Lea Thornton-Allen : One Life, One Heart, One Soul

story by Katrice Williams    photos by Tonya Perry
Lea Thornton-Allen is determined to reflect the heart and soul of a champion. Perhaps that wasn’t always the case, but it sure is the way she lives her life today.
Lea has faced much adversity in her life. Although, if you didn’t know her, you would never be able to tell.  But, this determined young lady took all things ‘wrong’ in her life and turned them into something right. For that reason alone, her journey to entrepreneurship is nothing short of amazing.
At one point in her life, Lea weighed over 300 pounds. She decided to take a weight-loss journey, one that would take her down many roads and open many doors. Although it was a challenging adventure, this young lady embraced it all. Through blood, sweat and tears, she conquered that demon, losing over 130 pounds.
After making the decision to work towards her fitness goals and to surround herself with several caring, encouraging and motivating people, over time, Lea realized that losing weight would help her gain a healthy, long life. She wanted to inspire others to do the same.
Through her fitness journey, Lea knew the importance of a personal trainer.  She aspired to one day acquire her personal training certification and help others as she had been helped along the way. And, that she did. She is now the owner of One Life Personal Training.
The inspiration behind the business’ name is near and dear to Lea’s heart, as it serves as a memorial to her brother, Joshua Jackson Allen, who passed away as the result of a traffic accident. His signature line for quite some time was “Helping people: One Life, One Heart, One Soul at a Time.” Lea is proud that Joshua’s legacy lives on through her business.
“My brother is a very big part of my life today. I wanted him to be a part of the business. I wanted to celebrate him by honoring him in that way,” she said. Lea understands how precious life truly is, and she believes that no one should ever take their health for granted.
“People’s health is so serious; I can instill a little fire within them to enjoy working out for their health…for their well-being. We only have one life; together we can make it a healthy one,” Lea stated.
Lea opened her business over two years ago with the desire to help people accomplish their health-related goals, including those ‘who may be a bit intimidated to go to the gym.’ Lea offers one-on-one personal training in a relaxed setting. She uses an array of different fitness equipment that challenges her client’s potential.
“People think personal trainers are buff, cut and chiseled. I’m a real person; I still have work to do on myself. What I really enjoy is giving them the hope that where they are now is not where they have to stay. I don’t promote weight loss, because it’s all about being healthy,” she said.
Lea understands that positive change and transformation takes time. It is a process that requires patience and endurance; there is no microwave effect. She remembers a client who did not have the strength to walk very far and little hope that things could change.  Lea showed her that just by adding a few additional steps each day to her work out, her life would change. Lea remembers telling her, “Yes, you can do it, even if I have to hold your hand.”
Some clients feel that they cannot do a squat or push-up. Lea starts them on modified versions of those exercises. Over time, they realize that they not only gain strength, but also courage as they begin to do the regular forms of the exercises. “We strengthen those parts of the body where they can progress. What sets my soul on fire is showing someone, who thinks that they can’t do it, that ‘yes, you can do it,”’ Lea said.
A client, who suffered from balance issues and repetitive falls, decided to train with Lea. Lea used a step-up device every session in addition to her regular workout. “She got stronger and stronger and stronger. That’s the transformation I like to see,” she said, “You have to coach a client to trust their body.”
Another client had not sat on a floor for years after knee surgery.  She was afraid she would be unable to get up. Using some of her equipment for assistance, Lea devised a workout plan that allowed the client to continuously practice sitting on the floor and getting back up again. The client, who never thought she could do that, was absolutely elated.
Lea maintains an undeniable drive and determination. She is motivated to help others reach their health-related goals, and she is happy to share her own story and talents with other people who may benefit. She knows that clients appreciate a ‘real person’ to draw strength from; helping people is her passion.
“Some people out there know way more about working out than I do, but they don’t have that personal connection with people. God gives us gifts, and I think He gave me the gift to help other people, not just in this way, but in life. At 300 pounds and a prisoner in my own body, someone told me, ‘you have so much to offer people.’ Throughout my whole weight loss process, working out was the daily thing that helped me become healthier,” Lea commented.
One Life Personal Training welcomes a diverse array of clients, whether young children or senior citizens. Lea feels that the path to fitness is not established by a cookie-cutter philosophy, as she has no ‘typical client.’
Lea has grown quite fond of one of her clients, an eleven-year-old boy, who desired to work on his fitness needs to prepare for recreational football. “He is now playing middle school football. I recently got to see him play…what a thrill. He reminds me a lot of myself as a kid; that is one of our special connections,” she said.
Lea establishes a workout plan that works for the individual’s fitness goals, one specifically developed with their needs in mind. “I just tailor my workouts based on what the client’s needs are to meet their goals; some want to tone; some want weight loss,” she said. Some clients may even choose to come in small groups to work out together, which is completely acceptable.
Lea is very thankful for how her business has grown. As a true entrepreneur, she also has great aspirations for the future. Lea plans to welcome a new trainer on board soon. And, a long-term goal is to get a new studio. Though her current studio has ‘everything that’s needed, Lea wants to make sure she can accommodate the expected growth.
Lea has a somewhat new and improved personal perspective on life. As she loves what she does, she also found that she needs to take time to reflect on what she diligently strives to help her clients with—overall health. Lea had begun to over-commit to her endeavors; she lost some balance. She found that she needed to take a step back and re-evaluate things. She is very aware of scheduling demands and is driven to do what works best for her clients; however, she also regards what is realistic for her as well.
“I wasn’t balancing things well. Now I’m refocusing and trying to devote time to things that add value to life.  It’s one step at a time,” she said. She understands that there are certain challenges and responsibilities that come with being a business owner, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lea is presently the office manager for Independence Day Publishing (Effingham Magazine). She has held this position for nearly eight years, under the mentorship of Julie Hales. Julie has provided advice and support to Lea on this journey, always there to help with ‘the business side of things.’ Lea is also very thankful for Julie’s flexibility with her hours and overall assistance as she has worked towards ‘her balance.’
In her spare time, Lea enjoys being active, whether walking or biking in her neighborhood. She loves gardening and takes pride in her yard. She appreciates all that nature has to offer.  And, she is a huge Clemson football fan.
“I like the simple things that God created, the sun…the wind. My spiritual connection with God is in the beauty of His creations…that is how I ‘feel’ God,” states Lea.
Lea Thornton-Allen certainly plans to make the most of her life while helping countless others do the same. After all, we are all only given one life, one heart and one soul.
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Cheyenne Miller SEHS Senior With Softball In Her Soul

