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Donna Swanson: The Foundation of the Olean Center

Updated: Feb 29

Her dedication over 32 years has touched every aspect of the mission    


“She’s part of the building,” is often how colleagues at the Olean Center introduce Donna Swanson to visitors or during events.

While that’s a quick and easy analogy to let outsiders understand Donna’s involvement with “everything  Olean Center” it would be more difficult to describe which part of the building she represents. Is she the foundation, providing full support? Is she the roof, ensuring that everyone is protected?

“Donna is far more than a part of the building – she’s everything,” said Olean Center Executive Director Ruth Tureckova. “Donna is there for whatever is needed. She thinks outside the box when a need arises and just figures out a way to solve it.”

Donna, who will turn 60 at the end of the year, has worked at the Center for more than half her life, having just celebrated 32 years of dedication to supporting the goals of community members living with developmental disabilities. She’s worked in a variety of roles across a broad range of services and has stepped in to create a role – if unofficially – to fill a void.

She was the “Zoom lady” during the COVID-19 pandemic and she has coached the Olean Center team participating in the Rhode Island Special Olympics. She has taught music, sign language, and fitness, and assisted in the former workshop years ago when Olean participants performed piecework for local companies.

“There was good and bad to that,” Donna recalled. “Our participants could earn some money, but for a long time it was a sheltered workshop, so there was no involvement with the community.” That scenario changed when facilities such as the Olean Center began focusing on community integration opportunities.

Donna was among those who helped the Center transition out of a sheltered working environment to the current practice of participants getting hired as employees or, in other cases, volunteering with area organizations.

She was even responsible for naming the program that replaced the sheltered workshop when the Center sponsored a contest during the transition.

“I came up with STEPS, which stands for Social Training and Education for Personal Success, because that’s what we were doing – helping everyone learn what they needed to do to be a successful part of the community.”

Donna’s involvement is deeply personal, as her late sister Sharon was a longtime participant of the Olean Center after her parents refused recommendations to place Sharon in a facility. Sharon’s disabilities were severe, and she was not expected to live past early childhood. Sharon died in July 2022 at 50, and anyone who witnessed Donna’s unwavering support for Sharon might say that support was the reason Sharon defied the odds.

“My parents told the doctors “no” when they recommended Sharon go to the Ladd School,” Donna said, referring to Rhode Island’s infamous institution. 

Donna’s work at the Olean Center served as a calming transition as she grieved for her sister.

“This is a second home for me; I know everybody here so in some ways it made it easier, especially being able to work with the same participants as when Sharon was here,” she said. “I was grateful that they let me continue working with the same people and doing what I was doing when Sharon was here.”

Even before Sharon’s passing, however, Donna realized her advocacy on behalf of those with developmental disabilities has enriched her life as much if not more than she has enriched the lives of those with whom she works.

“It’s a two-way street; I’m helping someone have a regular life and be part of the community, but at the same time I learn so much from them,” Donna said. “And I try to model that in the community to help with integration. Everybody needs to be polite no matter who it is. You may not agree with someone or even like them, but you need to be polite.”

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