Grace Handler named Citizen of the Year
by Kelly Daniel, Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce
Grace Handler does a lot in Nacogdoches County. She does it well, and she makes whatever it is better.
She has been in the insurance business for 17 years. After working for two companies she made the decision to open Handler Insurance in April 2006 with an office location in the Williamsburg Plaza on North Street. The agency grew from offering life and health to the current list that also includes policies for property, commercial, homeowners and auto insurance.
When Grace arrived in the complex, Charlene Rees, G.G. and owner of Rees Jewelry, was one of the business neighbors.
"Things really changed around there," Rees said. "Grace started off with a bang and organized either a Thanksgiving or Christmas pot luck lunch out in the hall. Up until then, that had never happened. It was great fun as we all brought our dishes and put our chairs in the hallway and had lunch and visited."
Grace continued the neighbor-friendly acts by organizing a baby shower for another woman, decorating with others for Christmas and helping Rees host an open house, all while growing her business clients.
Handler and Rees became close friends, praying together during times of personal loss that each experienced.
When Rees decided to move her business to its current location at 418 E. Main Street, she invited Handler to join her. "I told Grace that it just so happened Ms. Rogers had an office for rent in the same building right behind my store," Rees said.
Grace accepted the invitation, and the two held back-to-back ribbon cutting ceremonies for their businesses on April 16, 2014.
Handler grew up in the Tampa, Florida area. She was born on May 12, 1965 to Clarence and Ethel Clements, and she credits her parents as her most influential mentors, providing a Godly home and teaching her and her three siblings to walk by faith. Grace enjoyed spending time with her family. She played clarinet in the school marching band and was deeply involved in her church, holding leadership roles in the Women's Missionary Union (WMU).
After making her way to Texas in 1999, Grace met Bobby Handler. They married on December 11, 2000, and they enjoy living in Looneyville. "Bobby is my best friend who stands with me and understands my work for the church and community," Handler said. "I have four children, Pricilla, Victoria, Mark and Brandie and I was then blessed with a stepson Chris. God gave me Bobby and my children, and they are each a wonderful gift. They encourage one another."
After Handler Insurance was established, Grace recognized that she lacked relationships with the locals.
"I was on the road a lot, working the Tyler and Lufkin areas before opening my agency," she said. "I have always liked to be involved with community and church, and I wanted to do more in Nacogdoches."
She found her opportunity to make contacts through the Chamber.
Handler thanked several people for helping her "get her feet wet" with the Chamber: Neil Slaten, Tipton Ford, and Bill Teague invited her to join the first Total Resource Campaign in fall 2010; and Francis Spruiell, Austin Bank, asked her to chair Operation Thank You! in January 2011.
Chamber involvement grew from there. Handler is a Leadership Nacogdoches alumna, has served on the Chamber's Board of Directors since 2013. She held the Vice Chair Membership Services position for the 2013-2014 fiscal year and has accepted the Vice Chair Special Projects and Fundraisers role for the new Chamber year that begins on Oct. 1. She chaired the Texas Blueberry Festival in 2014 and 2015, leading a group of approximately twenty key volunteers through the months of preparation required to produce an event that attracts thousands to historic downtown. She contributes her talents to numerous other Chamber committees and projects.
So many have benefited from her involvement with Habitat for Humanity of Nacogdoches, Christian Women's Job Corp. (CWJC) of Nacogdoches and Adult Protective Services. Those that work with her in these organizations share a common observation - Grace brings joy in all situations.
CWJC Executive Director Helen Stevenson met Grace 16 years ago when they became next door neighbors.
"At that time, Grace was a single mother of four children. She was determined and working hard to build a business not just to survive but provide well for her family," Stevenson said. "In January of this year, she joined our volunteer team at CWJC, and she is a perfect fit for our mission to equip and inspire women for a better future for themselves and their families."
Handler is an instructor for a CWJC "personal finance" class that is offered free to attend.
"Grace brings not only her knowledge of personal finance, but her own real life experiences and victories to share with the women we serve," Stevenson said. "Grace teaches and leads with understanding and genuine passion to help. She is investing in women’s lives and making a difference in our community."
New home owners receive valuable financial knowledge from a similar program available through Habitat for Humanity.
Executive Director Miki Lynn credits Handler as a driving force in Habitat's growth. "She has spearheaded the Home Owner Preparation courses, teaching most of the classes herself," Lynn said. "She is the heart of our Family Support Team and has a wonderful and personal rapport with our clients. She has dedicated hundreds of hours assisting in planning and executing our move to the new location, including painting the interior of our showroom."
Lynn described Handler as "a dynamic force" pushing for more efficiency and modern processes and is currently working to enhance the organization's annual Golf Classic.
"She is a voice in the community for our mission," Lynn said. "Grace has a way of getting things done and having fun at the same time. Her energy lifts up anything where she is involved."
Handler recently became involved with Adult Protective Services, and she jumped in with the recent Senior Prom. "For some, this was the only prom they have been able to attend, and I had a special experience just watching them," she said.
"Dressing up and walking in, taking pictures, dancing was such a delight for all of us. I can't explain the feeling of happiness in the room."
She fundraises for the Lilbert-Looneyville Volunteer Fire Dept. and supports The O'Malley Alley Cat Organization and served on the board of directors as treasurer of the Friendship Cemetery.
She and Bobby host get-togethers throughout the year at their home that can compare to some festivals with the amount of activities, music and food available for their guests.
"Grace Handle is a giver of all givers!" said Jessica Henderson, Chairman of the Chamber Board of Directors. "When dealing in business, with family or friends, she makes a remarkable impact in people's lives that seems to come as natural and easy as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. She is truly a community role model, and it is an honor to announce her as the 2015 Citizen of the Year."