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Sarah Durand: SchoolPower’s new executive director hits the ground running

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

SchoolPower, the Laguna Beach Education Foundation, is Orange County’s oldest education foundation. The group is responsible for raising money for all four of Laguna’s public schools. 

With such a long history, it may be surprising to learn that the organization has had only two executive directors. The first, Robin Rounaghi, retired last year after five years in that position and at least another decade of service to the group in a host of other positions. Rounaghi had, to those who had been around the organization for awhile, become an almost ubiquitous part of SchoolPower. 

Getting off to a great start

SchoolPower’s second executive director, Sarah Durand, is just finishing up her first year on the job. And while it may seem discourteous to highlight someone’s predecessor before introducing them in their new role, in this case it serves as high praise. To highlight the imposing shoes Durand was asked to fill only enhances the success she has had in her first year. The transition seems to have been seamless and the organization actually exceeded their fundraising goals thus far.

SchoolPower president Mike Houlahan says, “The Director role is truly the linchpin to everything we do at SchoolPower from fundraising to community outreach to District relations. In her first year, Sarah has done just an extraordinary job. We have accomplished everything we set out to do and more. But most importantly, Sarah cares deeply about the quality of education for our kids. Her commitment, optimism, and ‘can do’ attitude will benefit the organization well for many years to come.”

Sarah Durand close up

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SchoolPower executive director Sarah Durand is just about to complete her first year on the job

Starting off “fast and furious”

Durand’s role became official in May. That means she had to learn the ropes of her new job, in particular, and the workings of the organization, in general, over the summer. With her first year almost under her belt, Durand says, “The biggest thing I’ve learned is the rhythm and cadence of the job.” The majority of the organization’s fundraising is done September through mid-February. Those are five “fast and furious months,” according to Durand, which means there was no easing into her new role. She had to hit the ground running. 

Spring offers a welcome respite

The spring offers a bit of respite. There are still things going on, the Lumberyard Chef Challenge and the 3 Clubs Barefoot Classic Golf Tourney, to name two events, but the tempo has mellowed just enough so she can spend a bit of quiet time in front of her computer planning for next year. It also has given her time to “really enjoy the job.” Like most stories, how she came to get this job is not something she could have predicted. Now that it’s hers, it seems almost pre-ordained, so nicely has it melded into her personal and professional life.

Embracing life behind the “Orange Curtain,” albeit somewhat reluctantly

Durand and her husband came, somewhat reluctantly, to Orange County 15 years ago when her L.A.-raised husband’s company relocated their offices to Fashion Island. So dismayed was her husband at moving behind the “Orange Curtain,” he entertained keeping his own office in Los Angeles.

They figured they’d make Newport Beach home. However, Durand says once they “rounded that curve” on Coast Highway, there was no doubt where the young family would live. “It has to be Laguna,” she remembers thinking. It also helped that the public schools were good. So the couple and their one-year-old son bought a “rat-infested teardown” and set about the always enjoyable task of renovating their home while living in it. A year and a half later, the house was completed, and a new baby boy was added to the family.

At that time Durand was not working. She didn’t know anyone in Orange County but her husband’s cousin in Ladera Ranch. She joined the cousin’s playgroup and met several women who became dear friends. Her other outlet: Bluebird Park. “I spent a lot of time at Bluebird Park,” laughs Durand. “I met a lot of people at Bluebird Park.”

An offer she could not refuse

Her stay-at-home mom life was upended when her youngest was two. Durand got a call from a former colleague who wasn’t aware Durand had left L.A. She had a tempting offer. She thought Durand would be perfect for a job at Disney Online (then Disney Interactive). 

Sarah Durand with sign

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Sarah Durand at the SchoolPower office which is conveniently across the street from one of her kids’ schools

A part-time job with a full-time commute

Durand accepted the part-time job and began commuting (via train and the Red Line) to North Hollywood a few days a week. A year later she went full time but managed to work from home several days a week. “I worked out of my master bedroom and locked the door,” she says. “It was tough, but I loved my career. We figured out that balance. I loved it. I loved working. I loved being a mom. I don’t think I would have gotten pregnant again if I’d been a full-time mom,” she says laughing. 

Three kids, a full-time job and things are just fine

When her third child, a daughter, was born, Durand continued to work. “It was great because I worked from home. I could breast feed while I was working.” Working from home also allowed her to volunteer in her son’s second grade class. It was a “busy, busy time,” says Durand, but things were good.

