Recent Union grad Kelli Vigil lands on Orcas Island
Kelli Vigil has always preferred rural life, small towns, and off-the-beaten-path locations. Even in her wildest dreams, however, she hardly imagined teaching junior high school at a spot as remote as Orcas Island, Washington.
Located at the northwestern-most tip of Washington, Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands, as close to Canada’s Puget Island as it is to Washington’s mainland. There are no bridges to the island, only a regular ferry. It’s a world unto itself. The island boasts being “the nation’s edge.”
And Kelli loves it.
“It’s a bit like living in Mayberry,” says Kelli, referring to the classic TV show. “I mean, there’s a grocery store, but no Wal-Mart or Target.”
As the name of the island suggests, it’s not uncommon to see orcas—that is, “killer whales”—and other varieties of whales off the coast. Kelli says, “Being from Minnesota, I forget this isn’t another lake.” A pod of whales helps remind her. As do the pods of tourists arriving in the summer.
Kelli teaches seventh and eighth grades at Orcas Christian School, a twelve-grade Adventist school and the only private school serving the island’s 5,000+ residents. While the school is relatively new, founded in 1999, it has already established itself as a vital part of the island. The faculty and students actively strive to meet the needs of the island as a whole.
According to Kelli, the school “sees itself as a mission to the entire island—the entire island. And this absolutely fits my educational philosophy.” Even as a student at Union, her dream has been “to help foster a love of learning in my students and provide them with a positive encounter with Jesus.” Orcas makes that dream a daily reality.
Other than the children of the employees, none of the school’s students are Adventist. Half of the students have no religious connection at all and no real experience with Christianity.
When thinking about her students, Kelli says, “My desire is for them to claim their identities sons and daughters of God and rest secure in the love and grace that He gives. My students hear me say it all the time: ‘You can’t have an encounter with Jesus and not be changed.’”
Before coming to Orcas in 2018, she found herself teaching in Rapid City, South Dakota. Though only a recent Union graduate, within a couple of years she was not only teaching, but also serving as the school’s principal. Committees and business meetings dotted her daily calendar.
“I loved my time and the people in Rapid City so much,” she notes. “But I found myself wearing so many hats, too many, with little time or energy left for the classroom.”
While the experience may have been invaluable, Kelli says, “I have never been passionate about administration. I love the classroom.”
So Kelli started peeking online for teaching jobs. As a Minnesota girl through and through, she wanted something slightly more rustic. Sure enough, Orcas Island popped up.
“I confess, when I saw the opportunity, I wasn’t even sure where Orcas Island was. I didn’t even know Washington State had islands.” Few Midwesterners do.
If Kelli was hoping for something remote, she got her wish.
“It has taken some getting used to here. Island life is more relaxed, looser.” Once a month, she drives her car onto the ferry, heads mainland, and stocks up for a month’s worth of items the small grocery store doesn’t carry. But the weather is delightful, as Orcas is part of the “banana belt”—receiving far more sunshine than most of the Pacific Northwest.
While Kelli loves teaching junior high, she’s amused by many people’s reaction. She says, “Lots of people hear that I teach junior high, and they want to reach out and console me. But I can’t imagine working with any other age group. It’s such a transitional period in their lives and a time when they’re really establishing their identity and place in this world.”
And nothing is so important as a strong teacher in that transitional time of life.
Her students in particular, “come from difficult backgrounds. School is definitely a place of security and safety.” Kelli’s description sadly applies to so many middle-schoolers today.
“These students don’t trust easily. They’re used to holding everything in, showing no emotion, handling situations themselves, and not relying on anyone to take care of them.
“In my classroom, I do everything I can to foster a warm, welcoming environment. Regardless of what is going on at home, they enter the classroom and can breathe a sigh of relief because they’re part of the classroom family. Whether this is through diffusing essential oils, using certain color palettes, seating arrangements, welcoming rugs—anything to foster a safe place for them to navigate their teen years.”
Along with teaching skills, Kelli brings her exceptional musical talent to the island. Many alumni will recall her gorgeous voice and her rendition of Joy to the World featured in Union College’s 2013 Christmas video. On top of her classroom duties, she teaches K-8 music–and loves it.
Her students are often amazed that she never yells at them. This is apparently unique in their encounters with most adults.
“Why don’t you ever get mad?” one student asked. Kelli overheard another student describing her classroom to other kids, and she said, “Ms. Vigil never yells. Never. Shoot, if she started yelling, something would definitely be wrong.”
Most of Kelli’s friends would say the same of her consistently calm demeanor.
“Every morning,” she says, “I’m asking the Spirit to fill me and flow out of me so that I can show Jesus to each student. And this is one way I’ve really seen it manifest. It’s my prayer that through me they’re bearing witness to a God who shows no condemnation and endless love.”
Kelli Vigil is so grateful for her Union College experience, and now she’s bringing that experience to a remote part of the country. Her classroom training comes in handy every day. But far more, she is grateful for how she witnessed God firsthand and modeled through Union’s teachers and students, many of whom she regularly chats with. Most of all, her experience working with Rich Carlson, Union’s beloved chaplain, has come in handy over and over.
“I’ve tried to bring Pastor Carlson’s approach to ministry into my own teaching.”
Something tells us Kelli has brought a taste of Union College to Orcas Island.
Mike Mennard is a librarian and adjunct professor at Union College.