story by Cindy Burbage
photos by Shelia Scott
Cheyenne began the journey in her softball career at an early age and demonstrated a hint of her natural talent. “I started playing t-ball when I was three years old,” the athlete recalled.  “I think I stayed busier filling my pockets with rocks than playing; although, I do remember taking the ball from players on my own team to try to make the play.  I continued with rec ball until I turned eight and we decided to try travel ball.  I started playing with the Sharks and my dad was my coach.  It was so much fun and staying in hotels all the time with my teammates was a blast.  We played in Atlanta and Jacksonville a lot back then.  As I got older, most of my teammates stayed together, but, we did change our team name a few times.  We were the Sharks, Extreme Combat, USSSA Pride and Southern Force.  Each change in name was to try to get our players to the elite level of play.  When I was 14, my dad decided to step down from being head coach and moved me to an elite organization out of Atlanta called Georgia Impact.  I have been with them for the past three years and, playing at that level with such amazing girls and coaches, has been life changing.  It took us all over the country and opened a lot of doors for me and all my teammates for colleges.” Cheyenne continued with a proudful smile, “Of course, my dad couldn’t totally give it up and he is still an assistant coach.”
In her last year of high school, Cheyenne will make her ultimate move in travel ball to Georgia Power Academy, a competitive girls fast pitch travel softball organization.  This prestigious group is based in metro Atlanta and produces a hefty number of players that go on to play at college level.  “I am very excited about this move because I will still get to play with some of my current teammates and best friends and I will also get to play with three of my future college teammates.  I think it will be great to get to spend this time with them before we go to college,” she thrillingly shared.
Hard work and perseverance have certainly paid off for this talented athlete. After graduation, Cheyenne will be trading her Mustang mascot for a panther! She has earned a scholarship to Georgia State University via her athletic abilities.
Cheyenne explained how this incredible opportunity presented,” After playing a few years, my parents asked me if I had any desire to play college softball.  I said, absolutely!  So, they did a lot of sacrificing to get me to tournaments, camps, showcases and everything they could to help me play at the highest level and to be seen by college coaches.  I was lucky that several colleges were interested in making me offers and I thought I had my mind made up until I went to a camp at Georgia State University.  I didn’t really realize it but both coaches were watching me and following me around a little.  When we had a break, they asked to talk to my parents.  I was shocked!  A few days later they contacted my head travel ball coach, Jack Barfield, and said they wanted me to come and meet with them.  I was shocked again!  The next week we went to Atlanta and spent the whole day with Coach Roger Kincaid and Coach Todd Downes.  They were so amazing and welcoming!  They showed me all over the city and the campus along with their facilities.  I loved their energy and everything they had to say.  I had no idea that they were going to make me an offer that day, but they did!  Again, total shock!  I was just 14 years old and a freshman and was being offered a D1 scholarship.  We left and drove home discussing it all the way and once home we discussed even more.  I told them that I wanted to go there.  My parents asked if I needed more time to think and talk about my other options, but my mind was made up.  My parents handed me the phone and I made the call to Coach Roger that I wanted to verbally commit to them and Georgia State University.  He was so awesome, and it has been a great journey to finally get to my senior year with college just around the corner.  I have had time to meet and become friends with some of my future teammates and I couldn’t be more excited.”
At just seventeen years old, this gifted young lady has racked up quite an impressive collection of accomplishments: Academic Award (9th-12th grade), Varsity Letter (9th-12th grade), 2nd Team All Region (10th grade), Savannah Morning News Best of Preps Honorable Mention (10th grade), 1st Team All Region  (11th grade), 1st Team All State  (11th grade), 2017 Region Co-Player of the Year (11th grade), SEHS Offensive Player of the Year, Savannah Morning News Best of Preps 1st Team and Player of the Week (11th grade), and Effingham Herald Player of the Week (11th grade)
Cheyenne Miller’s athletic life may be on cloud nine, but this meek teen keeps her feet rooted- her biggest wind in her sail is her family.  She humbly shared, “Wow, I feel so blessed to have so many supporters, but I would have to definitely say my parents; I just feel I have the best parents.  They have raised me to be a strong person, not just a softball player.  They have just always tried to teach me how to be successful and how to treat people.  They have been my biggest supporters in my accomplishments, have disciplined me when I needed it and have been my shoulder to cry on when times were tough.  I want to thank my grandparents for always supporting me.  My Mema that is nearby is proud for me and tries to come to my games but if she can’t, she meets me at the car to give me a hug.  My grandparents that live in Kansas and Illinois keep up with me on social media and are always so proud and supportive; they try to come to games when we travel out west too.  I have an amazing family! Fortunately, I have had a very blessed life and I owe that to them and my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  I thank my parents for giving me a strong Christian foundation.”
This SEHS senior would like to close with this, “I would love to thank everyone who has helped me along this softball journey and just my journey as a person.  Coach Marie Zettler has always been a great support for me.  She was not only a great hitting coach and worked our tails off in agilities, but she has become a supportive friend and mentor.  Coach Donald Pinnett for naming me Cheytown and being an amazing coach who is still always willing to give up his time for all of us girls. Coach Jona Downs for being tough which helped me to be tough and responsible.  Coach Jack Barfield for being an amazing coach and for opening so many doors for me.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without his help and support and love, Coach Victor Belogorska for always keeping everything fun.  Coach Mike Wilson for all of your help and softball advice. Coach Chuck Smith for 4 amazing years at SEHS; you are a great coach with lots of volume and energy.  Coach Randi Cox, for all of the support and the fist bumps on first.  Thank you for your spiritual leadership for our team and helping us to bond with each other and in Christ.  Coach Brandy Heinzen for being my bucket buddy with all the talks and encouragement and our inside jokes. Thank you to Coach Makayla Peny, Kristen Seckinger and Bud Smith for joining our team and making everything fun.  Coach Jose Tunon for inviting me to be a part of your team and familia.   Thank you to my future Georgia State University coaches, Coach Roger and Coach Todd for believing in me and giving me a chance to fulfill my dreams. Go Pathers. Thank you to all of my teammates. You are my sisters and lifelong friends and I will never forget you and our times together.  I look forward to many more memories to come. And last but not least, my dad for being the greatest coach ever. I will never forget all of our times on and off the field.  Thank you for always being there for me. I love you mom and dad. And, thank you to my Lord and Savior for all my many blessings!”

