Outlook 2023: Heather Peterson an avid promoter of Schenectady’s revitalization

A woman smiles for the camera
Heather A. Peterson
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SCHENECTADY – “Outgoing, welcoming, inclusive, gracious, warm-hearted, intelligent, focused” and “a bundle of fun” are just some of the words Heather Peterson’s friends and fellow volunteers use to describe her.

“She’s a burst of energy,” said Kim Siciliano, CEO of the YWCA of Northeastern New York. Siciliano has known Peterson for 22 years through working with her on community events. “She walks into a room and you can’t help yourself from wanting to pay attention to what she has to say.”

Carney McGuire met Peterson when she relocated to the area to help open Rivers Casino & Resort on the riverfront in Schenectady.

“She has a super-fun, outgoing personality that just makes you feel welcomed,” said McGuire, who serves on the IlluminoCity committee with Peterson. The initiative, the brainchild of Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, pairs downtown Schenectady businesses with not-for-profits from mid-November to mid-January. Businesses light up their buildings and storefronts with dazzling displays of holiday lights, attracting more people downtown and raising funds for their partner organizations.

“You’re bringing light. You’re bringing awareness,” Peterson said. “And we got to give away $14,000 to charity.”

Peterson has been an avid promoter of Schenectady’s revitalization for the past three decades, and anyone who has worked on community initiatives has probably crossed paths with her. Among the many hats she wears, she serves as chair of the Schenectady Downtown Improvement Corporation Board of Directors.

While her colleagues and the public have seen the “super-fun,” outgoing side of Peterson over the past three decades as she works to better the Schenectady community, they haven’t seen a side of her that she has kept hidden — until now.

With the intent to help others, Peterson decided to share what has been her private struggle since she was in college.

As a young woman, crippling panic attacks struck her, leaving her, in her own words, “exhausted, overwhelmed, ashamed and depressed.”

“I remember my very first panic attack,” Peterson said. “I was 22 years old, sitting in my car at a stoplight. I started to get an uncomfortable feeling like I was trapped. My heart started beating fast, my hands clammed up and I could not breathe. I had no idea what this was, but when the light turned green and I started driving, the feeling went away.”

Over the next year, the attacks increased in frequency and intensity, causing Peterson to flee wherever she was when they hit. On one occasion while waiting for a friend’s wedding ceremony to begin, she started to have a panic attack. She told her husband, Wayne, that she wasn’t feeling well and needed to leave.

“He grabbed my hand and said, ‘No. Our friends are getting married and you will be fine. You can kick me, bite me or squeeze my hand as hard as you can, but you are going to sit there.’”

Angrily, Peterson chose the third option.

“After a couple minutes of sheer terror and full-blown attack, it went away,” she said. “My body untensed and I could actually breathe. That was the moment I realized that my problem was not physical. It was mental and I had no idea what to do about that. So I did what any level-headed person would do. I ignored it, hid it and lied about it for as long as I could.”

Peterson dropped out of college, stopped going to parties and avoided shopping. She went to work at her mother’s accounting firm and home again.

“Home and work — that was it, my two safe spaces … until they weren’t,” Peterson said.

As her anxiety worsened she began calling in sick to work until her mother’s patience ran out and she showed up pounding on Peterson’s door. After inquiring about drug or alcohol use, her mother said, “Well, young lady, you have a problem, and you are going to grab those bootstraps and get up. You are scaring your mother, and I will not lose you to whatever this is.”

It was a pivotal moment for Peterson. “That is what flipped the switch,” she said.

Subsequently, she sought the care of Scotia psychologist Janie Garnett, who diagnosed her with anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, agoraphobia and depression.

“I told her it seemed like she was going overboard on the diagnosis,” Peterson said.

Peterson saw Garnett weekly for about two years. The two worked on repairing and retraining Peterson’s mind and body.

“Panic attacks use a majority of your body,” Peterson explained. “Your primitive brain is hopping, your muscles are all tensed, your respiration is all messed up. Before we could start working on the problem, I had to convince myself I was not going to die when they happened.”

