Audrey Singleton calls herself a "beach rat."
One of her favorite things to do is feel the sand crunch between her toes as she walks on the beaches of the Caribbean island St. Thomas or, closer to home, St. Simon’s Island.
Another is being an advocate for children, something she does daily as the owner of the Richmond Hill Montessori School.
Singleton, also a registered dental hygienist, and her husband, Jim, moved to Richmond Hill in 1987 from McIntosh County. Singleton graduated from Armstrong College in 1985 with a degree in health science and on the advice of her father, Bobby, she decided to buy a house and began looking in the Savannah area.
"I wasn’t sure I would be able to afford to buy a house and my father helped me to see I could buy a house. It seemed obvious to me that Richmond Hill had the smaller hometown feel that I had grown up with. Richmond Hill was a little more affordable than the southside of Savannah, which is where I was working and it afforded me the ability to go to mom and daddy’s house several times during the week and eat my mom’s home cooking," the mother of two said.
After working as a dental hygienist for several years for local dentists, including Dr. Gene Wallace, Singleton said it was not a huge leap to opening the only Montessori school in the area.
After opening the Montessori school in 1994 on Ford Avenue, Singleton still maintains her dental hygienist certification.
"It’s not as big a transition as you’d think from being a hygienist to opening a Montessori school, she says with a smile that would light up the darkest room.
"In terms of any type of healthcare position, you’re caretaking. So I was doing caretaking in terms of oral health and was working with children, teens, adults and all of that. And you’re working through education while you’re doing that. You’re educating the patient on proper brushing techniques, proper foods to eat and what they need to do to maintain oral health, as well as physical health.
"And I’m also a child of a self-employed father. So hard work and manual labor doesn’t scare me. I don’t shy away from it," she said several minutes after she finished vacuuming her office, something one of the younger employees could easily have done.
Singleton says Bryan County and Richmond Hill have changed significantly since she arrived in 1987.
"I think the feel of the small town I knew when I got here has changed. We’ve grown larger as more people move to the area and discover it’s beauty. I think the cohesiveness I first knew has changed dramatically. We have more neighborhoods and we’re getting to the point where you can go to the grocery store and not know anyone you pass in the aisles. In a lot of ways, I miss the Richmond Hill I knew in 1987. In other ways, the ‘new’ Richmond Hill offers great things for its residents," Singleton said.
Singleton did say she comes from a very small town, Valona, and that could affect her feelings of how the area has grown.
"But we love it here," she said.
"I’m happy to see all the services and amenities the area now has, although I do think there is a duplication of some commercial offerings. I think I’d like to see a little more diversity in the way the area is growing, from a commercial standpoint.
"I love the friendships and families and the relationships I’ve made through the years. I love the people who have been here as long, or longer, than I have and how they are striving, or fighting, to keep that hometown feel that many of us know and love from going away. I’m a small town girl at heart.
"Keeping that hometown feel is up to the people who live and work here. At the school here, we try to be involved and do things for the community. We try to stay connected with the families we have here now and who have moved away from here. It’s up to the people to keep our community the way we love it," she said.
Singleton, and her husband, Jim, married in 1987 and have one son Nicholas, 23, who just graduated from Georgia South University with a degree in electrical engineering, and a daughter, Caroline, 16, who is a 10th grader at Richmond Hill High School.
She and her family do as much traveling as they can, she said.
"I love St. Thomas. We go there every year and I also love St. Simon’s. Jim and I are most happy when there is sand beneath our feet. We cruise annually to St. Thomas and take the kids. I’ve got to have water, sun, and sand. That keeps me happy.
"I also love gardening and working with the flowers in my backyard. I make time for the things I love. You have to unplug and relax in order to give your all to the other things in your life," she said.
A dream come true, she says, would be to have a house on the beach where she could watch the sun rise and set over the ocean. Until then, she will make due with frequent visits to the beach. She also says it is doubtful she will ever lose her Richmond Hill connection.
"I don’t see us moving out of the area. Both Jim’s and my mother live in Richmond Hill. Our ties to this area are strong."
She does think, however, that Richmond Hill will be very different in the next 15 or 20 years.
"With the Belfast interchange opening, the commercial business and opportunities will really grow. That includes the franchise restaurants everyone seems to want, I think."
Singleton is one to put her money where her mouth is in terms of community involvement.
She recently entered the political process when she ran for the vice chairman position on the Bryan County School Board. Although she was not elected, she said she talked to a lot of people and has a clearer understanding of what people are looking for in the community.
And with that understanding, she will not rule out another run for the school board or other elected position.
"I am open to being involved again in the political process. I think I have a lot to offer, in terms of business and financial experience, as well as being knowledgeable in educational areas from a local, statewide or federal level.
"I learned a great deal from the last election that will help me in the future. Being able to sit down and have more open dialogue with people who have been here longer, as well as newer people is one thing I’ve learned. When you take an active stance and become one of those elected officials you are able to hear more of what people are looking for and wanting and you become a servant to them. You are able to represent what your constituents are looking for."
Singleton credits her parents, Bobby and Pat Todd with being the biggest influences on her life.
"My dad, who died in 2009, was a commercial shrimper. He taught me that hard work and perseverance will pay off. You just do it and don’t compare yourself to or worry about what other people are thinking. You set your mind to what you want and just go for it. I would not have accomplished what I have without his guidance and influence.
"My mom pushed me in a positive direction always. She gave me a solid religious footing that is still strong today. She is strong-willed and I get my strong-will from her."
The "beach rat" has come a long way from her days in Valona.