Unsung heroes of Silicon Valley: Olympia Williams
Olympia Williams (center) leads a Beautify SJ team meeting, tackling San Jose's visual blight. Photo courtesy of Olympia Williams.

Olympia Williams is proud to call San Jose home.

As program manager of Beautify SJ in the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS), she channels her pride and passion into keeping the city clean and beautiful through trash pickups, graffiti abatement, and the like — all services that continue during the coronavirus shutdown.

“A lot of the services that I manage do not stop,” Williams said. “They’re just things that are kind of in the background that you don’t notice.”

While San Jose advocates work to provide homeless residents with medical supplies, Beautify SJ is handing out litter bags. Three years after Beautify SJ’s kickoff in 2017, Williams said, the program has extended trash services to homeless encampments throughout the city.

“We’ve been able to go out to our largest encampments and continue to deliver those critical services to ensure that population that’s very vulnerable has the services that they need,” Williams said. “I work my best to deliver the same services to (homeless) residents that I deliver to any other neighborhood in the city.”

Williams grew up in San Jose neighborhoods. She attended Santee Elementary School and Independence High School before attending UC Santa Cruz. Her aspiration was immediately achieved after graduating college in 2001. Williams’ first job was with the city as a recreation program specialist for Almaden Community Center, designing programs for residents young and old.

“One of the greatest gifts that I think I got here as a San Jose resident are the services that were provided through schools, through libraries, and through recreation programs,” Williams said. “When I went to college, I knew that something I wanted to do was some type of public service.”

The idea that the government could provide a variety of services — from senior programs to community centers -— to so many types of people “sparked” her interest, Williams said.

Since 2001, Williams has returned to school to earn a master’s degree in public administration at SJSU, managed the Meals on Wheels program for Silicon Valley nonprofit The Health Trust, and held a variety of city positions.

“This to me isn’t a job. I’m passionate about our neighborhoods,” Williams said. “I’m passionate about the service that we provide to those neighborhoods. And I’m passionate about finding innovative strategies that can get things done.”

Today, she oversees a staff of 16 as well as thousands of volunteers. According to Williams, last year’s annual Great American Litter Pick Up, a one-day event where residents scour the city for trash, drew more than 10,000 volunteers.

Williams’ dedication even extends to taking a different route to work each morning just to verify that all resident complaints have been taken care of properly.

“Sometimes it’s driving all the way out to District 10, District 1,” Williams told San José Spotlight. “It forces me to be in the community and see the issues the residents deal with to make sure that I can do my job effectively.”

Donna Becker, a community activity worker with Beautify SJ, said the program has “blossomed” since Williams’ arrival.

“We’re very lucky to have her leadership and mentorship. She’s one of a kind,” Becker said. “As a supervisor, she doesn’t have us do anything that she doesn’t do herself.”

With shelter-in-place orders and coronavirus-related procedures in place, many volunteer events have been canceled. But Williams remains grateful for Beautify SJ’s work in other areas and is positive that things will improve.

“I know that today looks like a really dark time,” Williams said. “The city of San Jose is strong enough to take this hit, and we’re strong enough to rebuild. We will continue to deliver essential services for the residents of this city.”

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Amid the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, we are highlighting public officials in San Jose who have become unsung heroes by stepping up to help their community in a time of crisis. This is the second of a 5-part series. 

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