Remembering Donna Olsen, 1931-2020

Donna Olsen died July 9 at the age of 88. This remembrance was contributed by Richard Godfrey and Gus Morrison.

In the early days of LEAF, one of its most consistent supporters and contributors of small grants was Donna Olsen of Tri-City Ecology Center (TCEC). Donna recognized LEAF as an ecology-based nonprofit similar to hers, and she reached out whenever asked. As a founder of an environmental group, she knew that collaboration and the volunteer spirit were essential ingredients for environmental work. 

Dating back to the first Earth Day in 1970, she and a group of concerned women got together to build TCEC and soon had a following of 300 supporters. Recycling was a major focus and they went on to organize the first municipal recycling center in the Bay Area, collecting newspaper, glass, tin and aluminum cans that they would crush with their feet so it could all be reused. About 100 volunteers handled over 13 million pounds of recyclables until the City of Fremont began curbside recycling in 1989. 

With grassroots enthusiasm, TCEC took on issues of public transit, water conservation and land use development., In the 1980s, with the help of a land-use attorney they hired, they designed a ballot initiative, the Hillside Ordinance, that was successfully passed and still today protects the greenbelt open space surrounding our city. When you hike on Mission Peak or Vargas Plateau or look up to still see natural areas covered in oak trees and grass, think of Donna and the “small group of thoughtful and committed citizens” that kept the landscape pristine.

Donna was one of the many unpaid volunteers who made TCEC successful. She held many roles, including keeping an office open in the Fremont Community Activities Center and editing the Eco-Logic newsletter. With a wide readership, the newsletter reflected her soft, generous, uplifting spirit every month and always gave a sense of hope and helping.

Helping is what Donna specialized in, whether reading countless Environmental Impact Reports and condensing the information to protect wetlands, hills, and open spaces from poorly planned developments, or just encouraging Fremont’s youth with eco-grants and nonprofits with contributions. Donna kept a list of over 20 California environmental organizations, and every Christmas she found a way to keep them all going. Donna was honored by Assemblymember Delaine Eastin as Woman of the Year for her Assembly District, and in 1998 she was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame.

How fortunate we were to have her energy, and how essential to keep it alive!

State Senator Bob Wieckowski also issued a statement honoring Donna’s contributions; you can find it here.

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