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Photo by Diane Cox
Bethel Christian Academy celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Over the years, the school has seen hardships, including a fire that destroyed the building in 1996, but has persevered.
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Photo by James Moss
(From left) Melissa Matthews, Gwen Garland, Emma Guthrie, Rhonda Stegall and Gail Delancey make up part of the heart of Bethel Christian Academy.
SOUTH ROXANA — Late in the summer of 1996, a fire destroyed Bethel Free Will Baptist Church, and with it went Bethel Christian Academy.
Instead of spelling the end of the school, for the staff it was a challenge to rise above and persevere.
“We started ground up and rebuilt everything again,” Rhonda Stegall, who has worked at the school for nearly 10 years, said.
Bethel Christian Academy celebrated its 35th anniversary with a birthday party to kick off the school year. The event was attended by approximately 200 people — nearly double the student body — and included cake and face-painting.
The academy opened its doors in the 1980-1981 academic year, 25 years after its parent church. Families from the church founded the school, a process that took about a year. In the early days, it was operated entirely by volunteers, including teachers and maintenance workers.
Now, nearly all of the school’s instructors have degrees and certification.
“We wanted the parents to have a choice about where they wanted to send their kids to get a Christian-based education,” art teacher Gail Delancey said. “We want our community to have a choice in the education that is given to their children. Our goal is to teach, educate and to promote the principles of Godly values from our Bible.”
Before the building burned in 1996, the school shared its space with the church, and classes were held in classrooms designed for Sunday school.
“They never did build on to the original church, but when the new church was built (after the fire), they certainly made plans to build to house the school,” RaNell Consiglio, the school’s outgoing principal who has served for six years, said. “The school comprises over half of the building now.”
Consiglio, who will be replaced by Tera Barasel, said the school and church have always been closely linked, as shown by the shared space, but that does not exclude those of other faiths from attending.
“The school has always been a part of the church, and we do function together, yet we function separately,” she said. “Our school was founded on the Baptist freewill belief, but we accept children from all denominations.”
Melissa Matthews, who attended the school for 11 years and has three children enrolled, said it also aims “to prepare and equip our students to become upstanding citizens.”
“Our kids spend the majority of their day and their weeks at school with teachers and with other students,” Matthews said. “To have that environment and that exposure to be with people with similar values and beliefs and good, solid background is important.”
Gwen Garland, the school’s secretary and unofficial public relations representative, said one of the things she most values is the environment.
“It is so comforting for us to know that our kids have other Christian teachers, staff and friends they can confide in,” she said.
When Bethel Christian Academy opened, it had approximately 40 students and 4 teachers. The school’s sports program consisted of boys’ basketball, girls’ volleyball and cheerleading.
In the years since, the school has grown considerably, adding art, music and computer classes. Stegall said it has enrolled as many as 130 students in one year. Last year, there were 102 students and 12 teachers.
Along with growth has come community outreach. In recent years, the academy has worked with numerous nonprofits, including Operation Christmas Child, World Vision, the Community Hope Center and more. In the upcoming year, Barasel said the school hopes to partner with Churches on the Streets, a homeless outreach ministry.
It has also added to its athletic program, winning basketball and volleyball tournaments at state and national levels.
Emma Guthrie, who played volleyball and basketball at the school and graduated this year, reflects on her memories.
“The trips were definitely part of my favorite thing because those were really fun to get to be with some of my best friends, and it brought the team a lot closer,” she said. “We’ve just had a lot of opportunities. We’ve won a lot of tournaments and been pretty successful in our conference and our state tournaments.”
Matthews said she liked the one-on-one relationships with the teachers, one of the reasons her children attend.
“It’s not just students who come in one after another before the teachers. It’s definitely a personal relationship the teachers develop with the kids,” she said. “The goal of the teachers is not to come in and go through the lesson plan and get their paycheck. It’s really to develop the minds and hearts of these students.”
Guthrie agreed, saying the teachers have made an impact on her life, as well.
“I’ve been here since I was four, and I’ve had multiple teachers pray with me and really invest themselves in my life, even if they don’t teach here anymore,” she said.
Bethel Christian Academy is located at 1417 Herbert St. For more information, call (618) 254-0188.