IMAGE/COURT LEVE: Ella Hoyer, 12, on left, and her sister, Olivia, 10, on one of Donner Lake’s 37 public piers, the targets of their cleanup project.
When Ella Hoyer, 12, saw trash strewn on the shore and in the water of the idyllic lake near her home she became sad and cried. Then she got mad. Finally, cool determination took over.
“I was completely shocked,” said Ella, who this year will enter the seventh grade at Alder Creek Middle School in Truckee, Calif. “I was weirded out. Who would do that? There were cans, bottles, plastic bags on the ground. There were bottle caps between the boards of the pier, bags and a plastic fork and other stuff in the water.”
Today, less than two months later, Ella and her sister, Olivia, 10, have organized weekly cleanup crews at Donner Lake. And thanks to a documentary video produced by a neighbor and a GoFundMe page that went on line July 3, the girls are moving forward with their plan to install anti-litter signs on each of the lake’s 37 public piers. Any funds left over will be spent on extending an underwater cleanup of the lake’s near shore already begun by Clean Up the Lake, a Sierra environmental group.
Trash arrived with the summer
It all started with a trip for ice cream on the day summer came to the Sierra.
“It was the first day it was in the 80s and Ella, Olivia and I took our ice cream to the Donner Lake piers where we could go out on the water and be socially distanced,” said Debbie Hoyer, the girls’ mother. That’s when they saw the trash everywhere. They started picking up the debris left by people who had been at the spot earlier. The sisters were quiet as they put trash in bags, their mother said.
Later, as the family ate dinner, the subject of litter came up. Ella’s emotions burst forth. Her voice rose. She fought tears. “She was really upset, just heartbroken” Debbie said. “Not just about what was happening at Donner Lake, but what we’ve seen at Lake Tahoe and other places around the area. It’s a reoccurring issue with trash. Visitors come and leave trash that varies depending on the season. It’s everything from dirty diapers to bottles to broken plastic sleds.”
Ella became more upset and that got Olivia crying. Their parents were stunned.
“Do we need to tell her to take a deep breath and calm down?” Debbie asked. But as she and her husband, Josh, listened to Ella’s anguished monologue, they realized that she was voicing valid concerns about the future of the place she loved. “She was in pain that was exacerbated by a lot of things,” Debbie said. “There was COVID, she couldn’t be in school, we were supposed to be being careful and we spent the day picking up other people’s trash. It was a combination of things and it all came pouring out.”
Debbie didn’t tell Ella to be calm or that she couldn’t do anything about the world’s ills. “I told her I heard her,” she said. “I said she has a right to be upset and she absolutely has a right to want to do something about it. In fact, if we don’t do it, who will?”
First, the tears, then the plan
The family talked to a neighbor, Court Leve, a photographer and an activist with the Truckee Tahoe Litter Group. Leve produced a 2-minute documentary about the sisters’ plans for summer cleanups and for placing plaques or signage at each of the lake’s public piers encouraging visitors to take their trash with them when they leave. The duo also teamed up with Clean Up the Lake, a group of scuba divers planning to scour the shallows of Lake Tahoe next year. That organization, which cleaned up a mile of Donner Lake’s shallows last week, is the subject of a related Reno News & Review story.
“It’s so great how the community is supporting this,” Ella said.
This 2-minute video, by Truckee photographer Court Leve , details a GoFundMe effort by the Hoyer sisters, who plan to install anti-littering plaques on 37 public piers at Donner Lake.
The video’s script is based on an informative essay Ella wrote as a class assignment. The documentary circulated on residents’ social media and sparked an outpouring of donations and volunteers, the family said. Kids and adults have signed up for the weekly cleanup efforts. Ella is working with a graphic designer to create the signs. “Everything just came together,” Debbie said. “…So many people were moved by it and wanted to help.”
“The greater Donner Lake area is being ‘trashed’ by people who obviously do not feel the same way we do about our local natural resources. My home is being mistreated and no one is doing anything about it. I will not stand for it and am determined to help the town of Truckee and the Tahoe-Donner Regional Planning District make a change. My generation is upset about this and yours should be too. I am not going to ignore the litter that’s happening anymore. Please help me Keep The Donner Docks Clean.”– Ella Hoyer, from her proposal for a Donner Lake cleanup effort
Debbie Hoyer said her daughter’s concerns opened her eyes to the fear the younger generation has about the condition of the world they will inherit.
“We find both of our girls inspiring,” Debbie Hoyer said. “I’ve been frustrated when I would see all the trash and how this beautiful area wasn’t being respected, but it wasn’t until Ella had that moment that I could really understand how much it affected her generation.
“She has inspired us as a family and I hope she will inspire other people. We can make this happen for Donner Lake, but really the goal is to push outward… The goal is for this to spread and establish a norm for how we behave when we enjoy our resources.”