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Matters of the Heart: Local Teacher’s Inspirational Story 

Toccoa, GA – It has been said, “With a brave heart, anything is possible.” Stephens County High School teacher Craig Hagel has been doing the impossible and fighting insurmountable health challenges bravely for more than 30 years. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 23, his early adult years were mainly spent enduring many medical tests, being temporarily bedridden, and battling the fear of the unknown as this genetic disease causes loss of muscle mass and progressive weakness.

Four short years later at the age of 27, his heart stopped beating, and once again, a huge health challenge changed everything for him. Through grueling months of physical therapy, Hagel fought hard to recover and live a normal life. That is when he decided to have a pacemaker surgically implanted to keep his heart beating at a regular rhythm.

A Florida native, Hagel moved to Toccoa in 1998 and then to neighboring Hollywood, Georgia, in 2004. He graduated from Toccoa Falls College with a Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry and has dedicated his life to ministry and public service, drawing strength from serving and helping others.

He worked as a youth pastor for 15 years and for the Stephens County Recovery Academy, a school dropout prevention program for 5 years. “While working with teens, I began to realize that every single young person deserves to be given the absolute best opportunity to grow and mature into the unique and amazing human being that they were created to be,” says Hagel. 

This calling led him to serve the public school system as a paraprofessional at Stephens County High School and continue his education through the Georgia Teacher Academy for Preparation and Pedagogy (GaTAPP) teacher certification program to teach high school math. He has been teaching math at Stephens County High School during the day and for the Mountain Education High School evening program since 2016. He says, “I am so very thankful to be a teacher, and working with young people is one of the most amazing and rewarding careers ever.”  

In math - like in life - there are problems to solve, and sometimes finding solutions can be a real struggle. Craig Hagel has managed his health struggles with strong faith and determination, and his fighting spirit is an inspiration not only to his students but also to everyone he meets. Hagel humbly admits, “If I am honest, it has been an extremely painful and difficult journey. It has been a very big mental challenge as well and there have definitely been times in which I felt as if I couldn't do this. It all starts with attitude for me, and I think to myself, how I will take down my challenges every day. Oftentimes, there are those challenges that require me to rely on others to tackle for me, which is quite humbling, to say the least, but I am so very thankful to everyone who helps me. I gave my life to the Lord on September 4, 1994, which wasn't too long after my struggles with muscular dystrophy began, and with the help of His guidance, His strength, and His accomplishments, along with the encouragement and help from my wife, daughter, parents, brother, my extended family, my coworkers, and my friends, I can and will continue to press onward!”   And he has pressed onward. Told he may not live to see his forties, Hagel celebrated his 53rd birthday on February 7, 2024.

In honor of February being National Heart Health Month, the SCHS video production class produced a public service announcement (PSA) featuring Mr. Hagel’s story. Students Macy Davis, Kyla Scarborough, Kerstin Shelton, and Avery Kirkland worked on the video project, with Kirkland, a first-year video production student, taking the lead and editing the video. “When given the assignment to do a PSA, I knew instantly I wanted to do a story on Mr. Hagel. He was such an inspiration to me last semester, always making sure people felt welcome and appreciated. Working on this PSA project was emotional because it was a reminder of how precious life is and how lucky we are to have such amazing teachers like Mr. Hagel,” says Kirkland.

SCHS Audio, Video, Technology, and Film Pathway Teacher Bree Tankersley stated that Mr. Hagel’s story moved students to tears. “Students highly respect Mr. Hagel and are now connected with him on a deeper level after hearing his inspirational story.”

In the video, Hagel encouraged students to communicate their health concerns. “Communicate to the right people. I am a firm believer that everything should be shared with somebody and not everything should be shared with everybody. Have one person or a team of people in your life who you can be transparent with or can have real conversations.”

His conversations with his students inspire them as his math formulas challenge them, and Hagel’s heartfelt, touching story challenges us all to treasure each day as a gift and focus on what truly matters.