Jane Hughes : A life of service, success… and strength

story by Katie VandenHouten      photos by Tonya Perry
Jane Hughes has had an interesting life. She has made a name for herself in Effingham County as a successful mortgage broker, business owner and active community member. And even though she is well-known and respected in the community, her life story is far more compelling than most people realize.
Jane’s father worked for Pan American Airways, which meant she traveled a lot in her early years. She was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and later moved to Panama when she was just six years old. She finally moved to the United States after graduating high school and has lived in the Southeast ever since.
“I received my education at the Panama Canal schools run by the United States Department of Defense,” explains Jane. She was lucky enough to travel throughout her childhood, which was somewhat of a luxury for children in the sixties and seventies. She was also introduced into the Panamanian Debutante Society, which was a rare opportunity for an American resident at that time.
She still looks back fondly on those travels and says growing up in Panama gave her a different perspective. “Those travels are deeply cherished,” she says. “Growing up in a foreign country broadened my outlook on the world.”
Jane moved to the United States to attend college, settling in North Carolina. One of the biggest differences she noticed when she moved to North Carolina was that there were four distinct seasons. Growing up in the tropical Panamanian climate, she was used to warm temperatures year-round. She was a freshman at Montreat-Anderson College when she saw snow for the first time.
She later moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, where she was co-owner of a lumber company. After that, she moved to Georgia in 1988, and worked for Quick Rx as a bookkeeper for seven years.  Jane started International Mortgage Co. Inc. in 1990, and it is now the oldest mortgage company in Effingham County.
“The housing industry has always fascinated me,” says Jane. She considers her proudest accomplishment in business “providing the American Dream” to citizens of Effingham County and the surrounding area. Not only does she have a knack for numbers, but she prides herself on putting customers first, which is one of the reasons her business has lasted almost thirty years.
In a world where most communication happens via cellphone, Jane maintains contact and spends time with clients in person whenever possible. “I try to spend quality time in coaching and counseling prospective buyers, and I have a lot of repeat business,” she explains.
Jane’s business savvy was tested with the mortgage crisis in 2006, but then again, she has never been one to crumble under adversity. When business got slow, she got moving. She obtained her mediation registration and became a mediator for Effingham County Magistrate Court.  And, she didn’t stop there. She also got a job as a greeter at Strickland’s Funeral Home. These additional jobs provided her with a way to serve and meet people in the community.
She has always had a heart for service, and she is very active in her community. She served on the board of the Chamber of Commerce for six years, and she was on the board for the Treutlen House for four years as well. She was also a Rotary member, where she had an impressive perfect attendance record for ten years. While in Rotary, Jane received  the Paul Harris Fellow Award, which is the highest award given in Rotary. The award is given to those who have made an outstanding contribution to their community, and Hughes has certainly accomplished that task.
In addition to serving on various boards, she loves supporting fundraisers for a good cause as well as local charities. “I’m a supporter of any charity that might come forth,” she says. Mission on the Move with the Springfield United Methodist Church is one of her favorite causes, and she loves participating in golf tournament fundraisers. Effingham Empty Stocking Fund is also one near and dear to her heart.  She adds, Those people will get a check from me every year at Christmas.”
Effingham has opened its arms to her since she moved here, and Jane loves giving back whenever she can. “I was an outsider when I moved here,” she recalls. “But generations of families that I have met- they’ve welcomed me.”
She encourages new residents of Effingham to join a church and a civic organization of their choice. “Engaging in these memberships helps to meet people and allows one to serve the community,” she says.
Given her heart for service and positive attitude, most people would never guess that she has lived through some of the toughest times imaginable. One of the worst, no doubt, was losing her 17 year old daughter in a car accident.
Unfortunately, tough times hit again last year as well. “I was diagnosed in June of 2017 with stage four colon cancer,” says Jane, “It’s been a real challenge to say the least.”
But even in the hardest of times, she chooses to look at the bright side of things. She could easily complain about the inconvenience of living with the side effects of her chemotherapy. Instead, she is praising the nurses and staff at the Cancer Care Center at Effingham Health System.
Jane has become an advocate for the local cancer center, and she sings its praises for the much-needed service they’re providing for the community. “They have a top-quality nursing staff. It’s very well organized, and they have very good doctors here,” she says. “Having the facility here makes it so much easier for local people to go, and that was half my battle.”
And her battle isn’t over. She is currently undergoing her second round of chemotherapy. She has been battling cancer for over a year, yet she continues to work as much as she can. She also enjoys time with her friends and family and counts her blessings every day.
“I’ve truly been blessed by the Effingham County community with prayers and support through cards, meals and visits,” she says. “My church, Wingard Memorial Lutheran Church, has been a blessing to me in so many ways,” she adds. “The members of Wingard have been so supportive during my illness in the past fifteen months.”
Her biggest cheerleader is her husband of thirty years, Joseph David Hughes. “He has been my greatest support in all my endeavors,” she says. Without a doubt, the support he has given, along with her two sons, William and Wesley Ballard, Wesley’s wife Jennifer, granddaughter Caroline Moore, great grandson Daxton Moore, family, friends, and community members has made a huge difference. She knows she is not alone in this fight.
And she wants others to know that they are not alone either. “As I continue my journey through chemo, I certainly encourage anyone to follow your doctor’s instructions, stay positive, and you might just beat the odds.”
Jane hopes to become more involved in promoting Effingham’s Cancer Care Center in the future. And though she continues to fight bravely, her cancer diagnosis does not define her. Far from it. Her success and service in the community are much more important to her. “I would like to be remembered as a person of honor, integrity and strength,” she says.
Jane Hughes most definitely has those qualities and many more. Her life has been one of success, service and strength. She is more than just a business woman and cancer survivor; she is a lesson in perseverance, positivity and grace.
More than anything else, she is a hard worker and a fighter. She has never been one to give up when obstacles come her way, and she’s not about to start now. She’s the lady who is not afraid to tell cancer, or anyone or anything else in the way of her goals…. ”Not today. I have work to do.”

