learning how to be a good teammate and be part of the team instead of being in the spotlight,” said Michelle Lenderman, director of media services for the district. “That’s really good for our first-graders to learn. I hope they enjoy the story itself. That’s what we want our kids to do, enjoy reading and see reading as fun.”

When Gardner wrote the book, it was her goal to get it into as many children’s hands as possible. A lover of Dolly Parton and her music since childhood, Gardner was inspired by the icon’s Imagination Library program that mails free books to children. 

“(Parton) did a lot more than just writing and singing songs,” Gardner said. “She started Imagination Library in Sevierville (Tennessee), and it’s gone worldwide. I was introduced to that, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I thought if I could get my book to the Macon-Bibb first-graders, that would be my little Dolly Parton corner of the world. As crazy as it sounds, Dolly encouraged me to do it. It took a village to get this accomplished.”

A few years ago, Gardner gave a copy of “1, 2, 3 Team!” to each of the district’s elementary schools and read it aloud to the students, Lenderman said. Earlier this summer, she let the district know that everything had fallen in place to now give the book to each first-grader. 

“It’s really amazing that she was able to get all this together,” Lenderman said. “Susie has always been super interested in literacy and reading. That’s just a passion of hers. She took the initiative. We’re so excited, and we’re blessed that this is happening. It’s quite a feat to get a book for every first-grader in the district.”

With Mercer women's basketball players by her side, Coach Susie Gardner reads her book to Hartley Elementary students on Aug. 12.
With Mercer women’s basketball players by her side, Coach Susie Gardner reads her book to Hartley Elementary students on Aug. 12. Photo by Leah Yetter

The books are not just being dropped off at the elementary schools. Gardner said she and some of her players and staff plan to personally visit each school and hand each first-grader a copy. 

“Some of them will have a bookshelf in their house, and some of them, this will be the first book they’ve ever owned,” Gardner said. “I hope they will get more books and get a library card and want to read more. Maybe they’ll grow a love of reading and get a good message from the book about being a good person.”

A national study showed that, on average, there’s only one book for every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods. By contrast, the ratio in middle-class neighborhoods is about 13 books per child. 

“So you can see the huge disparity there,” said George McCanless, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Georgia. “Our big focus at United Way is disrupting poverty and to do that, one of the best ways is to make sure children get a good education. Reading at third grade is one of the most important indicators of whether a child will end up graduating from high school. It’s hard when children don’t have books.”

This book distribution project is another example of how Mercer and its athletics programs are devoted to promoting and improving literacy in the community. About half of the tutors for the United Way’s Read United program for children in kindergarten through third grade are Mercer students, and many of those are athletes, McCanless said. In addition to other projects, Gardner has done book collections and giveaways at basketball games, Lenderman said.

“This is one more way that Mercer athletes and coaches continue to pay forward to the community,” McCanless said. “(Coach Gardner) is one of the top women’s coaches in the country. Her record speaks for itself. To have a coach here locally and these athletes getting out in the community, I think that will resonate even more with the children. Her message in her book is a really good fit.”

Feature photo by Leah Yetter.


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