HERstory: Vivian Saunders, the Sunshine of Bertie County

Vivian Saunders is a mother of two sons, a driven community organizer, and the executive director of two community technology hubs in Bertie County, a rural community in North Carolina. Her love for children drove her to quit her job at Perdue to pursue her passion to serve the community by opening an affordable daycare and summer camp out of her home. Years later, Vivian expanded her child-focused mission by installing and administering two technology community centers in Bertie County, serving over 100 students via the Hive, an alternative school for young men in the 6th-12th grades, and the One Economy Digital Connectors program.
The Beehive staff asked Vivian to tell us a little bit more about herself:
I would describe myself as “the realness of Bertie County”. The best way to get things accomplished in my community is to be honest and respectful. People know that I will always be upfront with them and they come to me for help and advice because of that. My tagline is “if you don’t want to know the truth, don’t ask me”.  I am a behind the scenes type of person. I do not see myself as the person that gets the glory for the job; I am the person that gets the job done. The most important job in my life, first and foremost, is being a wife and mother. When I die I want that to be the job I am remembered for and the legacy that I leave behind. I am a mother to more than just the children that I gave birth to. There are several students in this county who have gone on to get higher education and great jobs who come back to see me and still call me mom. It means a lot when they recount old stories and tell me how much my sacrifice meant to them.
Something that not a lot of people outside of the county know is that I was the first woman in the county to own a 24-hour day care center. I had three shifts with twelve children on each shift. It was a family run business.  When my parents retired they came and worked for me. My parents ran the first shift, my sister ran the second shift, and I ran the last shift. Our center was called Little Moses Private Care. It opened in 1993 and just recently closed in 2009 when my mother became ill.
  1. The proudest moment in my life so far was: Without a doubt the moment I became a mother.
  2. One woman that I look up to is: Holly Kalemeris who works closely with Bertie County. One might ask how I can look up to someone so much younger than myself. I look up to Holly because of her work ethic and her positive outlook on any situation. She may have the face of a twenty year old but she has the wisdom of someone far beyond her years.Holly re-inspired my faith in working with young people. She caused me to look at myself and reevaluate the way I approach my work. The confidence that people see in me now is a result of her. The Hive would not be here today and I never would have received the Metcalf Award without Holly’s help and encouragement. She is the one who will call me at 5:30am singing You are my Sunshine or sends me text messages to tell me that I am loved. No one else does that. And in my toughest moments when people would speak negatively of me or knock me down, Holly would talk to me and remind me that I can achieve success.

    A few years ago it seemed like all the hope for our young men in Bertie County was dying. Sonja Murray, Holly, and I began doing CPR on this county. Sonja called 911 to get help, I breathed breath directly into the lungs, and Holly pumped the chest. No matter how tired you get or how the situation looks you can’t stop pumping the chest until help arrives and that is exactly what Holly did.

    Holly is incredibly intelligent and I know that she could be working anywhere else in the country but she chooses to make an impact here in Bertie County working with my family…my children…my boys.

  3. I am inspired by:   My son Dennis. Dennis was diagnosed with ADHD when he was really young. Because he had a disability it inspired me to work with other children and adults who have learning disabilities. Teachers told him as a child if he just sat and colored quietly they would give him the necessary grades to pass. But I researched and learned that it is his legal right to have quality and specialized education. The challenges I face with him motivated me to help other parents that they can and should take initiative to help their own children with learning disabilities succeed. My work with Dennis became the launching pad for my work in the public education sector. His resiliency is inspiring to me. He always tells me, “Mom, one way or another it’s gonna be alright.” And I believe it.
  4. One of the greatest things about being a woman is: Having the ability to be called mother by your own children and the children that you have reached out to in life.
  5. One thing I do to make my life easier is: I see the potential in people that others have given up on. When I view the world in this way it allows me to identify people who are willing and eager to learn and have humility. These types of people are a joy to work with.
  6. My favorite thing to do in my free time is: Is cook. I love to cook chicken.
  7. I hope that someday: I will be able to go on a family vacation. I would go on a cruise to the Bahamas with my mom, dad, two sons, and grandchildren.
  8. One piece of advice I would give other women is: Don’t ever blame your failures on your gender.I have seen women give up on things they can succeed in because they view their gender as limiting. I believe you have to do whatever it takes, even if that means “fighting” like a man for what you believe in. Saying that the reason I failed is because I am a woman is not acceptable. As women we need to acknowledge failure as something that was done, not something that resulted because of our gender.
  9. Something that makes me smile is: Xzayvion Saunders the best grandson in the world!!!!
  10. I would like to accomplish: It has always been a dream of mine to own and operate centers across the country for homeless African American boys. These boys have so much talent and potential that goes unrecognized and unfulfilled. I would provide everything they need in terms of food and shelter and would offer something that no dollar amount can give…the love and support of a mom. I would name the centers Vivian’s Hope.
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