Three Sisters Are Pictured

Three sisters give thanks for adoptive families, living in America, and teaching in Stephens County

Toccoa, GA – Three sisters - Anya, Zhenya, and Katya Higgins - know a lot about the changing of seasons, transitions in life, and new beginnings. During this season of Thanksgiving, the sisters are grateful for the opportunity to teach in Stephens County and to continue to grow in the community that has been such a blessing to them.

The Higgins sisters grew up separately in orphanages in either Ukraine or Russia. And together, they share a lot in common as they were adopted by the same family during their preteen years and Oxford, Georgia, located approximately ninety miles south of Toccoa, became their new home. They were fortunate to become sisters and were welcomed into a large family of twelve children, with four biological and eight adopted siblings. While they kept their first names, their new parents gave them special middle names - Grace, Mercy, and Hope - during their legal adoptions as a reminder of their new world of opportunities and promising futures.

While attending Toccoa Falls College majoring in education, they completed their student teaching within the Stephens County School System. They loved the schools and area so much that they decided to stay and teach in Stephens County after graduating in May of 2022. Currently, in their first year as educators, they are using their middle names and upbringings to help students learn to show grace, extend mercy, and recognize there is always hope.

Show Grace

Anya Grace Higgins was born in Russia, was adopted at age of ten, and is now a pre-k teacher at Big A Elementary School. “I chose to go into education because I saw the difference it makes when someone chooses to invest in you,” says Anya. “When I got adopted, I had a lot to learn, and it was not always easy. I had to learn how to behave, how to be part of a family, and learn a new language. My parents invested in me and never gave up on me even when things got difficult. Now, I get to invest and teach twenty-two precious children. I want to show and teach my students the importance of love, joy, and grace every day. I show grace to my students and tell them it is okay to make mistakes and that we all make mistakes. Even adults mess up sometimes. We talk about love and how we can show love to everyone around us.”

Principal Regina Bayles offered Anya an opportunity to teach at Big A Elementary and says Anya is “very positive, kindhearted, and a wonderful addition to the Big A family.”

Extend Mercy

Zhenya Higgins teaches first grade at Liberty Elementary School. Adopted from Ukraine, her middle name is Mercy.

“Mercy is showing forgiveness and compassion toward others even when you think they do not deserve it,” says Zhenya. “As a teacher, what a fantastic opportunity I have to teach my students about mercy by practicing forgiveness and compassion toward others. I often did not deserve forgiveness from the people I hurt, but they offered it freely. So, I want my students to know everyone can make a mistake or hurt other people, sometimes intentionally or accidentally. I want to teach mercy by example so that my students will have the skills to ask for forgiveness or forgive others. Compassion, showing sympathy toward those who are suffering, is something else I want my students to learn. I know a thing or two about suffering. I became an orphan at the age of eleven after losing my biological parents to alcohol addiction. In the orphanage, I lived a life without love and a proper education until a family from the U.S. adopted me at the age of fifteen. I have compassion for students who have a difficult home life or students who are just having a bad day. I want them to know that I will always love and care for them.”

According to Dr. Connie Yearwood, Principal at Liberty Elementary School, “Miss Higgins is a great addition to our school.  She has a positive attitude and great work ethic and demonstrates genuine care and concern for her students. She strives to create a learning environment where the students know they are safe and can reach their maximum learning potential.” 

Never Lose Hope

Adopted from Ukraine when she was twelve years old and with Hope as her middle name, Katya is always adapting to her surroundings and loves to learn, which makes her an amazing role model and seventh-grade social studies teacher at Stephens County Middle School. “I love history and never want to stop learning,” Katya says. “English is my third language, and I plan to learn more languages, like Italian. And I hope to travel to Italy one day.”

