Toni Wolfe

From fractured childhood to master’s degree

The unthinkable happened to Toni Wolfe when she was 10, but she hasn’t let difficult life circumstances stand in the way of ministering to others and fulfilling her dream of becoming a college religion professor.

Toni, 49, earned her bachelor’s degree in religion in May from LaGrange College and now is heading home to Indiana, where she will pursue a Master of Arts degree in Biblical studies from Asbury Theological Seminary.

“I became a Christian when I was 16 and have felt called to minister and to serve the Lord ever since then,” says Toni, who moved to the LaGrange area five years ago because of her husband’s job. I’ve sat under ministers and teachers to develop this gift, but it was LaGrange College that really defined it.”

When she and her husband moved to the LaGrange area, he wholeheartedly supported her in going to college full-time to earn a degree. She started out at a larger state university but soon discovered the small LaGrange campus and its Christian foundation.

Toni began as a theatre arts major because of her love for leading the theatrical ministry, Christmas play and passion play at St. Smyrna Baptist in Newnan, where she is an associate minister and also leads the marriage ministry with her husband. But as a non-traditional student, the evening hours in the theatre program didn’t fit her schedule.

While taking religion classes at LaGrange College, though, she found where she belonged. And for Toni, that was huge, for finding “home” for her has been a journey of despair turned to hope.

Toni’s fractured childhood

The only father and mother Toni ever knew until she was 10 were her foster parents. They loved her, encouraged her, and gave her an undeniable feeling of comfort and security. She did the usual things “normal” kids do, including piano lessons and weekly church.

All that came to an abrupt halt when the state awarded her biological mother custody. Toni was taken from the only parents she’d ever known. She shared her new home—a cramped apartment in government housing—with four siblings, each who also had been taken from their separate foster families to live with their mother.

The years passed, and as a teenager, Toni struggled with how radically her life had changed. In a desperate moment at 16, she sold her only possession, a moped, to buy Sunday clothes so she could attend church again like she had with her foster parents.

That decision changed her life.

“It was at age 16 that I gave my life to the Lord,” she says. “Based on my foundation with my foster parents, I was able to connect that desire to want to serve the Lord, and I gave my life to Christ.”

Toni married young and had three children, all who now live in Indiana and are married with children of their own. When she and her husband moved to Georgia five years ago, she didn’t know just how much she would miss their family, especially as grandchildren began coming into the picture.

A new beginning

“My husband has been such a blessing by giving me this opportunity to concentrate solely on school for the past five years,” Toni says. “Now that I’ve earned my degree, he realizes how important it is for me to go back to my family—my brothers and sister, my children, my grandchildren. Being that I was raised in a foster home I didn’t have much of a family connection. It took my children having children to build our family.”

Toni says she is so glad she found the religion professors at LaGrange College.

“LaGrange College offers a more intimate approach and connection with your academic studies,” she says. “It just really fit for me to be at a private Christian college.”

She says her religion classes have enhanced her service at church, especially classes in Christian leadership, Christian education and New Testament studies.

“Dr. John Cook is known for New Testament text and the scriptures and identifying the scriptures in context,” she says.

“Dealing with social issues like race and religion with Dr. David Ahearn has been eye-opening when dealing with a congregation that can be multi-ethnic and multicultural.

“And then there’s Professor Alvin Lingenfelter. He’s quite fun; I just love Professor Lingenfelter. He has such a unique approach in teaching his students servant leadership.”

In one of Professor Lingenfelter’s classes, Toni helped with Meals on Wheels and a feed-the-hungry program by making 176 cream cheese pound cakes. During Lent she served at a senior citizens community center by teaching a series of Bible studies.

Toni says she can only speculate as to how she developed such a desire to be positive and to serve God and others when her life as a teenager seemed to dictate otherwise.

“I was quiet and withdrawn as a child, and I don’t know if that had something to do with being place in a foster home,” Toni says. “But as I observed successful people, I gravitated to people and to life. I love life. I don’t focus on the negative things.

“Even though my environment dictated to me to settle in a certain area, I was able to arise out of that through the grace and help of God. I do give that credit to the Lord; it’s like he’s been mapping and directing and ordering my life for purpose.”