From there, Garnett worked on teaching Peterson how to get herself out of an active attack, and following that, the maintenance stage in which Peterson learned how to identify the triggers that caused an attack so she could quash them before they began.

“That last one is still a work in progress,” she said. “You do not cure anxiety disorder. You make a choice to not allow it to run you.”

This was when she began volunteering in the community, putting herself in places where there would be triggers so that she could practice her management of them.

“At some point all of that extracurricular went from self-care to, ‘Wow, this is very fulfilling,’ ” Peterson said.

For three decades, she’s been a key player and promoter in Schenectady’s revitalization. She seems to know everyone in the community, business and otherwise.

“I have a passion for commerce and having a vibrant community,” Peterson said. “We are at such an exciting place where the city is looking better and better, and more people are coming to work, live and play here. I want to be part of what makes the city crazy interesting, bustling and vibrant.”

She also serves on the Schenectady board of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce. She has been the emcee for the Schenectady Business and Professional Women’s Club’s annual fashion show fundraiser for the past several years.

“It is a ridiculous fashion show,” Peterson said. “We have fun with it. We play with it.”

She has also helped with fundraisers for Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County and other organizations.

“Her sense of community is second to none,” said Schenectady developer Ray Legere, who works with Peterson on IlluminoCity and other initiatives.

Peterson’s community involvement is the work she does in addition to her full-time job as a certified public accountant specializing in estate work. After learning to manage her anxiety disorder, Peterson went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The College of Saint Rose. She became a certified public accountant and later a partner with her mother, Susan Watson, in Watson Peterson & Co. in 2016.

After her mother died in 2017, Peterson partnered with CPA Colleen Campoli to open Peterson, Campoli & Associates, CPAs.

Peterson loves tax season. “It’s a mental, physical mini marathon, and I get to see all these wonderful clients that I love so much to see.”

She is highly sensitive to the fact that clients coming to see her are experiencing a vulnerable time in their lives.

“They are just totally down, and they don’t want to deal with all this finance stuff and tax stuff that they have to,” she said. “I’m interested in listening and being compassionate to what they’re going through, and just taking the rock off their shoulders so they don’t have to worry about paperwork. When somebody’s coming in and they’re hurting, I’m going to ask them how long they were married and I’m going to ask them who is their support now. I love when someone says, ‘You really helped get me through that.’ ”

With an accomplished career and a stellar reputation as a community advocate, some might wonder why Peterson would choose to make her struggles public. Her reason is simple: She wants to encourage those who are struggling to seek help from an experienced mental health professional.

“I know it’s huge and it is so treatable,” she said. “Getting up is always possible. It just takes work and some cheerleaders around you.”

Peterson also wants to urge those who see others struggling to get involved — to be those cheerleaders — and to help people find the help they need. She is grateful her family did just that, and would like to see the stigma around seeking help for mental health issues disappear.

“There’s definitely still a stigma attached to that and we have to get by that,” she said. “Seeing a psychologist or a coach is just as important to your own health care as getting a massage or going to the doctor.”

Madelyn Thorne, former executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Schenectady County, applauds Peterson’s willingness to share her struggles.

“I think Heather’s own experience with having nonprofessional challenges when you’re trying to have a professional life — she sees that and wants to help people, because she knows how difficult that can be,” Thorne said.

Peterson still visits a coach every once in a while for what she calls a “cerebral tune-up.”

“The journey to get well was very hard,” she said. “The continued journey to remain well has brought me gifts beyond what I deserve.”

Heather Peterson
COMPANY: Peterson, Campoli & Associates, CPAs
TITLE: CPA and founding partner
EDUCATION: Schenectady County Community College; The College of Saint Rose
BEST LESSON IN BUSINESS: “The best investment you can make is in yourself and your team.”
WORDS TO LIVE BY: “The question isn’t, ‘Who is going to let me.’ The question is, ‘Who is going to stop me?’ ” — Ayn Rand

More Outlook 2023: Looking Ahead – Our annual report on Capital Region business

Categories: Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Outlook 2023, Schenectady

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