Heather Riggs : Putting People First

story by Katrice Williams     photos by Shelia Scott
How many 21 year olds do you find working in a funeral home?  Not many.  But, that is how old Heather Riggs was when she started working in her family’s business…Riggs Funeral Home.
Heather started helping her Dad, Merrill Riggs, around the funeral home in 2008.  At the time, this young lady had no idea she would eventually be drawn to this profession. Heather was originally going to school to become a teacher.  How does one go from teacher to funeral director?
Heather found this definitive moment in 2011.  She said, “I remember the exact time I knew this was what I wanted to do.  I had always enjoyed working with my father, but there were just some things I didn’t think I could handle.  The biggest thing that stood in my way was my fear of dealing with a child’s death. But in July of 2011, we had three funerals for children. One was a two year old, one was stillborn, and the third one was nine years old. I knew if I could help my Dad through this, I could do this job.”
Heather was already attending college at the time.  She was getting her core curriculum and planning on moving forward to becoming a teacher.  But, she put the brakes on.  She then finished Savannah Technical College with a Business Degree and went on to Ogeechee Technical College, where she received an Associate Degree in Applied Sciences of Funeral Education. She graduated in 2013.
Heather continued to work for the family business where she put in the work and the hours to become a legally licensed Funeral Director in January of 2014, at only 25 years old. What an accomplishment.
Riggs Funeral Home first opened its doors on November 10, 1999. The business was the product of a beautiful dream—the dream of two families. Merrill, and wife Kim, lived in Augusta, Georgia, where Heather was born. Both sets of their parents resided in Effingham at the time, and they wanted Merrill and Kim to move nearby.
RB and Jackie Wages, Kim’s parents, were responsible for the construction of Riggs Funeral Home. JZ Riggs, Merrill’s father, was an instrumental part of the “planning process” of the business prior to his death. Unfortunately, Mr. Riggs never saw the idea come into fruition. However, his wife Miriam was a faithful assistant there before her death. She was so committed that she was “at each visitation at the funeral home.”
Interestingly enough, Merrill had been accustumed to the funeral business since he was about 10 years old. Heather remembers stories her dad told regarding how he helped out one of the funeral directors in Springfield as a boy, often running a couple of local errands for him.
So, the birth of Riggs Funeral Home seemed like the perfect fit for both families, and a way to bring their children home to Effingham County. Merrill took over as the business manager and Funeral Director, while RB and Jackie both devotedly assisted in the operations there prior to retirement.
After RB passed away, Jackie became the sole owner of Riggs Funeral Home.  Jackie was very proud of Heather’s accomplishments and her desire to continue in the family business.  In 2016, Jackie Wages decided to give full ownership of the business to Heather.
Heather Riggs became the owner of Riggs Funeral Home at the age of 27. Here, she was able to run her own business, while having her father by her side.  She and Merrill were quite the team, working hand in hand to carry on this business her family had created.
Unfortunately, Merrill passed away earlier this year. Heather and her family were devastated.  But, Heather then decided she would carry on her father’s legacy.  She is proud to continue the business’ tradition of being “family-owned, family-operated and family-oriented.”  After Merrill’s death, Heather took on all responsibility of the funeral business. “I am proud to be able to continue to do what my father taught me to do.  He was the most generous and compassionate man I have ever known. I hope to be able to fill his shoes.  He always tried to figure out a way to make things work for our customers, who he always affectionately called our family,” she says.
Heather appreciates the examples of kindness that her dad consistently displayed. He had a tremendous work ethic and was a mentor to many. She knows that her mom and dad are the reason for her success today.
As a young business owner, Heather does not take for granted the help and consideration of several instrumental people in her life—those who helped mentor,  guide and assist her along the way. Some even “worked many hours during the transition as she stepped into her dad’s position as manager.” Some notable individuals include her aunt, Anne Kissinger, her uncle, Kerry Exley, her uncle, Lavern Hodges and her mom, Kim Riggs. While Heather and her mom Kim are members of Riggs’ Board of Directors, she is extremely grateful for James and Liz Carlson, owners of Carlson Premier Events and Joann’s Florist; the two serve as the board’s president and treasurer, respectively. They have “assisted in rebranding after I became the owner and brought Riggs to a new level.”
Heather is also immensely thankful for the help of Tommy Flanders and Audie Powell of Flanders Morrison Funeral Home in Pembroke, Georgia, who were always there for her after her dad passed away. They provided great help and encouragement through all of the concerns and doubts. “They were right there to help me with anything I needed. I could call any time of day. Whenever I needed them, they would be here,” she stated.
Presently, one of Heather’s biggest aspirations is for the business to flourish. She wants to continue to build the business in a way that would have made her father proud. “I hope that our business will grow. It’s what my Dad wanted, and I hope to be able to give that to him,” Heather said.
Her dad understood the importance of being kind, caring and understanding in the very touchy, tender and difficult time that individuals endure with the loss of a loved one. Although his official title may have been funeral director, he was also a warm heart, a kind word and a firm shoulder when needed.
Recently, the Board of Directors for Riggs was instrumental in bringing on another Funeral Director.  The load was a little too much for Heather to handle alone. Luke Sheridan, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, was hired in July of this year. Luke has been in the funeral business for over 10 years.  He moved to the area from Conyers, Georgia some time ago. Luke and his wife Taylor, an Effingham native, love the area; the two have a one-year-old-son named Tate.
“I find that Luke reminds me a lot of my dad. He has my dad’s sense of humor, his deep love of people in their time of loss and an innate way of preparing bodies, an art which very few have. We are very blessed to have him working with us. He has brought a lot of skills, knowledge and a breath of freshness to the business. He’s a wonderful asset,” states Heather.
Heather is very appreciative for the assistance that Luke provides and is happy she has someone to take on some of the load. She even jokes that now she finally has time to go to her dental appointments. “It doesn’t take much to make him happy. I think we make a good team. He has already become family,” she stated. Luke even calls Heather’s mom “Mama Kim.”
Heather and Luke both “understand the magnitude of the circumstances” surrounding their customers. They also understand the necessity of putting people first during such a time. Luke feels that Heather has a beautiful heart for people. “She’s very nice, and she can talk to anybody. She is a good shoulder,” he remarked.
Riggs Funeral Home always provides a “warm and welcoming” atmosphere, where the “door is always open.” Heather says, “I enjoy families coming and visiting even after the services of their loved one are complete. They don’t need to have a reason.”
Heather is proud of the newly renovated facility, which certainly helps with her rebranding efforts. Whether fulfilling painting initiatives, re-carpeting or making beneficial additions, she is sure that the new look will add value to the business and be a great benefit to their families.
Heather likes to be involved in the community. She is a member of the Springfield Merchants Association and is active with the Backpack Buddies Program. She also loves spending time at her church, Guyton United Methodist Church, where she has been the Nursery Coordinator for over a decade.
Heather Riggs believes in putting people first at all times, as she is proud to continue her dad’s legacy. “Family-Owned, Family-Operated and Family-Oriented” is truly what Riggs Funeral Home is all about.

