Celeste Peterson’s story is one of immeasurable loss. First, her only child died in the tragedy at Virginia Tech. In 2016, her husband, Grafton, succumbed to a heart attack. Then during the pandemic, she lost both her parents within nine months of each other. But through the Erin Peterson Foundation honoring her daughter, she’s turned her heartache into a catalyst to help others.
“I could have broken down and felt sorry for myself, but my family built strong roots and I learned to bend,” she said. “And I didn’t have time; I had to keep moving, take care of things and clean out my parents’ house. Since Erin passed away, I’ve had to deal with the affairs of my elderly family members who died. And when I was writing my mom’s obituary, I thought to myself, ‘I’m so tired of writing obituaries.’”
Peterson has developed tools to help her cope, day to day, and she said therapy has also helped. “My life is nothing like I thought it would be at this time,” she said. “But you just acclimate the grief into it. I speak to and think about Erin and Grafton every day – they’re embedded in me. I couldn’t live in this house or do what I do if it wasn’t for them.”
“I take time to let off steam because I’m human,” she continued. “Some days, I just don’t feel like doing anything, so I allow myself that time to just be kind to myself. When I’m having a hard day, I can hear Erin and Grafton, plain as day, telling me it’ll be all right and to pull it together. They give me strength, every single day.
“I’m also a spiritual person; I believe in God and pray every day. My grandmother told me, ‘You can either decide to live or decide to die’ – and I choose to live. My parents and family made me who I am, And [when I need guidance], I think about what Erin and Grafton would do and how they’d react.”
After Erin’s death, the last thing on Peterson’s mind was starting a scholarship. “But the community was so supportive and wanted to do something,” she said. “And that summer, Pat Deegan, Erin’s basketball coach at Westfield, and Greg Richter – whose daughter, Anna, went to school with Erin – approached me about it.”
So she and her husband established the Erin Peterson Fund to continue their daughter’s dedication to education and to helping those less fortunate. And each year, it’s awarded two scholarships to deserving Westfield High seniors. So far, it’s given away more than $260,000 in scholarships and grants in Erin’s memory. Celeste Peterson also began the Young Men’s Leadership Group at the school.
“The fund helps them find their way,” she explained. “It’s a bridge between the school and where they’re going in the world. And I’m standing in the middle, telling them I’m going to help them cross over, no matter what. Sometimes, they just need a little help and to know that someone cares about them. We all need that, and I’ve been extremely blessed to have it in my life.”
The group isn’t a club; students have to be recommended by Westfield’s administrators, counselors and/or teachers. And those who’ve been in it for a while are allowed to recommend friends who’d also benefit from the program. They currently meet twice a month and plan to eventually return to weekly meetings. The staff includes the director of student services, subschool principals and teachers.
“We discuss current events, they learn proper etiquette and how to shake hands,” said Peterson. “We also have speakers talk to them about, for example, finances, nutrition, what it means to be a man, taking care of themselves, etc. Right now, we’re focusing on being polite, because the world is so mean. So we talk about what that looks like and how to react.”
“We also do assessments of what they need,” she continued. “And after every meeting, the staff and I debrief and discuss what to talk about next time. We decide if we need to pivot and talk about something else, based on what’s going on in the school and in their lives that’s causing them some angst.”
Working with the principal of Stone Middle School, Peterson started a girls’ group there. “I like to start at middle school, so the students’ expectations are set about how they’ll talk, dress and act when they get to high school,” she said. “I also have a girls’ group at Westfield. There are a total of 30 or more students in all three groups.”
“I address the same things I did with Erin, when I was preparing to launch her into society,” said Peterson. “I’d tell her, ‘I want you to be a good kid and a good citizen and adult who contributes to society.’ In a world of so many choices, kids really want parameters and want you to tell them what to do.” She also takes the groups on field trips, such as college tours or visits to the Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.
In addition, Peterson runs a Koats for Kids program. “I ask the Centreville Elementary social worker to tell me how many children need coats, what sizes, and if they’re for boys or girls,” she said. “The money comes from the fund; last year, we gave away 25 coats.”
She looks out for older people, as well. For many years now, she’s been bringing snack packs to the residents of the Forest Glen Senior Apartments in Centreville. “Erin was all about the community, and I am, too – especially helping people in need in the neighborhood,” said Peterson. “During the pandemic, the Erin Peterson Fund gave away Walmart gift cards so people could buy food. Local school administrators or counselors would tell me how many people needed them, and I’d give the cards to the schools.”
The fund also started the Fuel Station – a food pantry at Westfield for food-insecure students. (After the pandemic, Western Fairfax Christian Ministries and the school PTA took it over).
“The need is right here in our own community, and I grew up in a family that always took care of other people,” explained Peterson. “But you get so much out of helping others. And this is the way for me to honor Erin and Grafton. I’m thankful to God that He blessed me with being Erin’s mother for 18 years, and I’m serious about putting good into the community in her name.”To contribute to the Erin Peterson Fund, go to www.erinpetersonfund.org.