Walking into a local restaurant, Michelle O’Laughlin was greeted by a college senior who introduced her to a table of friends as “This is my third grade teacher.” She smiled and laughed. “I’m often introduced like that,” she said. That’s something of which to be very proud, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg with this lady.
From rural Minnesota, Michelle took advantage of an opportunity to live and study in Vienna, Austria her first year of college. “I had two years of German in high school and one in college, and was by far the worst German speaker in the group of 20 in the program,” she said modestly. “I’d never been on a plane. It was a real eye-opener for a farm girl.” She was speaking literally; her parents raised “cows, pigs, soy beans and hay,” she said with a tone that revealed she’d answered that question before.
Michelle returned to the States in 1970 during the Vietnam War. “Kent State happened a month after I came back.” For her, it was a time to not just go through the motions of life, but to ponder what direction she should take. She worked as an Elementary School teach for two years “and the summer in between to pay off my loans.”
Then she discovered Park City, Utah. “I just loved it there…. Park City was a great place to be in my 20s.” She managed a children’s ski shop and then turned to what she really wanted to do – work for a non-profit. Michelle began working with mentally and physically challenged children from birth to five years old. “There were no programs for these children back then.” She had found her calling and, after earning her Masters, worked in Special Education for the next 12 years.
In 1981 Michelle and her husband moved to Durango, living on 35 acres, 20 miles from town, where they raised two sons. There, she was the director for a private non-profit that benefitted challenged children. “I was in charge of a five-county area.” Offering in-home services for both children and adults, “It was really a new area, back then.”
During their time in Durango Michelle worked for the Ute Mountain tribe family reunification project, managing a staff of three who worked diligently and successfully to reunite children who had previously been sent to live with ‘main stream’ families.
Her husband’s love of cars drove him to want to work at a Toyota dealership, and so the family picked up and moved to Evergreen in 1991. “He sold a truck to Larry Fayer (former Principal at Wilmot Elementary).” Just a week before school was to start “Larry needed a Special Education teacher,” she shrugged. “I got the interview” and the job. When the county officially posted the position later on, an overwhelming number of Jefferson County teachers with more Jeffco experience applied for the position, and so she accepted positions as Second, Third and Fourth grade teacher over a Wilmot career of 20 years.
After retiring in 2011, Michelle finds that the momentum she had during her professional life continues in retirement. She sings with the Evergreen Chorale and serves on its Board of Directors. “I auditioned before retiring.” When Artistic Director Christine Gaudreau asked Michelle what her singing experience consisted of she replied, “I sing every day with my third graders.” Michelle leaned in to explain, “These people [members of Evergreen Chorale] are musicians and actors with a lot of experience.” The years of singing with her third graders paid off. “At the age of 65 I was in my first musical,” she smiled referring to the 2016 production of “Guys and Dolls”.
For six years Michelle has also been involved with Friendship Bridge, a group that provides Guatemalan women with micro loans. “I help with sewing projects, gloves, headbands and hats,” sold at the Alternative Christmas Fair. Michelle has traveled to Guatemala three times with the group. “We work with the women to create scarves, jewelry and men’s toiletry bags and bow ties.”
She clearly loves working with these two organizations, but her eyes light up when she speaks of her 10-year involvement with Girls on the Run, where running is used to inspire and motivate girls, encourage lifelong health and fitness, and build confidence through accomplishment. Michelle works with third through fifth grade girls at Wilmot, bringing her back home.
Asked what she does for herself she replied, “I do all these for me.” But then she paused, “Well, I love to read. Last year I read 81 books.” She also camps, skis and hikes. “I love to be with Evergreen friends. I volunteer with Evergreen Players. I volunteered at the Big Chili Cookoff. It was so much fun - I saw so many friends and former students. Michelle also finds herself traveling, including visiting Aruba, Dominican Republic, Mexico and California as well as Glacier, Yellowstone and good ol’ Moab.
She summed up her life with the familiar but oh-so-accurate expression: “Life is good.” Her smile sealed proof of her contentment.