Fran Ross : Empowering victims while creating survivors

story by Cindy Burbage     photos by Shelia Scott
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and the Effingham Victim-Witness Assistant Program will hold their Candlelight Vigil honoring survivors of domestic violence, local partners, and supporters. This year they are adding a twist: a silent auction and raffle. The event will be held on Friday, October 19th at 5:30pm at Rincon First Baptist Church. This function will have dinner and chances to win prizes. The auction and raffle items include: coolers, grills, a Go-Pro and a number of gift baskets from professional hair products to home décor. The organization plans to make this fundraiser an annual event.
In February 2018, Fran Ross was officially appointed Executive Director of the agency after having served as Administrative Assistant for years. But she isn’t new to this office. “My mom, Julia Cochran, has volunteered here as a counselor for over twenty years, I basically grew up coming to this office. It seemed like a right fit for me and my beliefs.
This is the most gratifying job I have had other than working with children. When you are able to give and do for people it’s kind of a WWJD (what would Jesus do) kind of thing and that’s how we run; not that we are a religious organization.  You know it’s like what would Jesus do in this situation. Would He help this person? Can we provide food or clothing for this person? What does person need? How can we assist? And that is why we are here. We are here to help people start over and become independent and empowered; live a fulfilling healthier lifestyle. That is our mission,” Fran passionately explained.
Fran Ross, explained the array of services the program offers, “The primary service we perform is the temporary protection order or TPO. This is an order that states that an individual cannot come within 500 yards of you and cannot have any contact what so ever, including a third-party contact.   These are usually good for up to a year. We also offer professional counseling referrals for victims; we have a few counselors within our community that help with this.  Court accompaniments is another service we provide along with pro bono attorney services. We will go to court with clients to give them the support that they need, and on the second court appearance, the individual will have an attorney by their side as well.”
With a 24-hour crisis hotline and an emergency fund for those in need, Effingham County Victim-Witness Assistance Program is ready to help. They are affiliated with Safe Haven in Statesboro; a shelter for those who have suffered from domestic violence and need safety. Victim-Witness can transfer the victim securely and discreetly to the shelter. For a complete list of services offered by the victim assistance program, please visit their website: www.effinghamvwap.org
This assistance program is a 501c3 non-profit organization that is financially supported by VOCA (Victims of Crime Act), 5% Funding and United Way contributions. The month of April is Crime Victim Awareness; Victim Witness raises awareness and funds with their annual Jeans for Justice Campaign. Local businesses and schools donate $1-$5 per person to wear jeans on Friday during Crime’s Victim week.
“When you are in a nonprofit organization it’s a lot of give me, give me, give me and not a lot of thank you, thank you, thank you. We are trying to combine an event that we can recognize and thank everybody for their continued support over the years plus try to get some income at the same time,” Fran gratefully expressed.
The agency works closely within its community. “We reach out to Family Promise and Family Connection, ready to help. We also work closely with local law enforcement,” Fran described. “We want the people of Effingham to know we are here to help people who feel like they don’t have a voice.”
Domestic violence is a growing epidemic in the United States and Effingham County has not been excluded; it is a rampant entity that does not discriminate based on race, age, gender, occupation or social status. In 1989, a group of concerned community members and leaders came together to establish the Effingham County Victim/Witness Assistance Program. It is designed to assist victims of violent crimes; with that, 90% are domestic violence related and 97% of clientele are women.
The statistics of domestic violence are fearfully alarming. According to the St. Jude House Family Violence Prevention Center and Shelter in Chicago, the following are accurate:
•  According to estimates, approximately 1.5 million women are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the United States.
•  60% of female homicide victims were wives or intimate acquaintances of their killers. More than 12 times as many women were murdered by a man they knew than were killed by male strangers.
•  One out of every three pregnant women is battered.
•   50% of all women who are murdered in this country are killed by a boyfriend or husband.
•  25% of women in college have been the victim of rape or attempted rape. 84% of these victims were acquainted with their assailant.
•  The Negative Effects of Domestic Violence Continue:
•  Children raised in a chaotic, abusive environment are seven times more likely to grow up and repeat the same behavior as adults.
•  Violent behavior in a relationship is almost certain to be repeated again and again unless there is intervention.
•  The cycle of violence is often generational. Once started, it may be handed down from generation to generation, like an unfortunate family tradition.
The Effingham Victim Witness Assistant Program thrives on teamwork. The small and personable office is full of compassionate women. “They are from Effingham and know these people. They are eager and able to assist with their dedication and hard work”, the director appreciatively described.
If you or someone you know is a victim of a violent crime, please seek help immediately. Effingham Victim-Witness Assistant Program has a 24-hour emergency hotline: 912-754-7460. Don’t become a statistic, become a survivor.

