Parks dynamo Patty Donald retires June 2017

If you’ve helped out at a shoreline cleanup, seen the Berkeley Marina’s colorful Kite Festival, or if someone in your family became fascinated with science and nature at Berkeley’s Marina Experience programs, it’s because of Patty Donald, naturalist and recreation coordinator at the Berkeley Marina’s Shorebird Park and Adventure Playground. A citizen arm, Friends of Shorebird Nature Center, is a valued BPFP partner.

Beach at Shorebird ParkOne of Berkeley’s most creative and influential environmentalists, Patty retires this month after more than 30 years “growing” Berkeley Parks programs.

Daughter of a Gold Rush family, Patty grew up in Berkeley. She earned a degree in parks and natural-resource management and interpretation just as California’s Proposition 13 was slashing property-tax funds for such programs. After part- and full-time stints including teaching science at Cragmont School (her “alma mater”) and working for Berkeley Parks and at the East Bay Regional Parks’ Crab Cove Nature Center, she approached Berkeley with an idea:

“I said I’d set up a nature program here. They said OK. So I did.”

The Berkeley Marina had income that by state law had to be spent for recreation for local families. Thus, it could fill some of the gap left when Prop 13 wiped out many programs formerly offered at Berkeley parks and schools.

Patty Donald
Patty Donald

Teaching nature: With no building, Patty started her Marina Experience Program by visiting classrooms to teach background. Kids then came to the shoreline by bus — at first, just during springtime low tides. Getting a portable classroom in 1986 meant that programs could continue through the rainy season.

Patty began training docents — more than 20 each year learn about nature through the Bay Interpretive Training — BayIT — program. She also expanded the programs offered, teaching about fish, birds, marine mammals, invertebrates, boating, and more, all adapted for different grade levels and with a strong conservation content including how plastics affect sea life.

Cleaning the shoreline: Meanwhile, from organizing local International Coastal Cleanup events, Patty came to coordinate that program for Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville, along with many more shoreline cleanups, for Earth Day, Plastic-Free July, and monthly on third Saturdays, all teaching about the perils of litter.

Green buildings: With ideas from Councilmember Linda Maio and initial backing from the UC Berkeley/Dept. of Energy Berkeley Lab, Patty oversaw building of the Shorebird Nature Center, a showcase of environmentally friendly building materials, from straw-bale walls to recycled-glass window seats and more. A new, environmentally friendly classroom with a microscope lab and two 200-gallon aquariums followed.

Oiled-bird rescue: When the container ship Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge in November 2007, spilling more than 50,000 gallons of heavy “bunker” oil into the bay, thousands of oiled birds washed to the East Bay shore. The relief efforts’ lack of coordination was painfully obvious. Patty had a network of volunteers and knew the basics of wildlife rescue as well as how to reach the contaminated shoreline. Shorebird Park became the de facto rescue center, from rapid “hazmat” training to organizing a network of drivers taking birds to the International Bird Rescue Center in Fairfield. In the years since, Patty has organized regular trainings in wildlife rescue, so as to have a core of volunteers ready for the next spill.

Festivals and Fun: With Highline Kites, Patty also started the Berkeley Kite Festival. She revived the Berkeley Bay Festival, a family-friendly event first held when the Marina opened in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Kids at Shorebird ParkAll this creativity has gone hand in hand with running a demanding program including the year-round Adventure Playground, summer and holiday camps, and school outings. Shorebird Park and Adventure Playground host about 200,000 visits a year, including programs for more than 1600 local school children.

What next? Patty isn’t done yet! She is launching another new program, of “do-it-yourself cleaning stations,” where volunteers can find materials to clean the shoreline on their own time. In “retirement,” she plans to volunteer more – including a focus on her family’s historic Cohen-Bray House in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, where she hopes to organize docents and programs for children.

You can celebrate Patty’s retirement, and the learning and delight she has given to children and adults , at a celebration scheduled June 24 at the Berkeley Yacht Club. Information and reservations here.
(This article appeared in slightly different form in Friends of Five Creeks June e-news.)