“We are so thankful to have Katya Higgins at Stephens County Middle School,” says Paul DeFoor, Principal at Stephens County Middle School. “Though negativity often surrounds us in the world, Miss Higgins is a positive light that brings calmness in the midst of any situation. She is a team player, and her love of students and learning is evident in her classroom. Her life experiences and unique perspective are very impactful on the way she connects with students.”

Rebecca Harris, a social studies teacher at the middle school, says “Miss Higgins is a wonderful addition to our teaching family. Her personal experience and upbringing in Ukraine have provided her with a unique story to share with her students. With the recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine, she is able to connect standards and instructional lessons with current world news and events.  Her willingness to adapt to new lessons and material makes her a valuable asset to our social studies department. Her positive attitude and love of students are prevalent in her classroom.” 

Anya, Zhenya, and Katya now have a lot to be thankful for, and they are grateful to live in America and celebrate Thanksgiving with two large, adopted families – the one that includes their parents and siblings and the other that includes classrooms full of students. During this new season as educators, they are sharing their bountiful blessings with those around them and investing grace, mercy, and hope into future generations.

Photo of Justin Olds, Dr. Connie Franklin and Jim Bellamy

Bellamy Honored as Pioneer in Education for 50 Years of Service

Toccoa, Ga. – In January 2023, Jim Bellamy will mark his 50th year of service in education as he begins his third term on the Stephens County Board of Education. And as he reaches this milestone, he was honored with the Pioneer RESA Pioneer in Education award on December 9.

Each year, Pioneer RESA honors individuals who positively impact students and education, and each of its 15 school districts in Pioneer RESA’s service area names its recipient. Recipients serve their school systems in a variety of roles including teachers, administrators, board members, bus drivers, community and business supporters, and a variety of other positions. The key component to receiving the recognition is having made a substantial, positive impact on the lives of students.

Bellamy’s career in education began as a basketball coach and teacher in 1968 upon graduation from the University of Georgia.  He taught in several counties in North Georgia, including Madison, Hall, Franklin, and Stephens Counties.

He served most of his career in Stephens County, serving as an Assistant Principal at Stephens County High School for 2 years and then as Stephens County Middle School Principal for 17 years. He also served as the Operations Director for the Stephens County School System overseeing the maintenance and transportation departments for 4 years. After retiring in 2010 from full-time service, he returned to teaching at the Stephens County Alternative School part-time, or 49 percent for 5 additional years.

While he doesn’t like to be recognized or receive any credit, he says the key to his successful career was surrounding himself with good people and letting them do their jobs. During his career in education, Bellamy says he always put “kids first and was known as a disciplinarian.”

“Schools are a product of society,” says Bellamy. “Society comes into the schools, and we must deal with the problems already created. As a coach and teacher, I felt students should have good grades and good behavior to play ball and good students become outstanding citizens.”

Today, he is still on the sidelines cheering on the basketball teams as his son Paul is now an Assistant Basketball Coach at Stephens County Middle School, and he has been supporting and loyally serving the Stephens County School System for the past eight years as a board member on the Board of Education. In January 2023, he will begin his third, four-year term.

He also currently serves on the Board of Education with six other elected members, four of whom he remembered as students in the School System. One of those is Board Chairperson, Wendy Dawkins. According to Dawkins, “I worked as an office aid in the front office of Stephens County Junior High when I was in the eighth grade. Mr. Bellamy was always kind, fair, and slightly intimidating as any middle school principal should be. It was a good experience then as is working with him now. Serving on the Board of Education with Mr. Bellamy has given those of us, who have had the opportunity to work with him as a student under his leadership and as fellow board members, the chance to benefit from his years of experience in many areas of the School System.”

“Mr. Jim Bellamy has had a remarkable career,” adds Dr. Connie Franklin, Superintendent of Stephens County Schools. “In January 2023, he will commemorate 50 years of service in education.  He is truly a Pioneer in Education and is committed to student success.  We are pleased to honor him with this award and publicly thank him for his dedicated service.”