ZACH WOOTEN : The Loft Café

story by Kelly Harley     photos by Miranda Osborn
Many people don’t find success until later in life. They work hard, put in countless hours, overcome setbacks and make it out on top. For one Effingham County business owner, he’s been through his fair share of setbacks and understands hard work is the only way to get to where you want to be. He is proving that determination does pay off and has managed to find huge success before celebrating his 30th birthday.
Zach Wooten is only 28 years old. The millennial is a self-made entrepreneur who isn’t afraid to take risks. Zach is the owner and operator of The Loft Café. He smiles as he talks about what his restaurant has become and how he tries to be different when being trendy is the new thing. The Loft Café is only open for lunch and serves what Zach calls the traditional side of the sandwich world. “Nowadays, you can’t always get traditional and that’s what we try to stick to. We serve sandwiches and salads and our salads are some of our best sellers. We’ve been voted Best Salad in Effingham County every year since we opened,” says Zach. He also offers homemade dressings, homemade dips and ensures that the restaurant only uses fresh ingredients. That’s a commitment Zach takes very seriously. He is very particular about quality service and authentic food.
When you experience what Zach has created, it’s hard to believe that the first The Loft Café didn’t make it. In 2010, Zach and his business partner opened the doors at their original location. Zach can now laugh when he says it crashed and burned, and credits the closure to location. When it closed down, Zach could have given up and moved on; however, he didn’t lock the doors for good. He kept fighting for what he wanted. In 2011, at 21 years old, he moved the restaurant to its current location and immediately saw a 300 percent increase in sales. “It was amazing. The first day of opening the doors, I was shocked at the number of people who actually showed up,” says Zach. “I took pride in seeing my idea and creation come to life. It made me want to continue doing what I love.”
It’s safe to say that many 21-year-olds aren’t thinking about opening a business. Zach tried college, but it just wasn’t for him. Neither was a party inspired lifestyle. He jumped right into the workforce. “I had nothing to lose and it was worth the risk. I had the support of my parents and I knew I could always go back to college if this didn’t work out,” says Zach.
So far, it seems to be working out. Zach has always had a love for cooking and grew up around a family who owned kitchens. At the start of his working life, he found himself in various restaurant kitchens. In fact, before opening The Loft Café he worked at a local sub shop. Zach then realized he wanted something of his own. “Why do it for someone else when you can do it for yourself,” says Zach.
Doing it for himself hasn’t always been easy. One of the biggest challenges for Zach was being so young and not having a credit history. At 20 years old, it was hard for him to get loans. Another challenge was figuring out all of the “legal stuff” that comes with running a restaurant. “I was slightly ignorant to certain laws and it was a struggle learning how to do taxes and which forms I needed. I made lots of mistakes and I paid for them,” says Zach. He admits his business partner handles the financial side of things for him, which allows him to do what he does best – serve up great food, great customer service and a great atmosphere for his employees.
Zach, who has four employees, is proud that he sees very low staff turnover. Most employees stay there for years. Brittany Safranek is the head server and has been with Zach since day one. The two went to South Effingham County High School together and have been best friends for years. “Zach is a good person and a sweet man. He’s caring and he puts good into the world,” says Brittany. “That’s what you want in a boss.”
Brittany also likes the fact that Zach values input from his employees. From creating new menu items to suggesting a complete remodel, which happened in July 2018, Zach takes what his employees say to heart. “They have the most interaction with customers and their feedback is very important in continuing our success,” says Zach.
Another quality that Zach processes is his humility; he isn’t above any of his employees. He says he won’t make an employee do something he isn’t willing to do himself. “I’ve done everything, all the way down to cleaning the toilets. I’ve served, I’ve painted, I’ve done every role in this business,” says Zach.
It’s that mindset that has helped lead Zach to success. When asked about his other qualities that make him the kind of business owner he is, he says he likes seeing people happy. From his customers to his employees, happiness drives him. “I give my customers the service they deserve. They don’t eat out to get crappy food or service. We try to be different and really focus on the personal service side of things,” says Zach. He’s also been known to close the restaurant down for a week and take all of his employees on a well-deserved vacation.
Another quality Zach has is that he is forever creative and has big goals. He would love to open a second location one day and has even thought about creating a franchise. “It’s crazy to me, thinking back on this and knowing that I did make it. I have so much pride in seeing my creation work,” says Zach. While he admits he’s long overdue for a vacation, he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
When asked if he has any advice for others looking at owning a business one day, he doesn’t hesitate. “It takes hard work and dedication. If you work towards it, you’ll own it,” says Zach. “It’s not a walk in the park and some days are great and others are tough. As long as you’re hardworking and your mind is where it needs to be, you can do anything.”
The Loft Café is located at 135 Goshen Road in Rincon. It’s open from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. every day of the week except Sunday.

