Devoted environmentalist Sara McDonnell remembered with tree plantings in Flint

By Jan Worth-Nelson

Many trees will grow in and around Flint because of Sara McDonnell’s tragic and unexpected death.

McDonnell. 38, a program manager in the office of University Outreach at the University of Michigan – Flint, died suddenly in her home April 17, a death not believed to be related to COVID-19, according to her obituary.

She “worked all her life for a healthy environment,”  according to her obituary, having led many projects supporting watershed planning, land conservation, trails and recreation, and green infrastructure.

To honor McDonnell’s devotions and community impact, many trees already are sprouting up, at the request of her family.

Rebecca Pettengill, a friend and former colleague at the UM – Flint and a resident of the College Cultural Neighborhood, said Mike Herriman, owner of Vern’s Collision and a committee chairperson of the College Cultural Neighborhood Association (CCNA), quickly took up the tree-planting cause.

Herriman had recently obtained a supply of 14 saplings — pin oaks and swamp oaks —  from the Flint River Watershed Coalition — an organization to which McDonnell belonged and actively supported as a board member in many of its projects.

Sara McDonnell, 1981-2020 (photo provided by UM – Flint)

Herriman and  his wife Trudy had contributed to McDonnell’s work on a well-used and well-regarded 2006 report, the “Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Improving Gilkey Creek,” supported by the Ruth Mott Foundation.

So he immediately proposed planting the trees near the creek — specifically in Pierce Park, which is bordered by the creek in the CCN.

The City of Flint, which owns the former 18-hole golf course and clubhouse, long closed, gave approval for the planting, and Herriman and Dave Pettengill, Rebecca Pettengill’s husband and another devoted Pierce Park protector and advocate, selected spots along the driveway, the parkway, the soccer field and in an acreage behind the clubhouse where several CCN community activists, including Rebecca Pettengill and Desiree Duell, have been developing a  “Sanctuary” garden.

“Sara made a difference and she helped a lot of other people make a difference, too,” Herriman said.

Mike Herriman (left) and Dave Pettengill planting a pin oak in Sara McDonnell’s honor at Pierce Park. They are observing six-foot distancing. (Photo by Rebecca Pettengill)

McDonnell long had been an active presence and participant in environmental studies, research and advocacy, starting with her years as a student in the Department of Earth and Resource Science at the UM – Flint.  She had a bachelor’s degree in resource ecology, and then became a research assistant in what was then called the Center for Applied Environmental Research (CAER).

While on the board of directors of the Flint River Watershed Coalition, she founded the Golden Gloves Annual Volunteer Award and earned a Master’s of Business administration.  In her last years at UM – Flint, she had transitioned to the University Center for Community and Economic Development.

“She coached and facilitated hundreds of students, community members and friends to create meaningful lives,”  her obituary stated.

“Sara was a relationship builder who focused on connecting University faculty and students to community needs. She often served as a convener, facilitator, and technical advisor for nonprofits around environmental planning, and public engagement. She enjoyed inspiring others to follow their passion and cultivated a wide network of community members and leaders,”  according to a statement on her death by Paula Nas, director of University Outreach, and Keith Moreland, interim provost.

Oak trees grow straight up and big and make good habitats for birds and provide nice food for squirrels and deer, Rebecca Pettengill noted–all part of an booming ecosystem in the park McDonnell would have loved to support.

Booklet produced by Sara McDonnell at University Outreach through a grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation.

McDonnell, a resident of Byron,  leaves behind her husband Andy and children Haydn and Breeanna.

The family was unable to host a memorial service due to COVID-19 constraints.  She is being remembered here:

Banner photo:  Gilkey Creek (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at



Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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