Patty Donald retired in early July, leaving behind a rich legacy of Berkeley Marina programming. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

When the Cosco Busan cargo ship crashed into a Bay Bridge support tower in November 2007, unleashing more than 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay, the Berkeley Marina became ground zero for the wildlife rescue effort.

“All the birds were washing up on the shoreline over here,” said Patty Donald, the newly retired recreation coordinator at the Marina. Donald and her colleagues had predicted the birds’ arrival, thanks to a previous data collection project that determined where injured wildlife congregated along the Berkeley shoreline.

Shortly after the crash, the International Bird Rescue set up shop at the Marina and said, “OK, public, we’ve got this all handled. We’ll rescue the birds and you need to stay out of the toxic material,” according to Donald.

“And people from Berkeley said, ‘Yeah, sure, sure, tell us what we can do.’ They weren’t going to sit back,” she said. Suddenly Donald and her staff found themselves responsible for coordinating a crew of 700 eager volunteers.

“It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever dealt with,” Donald said. “We were trying to create something from nothing.”

But the Marina staff sprung into action, leading hazmat trainings and sending people out to the spots they knew would be hit the hardest by the spill. The effort revealed the need for better communication between different environmental groups in the region, so Donald helped form the SF Bay Shoreline Advocates group in the aftermath of the disaster.

Though the process was perhaps the most taxing, the clean-up and rescue scheme was hardly the first program Donald created from scratch.

In her almost 40 years working at the Marina, Donald has created — with critical help from many others, she is quick to note —  some of the park’s most famous and beloved programs, including the Berkeley Kite Festival, the annual shoreline cleanup and the Bay Festival. Donald started the Marina’s nature education program, oversaw the construction of the straw bale building that now holds the Nature Center and set up a docent training program.

“Patty has been a visionary leader at the nature center,” said City Councilwoman Linda Maio. “And while I celebrate her retirement for her I am sad to see the city lose such a valuable leader.”

“I’m a dreamer,” acknowledged Donald, who retired last week. “If you don’t look for dreams, they won’t come true.”

A child meets a turtle at the Berkeley Bay Festival, which Patty Donald revived. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Sometimes those dreams came true despite the odds. Armed with a fresh degree in parks interpretation from Chico State, Donald began working as a science and environmental educator right as Proposition 13 was stripping funding from recreation programs. But the Marina had a pot of state money for such programs.

Donald went to Berkeley’s Waterfront Commission and told them she could set up a nature education program there. Former parks director Frank Haeg was just launching Adventure Playground, so the two worked side by side, creating what became a sort of kids’ zone around Shorebird Park at the Marina.

“Before Patty, there was nothing there but a rickety set of restrooms,” said Denise Brown, who worked for Donald as her assistant recreation coordinator for 11 years, and then over her in her current role as the city’s recreation and youth services manager.

Initially Donald would hop between Berkeley schools and the Marina, giving lessons on- and off-site. A few years later, the city purchased a portable building for her, expanding the sorts of programs she could offer. In 2004, Donald oversaw the creation of the straw bale building, a green structure now housing the Shorebird Nature Center. Maio encouraged Donald to pursue that project and helped secure the funding.

Early on, Donald worked with marine ecologist Carol Keiper and artist Julie Shank Ouellette to develop the curriculum that is still used today in the Marina Experience Program. During the year, school groups come learn about birds, fish, the bay, marine mammals, sailing and more, then some participants choose to come back for more immersive programs during the summer. Donald has made sure to provide teachers with classroom materials to use before the field trips, so kids come to the Marina primed to learn.

Patty Donald takes kids on a “research boat trip.” Photo courtesy of Denise Brown
Patty Donald takes kids on a “research boat trip.” Photo courtesy of Denise Brown
Patty Donald helps out a fledgling barn owl at Cesar Chavez Park. Photo courtesy of Patty Donald

The ethos at the core of Donald’s work is ‘hands, head, heart,” a recognition that touching and feeling is integral to learning and understanding — and for some kids more than others.

These days, “we’re so much more aware of how neurologically diverse children are, and how you’ve got to have a wide variety of opportunities so kids can feel good about learning,” Donald said.

She could see that from the start, noticing how some kids were in their element at Adventure Playground, creating a structure with a hammer and nails, or how others really grasped the idea of salinity when they got splashed with water during a sailing excursion.

Donald herself got decent grades as a kid growing up in Berkeley — starting at Cragmont, where she later briefly taught science — but she really shone when she was able to engage with the natural world. As an adult, she made it her project to teach young people that taking care of the environment could become a life’s work.

It was not only kids who learned from Donald. She is also proud of creating the Bay Interpretive Training Program, which prepares docents to lead activities in the Marina Experience Program. Up until the end of her career, Donald cherished meeting with the docents at the beginning and end of each day.

“She’s really talented and charismatic, and people are really drawn to her,” said Brown, who volunteered as a docent before becoming the Marina’s first assistant recreation coordinator. “She speaks very passionately about her belief in the stewardship of the bay.”

Donald is also responsible for reviving the Berkeley Bay Festival, a tradition that began when Berkeley residents paraded down University to the Marina when it first opened in 1937. She also worked with Tom McAlister to start the popular Berkeley Kite Festival in 1986.

The wildlife rescue and clean-up work Donald pioneered was not limited to ecological disaster response. She oversaw Berkeley’s participation in the International Coast Cleanup movement, organizing shoreline clean-ups and collecting data on “hot spots” where trash tended to wash up.

“There’s a whole science to garbology,” said Donald, who has also started the process of installing do-it-yourself cleaning stations along the shoreline.

Patty Donald helped create the Berkeley Kite Festival, now a beloved tradition, about 30 years ago. Photo: Daniel Parks

The Marina has truly been home for Donald. Her two daughters grew up doing all the programs she ran, and her husband, David Poock, had stints working at Adventure Playground and running Berkeley’s summer camps too.

Yet despite the mark she has left on the park, Donald is not reluctant to hand over the reins.

Her philosophy throughout her career, she said, has been “adapt — or die.” Propose ideas like wild, be ready for them to fall apart, and keep working to improve those that become reality.

Besides, Donald is only somewhat slowing down. In retirement she will continue doing what she does — engaging kids in hands-on education and coordinating docents — at the Cohen-Bray House, the historic property her family owns in Oakland.

Donald’s successor, Anthony DeCicco, starts this week, bringing with him a rich background in environmental education and knowledge of Donald’s work, Brown said.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...