LEESBURG, Ga. -- It's taken Al Halbert quite a bit of time -- 39 years, to be exact -- and what he calls God's "NCIS slap to the back of the head," but the minister/artist gets it now.
"My dad was a Baptist preacher, and when I told him God had called me to preach in 1971, he discouraged me from answering that call," Halbert said. "He'd been a pastor for more than 20 years at churches that believed if you keep your pastor poor, you keep him humble, and he convinced me that it was a tough life.
"So I taught school for 29 years, had the great job, the health insurance, the retirement ... all the things the world says you need to go far. But always in the back of my mind there was this nagging feeling that what I was doing was not my true calling."
Through a twisting, turning series of events, Halbert finally answered God's call. Now he and wife Donna are in Leesburg, owners/educators of the unique Potter's Hand Learning Center at 173 Society St. There they're licensed to provide day care for children ages 6 months to 18 months and a Christian-based educational curriculum for 3- and 4-year-old pre-kindergarten students.
Open year-round from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., the Potter's Hand offers what the center's mission statement calls "a faith-based Christian ministry through which we shape and mold the mind, body, soul and spirit of the child."
For Al and Donna Halbert, though, the learning center is the couple's response to a higher calling.
"I have no doubt in my mind that God prepared us for this," Donna Halbert said. "The things that happened in our lives were leading us here."
Al and Donna were single parents when they "met cute" just a little more than two years ago. She'd resigned herself to a life alone with her children when a friend -- without her knowledge -- paved the way for a meeting with Al. The two met at a restaurant "in plain view, in the middle of the day," and a spark was ignited.
"We just talked and talked as if we'd known each other forever," Donna said. "I don't know what it was, but when I saw him I just knew there was something there.
"It turns out that both our dads were Baptist preachers, and he understood that the most important things in my life were God, my family and the Bible."
Al and Donna met on Oct. 28, 2008. Just under two months later, on Dec. 20, they were married.
Al was in his 29th year of teaching art to elementary and middle school students when a shakeup in the Glynn County School System led him to finally walk away from the security that the job provided. He says he ran afoul of school administrators for questioning the superintendent's shabby treatment of art and music teachers and was transferred "from the best school in the system to the worst."
"I'd denied my calling so long, I believe the Lord literally kicked me out of the school system," Al Halbert said. "I've always felt if you're willing to truly follow God, you must be willing to drop everything in your life. That's what I did."
Ironically, Donna, who had taught at private church schools for 19 years, landed a temporary job working with 3- and 4-year-olds at a day care center, a position that she said opened her eyes.
"I'd never worked with kids that young before, but once I got in there I found that I loved it," she said. "I truly believe God sent me to that job to prepare me for what was to come."
Donna's son-in-law, Adam Mills, worked with the solid waste disposal company Veolia Environmental Services, and a recent promotion with the company brought him and wife April to Leesburg. Al had heard of extension classes being taught at Sherwood Baptist Church in nearby Albany, so the Halberts made the move to Southwest Georgia along with Adam and April.
"I was one year away from retirement with the school system, and I could have done that easily," Al Halbert said. "But I felt it was time for me to take responsibility for what God wanted me to do. I'm reminded of the stories of the 'prodigal son' and the 'rich young ruler'.
"It was time for me to follow God's call."
The Halberts saw a day care/learning center as the answer to a lot of concerns the family had. Such a facility would allow them to answer God's call of teaching youngsters, would allow them to care for their young granddaughter and would provide a unique ministerial opportunity.
They sought a location and were shown the 173 Society property by realtor Jessica Owens. The place was a mess, but Al Halbert saw potential.
"I noticed the dirt and the smell, but Al saw what the place could be," Donna Halbert said. "We talked about it, and I started to see the potential, too."
Al told Owens to make a "ridiculously low" offer for the property, an offer well below the asking price. When he and Donna talked about it later and he told his wife what he'd offered, they initially decided they'd accept a counter-offer.
"But I prayed about it, and told God, 'If this is You, I want them to take the offer'," Donna said. "I wanted to know in my heart that this is what God wanted for us."
Owens called two days later and told the Halberts the owners "didn't flinch" while accepting their offer.
"I truly believe the owners found out what we wanted to do with the place, found out about our Christian ministry, and that's the reason they accepted the offer," Donna said.
Of course, getting the property was only step one. There was work to be done, lots of it. The couple used their savings to finance the work and other necessities, leaving them in need of a loan to finance the balance of the purchase price. They had two weeks to find a financial backer or risk losing their earnest money, but financial institution after financial institution turned them down.
"Everyone kept telling us we had excellent credit, good background checks and excellent letters of recommendation," Donna said. "They noted that we'd always paid our bills. But no one would loan us the money. In fact, one banker here told Al, 'You'll never get the money; we have to answer to our stockholders'."
The Halberts contacted the property owners, explained their dilemma and were astounded to find that the couple was willing to owner-finance the deal.
Even while jumping through those hoops, Donna met state-required certification standards. She obtained needed licenses and wrote necessary lesson plans and manuals. Finally, after getting a "perfect inspection score" from the state around Thanksgiving, The Potter's Hand became a reality.
But it's a difficult reality.
"We've had to rely on word of mouth to let people know about the center," Al Halbert said. "We've used every bit of our savings and retirement to get things going, and now it's in the hands of the Lord.
There have been a number of times when we've had a need, and we didn't know where we were going to get the money.
"But we've got a list of 20 or so people who, for whatever reason, saw what we were doing on the Web or heard about the center and just felt led to send us some money. When we'd feel discouraged, we'd get $50 in the mail here, $100 there. And we had someone trade off for $350 of sheetrock work that we needed but couldn't afford."
The Halberts currently work with five children at the Potter's Hand.
Donna directs the center and teaches K3 students; Sarah Anderson is the certified infant teacher; Al is the office manager and teaches art classes; while daughter April is the food services manager.
In addition to three meals a day, The Potter's Hand offers students the Christian-based A Beka curriculum that includes reading; phonics; Bible verses and stories; arts and crafts such as painting, poetry and songs; social skills and manners; and physical play skills.
"We educate the whole child," Al says, and Donna adds, "and we do it in a clean environment. We also give the kids lots of love."
The Potter's Hand follows a regular school year schedule, but parents can sign up their children at any time. The center is currently offering special prices for day care, pre-K classes and after-school care (for grades K-5).
"We're not trying to steal business from other centers; we just want people to come by and see what we have to offer," Donna said. "Parents are invited to come by the office and visit at any time. We welcome them."
Al, a renowned artist who has written a book of children's sermons ("The Promise of the Butterfly") and a book of personal reflections ("Clay in the Potter's Hand"), is available for private art lessons, but both he and Donna have their hands full trying to do with their center what they say God wants them to do.
"I went a lot of years trying to ignore God's plan for my life," Al Halbert said. "That was me trying to impose my own will. Now, my life -- our lives -- are in God's hands."