By Angela Higginbotham
Rhonda Gauger grew up in Georgia surrounded my music. Both of her parents were musicians and she began playing piano while in the fifth grade. Gauger’s passion for music carried on throughout her childhood and still remains today. She earned her bachelor’s degree in piano and masters in education from Columbus State University. She met her husband, Bob, a music leader and piano technician, while pursuing her master’s degree. They recently celebrated their 34th anniversary and are proud parents of Ben and Katie, who both serve in the Marine Corps.
Gauger’s career in education started in 1988 in St. Mary’s, Ga. and she immediately felt a connection and passion for working with children. She moved to the St. Augustine area in 1993 and has enjoyed her work as the music instructor at Hickory Creek Elementary for the past 13 years. She takes tremendous pride in her students and enjoys nothing more than watching them grow through the band and chorus programs at the school. A breast cancer survivor of 20 years, Gauger credits Buddy Check 12 with providing encouragement to perform self checks and volunteers time to encourage others to do the same.
- What do you enjoy most about living in St. Augustine?
I guess my favorite thing would include the entire First Coast area. The people are what I enjoy most. We have some of the most generous, helpful and kind people around here. People who rush to respond in times of need. This area is so full of life and rich in history as well.
- What is the success story and how many instruments are the kids exposed to in the fourth and fifth grade band at Hickory Creek Elementary?
The staff is encouraged to focus on the arts, both in the curriculum and through extracurricular activities. I’ve been blessed to teach at the opening of several schools, but I knew that Hickory Creek was a place that I wanted to be for a long time. This year will be our 11th band program. We had 52 members last year. The kids play flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, baritone and a couple of less common instruments. Every year we do a production of “The Polar Express.” The band, chorus, and drama kids all work together and put on a big production. It takes an army to teach all these kids different instruments, but we have teachers and volunteers that go the extra mile. When the band first started it was just myself and my husband working with the kids. Now, we have so many people that want to be involved.
- As a breast cancer survivor, what would you say you gained most from your journey?
Some things that I used to think were important, aren’t. I started thinking about how I wanted my kids to remember me and I learned to let a lot of things go. If the beds don’t get made every day, oh well. I had to retrain myself on how to play the piano because, as a result of the chemotherapy, the nerves on the ends of my fingers were damaged. I still can’t feel the keys when I play. That journey taught me a lot about life and what’s really important.
I was 35 years old and had no family history of breast cancer. My lump never showed up on my mammogram and it had spread to my lymph nodes. I found it on my own. I encourage women to check themselves often and not completely rely on their yearly exams. The doctor saw me once a year; I see myself every day and I knew something wasn’t right.
- What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Helping students that are struggling in the classroom find success through music. Children can learn and grow so much through music. One student I had was hearing impaired and I gave him a speaking part in the Christmas show. He was so proud of himself for that accomplishment and went on to join the band in middle school, and also later in high school at Bartram Trail. He could play in tune so well. I work to help make every child feel successful and good when they are learning music. I try to find what they are good at and it’s great to see how much they have grown years later.
- What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
With my school work and activities, there’s not a lot of extra time. I enjoy listening to a variety of music, of course. I spend some time representing Buddy Check 12 and I enjoy adult coloring books.
Photo courtesy Rhonda Gauger