- Written by: David Port
- Photos by: Kerri McDermid and Courtesy of the Alumni
These four people are doing amazing things with their lives, and they have one thing in common – they are all products of St. Vrain Valley Schools.
...a celebrity or quasi-celebrity whom people identify with their hometown or a school they once attended — someone they knew, or knew of, before they “made it big.” St. Vrain Valley Schools can name-drop the likes of ESPN sports reporter Ed Werder, a Longmont High alumnus; comedian Kristen Schaal from HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, who attended Skyline High School; Longmont High graduate Kimiko Hirai-Soldati, a former Olympic diver; and Vance Brand, also a Longmont High alumnus who flew four space missions for NASA, to name a few. Then there are the people you may not see on TV or hear about on the news — the many St. Vrain alumni who are using their education as a springboard to do outstanding things with their lives and in their communities. Let us meet a few who warrant celebrating, even if they have not reached celebrity status (yet).
Silver Creek High
Class of 2013
A s comfortable as Payton Peterson has felt behind a camera since he was a boy growing up in Longmont, and as much as he has accomplished in the world of film production and digital media at the ripe old age of 22, it is with little surprise he landed in the world’s movie-making capital, Los Angeles.
Before leaving Longmont to pursue television and movie production work first in Orlando, Florida, (remember the Fireball Run reality TV show?) with Disney, then in Tinseltown with a production company that does technical work for Disney theme parks, Peterson and his digital media exploits left quite a mark on his hometown. As a Silver Creek freshman, he organized the “Longmont Loves Google” campaign that sought to land the city a fiber optic network. Eventually, that is what the city got, thanks in large part to Peterson, who as part of his senior project at Silver Creek helped spearhead the effort to fund what became the NextLight project. Today, Longmont’s fiber optic network is among the fastest in the nation.
As a high schooler, Peterson also recruited the independent film “Dear Eleanor” to shoot in Northeast Colorado, then served as its location manager. During the floods of 2013, the aerial footage he shot from a helicopter above the disaster zone proved vital in the deployment of emergency personnel. He also worked as production coordinator for a wide range of commercials — all while managing his schoolwork and building the video production company he started before earning a driver’s license.
Peterson says he would not have accomplished all that without the support of teachers and staff at Silver Creek High. “They were really flexible and, knowing my love for visual arts, actually allowed me to make videos for certain assignments, instead of writing papers or taking tests,” he explains during a break from overseeing live streams for Nintendo and Microsoft at the recent E3 gaming conference in L.A.
Nowadays, work often takes him abroad to places like Shanghai, which, he says has whet his appetite for traveling the world. And the passion for film and video he developed as a teenager in Longmont, he says, is undiminished. Soon, perhaps, another film will come to Colorado to shoot, with Peterson in the director’s chair.
Skyline High School
Class of 2006
Barely a decade removed from Skyline High School and less than seven years since earning undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Denver, Megan Lewczyk has managed to build quite a diverse résumé in a short period of time.
But the common denominator for Lewczyk – who was born in Longmont and lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with her husband, a military officer – is accounting. She has gone from a practicing certified public accountant to running her own accounting firm to college accounting professor (she teaches online classes at Washington State University and Keystone College in Pennsylvania) to educational curriculum developer for CPA candidates at Yaeger CPA Review in Maryland. She also writes a regular blog column and when the need arises, dusts off the graphic arts skills she developed in high school to create the occasional marketing/advertising piece for Yaeger. All while working remotely from idyllic Charleston.
Even in high school, Lewczyk, now 29, says she gravitated toward numbers under the tutelage of teachers like Heidi Ringer, then head of the math department at Skyline High School and now the school’s principal. Skyline’s interactive math program taught her “to think, analyze and follow problems,” skills that became invaluable to her throughout college and in the accounting business.
Outside her teaching and curriculum-development gigs, the numbers Lewczyk has her eye on now have to do with how much longer she’ll be in Charleston (maybe one or two years), and how many kids she and her husband will eventually have (no idea). “I want to have a family in the next couple years,” she says.
Whatever those numbers turn out to be, and wherever the next career turn takes her, “I’ll always be a big advocate of Skyline High School. I learned so much about the real world and interacting with people by being there.”
Lyons Senior High School
Class of 1985
Some people go through school without a clue what they will do after they graduate. Not Cathy O’Donnell, who says working as an educator “was always my goal,” even as a young girl, when, at least by her mother’s account, she would line up her stuffed animals and play school with them.
Raised in Lyons and the first in her family to attend college (she is a University of Northern Colorado grad), O’Donnell has spent her entire career in education and all but one year with St. Vrain Valley Schools, where she has risen from elementary school teacher to gifted education coordinator to principal, the position she has held at 780-student Black Rock Elementary in Erie since the school opened in 2008.
Several decades removed from her years as a student in the district (she graduated from Lyons Middle/Senior High School in 1985), O’Donnell, who’s married with one child, says she not only still keeps in touch with some of the teachers she had growing up in Lyons, but relishes reconnecting with her own past students. “Hands down the most rewarding thing for me is when previous students get in touch or come back to visit and tell me I’ve had an impact on their lives.”
Now starting her tenth year at Black Rock and her 27th with the district, O’Donnell says her educator’s passion still burns. “Being able to work as part of a team to create an environment where people can be successful and students, parents and staff feel welcome is a wonderful challenge.”
Frederick High School
Class of 2000
Rory Vaden says it was as a high school student that he discovered the motivation to pursue a career motivating others.
“I developed an interest in and a love for the study of leadership at Frederick High School,” recalls Vaden, 35, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and young child. “Going to leadership conferences and serving on student council in high school, that is really what inspired me to become a public speaker and to help people advance their goals.”
Vaden, who grew up in a Frederick trailer park with his mom, has advanced quickly himself, from educational children’s books salesman and entrepreneur in college to highly accomplished sales and leadership coach, best-selling author (“Take the Stairs” was published in 2012 and its follow-up, “Procrastinate on Purpose” in 2015) and head of Southwestern Consulting, a flourishing executive training firm that he co-founded right out of business school at the University of Denver in 2006.
His focus these days is helping others find self-discipline, a trait he says has been crucial to his own success. “I was never the coolest kid or the smartest kid or the most athletic kid, but I outworked everybody.”
Apparently the hard work has only begun. Besides the new parenting gig (his son was born in the spring), Vaden, an avid reader and exercise enthusiast, says he has “several more books” he wants to write, while also growing his business (of which his wife is co-founder) in new directions.
“I feel like I’m just getting started with life. There’s so much left for me to do.”
ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications. Funding for printing and distribution supported by:
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