The Inspiration: Vivian Connell

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Vivian Connell
Photo by Briana Brough

This story originally ran in the November 2014 issue.

By the time she was in sixth grade, Vivian had lived in several Southern cities due to her father’s work in sales and textiles. The first person in her family to earn a college degree (from the University of Georgia), she taught middle school English and, upon learning of an opportunity to teach ESL in Japan, moved there for three years. She became sufficiently fluent in Japanese and was hired in 1996 as venue language services manager and interpreter for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). There, she met her husband Paul, who was ACOG’s associate director of communications. The couple moved around the Atlanta area, where she continued to teach while also becoming the mother to son Hagan, 15, and daughter Hadley, 13. In 2003, the family moved to Charlotte, where she taught in the local schools, but was disappointed in the city’s political and racial policies. She knew that in order to make the sort of impact on schools and communities that would augur change for more inclusive policies, she’d need to pursue a law degree. “That was a huge driving factor for us coming to and then staying in Chapel Hill,” she recalls of their move here in the spring of 2010, upon her acceptance into the UNC School of Law. She is now an ESL instructor at Chapel Hill High.

Vivian has never been one to let expectations hold her back. As a teacher in Charlotte in 2007, she taught about the Holocaust in a class she created called Voices Activated. “We promoted student engagement in global issues and civic debate,” Vivian says. “I was very concerned about education policy and equity in education.” Law school beckoned.

Last summer, just a week after passing the bar exam, she went out for a run to contemplate accepting a clerkship at the N.C. Supreme Court in pursuit of a career in law and especially policy. The odd tightness that had been plaguing her left calf was particularly troublesome that day. “I had noticed that my left leg was squishy – I couldn’t hop on it,” she remembers. “I was a fairly athletic and active person. I had run a 10K; I lifted weights and was doing exercises and was not getting stronger.”

Eventually diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease, Vivian was presented with hard facts: In three to five years, she will go from using a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair and then likely be bedridden and breathing through a tube.

Acutely aware of her time limitations, she aggressively accomplished in the past six months what others might take years to do: She created the Writing Wrongs program and raised over $30,000 in just three weeks to bring 25 at-risk students from Phoenix Academy (and some kids from Chapel Hill High School who’d survived Myanmar’s conflicts) to D.C. to study at the Holocaust Museum, visit the Martin Luther King Memorial, view the Magna Carta and soak up spoken word poetry at Busboys and Poets. What’s more, she wrote about it all for a published collection.

The experience was a profound one, resonating deeply with the students, many of whom had never spent the night in a nice hotel or ordered from their own menu at an upscale restaurant. “I hope this gave them hope that ‘If I succeed and get my education, I can impact society. There is a place for me.’ And that they will speak up when they see inequity, injustice and intolerance,” she says, adding, “I’m proud that it proved [supporters] are hungry to be inspired to pursue something noble and idealistic.”

What’s next? “I don’t really have a very long bucket list,” she says. “I’ve lived in Japan, traveled in Thailand, in Europe, worked at the Olympics, climbed Mount Fuji, honeymooned in the Caribbean, had always followed my heart and made the decisions I wanted to make.” She’s working with North Carolina Public Schools and Democrats for Public Education Reform, where she’ll focus on “equity, inspiration, engagement and fully-funded public education.” And she hopes to repeat Writing Wrongs next spring, “time allowing.”

“My only concerns are to build a legacy for my kids, spend as much time as possible with them and do as much work in the areas about which I’m passionate as my time affords me.”

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Adrianne Stone-Gibilisco

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