PROFILE: Donna Larson

July 17, 2020
By Olivia Cameron

For Donna, the destination is determined by the journey…
BY OLIVIA CAMERON- Combing the shoreline of Gasparilla Island, local Turtle Patroller Donna Larson dedicates six months each year to protecting our hatchlings.
Born into a southern lifestyle, Donna hardly considers Troy, Michigan her hometown. During her early childhood, she learned to get her hands dirty on their small family farm in Imlay City. As one of three children, Donna enjoyed selling the fruits of labor, corn and tomatoes among other things, with her siblings at a stand just past the farm. She found comfort in the animals they’d kept. “My main love at the time was my horses.”
“When I turned 11, my dad planned to move us to Ontario to be closer to family, so we relocated to a little town called Iron Bridge,” said Donna. “We built a barn and brought the horses.” Her father owned a small restaurant at the time, while her mother pitched in at the establishment.
“We would visit my grandmother’s camp on Lake Huron in the summer. There was no electricity and no running water at her place, just family time. She had a Coleman lantern you would have to pump up. I had the most amazing yet simple childhood,” said Donna.
A year after high school, Donna married her first husband and the pair moved to Elliot Lake, the uranium capital of the world at the time. Her husband worked as a miner while she worked at a few hair salons.
Donna gave birth to two sons before her husband passed away. 
As years went by, Donna took a vacation in Las Vegas and fell in love with her dancing partner at Stardust, Gary. “From then on, he would visit me until we decided to build a life together,” she said. She once again packed up her belongings and moved to Arizona with Gary. The newlyweds adored their eccentric life in Apache Junction just by the Superstition Mountains. 
However, Donna felt a pull to the ocean. “Even though I lived nowhere near the ocean, I was drawn to it. Gary and I would travel to places like Costa Rica and St. Lucia to find our tropical paradise,” said Donna. It wasn’t until she visited her aunt in Englewood that she couldn’t take her eyes off Southwest Florida.
By 2016, the pair succumbed to their dream of beach bliss and became locals. Donna felt inclined to follow her passion for the sea.  “When I was growing up, my parents got me a painted turtle the size of a fifty-cent piece. It lived on a little island with a plastic palm tree.” She gravitated to the Boca Grande Sea Turtle Association (BGSTA), where she immediately became a volunteer.
“I was trained by Maureen McConnell the first year, but she had to leave to take care of her ill husband. I took over for her. That first year in the new position was tough, but everyone was helpful. The next year, it got easier. The job can be a lot of work, despite how cute it may seem. It’s either in your blood or it’s not,” said Donna. Nowadays, she is eager to wake up before the sunrise and head down to the beach.
Donna and her right-hand woman, Cathy Brown, are required to patrol their zones and report to both the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Lee County daily, especially with the ongoing renourishment project. 
As a leader of Turtle Patrol volunteers, Donna credits her passion and drive to the way she was raised. “My parents taught me put all of my effort into my passions. I looked up to my mother. She’s been gone from us for over twenty years now, but she was my absolute best friend. She would give anyone the shirt off her back if they asked for it. For that reason, I strive to live my life in a way that she would be proud of.”
Donna recognized the responsibility the organization carries in efforts to help endangered species. BGSTA’s Turtle Patrol members are certified to handle the hatchlings, which means they must hand select volunteers to work under their permit. With the FWC’s regulations, they have to be selective about putting the fate of baby sea turtles in the hands of volunteers. However, Donna has found the volunteers to have a drive similar to hers when she first started. 
“Gary is very understanding about my position as a turtle patroller,” said Donna. “It’s a six-month vocation you must be committed to. I am appreciative of his support in letting me do what I love, and I couldn’t be more blessed to work in such a beautiful place.”
In the course of their marriage, Donna and Gary have worked many fields, from owning a Cajun restaurant to a landscape business, but now they enjoy their ownership of a small country bar in Oklahoma. When Gary isn’t living as a coastal resident he’s at their bar, managing and remodeling it.
Together, they have also patiently raised one of their grandchildren up to his recent 18th birthday.
When they aren’t traveling or boating, Donna and Gary are looking after their two dogs, one pit bull and one part pit bull. “My oldest dog, Chewy, is especially the love of my life. We have rescued so many dogs over the course of our time together. I always carried a dog food bag in my car for homeless dogs I’d come across,” said Donna.
Despite moving several times in her life, Donna has taken every opportunity to travel. From Aruba’s Dutch architecture to the old houses of New Orleans, she’s fascinated by the cultural designs.   
“We plan to go back to Oklahoma after the virus,” said Donna. “When turtle nesting season ends, I commit the other half of the year to my husband and family.”