- story by Ana Balka
Ask around about Bay St. Louis resident and retired elementary school teacher Janet Fiveash, and you’ll quickly discover a running theme. Those who know Janet say that her passion for teaching and her desire to help others are her defining characteristics.
And one thing they all agree on: “She is always smiling.”
That positive outlook has carried Janet through difficult times. Diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1996, she was later diagnosed with lymphedema, a non-curable condition resulting from removal of lymph glands and radiation treatment.
This April 22, friends and colleagues rallied around Janet to raise funds that will help her pay for a new surgery that could offer her relief.
The fundraiser, called “Fighting for Fiveash” and held at the Main Street United Methodist Church, was a great success, said organizer and friend Tammy Raymond. The event raised over $15,000 and brought together many members of the community, former students, and friends.
Mugshots Grill sold more than 300 burgers, Raymond said. Participants also enjoyed auctions for prizes and local art, and Lisa Grace of Treehouse Yoga provided kids’ yoga. Music and entertainment was compliments of Kurbside and Bay Ratz Marching Battery. There were baked goods for sale too. Everyone had a great time.
Raymond, who teaches at North Bay Elementary, first met Janet when she was Janet’s teaching assistant there in 1992. She said the turnout for the fundraiser was more than she, Janet, or other organizers ever expected.
“We had so many people come out in support of Janet in our community. Words cannot express our gratitude for the overwhelming support and outpouring of love that we received.
“It says a lot about how our community pulls together when someone’s in need.”
“I guess that even though I was in so much pain, I kept going because I had a determination not to give up.... I wasn’t going to let it stop me from helping others.”
But she sees the outpouring of support for her in recent times as reaping far more than she ever sowed. “People have just loved me and are taking such good care of me. It’s just so great, all they have done.”
After 30 years of teaching kindergarten and first grade in Hancock County and Bay area elementary schools, Janet retired in June 2016, but for health reasons, not because her passion for teaching had waned.
Growing up in Poplarville, Janet knew she wanted to teach before she went to college (first at Pearl River Community College and then to USM in Hattiesburg). She’d done a lot of volunteering while in high school — camps, vacation bible schools, and mission trips with youth groups — that influenced that decision.
Before graduation from USM, she attended a job fair and landed a job at Hancock North Central Elementary. She spent five years there before going to North Bay Elementary and then, after Hurricane Katrina, Waveland Elementary.
Teaching “was always fun, always an adventure... I have always loved to teach,” Janet said. “It’s just natural for me. I hope that I’ve made a difference.”
Jacqueline Lape met Janet in 1995 at North Bay Elementary when Lape started teaching kindergarten there. She also worked with Janet at Waveland Elementary after Katrina.
“Janet was one of those teachers, you wanted your kids to be in her class,” she said.
Lape pointed out that Janet won Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District’s Teacher of the Year award for the 2009-10.
“She made sure the students had what they needed to learn character as well as curriculum,” she said, recalling a letter Janet showed her from a former student who said Janet taught him important life lessons. “I almost didn’t get through it without crying.”
Lape made sure to note that Janet is a friend as well as a colleague. “She’s my kindness guru,” Jacqueline laughed. “Even when things aren’t going the way they should, she always chooses kindness.”
Retirement from teaching has not stopped Janet from volunteering. She is active with the Main Street United Methodist Church, serving on the Vision and Planning committee and teaching vacation Bible school.
“My church family has been there with me from the very beginning,” Janet said, crediting Pastor Dawn Flowers with informing parishioners of her illness last May. Church members visited the hospital, prayed for her, and have been a strong support system ever since.
Janet also volunteers with Friends of the Animal Shelter, having served on the board and the education committee. The organization has a Second Saturday program for which they set up a table with baked goods and information to raise funds each month, and according to Friends president Tina Richardson, in the time Janet was involved in that program she missed only one Saturday in six years.
Friends of the Animal Shelter provides another way for Janet’s gift as a teacher to shine through the education committee. The group plans to launch a program for volunteers to visit area libraries with information about pet care, animal foster care, estate planning that involves pets, and ways to better your relationships with your animals.
The education committee also heads up “Reading with Friends” in conjunction with the Hancock County Library. The program has kids reading to dogs in a program that improves kids’ reading ability and confidence.
Fundraising for Janet’s medical expenses continues. Anyone who wants to donate may do so by visiting any Hancock Bank or Whitney Bank and ask to make a deposit for Fighting for Fiveash.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to get her this much-needed surgery,” Tammy Raymond said.
Janet Fiveash, friend to the community, is reaping some of the goodness that she's sown.