Aiming for Archery Excellence : Kale Renfro

“If you believe you can, you might. If you know you can, you will.”
~Steve Mariboli
story by Katrice Williams     photos by Tonya Perry
Thirteen-year-old Kale Renfro is quite comfortable “following his own arrow,” believing that striving and aiming towards excellence will always be right on target. The young Effingham native is an 8th grader at South Effingham Middle School, and he is already an avid archer. Kale’s mom and dad, Staci and Alex Renfro, learned of their son’s interest in the sport about three years ago. Actually, Kale’s school is affiliated with the Springfield 4-H Club, which offers an archery program. Kale’s interest in archery was of little surprise, since his dad, one of his biggest mentors, “has always loved hunting.” Though Kale “never cared much for hunting,” archery was the next best thing.
“You don’t have to be a hunter to love archery,” he said.
Kale enjoys practicing with his 4-H team and at home. Whether practicing for the indoor season in Springfield at the 4-H gym or the outdoor season at Honey Ridge plantation, Kale already knows that his skill level grows with each practice. He also understands the necessity of having good equipment. He remembers his mom and dad taking him to get his very first bow.
“It was a Bear Bow…a compound bow. It looked really cool…an orange camo,” he recalled. A compound bow “uses a cable and pulley levering system to bend the limbs;” this gives the sportsman a “mechanical advantage.” Hence, it is a great choice for beginners. The limbs are “stiffer” than those on other bows, thus “improving accuracy and power” especially over longer distances, greatly due to its uniquely modernized construction and design. That can be a plus, especially since 4-H has a maximum shooting range of 50 yards. What’s more, with the rigidity of the bow, Kale “pulls approximately 45-50 pounds each time he pulls back [his] bowstring.” That can certainly be a workout, considering how often Kale uses his bow, both in practices and tournaments. He normally uses paper targets when performing with his 4-H team. Kale values his time practicing; all of his preparation definitely pays off. Outdoor tournaments are held at the 4-H camp in Eatonton, Georgia, while indoor competitions are held at the Georgia National Fair in Perry, Georgia.
As 4-H was his introduction into archery, Kale is very grateful to all of his 4-H volunteer coaches that have helped him over the years. Alongside his dad, Nicky Smith, Steven Sewell, Henry Kessler, Derrick Zipperer and Josh Mosley have all played an instrumental role in him being the talented, young archer that he is today. Their selfless dedication to the entire team has been remarkable.
Kale, too, has been participating in Scholastic 3-D Archery, S3DA, at Warrior Archery in Tattnall County under the leadership of coordinator Aric Clements. S3DA is a nationwide program and has been rapidly growing for quite a while, allowing for both indoor and outdoor archery fun. It benefits young, aspiring archers by introducing them to the “fundamentals of archery and principles of marksmanship.” Group instruction is offered by skilled coaches with various tournament opportunities on local, state and national levels. Much like the 4-H program, S3DA strives to instill such skills as discipline and self-confidence into young enthusiasts. Kale, however, found that there were notable differences in S3DA and 4-H archery, especially the target. Targets are usually 3-D and are either paper or various animal-forms that are made of durable foam; some animals include deer, hog, boar, bear, coyote and various others. Each target features rings that are scored using a scale from 0-12, with 12 being the highest. Interestingly enough, Kale’s parents bought him a 3-D animal target for practice, a pig, who he calls “Joey.” Further, Kale now uses an additional bow, a High-Country Bow, which is commonly used with 3-D targets and is effective for both beginners and advanced archers. S3DA archers use a variety of ranges, with a maximum range of 30 yards.
S3DA offers an array of great scholarships to its high school archers who qualify, some even getting a “full-ride.” Staci and Alex are certainly excited about that. Staci mentions that many college representatives are often present at the national competition. S3DA athletes may also earn monetary rewards when they win competitions. Understanding the benefit of the organization, the parents would like to have an S3DA club in the local area, since the closest one is in Tattnall. Aric Clements is currently trying to assist with those efforts.
“He is really trying to help us get one,” Staci said.
Kale has competed in several states, but normally competes in North Georgia. In fact, he won the “Georgia State Title for Middle School Fixed Pins” this past May in Maysville, Georgia. It afforded him several medals, trophies and even a uniquely elaborate state championship belt buckle. Staci remembers that it was quite a nail-biting event, as Kale and four other competitors went head-to-head in a shoot-off.
“Only three points separated 1st and 5th place,” Kale recalled.
Staci and Alex were anxiously awaiting the outcome. The two were nervous when they noticed that Kale had “zeroed in on the wrong target,” which is very easy to do with an array of various random targets lined up and down a long range; however, hitting the wrong target will land a competitor a zero. Only seconds prior to shooting, Kale quickly and nearly unnoticeably changed his aim.
The state coordinator, who was anxiously pacing back-and-forth, yelled, “Oh my gosh…I think he’s gotten a 10!” That proved to be quite a memorable event for Kale.
“I was lucky on that,” he said.
Kale then went to nationals in Metropolis, Illinois in June. Over 1,000 other young archers from all over the US competed in various categories. He was proud to place 3rd in the “Superman City Tournament.”
Kale knows that without the consistent support of some outstanding mentors in his life, he would not be where he is now. He mentions Bill Whalley and Evan Fox. He appreciates “their knowledge and skill,” along with all of their help in the sport; their diligence and dedication have been priceless.
“I look up to both of them,” he said.
Additionally, Kale is incredibly thankful for Freddie Jones, who he feels is an “all-around mentor.” He feels very privileged to have the love, support and efforts of his mom and dad, who are “persistent to assure that he follows his dreams.” In addition, Kale is extremely grateful to have some truly supportive and proud grandparents: his “NeNe” Pam White and “PaPa” David White, along with his “Nan-Nan” Shelley Renfro. He also appreciates all of his sponsors, whose support helps him to accomplish his archery goals.
Aside from archery, Kale is an honor student with various interests, including his participation in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program at school. He has been an “inventive, creative, problem-solver” for quite some time. Kale enjoys basketball and plays football for his school. He has also been deemed as quite the “handy-man” with an incredible work ethic, as he often helps his NeNe and PaPa with tons of projects around the house.
“I’m very proud of him; I can really see him going places,” NeNe stated.
Kale is going places, indeed, and the target certainly looks good for this talented young man.

