Ashley Olson spent part of Father's Day at Ken Mercer Sports Park next to a memorial stone that bears her dad's name.
Jim Olson, a Pleasanton landscaper and popular youth sports coach, was killed in the summer of 1998 in a horrific car accident on a Nevada freeway as the family was driving home to Pleasanton. Ashley was thrown from the vehicle and paralyzed from the waist down. Her mother Elaine and younger sister Lori were injured and have recovered. An older sister, Kristina, was attending summer school and had skipped the trip.
June 9 was Jim's birthday, and Ashley was there to see for the first time a new wheelchair-accessible ramp built at her request to ease her trip to the memorial. She was there again Sunday to remember him on Father's Day.
She told me that there are 525,600 minutes in a year, and she spends about 200 of them at the memorial rock where her father's name is inscribed.
"Time is precious as we all know," she said. "Although my time at the memorial is short, its impact is undefinable, as is my father's presence. My father loved this place unselfishly, which is an understatement, and his legacy is a reminder that no matter who or where you are, you can serve others for the betterment of all."
I last interviewed Ashley in 2002 on the campus of the University of Southern California, where she was starting her freshman year. She was outside Pardee Tower, her dormitory that was one of the few buildings at USC fully furnished and equipped for those in wheelchairs.
She talked about her challenges, her fond memories of Pleasanton and the support she received, and her future. She was determined then to dedicate her life to helping those with disabilities and always mindful of her father's commitment to working to improve the athletic skills of those in youth sports.
Now living in San Ramon, she manages a website (www.wheelchairtraveling.com) that has become a prime resource for the disabled, especially those in wheelchairs. Now also on Facebook with colorful photos, many taken by Ashley, it tells those who are paralyzed, who must use walkers or who are frail, suffering from other physical handicaps or temporarily sidelined from hiking and walking with their families where to travel, traverse pathways in local, state and national parks, have an easier time boarding and traveling in planes and otherwise enjoy life the best they can in today's mobile world.
Through her work with the National Park Service and many state park systems, Ashley also has made park management and rangers aware of accessibility problems on their turfs. In a recent trip to a Georgia State Park, she found a popular trail -- listed and marked as wheelchair accessible -- had partially collapsed into inches of soggy sand during recent rains. It was fixed quickly because of Ashley's complaint.
She's found other trails that are marked paved and accessible not quite so friendly. Heading up one trail in her arm-driven wheelchair, she found the paved path heading up a 22-degree slope not really accessible, except for powered wheelchairs or those with exceptionally strong arms. Yosemite is her favorite park, with well-marked, wheelchair-accessible trails and level campsites for campers and restaurants and nighttime entertainment all available on flat land. There, everyone can enjoy the park, whether walkers or in wheelchairs.
Asked why she still uses a manually driven chair, Ashley points to a friend's motorized one, which is about twice the size and difficult to navigate in a San Ramon condo like hers or to take on her frequent trips to report on accessible public places. She is considering a Firefly, a bike-like wheelchair attachment with a battery motor. Once she has saved the $300 it costs, she'll order one.