Photo Credit: courtesy of the Conroy family
Halloween night saw just a sliver of moon in Athens, and in a backyard on West Hancock Avenue near downtown, a small group of people gathered around a bonfire. It was a somber scene compared to the merriment of trick-or-treaters blocks away. The only commonality was that both were seeking a way to reconcile that great mystery beyond—death.
Athens resident Laura Conroy, 25, died Oct. 30; the gathering was an informal memorial held by a few close friends struggling with her unexpected passing, before a formal service for her on Nov. 5. Amid teary remembrances, Humberto "Beto" Mendoza unfolded a piece of paper, spoke a few words and began to sing "El Rin del Angelito," a Chilean folk song made popular in Latin America and at Day of the Dead celebrations by Violeta Parra, someone Mendoza later described as a revolutionary. He described Laura Conroy that way, too.
Revolutionary seems like a big description for someone who was just 25, but Conroy, daughter of Liz and Mike Conroy, who also reside in Athens, fought, as her mom said, for everyone—especially those who are pushed to the margins. As a child, Laura loved spiders and snakes as much as bunnies and deer, she said. As an adult, she settled in as an activist, fighting for women’s, immigrants’ and workers’ rights. Among her heroes were the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, based in Florida. The coalition came to Athens earlier in October to rally Athens for Everyone, of which Conroy was a member, and other local organizations to boycott Wendy’s in support of the Fair Food Program, which advocates for humane wages and working conditions for farm workers.
“Laura was really excited to meet people she considered her heroes,” said Adam Lassila, her partner and fellow activist. Together, the two also hosted potlucks at their home for like-minded Athenians, to share skills and educate themselves about human rights issues in Athens and beyond.
“She and her circle of friends were invested in looking for policy change,” said Mendoza, a community organizer and director of LatinoFest in Athens. “[She wanted] to make a better life for people, to make this world a better place,” he added. “That is a revolutionary.”
Conroy graduated in 2015 with honors from the University of Georgia with a degree in Spanish and linguistics. She was also an artist. At 17, she began taking aerial silks and trapeze classes at Canopy Studio, a nonprofit community arts center. She became integral to the studio as a performer and teacher; she taught kids, teens and adult trapeze and pole classes, and in 2015, she spearheaded an outreach program that brings kids from Athens’ Pinewood Estates North mobile-home neighborhood to Canopy on Saturdays for a scholarship-funded trapeze class.
Aida Quiñones, manager of the Athens-Clarke County Library’s Pinewoods Branch, said Conroy came to visit her one day, asking if there were any children who might enjoy trapeze. “It was instant love,” she said of meeting Conroy.
“We started with a little group of kids whose fathers had been deported and they were having a hard time. They were a little scared, but I told them it was OK, she was a nice person,” Quiñones said, adding that she came to watch the classes in the beginning, until the children were comfortable with “Miss Laura,” which didn’t take long. “It was absolutely what the kids needed. She opened them up to a new world… new strengths. And they just wanted to make her proud. This will stay with them forever.”
To keep Conroy’s mission alive, Canopy, along with the Conroy family, created the Laura Conroy Memorial Fund. “It’s a way to keep Laura with us, to see her smile through the faces of these children she cared about so deeply,” said Canopy director Melissa Roberts. Donations will pay for aerial-class scholarships for members of the migrant Latino community.
Back at the bonfire, the lyrics to the song Mendoza sang echoed that sentiment. “El Rin Del Angelito,” he explained, speaks of those who die young; the soul so pure, it prays for those it’s left behind, and infuses all things beautiful, birds and flowers and butterflies, waving at the moon and the evening stars.