Keeping Our Students Safe

The Effingham County School District makes every effort to equip our students with the educational foundation necessary to succeed in today’s society.  However, we recognize that, in order for our children to learn effectively, they must feel safe in their environment.  Recurring news of tragedies on school campuses has heightened public awareness to the undeniable need for practical and effective school safety measures, and our school district is no exception.  In response to that need, we have taken proactive steps to ensure the ongoing protection of our students and employees.  After all, preparedness is key, and no child should fear going to school, just as no parent should fear sending their child to school any more than any other public place

The Effingham County Board of Education has opted for some common-sense approaches to strengthening our safety measures.  Our Board has approved the allocation of additional dollars in this year’s budget to be utilized towards measures such as increasing our number of resource officers as well as purchasing safety vestibules for our middle and high schools.  Through the existing partnership we have with the Effingham County Commissioner’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office, we have been able to secure two additional full-time resource officers for our school system.  These officers will provide relief when a school resource officer is out or called away to another duty.  We are sincerely grateful for our remarkable partnerships with local law enforcement including the Springfield, Guyton, and Rincon Police Departments as well as the Effingham County Sherriff’s Office.   The ongoing communication and cooperation we maintain with these agencies have allowed us to offer our students a level of security that would, otherwise, be unavailable to them.
The installation of safety vestibules is forthcoming for each of our middle and high schools as well as our Effingham College and Career Academy.  We deeply appreciate our local delegation for their successful efforts to secure state dollars to help fund this project.  Plans are currently underway to begin the installation of these vestibules as soon as possible, and we are confident that these will provide an extra layer of security for our students.  In fact, each of our eight elementary schools currently benefit from safety vestibules whose purchase would not have been possible without ESPLOST revenues.  Our school district would like to thank each of the members of the Effingham community who support the ESPLOST tax that makes projects like our vestibules a reality.
Moving forward, the Effingham County Board of Education has voted to designate additional ESPLOST funds to be used towards school safety for any capital improvement.  Thoughts for the future include the purchase of additional cameras as well as the update of our current locking systems.
While our school district recognizes the need for school safety expenditures, our greatest safety resources are the eyes and ears of our teachers, students, and parents.  We ask that you always be aware of your surroundings and report anything that seems odd or out of the ordinary.  Even if your suspicions are determined to be unfounded, you will have played a critical role towards protecting our children and ensuring their wellbeing.
Thank you for entrusting your children to us each year.  We do not take this responsibility lightly, and we hope to continue earning your trust as we educate and protect your children throughout each new school day.
Randy Shearouse
Superintendent of Schools

CTAE – Career Technical and Agriculture Education Getting Effingham Students on Track for the Future

Career Technical and Agriculture, Education (CTAE), (formerly known as Vocational Education) is offered in Effingham County Schools to give our youth the opportunity to be highly skilled when they are out of school and entering into the work force.
CTAE courses will get our students on the fast track to their future. Whatever their plans may be after high school, CTAE courses and career pathways will give them a head start in many technical and professional careers.
Students participating in CTAE will attend project-based classes that give them hands-on experience in their chosen field.  This will enable them to learn whether they like doing the work in their chosen path and challenge them to gain skills they can use wherever life takes them. They will learn how to take these skills and apply them to real life.
As students complete the steps in working toward their goals, they will find that they are no longer wondering what they will do after graduation. They will know what they want to do and where they are going, and they will have the education and plan to take them there.
Effingham County School’s CTAE program offers career-related educational areas – called Program Concentrations and related Pathways. The Program Concentrations and Pathways gives students insights into the possible occupations in each program.
Todd Wall is the CTAE District Coordinator. His job is to provide expertise and leadership in the operational management and support of the program to enhance student achievement at the middle and high school levels. He also has the task of developing the system CTAE instructional budget and ensure the timely and appropriate expenditure of local, state, and federal grants and funds, all while supervising and supporting all CTAE instructors and assisting in implementing curriculum and instruction across all CTAE pathways.
Sounds like a big job?  Not to Wall, who has 17 years in Career Technical Agriculture Education.  Wall came to Effingham County three years ago as the CTAE Supervisor for the 2015-16 school year for Effingham County High School. Now, he is serving his second year as CTAE District Coordinator.
Currently, there are approximately 2100 students in the high schools and 1100 middle school students in the CTAE program throughout the Effingham County School System. To be in this program, all students must complete three elective units in a coherent sequence in Career Technical and Agricultural Education, Modern Foreign Language or Fine Arts.
The Career Pathways currently being offered in our school system are Logistics, Intro to Digital Technology, Work-Based Learning, Computer Science, Automotive Service Technology, Engineering and Technology, Healthcare Science, Culinary Arts, Agriculture, Early Childhood Education, Audio/Video Technology, Business, JROTC, Public Safety and Forensic Science. In this program, students must complete three levels/classes of instruction, plus a 4th level in some areas.
When asked about new things for the new school term, Mr. Wall shares, “Project Lead the Way… we started PLTW at Effingham College and Career Academy two years ago and we are now in our third year. As of 2018-19 school year, we starting to implement PLTW in the middle and elementary schools.”
He adds, “We piloted Computer Science at ECCA last year and this year we are in full implementation.”
Project Lead the Way provides transformative learning experiences for PreK-12 students and teachers. It creates an engaging, hands-on classroom environment and empowers students to develop in-demand knowledge and skills they need to thrive. PLTW also provides teachers with the training, resources and support they need to engage students in real-world learning.
Work-Based Learning placements represent the pinnacle of the Career-Related Education experience. To qualify for a WBL placement, a student must be in grades 11 or 12 and at least 16 years old. Students must also have a defined Career Pathway in order to participate in a Work-Based Learning placement.
This is especially important for successful completion of a student’s pathway in that their job placement is directly related to the curriculum of the pathway classes they have completed or in which they are concurrently enrolled. There are several opportunities for students to participate in work-based learning. These opportunities include employability skill development, Cooperative Education, Internship, Youth Apprenticeship, and Clinical Experiences.
“We have a very strong Work-Based Learning program in Effingham County.  Our WBL coordinators, Ms. Sherry Duff at ECHS and Ms. Sherry Baggot at SEHS, do an outstanding job of placing our students each year.  This year we will have over 140 students placed in different career related jobs, internships, apprenticeships and clinical experiences throughout our area,” says Wall.  “Students are prepared and have the opportunity to enter directly into the workforce or continue their education in a post-secondary option or both.”