Lisa Vannalee was nervous when she spoke at a Grant Union High School assembly Thursday morning to inspire students to attend college.
She stumbled over her words a little as she tried to remember her speech. But, compared to the obstacles the Grant graduate has overcome, it was a small thing.
In 2008, Vannalee’s mentally ill brother attacked her with a machete, leaving her a quadriplegic at age 16. After nearly six months in a hospital, she returned to Grant and graduated with a 3.83 grade-point average. She went on to obtain a psychology degree from the University of California, Davis, in 2013.
On Thursday, Vannalee joined Grant alumni Charday Adams and Tyree Davie to share stories of determination and success with an assembled group of freshmen at a UC Davis-sponsored event.
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“Most things that are worth it in life will make you go out of your comfort zone, and you guys are worth it,” Vannalee said. “The support, it is here for you no matter what it is you are going through.”
She credits the support of the Grant community for helping her to graduate from both high school and college after she became paralyzed. “Having spent 13 years of my life since preschool, I wasn’t going to let it end there,” she said. “I put in too much hard work to just stop.”
The Achieve UC program brings alumni and university officials to California high schools to encourage students to attend college and to offer information about enrollment requirements and scholarships. The outreach effort focuses on schools whose graduates have low rates of attending college.
UC Davis has five college-preparation programs that serve 25,000 students in 40 schools and 11 Northern California counties, according to school officials. Three of these programs are active on the Del Paso Heights campus.
Vannalee, who has lived down the street from Grant Union High School since seventh grade, understands the challenges of growing up in the neighborhood, which has high poverty and crime rates.
“I was a weird student. I got into fights,” she said earlier this week in a phone interview. “I had a temper. But whenever I got suspended, I asked for my homework first.”
She said teenagers need to stop worrying about things that don’t matter, like whether certain people or groups like them, and should value education more. “They think it’s bad to be smart or want to learn,” she said. “That is what is going to help you.”
She and other speakers encouraged Grant students to rise above a stigma they said was attached to living in Del Paso Heights.
“We are made to feel as though ... we can’t amount to the same as others in the suburbs,” Vannalee said. “That is why we are here today to help you understand that as a community, a family of Pacers, we can achieve whatever we set our minds to.”
Vannalee didn’t dwell on the attack that left her paralyzed or detail the struggles she’s endured or talk about her advocacy for the mentally ill and the brother who attacked her.
She didn’t tell them that she isn’t able to hold a pencil or pen. Or that it takes her two days, using the side of her hand and her knuckles, to type a five-page paper. She didn’t talk about the lack of privacy that comes from having people feed and dress her.
“I feel like I’ve done pretty well,” she said in an earlier interview. “I try to take advantage of the opportunities that I’ve had, and I feel a lot of students don’t realize there are a lot of opportunities.”
The police report said Vannalee has wounds to her face, eyes and back of the neck after her brother Patthana Vannalee attacked her and fled. He was later arrested and booked into jail on attempted murder and mayhem charges, police said.
Patthana Vannalee was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to Napa State Hospital, which treats the mentally ill. He was deemed mentally capable of standing trial, found guilty and sentenced to the California Medical Facility in Vacaville for 25 years.
She writes about her brother in her blog. “In our case, the voices in his head told him that I was possessed and that he needed to save me,” she blogged.
Vannalee said she never had to forgive her brother for the attack that took the use of her arms and legs because she didn’t have to. She was never angry with him.
“I feel I want to be my brother’s voice and (for) others in his situation as well,” she said. “A lot of people ... say, ‘Her brother is so evil,’ without understanding it. I would rather be physically disabled than mentally ill.”