Coffee with Corey: Knowledge, Connection, Community

By Corey Poole

When we say Jessica McGrath is a semi-Natchitoches native, we mean that although she grew up in Mansfield, she spent a lot of her childhood in the City of Lights. Her family also has roots here. Her parents, Jerrie Ammons Choate and Dennis Choate graduated from Natchitoches Central and Northwestern State University.

Jessica herself went to NSU for a degree in elementary education. She met her husband Mike McGrath on campus. Mike was earning a general studies degree when the two met with plans to attend seminary.

The couple moved to Fort Worth after graduating and were back-and-forth between Texas and Natchitoches for 10 years. Jessica’s plan in college was to become a teacher, school librarian, or to work her way up to administration. However, when she got to Texas, the teaching market was very competitive and she was only certified in Louisiana.

She took a secretary job in the school of education at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when Mike was enrolled.

The school librarian kept popping up in her life and when she decided to go to grad school, she chose to pursue library science.

“I just felt like this was the path I was being led down,” she explained. She soon transferred to work in the library at the seminary.

After the couple graduated in their respective fields, they moved to Benton, Arkansas where Jessica worked at the local public library, as a teen librarian first and then in adult services. The next step in their journey was in Coushatta where Jessica worked for the DeSoto and Red River Parish Libraries and Mike served at Open Door Fellowship.

Mike wanted to explore the possibility of a hospital  chaplaincy and accepted a position at the Baptist Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Jessica was hired on at the Arkansas State Library, which turned out to be extremely beneficial to her professionally.

Jessica had applied to the Natchitoches Parish Library at some point in the past, but wasn’t necessarily looking to move back to Natchitoches at the time. However, in 2015 the timing was just right as she was offered a job as the director of the library, just as someone from First Baptist Church called Mike to come serve as a youth minister.

They both started their jobs on the same day, and Jessica attributes the easy transition to God.

“We knew the community already and we were excited to move back and jump into our jobs,” said Jessica. “With an 18-month-old and a 4-year-old at the time, we were also happy to be moving closer to both of our parents.”

Mike’s family also has ties to Natchitoches as his father (also Mike) taught for 30 plus years at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. This job at a school for high-achieving rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors was the reason the McGrath family moved to Natchitoches from North Carolina when young Mike was in the second grade.

One of Jessica’s memories of her youth spent in Natchitoches is visits to chicken houses on Johnson Chute Road that where owned by her grandfather John Ammons. He also owned and operated a gas station/convenience store for years in Oak Grove. Her other grandfather, Donald Ray Choate, worked for the City’s Maintenance Department. One of the ballfields at Highland Park is named after him. Her grandmother, Mary Choate, worked in the cafeteria at Northwestern. 

Her first challenge as library director was the library tax that was up for renewal in 2017, less than two years after she started in this new position.

“It was a true trial by fire,” said Jessica, who added that although it was stressful, she learned a lot through the process of attending millage workshops and learning everything she could.

She also started to take the library in a new direction with a rebranding, logo redesign, and a new tagline: knowledge, connection, community.

“Outreach is a big passion of mine,” she added. “What that looks like is constantly evolving. The library is about experiences and not everyone has access to the same experiences so we try to limit any barriers that may exist.”

While there’s challenges like tax renewals, everyday politics, and the recent “first amendment auditor” situation the library went through, Jessica said her staff are the true rockstars. They bring new ideas and interests to the table and they’ve been able to provide services to the community because every employee is a part of the community, and that’s important.

Jessica herself is a member of the Rotary Club of Natchitoches, Chair of the A+ Coalition, Vice President of the Natchitoches Parish School Board’s Parent Advisory Council, a member of the Natchitoches Parish Early Childhood Network’s Ready Start Natchitoches initiative, a coalition of individuals committed to improving opportunities and inspiring change for children birth to age five. She also recently graduated as a member of the 2022 Leadership Natchitoches Cohort.

Big on family, Jessica and Mike coach their three children (Addie, Norah, and Silas) in softball, soccer, and volleyball. Jessica also teaches Jr. High Sunday school at First Baptist where Mike currently serves as Associate Pastor of Families and College Students.

They also love to travel, with Yellowstone and New York on Christmas Day listed as their top trips. Jessica loves physical books (of course) and audiobooks. 

Right now, Jessica is reading Long Way Gone, the only book she has yet to read by one of her favorite authors, Charles Martin.

Podcasts win out over TV unless there’s a football game on (Saints or Cowboys depending on who you ask). She and her husband took their kids to the Cotton Bowl Classic on Jan. 2.

When it comes to advice, Jessica was quick to share sticky note messages written by her kids:

Don’t let the silly little things steal your joy

Be kind instead of right

And with faith being a big part of their family, here’s one last piece of advice to remember:

And if not, God is still good and he is still sovereign