CHAPEL HILL: Chapel Hill teacher turns life-threatening disease - WFLA News Channel 8

Chapel Hill teacher turns life-threatening disease into life-changing lesson

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"Gradually my reflexes, my motor neurons will die. I will become paralyzed and then eventually unable to breathe and that's the course of the disease," Connell said. "Gradually my reflexes, my motor neurons will die. I will become paralyzed and then eventually unable to breathe and that's the course of the disease," Connell said.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -

A local teacher is taking a life-threatening disease and turning it into what she hopes will be a life-changing lesson for her students.

Vivian Connell is an ESL support teacher at Phoenix Academy High School and Chapel Hill High School. She was diagnosed with ALS in March.

"Gradually my reflexes, my motor neurons will die. I will become paralyzed and then eventually unable to breathe and that's the course of the disease," Connell said.

She believes this year will be her last in the classroom as the average patient with ALS survives two to five years after being diagnosed with the disease, and she doesn’t think she’ll have the strength for one more year teaching.

A friend encouraged her to turn the diagnosis into something positive.

Connell shared her diagnosis on Facebook along with her wish to raise around $20,000 for a trip for some of her students to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Connell studied at the museum one summer to receive special training to teach Holocaust studies.

In less than three weeks, more than $30,000 came in from around the country. Another $300 was donated Wednesday from the Orange Correctional Center’s Service Club.

The thousands in extra money has expanded the trip to include a second night and a chance to see other sites in Washington. A total of 20 students from Phoenix Academy along with eight additional students from Chapel Hill High School will leave next week.

"I'm like, super excited to go on because I've really never been out of North Carolina. I think it's a really good opportunity for me. I want to learn more about the Holocaust and why these things happened," said 11th grade student Jermishia Baldwin.

Connell said, “The purpose of the trip is not merely a field trip and it’s not about the Holocaust, it’s this idea of learning to recognize and confront injustice and hatred when we see it.”

The students at Phoenix Academy have been learning about the Holocaust in preparation for their trip.

Holocaust survivor Esther Lederman spoke to the students Wednesday about her time living in Nazi occupied Poland during World War II.

Lederman was born in Poland just 15 years before Adolf Hilter ordered the Nazi invasion of the country in 1939.

Now at the age of 90, she recalled when she was the age of the students at Phoenix Academy, she was hiding from the Wehrmacht.

"There were a few incidents where the Germans were in town and we had to hide some more," Lederman said. "If you were caught outside, you were punished either by the dogs or being killed or being imprisoned."

Connell hopes hearing from Lederman and visiting the museum will help out the students in their own lives.

Most of the eight students from Chapel Hill High School are from refugee families.

"(The students are) victims of ethnic violence and intolerance themselves. This will have special meaning for them," Connell said.

She said she wants these students to see what is beyond the limited lives they have led thus far.

“I think it will be a great motivator for them to follow in this path of being engaged and speaking out," Connell said.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

Justin Quesinberry

Justin is a reporter for WNCN and a North Carolina native. He has spent the better part of the last decade covering the news in central North Carolina.  More>>

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