Todd the Volunteer works to leave Westchester better than he found it

Todd Olin is not a city worker. And yet he devotes his days to improving the neighborhood by picking up trash for hours on end. You might have seen him along Westchester’s major thoroughfares in a neon safety vest, inscribed with the honorific “Todd the Volunteer,” a name he’s had “from the very beginning.” 

For the last two years Olin has been helping clean up 90045, but he got his start picking up trash in Orange County in cities like Buena Park, Garden Grove and Westminster. He’s also cleaned all the underpasses of the 22 Freeway, from the Harbor exit to Golden West.  

“That’s 13 underpasses. It took me six months, and I did it completely as a homeless person,” said Olin.

Originally from Long Beach, Olin first became homeless in 2015. The aftermath of a motorcycle accident left him unable to work or afford rent. 

Looking back, Olin recalls, “I started out pushing two shopping carts down the street with a $1.50 in my pocket.” 

He used that money to purchase a grabber tool from the 99 Cents Only Store. 

“Then I made a couple signs that said ‘Please support my cleanup effort,’” says Olin. 

The sign directed people to a GoFundMe page.   

Community support has been strong since the start. In 2016, Olin received a commemorative coin from the Garden Grove Police Department, a genuine token of their appreciation. A few Angelenos have also gifted him two motorhomes over the course of his service, one of which he currently lives in.  

In Westchester, his usual work route takes him from the intersection of Lincoln and Manchester, down Manchester and north on La Tijera. From there, he cleans both sides of the street and the center dividers, eventually finishing up at the 405 Freeway. Olin says it can take him a full day to complete just one block. Often, by the time he reaches the end of his circuit, his starting point already needs to be cleaned up again. He estimates that in the area around the Westchester Golf Course alone, he’s stuffed more than 500 bags of debris since 2017.

In addition to picking up trash, Olin trims weeds and removes graffiti. Always thinking of safety, he is constantly looking for ways he can be proactive. If bad weather is in the forecast, he’ll spend the morning checking drainpipes and gutters, ensuring they won’t get clogged by the impending rain and cause a street to flood.

“Safety is part of what I do,” said Olin. 

When Drollinger Properties President Karen Dial first became aware of Olin, she was amazed that someone would volunteer his time to help improve some of the area’s most traveled boulevards on an ongoing basis. Dial is also the president of the Westchester Town Center Business Improvement District (BID)–an organization whose mission is to provide services like beautification and landscaping to the business district along Sepulveda.

“I thought this is too good to be true,” said Dial. “All of a sudden Manchester was looking so beautiful. We’re trying to spread the word about what he is doing. This guy is doing amazing things.” 

Longtime Westchester resident Amy Frelinger has been impressed with Olin’s efforts and often sees the hard work he puts into beautifying local streets as she navigates her way around town as a real estate agent.

She is encouraging people to take notice and donate if they appreciate his work. She also wants to get the word out that while his GoFundMe may look impressive, it reflects years of donations—sometimes trickling, sometimes streaming—in.

“People are confused by the fact that his GoFundMe page shows he has over $82,000 in donations,” explains Frelinger. “What people may fail to realize is that it has accumulated over the course of years, and includes other areas of Los Angeles, not just Westchester. It’s amazing that he does this out of the generosity of his heart.” 

Reaching out to Olin, community members have shared their frustration with the city for not doing their part in maintaining streets and letting trash accumulate for weeks or longer.

 “People have told me, ‘You’re all we got, Todd,’” he says.

Frustration recently compounded when people realized Olin’s trash bags weren’t getting picked up regularly by the city. 

“Here’s Todd doing all this work and the bags are just sitting there, decomposing and breaking,” said Dial. 

It was important to Dial that Olin’s efforts didn’t go to waste and were rewarded, so she made a donation and made some phone calls to neighborhood organizations that have a focus on beautification. The Drollinger Family Charitable Foundation, the Westchester Streetscape Improvement Association (WSIA) and BID quickly partnered to arrange for Olin’s bags to be picked up twice a month. 

“He makes such a big difference,” said Westchester resident and WSIA board member Sue Piervin. “We’re a community that really does come together, and we appreciate that Todd is improving our community.”  

How has the pandemic affected Todd’s work? Interestingly enough, he says, “It hasn’t at all.” 

Trash levels have remained the same. 

Olin says that Westchester residents have been very supportive and appreciative, even dropping off food while he works.

“I would really like to thank everyone who has donated to my cause. I know a lot of people are struggling right now,” he says.

Olin shares that he has never applied for any form of government assistance, so relies on these donations for his livelihood.

“That’s for people who really need it. I haven’t needed it,” says Olin. “So I’d really like to thank the people that donate to my cause. I’ve never been without anything since I’ve started doing this.”

Olin stresses that “anybody can do what I do,” and encourages others to find ways to contribute to improving the quality of life for all Angelenos.

“I hope that my story can inspire other people, because there is a lot of stuff that needs to be done in every community. Take a chance; go out there,” he says.

For Dial and others, Olin is a perfect example of what Westchester is all about.

“I’m reminded of a Margaret Mead quote,” said Dial. “‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ That is Westchester in a nutshell and encapsulates what we’re trying to do here.” 

Next time you are out and about, take a moment to appreciate the neighborhood locations that have been improved by Todd the Volunteer. His diligence and hard work is a powerful reminder that one person can make a difference and leave a huge impact. 

If you’re interested in supporting Todd the Volunteer and donating, you can visit gofundme.com/f/volunteer-worker.

By Grace Fetterman.

Posted February 2021.