Earlier this spring, a road trip originating at the corner of fashion and friendship transported us to the heart of the Crescent City. There, a designer beloved by DFW Style Daily has dedicated her latest creation to her community’s next generation. Read on to learn why the Bibby Gumbo Baby Book Club matters, and prepare for your heartstrings to be tugged by its mission and strong hometown ties.
This August will mark a full decade since Hurricane Katrina, and the damage wrought by one of the most horrific natural disasters in the history of our country can still be witnessed throughout the city of New Orleans. Among the areas hardest hit was the eastern-situated community surrounding the intersection of Read Boulevard and Interstate 10. To the naked eye in 2015, the homes, businesses, and thoroughfares there don’t all seem to reflect ten years of restoration. One notable exception is the East New Orleans Regional Library.
Enter Thais Mills. As a young writer just gaining a foothold in media, she was displaced from her home by Katrina in 2005. Landing in Texas with next to nothing, the intervening years have brought new opportunities, marriage, and a baby girl for Mills (pictured below, center). In her heart, however, home will always be East New Orleans.
Beautiful, bold, and beyond creative, we first met Mills as a contestant in Dallas’ own Accessories in the Nude Competition in 2014. Achieving the finalist round, she showcased handmade floral fascinators, a new venture born of skilled hands and a restless spirit after losing everything to the flood. A bond was formed between us through fashion, and promises to “keep in touch” turned into a rich friendship.
Fast forward a bit, and Mills’ company, Thais Flowers, bloomed from her new city of Katy, Texas. Orders poured in for gifts, weddings, and more, but her thoughts returned again and again to her hometown. Though circumstances had not yet allowed for her to move back to New Orleans, the young mother longed to make an effort to reconnect with the community.
Mills explains, “When I was pregnant, I could not find any literacy programs that catered to expecting moms and infants in my hometown. This sparked a fire within me to create an experience wherein New Orleans parents could expose their new babies to books and art.”
And so, the Bibby Gumbo Baby Book Club was born. Borrowing Mills’ daughter Iyla Grace’s nickname (Iyla Grace is pictured at top), the club is part story time, part art class, and all heart. It meets each month at the East New Orleans Regional Library, and the current member tally is about 15 parent-child teams. Little ones range in age from toddlers to training wheels, with a few older book-lovers in the pre-teen range acting as “club helpers.”
This reporter was honored to be invited to pull up a chair as a guest reader for the latest meeting of the Bibby Gumbo Baby Book Club. Past readers have included local news anchors, and additional NOLA-based celebrities have also made appearances. To prepare for my star turn in front of this very adorable audience, I packed a copy of Shoe-La-La by Karen Beaumont, with illustrations by LeUyen Pham. After all, who doesn’t love a great pair of shoes?
Upon arrival, my welcome from the club was beyond warm. Hugs and laughter were in no short supply. Also delightful, I was joined in the featured guest category by New Orleans child actor Tommy Rouzan, Jr., age nine, and songbird Amari Booker, age 12. Rouzan regaled the audience with tales from the set of his latest movie, and Booker treated us to a sensational serenade. An animated reading session followed thereafter.
After book time comes art time at the Bibby Gumbo Baby Book Club, plus a little free play and independent reading. It’s an action-packed event for all involved, and one that will pay it forward by encouraging a love of literacy and learning from an early age. Of course, it also has deep meaning for the parents and its founder.
“Returning to New Orleans once a month for Bibby Gumbo brings my healing from Hurricane Katrina full circle,” Mills reflected following our visit. “It proves that, out of devastation, something delightful can be born. Around every corner you see signs of rebuilding, and it encourages the community to keep the faith that New Orleans will return to its authentic self, in time. Also, the babies of New Orleans are a new kind of survivor, and they deserve it.”
We at DFW Style Daily kick up our heels in congratulations to Thais Mills. Visiting the Bibby Gumbo Baby Book Club in New Orleans was the highlight of this reporter’s spring, and with plans for expansion and a presence at the upcoming Essence Festival, the future looks bright for the club.
In conclusion, with regret, our enthusiasm is mitigated by the fact that the future of the East New Orleans Regional Library itself is in question. This public facility at the epicenter of a still-struggling community has been restored with care, from exterior signage and sculptures to a computer lab donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A proposition currently pending may shutter several New Orleans branch libraries if not approved by voters, however, due to shortages of funds. We hope for the best, and write from the heart, and will treasure always our day at the Bibby Gumbo Baby Book Club.
Show your support by sharing this article, and visiting www.BibbyGumbo.com. For additional information, please email through our Contact Page. Lead image credit Tonya Dailey Photography; additional images courtesy of Thais Mills.