And then things are shockingly no longer fine

Then the family’s life took an unexpected turn. When Durand’s oldest son Peter was nine, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “We missed every sign. He had them all,” she says ruefully. It was a morning the family was going to Disneyland with out of town guests. Peter woke up quite ill, so they took him to a walk-in clinic. The doctor diagnosed the situation quickly and sent mother and son directly to the hospital. Her son was visibly in decline.

Making the unthinkable part of daily life

“It was pretty scary,” recalls Durand. “It was so shocking.” Next thing she knew, she and her husband were at CHOC learning how to administer insulin shots to their son. “I never wanted a career in medicine,” she says wryly. But as devastating as the news was, Durand says, “Soon it becomes part of your daily life.” Her son is now a high school freshman, but, says Durand, “It was a lot to put on a nine-year-old. He has been amazing.”

Sarah Durand family red door

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Sarah Durand with her husband Rob and children Peter, Lucas and Tessa

A time to re-evaluate everything

With such a monumental event, it’s not surprising that Durand decided to re-evaluate. “For me, I looked at my life and decided to take a step back. I left my job. I just couldn’t imagine anyone else giving my kid a shot.” Eventually, as time went on, Durand relented and allowed the TOW school nurse to administer her son’s shots. But her time up at TOW got her involved in their PTA. “I’d only been to one meeting when they asked me to be PTA vice-president,” she says with a laugh. “I dove in. The biggest need was updating the website and communication – both things in my professional wheelhouse. It was a great way to get really entrenched in the schools and use my professional skills.”

Durand also started consulting. She did work for Stanford Health and MacGillivray Freeman Films. “I redesigned MacGillivray’s corporate website and stayed on to do some of their film websites.” One of her favorites was Dream Big. “It’s so timely. It’s about getting kids (girls) excited about engineering. I was raised knowing women could do anything...I hope to raise my daughter in that way. It’s very exciting.”

A family history of valuing education

Durand’s respect for science undoubtedly comes from her parents, both English immigrants. Her mother is a chemist and her father is an engineer. Durand insists a better subject for this article is her mother, a woman who was in a wheelchair for 13 years as a result of MS only to rebound so effectively that now she’s skiing and hiking and traveling. “She’s unbelievable!” says Durand.

Even though neither Durand nor her sister went into science, they were both raised with a very healthy regard for the importance of education in Cupertino, CA. It was an area full of first-generation Americans. “We grew up with kids who were all very driven. Going to college was very important. I went to Monta Vista High School, it’s one of the top high schools. Education is very important to me. It’s one of the things that attracted us to Laguna, the schools.”

Seizing the opportunity at SchoolPower

With that background, the job at SchoolPower seemed like a natural fit. “I saw it as such an opportunity with Robin (Rounaghi) stepping down,” she says. Her professional experience managing teams and content, her volunteer experience with PTA and as a SchoolPower trustee, and her personal life as a mom with kids at three of Laguna’s four public schools all converged into a job right down the street from her house (no train required in this commute!).

Sarah Durand family BW

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The Durand family with their two dogs

And while she admits her life can be “very chaotic,” Durand remarkably still manages to aspire to things beyond her job and family duties. “I really want to write a novel,” she says. She has taken some creative writing classes and is part of the Third Street Writers Group. “It is a really fun way to dive into writing. I still try to submit pieces, although my current job is a little busy,” she says with a grin.

Cherishing family time on the slopes

So while the novel may have to wait, Durand is not putting off spending as much time with her family as she can. Her oldest is in 9th grade and she knows how quickly the time will come for him to head off to college. It’s great motivation for the family to indulge in their group passion: skiing. In fact, Durand and her crew were heading out to their condo in Park City for spring break. ‘We do a lot of skiing together as a family,” she says. “My kids are phenomenal skiers. Tess (her daughter) can ski anything,” she says proudly. “And she’s nine.”

Like mother, like daughter, it would seem. Fearless and unflappable: characteristics that lend themselves well both to skiing and running a nonprofit organization. Becoming SchoolPower’s executive director may not have been part of a grand master plan, but it certainly has worked out well so far. “It’s such a great opportunity for me to do something I love for the schools that I love. It feels really good to work every day knowing you’re having such an impact on so many kids in Laguna.”