Menlo Park couple Steve and Dianne de Laet have long worked to build community in two peninsulas very far apart: the San Francisco Peninsula and Greece's Peloponnese peninsula.
Now, they're on a mission to help restore a decimated landscape in their Grecian community by appealing to their California hometown.
The de Laets were recently tapped by Gov. Nektarios Farmakis, the regional governor of Western Greece, to lead a private fundraiser aimed at replanting olive trees that were burned by summer wildfires in Greece's Ancient Olympia region, they told The Almanac in a recent phone interview from their home in Greece's Peloponnese region.
In August, wildfires struck the Peloponnese region, triggering evacuations of dozens of villages near the archaeological site where the original Olympic Games began in 776 B.C., and destroying about 450,000 olive trees.
Within that region are many small olive farms and farmers who rely solely on the olive trees for their livelihoods, who lost their farms and homes, Steven de Laet said. This year's wildfire made worse longer-term damage from wildfires that struck the region in 2007 and 2018, he added.
To counteract the devastation, the de Laets are raising funds to plant 80,000 new olive trees, each at a cost of roughly $5. Olive trees can live up to 4,000 years, but take a number of years before they begin to bear fruit, they said.
Greece has been a part of the de Laet family's history for some time. The couple married in Greece 50 years ago. Then, in 2005, they bought a century-old farmhouse in Greece, which they have restored and now use as a space for supporting artistic and cultural endeavors, they said.
Pre-COVID, they would spend up to three months at a time at their home in Greece, typically visiting in the spring and fall. Menlo Park is their home base, Dianne de Laet told The Almanac. Their children live in Portola Valley and South Lake Tahoe.
The issue of wildfires strikes close to the family's own experiences – their own son was forced to evacuate his home during a California wildfire earlier this year.
The couple is not new to philanthropy. In 1996, Dianne de Laet launched the Arete Fund with the proceeds of her book, an organization she now leads as executive director. The book, a memoir called "Giants & Heroes: A Daughter's Memories of Y.A. Tittle," built on stories of her relationship with her father, the famed football quarterback. The fund supports college scholarships for graduates of Menlo-Atherton High School as well as international humanitarian causes.
So far, the effort has raised enough to plant roughly 20,000 trees, about a quarter of their overall goal.
However, the couple said that this initiative is still in its early phases. They are hoping that the fundraiser is only the first step toward starting conversations around promoting sustainability and entrepreneurship on these small farms, as well as discussions about how to prevent future wildfires.
They encourage local residents to consider contributing to the fund. For $5, people can plant a tree in memory of a loved one who has died, they said.
"We would love the participation of our neighbors on the Peninsula to donate and help us achieve this goal," Dianne de Laet said.
"So many Americans should feel proud of themselves for reaching out across the world," she added. "It's not lost on these people ... The fact that Americans care is such a gift. It maybe doesn't rebuild the house, but it certainly goes a long way toward establishing the kind of bond we want to have going forward."
Go to olympia-trees.com for more information.
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]