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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.”