Even as a young girl, Vivionne Keli had a profound sense that growing up in an abusive environment wasn’t normal. “I knew it shouldn’t hurt to be a child,” she insists. “Something wasn’t right.”
Keli, who today works as the program director for abuse victim advocacy group The Hope of Survivors, turned her personal pain into a passion for helping others come to terms with their own traumatic pasts.
A childhood disrupted
Keli’s earliest childhood memories include episodes of abuse at the hands of the trusted adults around her. Bouncing from relative to relative and home to home, she caught an occasional glimpse of happiness at her grandmother’s house and at school with a trusted teacher, but for the most part she felt isolated in her private misery.
“While the abuse was going on, I knew someone had to speak up for me, but I knew no one would,” she remembers.
As she grew older, though, she reached the point where she had to decide what her future would be. Would she succumb to her suicidal thoughts, or would she stand up for herself and work on healing her heart and mind?
“I chose to live,” she says, simply.
Time to heal
She knew the road to recovery would be long and difficult. As she sought help from mental health professionals, she found that none really could understand her situation.
“They weren’t well versed or well educated in childhood sexual abuse,” she notes.
So she set about working through her pain on her own. She developed a method for addressing her abusers within herself and coming to terms with each one so she could put them behind her.
“After two years, I was able to break free of past abuses,” she says.
With her life on track, she focused on the future. She had earned her GED in 1996, and in 1999, “I married a wonderful, dynamic man,” she says.
Together, they ran a salon and day spa in posh La Jolla, California. She soon discovered that her clients came to her for more than just expensive beauty treatments. “A lot of [women] were coming to my business to be counseled,” says Keli. They would reveal their problems to her during their services, “and I was giving them advice and suggestions.” She became known for her own survival success and the sage counsel she provided to members of her community.
A call to help others
As time went by, Keli was asked by churches and community organizations to speak about her story of trauma and healing. Then she began teaching seminars for women who are struggling with domestic violence and sexual abuse.
In 2005, she decided it was time to earn her degree. “When things started turning around, I realized it’s about education,” she says. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 2010, fulfilling a dream and providing her with additional skills and knowledge in her newfound field.
One year before her graduation, she published a book about her experiences overcoming her past abuse and thriving, rather than just surviving. She began writing her book, Awaken the Silence: When Silence Isn’t Golden, 20 years earlier when she was in a different frame of mind. Revisiting it—and realizing how far she had come—was inspiring.
“You change your thoughts, you change your life,” she muses.
A bright future
Today, Keli is working on four more books—along with a movie of her first one—in an effort to help a broader audience realize there can be life after abuse.
In addition to her public speaking and seminars, she’s also taken a position as program director for The Hope of Survivors, an organization that helps survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy.
“We have had [clients] of all denominations,” she says. “We help them on the journey to healing.”
In this role, she works to create programs to support them, and she has plans to expand her organization’s scope in the future. “We are branching out to childhood sexual abuse. That will be my program—my baby,” she says. She wants to open a house for adults who have experienced clergy abuse, too.
To help her reach these goals, Keli is working on earning her master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology. “I’m at the dissertation stage,” she notes.
Looking back on her life’s ups and downs, she’s grateful to have reached a place where she has a clear purpose that brings her fulfillment. “I’m hoping to be a voice for those who cannot speak,” she says. “There’s no amount of money in the world you could pay me to do anything else.”
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