Richmond Hill resident Cindy Hatala loves the water, but sometimes even that can get a little daunting.
Hatala, a fifth-grade teacher at George Washington Carver Elementary School, grew up on a farm in Clifton Springs, New York, and still considers herself a farm girl, even after decades of living in Coastal Georgia.
"I remember going out and milking the goats in the morning. I remember having to shovel snow out of driveways. I had many chores on the farm," said the self-described tomboy who once played second base on her Little League team.
"I was the only girl on the team."
Last week’s snow and ice in Richmond Hill triggered long-forgotten memories of shoveling snow on her upstate New York farm.
"I miss snow one day a year – that’s Christmas Day," she said with a smile.
The path for Hatala from upstate New York to Richmond Hill is one that many have traveled, via the U.S. Army.
"I had always wanted to be a teacher since I was a very young age. I graduated from high school at 16 and went to college for a year-and-a-half. My mom raised five children. She was a single parent who worked hard ... sometimes two jobs. So I went to college on student loans and grants. After 18 months, the tuition was raised and I couldn’t afford to continue," Hatala said.
"When I couldn’t afford the tuition any more, it never entered my mind to ask my mother for more. I still had a younger brother and sister at home. So I went and talked to the military recruiters," she continued. "The Army recruiter said I could go in the Army as an E-3 enlisted grade, which paid more. They also had a program to pay off my existing school loans as well as give me $21,000 to go back to school.
"I went home and talked to my mom about it and she was very supportive. So I went in the Army for three years. That was an eye-opening experience. I went in the Army in 1983."
The mother of three says she can vividly recall her first day in basic training when she first laid eyes on her "huge" drill sergeant and his style and language that was never a part of her vocabulary.
Hatala said her marching experience in high school band gave her a leg up on her fellow recruits and they recognized her leadership potential and made her a squad leader.
After basic training in 1984, she was sent to Fort Gordon, to train for a communications job. After her schooling, Hatala was assigned to Fort Stewart, where she would meet her future husband, Joe.
They got married in 1985 and the couple has three sons, Nicholas, 31, Kevin, 27, Jonathan, 27, and two grandchildren, Wesley, 7, and Marianne, 3.
"Since 1984, this area has been my home. I met my husband and have been here since," she said.
Some of her fondest military memories include going on temporary duty to Fort Ord, California. She credits her three-year military tenure with teaching her survival skills — including patience and adaptability — which have served her well in her many years as a teacher.
With her stint in the Army completed, she went to then-Armstrong College, where she got her degree in early education in 1989. She also holds a master’s degree in early education from Georgia Southern University and a specialist degree in curriculum and instruction from Lincoln University.
Hatala taught on Fort Stewart for 12 years before coming into the Bryan school system in 2000.
She taught at both Richmond Hill Elementary and Richmond Hill Primary schools before moving to Carver three years ago. Her teaching days have her arriving at school between 5:30 and 6 a.m., and she is often one of the last to leave after school is done.
Hatala jokingly describes herself as a morning person, which is helpful when you arrive to school in the early morning darkness.
"I don’t think many people realize how long a teacher’s day can be. I still do one to two hours of work every night at home," she said.
"Teaching is a tough job but I love the kids," she said. "I love seeing when you can tell by looking at their faces that something is hard, and then the look on their faces when they get it. It makes it all worthwhile.
"Teaching has changed tremendously since I started. Even with the added requirements, I love this job and couldn’t see me doing anything else."
However, one thing that Hatala can easily imagine herself doing is spending time relaxing on the water.
"When I need time away, my hobby is going to the beach or getting on my jet ski. I have a jet ski that is one of the fastest on water," she said. "I love to ride and relax and feel the wind as I go across the water. We have a boat and we love being out on that, also."
She said she has spent time at Tybee Island this winter looking for shark’s teeth with her fellow teacher and friend, Colleen White.
Hatala has gotten a little closer to the water than she would like on two occasions since moving to her Live Oak Drive home in Richmond Hill. Her home has flooded twice because of storms or hurricanes moving through Coastal Georgia.
"Our house flooded the first time in 1994. We had only lived there three months," she said. "A storm stalled and dumped a lot of rain in this area. Our house flooded again in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew hit our area."
Hatala said the flooding in her home was very extensive, with the 2016 damage reaching nearly $75,000.
"My garage had three feet of water. In the house, we had a good foot of water. The damage was pretty extensive and it took months to get our home back," she said. "After Matthew, we didn’t move back into our house until April of 2017."
During Hurricane Irma last September, Hatala and her husband, along with a couple of others, pulled a man from a nearby ditch after he had driven his truck into the water-swollen ditch, thinking he was on a solid road.
According to neighbors and news reports, the quick actions of her and the others likely saved the man from drowning.
When not having a love-hate relationship with water, she describes herself as an avid reader with romance novels.
"It’s an escape for me. I don’t have to think or invest a lot of myself in the stories. It only requires me to enjoy the story."
She also likes baking and has a reputation at her school for spending a lot of time baking and bringing sweet treats for her fellow teachers throughout the school year.
She also describes herself as an avid music lover and one-time bassoon player.
"I played the bassoon for five years growing up, from sixth to 12th grade. As much as I would like to take up the bassoon again, I never owned one. It belonged to the school. I’ve looked as an adult at buying one, but they are thousands of dollars. But I always wanted to play an instrument that not many other people played."
She describes her musical tastes as "eclectic," ranging from hard rock to country.
Hatala said she has watched Richmond Hill grow significantly since she moved here in 1989 and thinks growth is good for the city. But, she said, she hopes future growth is done smartly with thought given to road conditions and the ability of local facilities to accommodate growth.
"It was a little town then. I think we had four police officers. It has grown tremendously. We had a mentality then that ‘We take care of our own.’ I want that to continue for my grandchildren," she said. "Growth is a good thing, if it’s managed properly, but I don’t want that mentality get lost as we continue to grow."
She says she can’t see herself ever leaving Richmond Hill, her home for the last 28 years. She has close friends, her family nearby, a job she loves and is near the water she enjoys relaxing on. Sounds like a good combination.