Coronavirus Chronicles: 80th birthday blowout goes online to celebrate work of local environmentalist

Susie Schaefer during her Zoom 80th birthday party.

The coronavirus pandemic has altered many people’s events and planning. For long-time Edmonds resident Susie Schaefer, it meant that the recent celebration of her 80th birthday, with more than 100 people, took place in an online video chat.

Schaefer had already begun making preliminary plans for an in-person birthday gathering at a friend’s house months before the occasion. But this spring, as COVID-19 spread, “I knew very soon that we weren’t going to have this and like everybody else had to make different plans,” Schaeffer said by phone.

Candace O’Neill, who has been friends with Schaefer for about 50 years, then offered the video chat idea and organized it by emailing invitations with the event link. She has a paid account with Zoom, which would allow for hundreds of people to participate with no time limits on the chat length. O’Neill estimated that she emailed about 400 people and many who responded were not familiar with how to use it, so she also provided them with instructive tutorials on how to sign up for a free account and use its features.

Schaefer herself even needed some help, “I had not thought about having a Zoom birthday party frankly, and had no idea how to do it,” she said. On July 19, the day of the party, O’Neill and two more of Schaefer’s friends went to her house to assist with the technical aspects. They even brought over quiches and a cheesecake as birthday treats, which Schaefer said were “absolutely fabulous.”

O’Neill thought that about 300 people, with some even being international, participated in the celebration. She said that at one point the group did experience some technical difficulties, which for reasons she wasn’t exactly sure of limited the amount to 100 participants. But she said people were able to then join as others left the chat session. O’Neill said by phone that while she considers herself pretty tech savvy, she was glad to have the other two friends of Schaefer’s with her, as they “were right there whenever I needed them,” to help get the party back on track.

Hundreds of guests dropped in virtually to wish Schaefer well.

Seven people from different areas of Schaefer’s life and interests — including family members and those associated with her environmental efforts and her social work with multicultural communities and people with disabilities — shared their memories. Some participants even played songs for the occasion, which included a classical flute piece, a traditional stringed instrument from India, an acoustic guitar performance and finally the traditional “Happy Birthday” arrangement with people holding candles.

Schaefer said she really enjoyed all of the music and that even though many people tried to sing along during the birthday song, a lot of them were muted, “so they didn’t blow up the system,” and cause the call to freeze or drop. “The one thing that was advantageous to having a Zoom party was a lot of people came from out of state and didn’t have to travel,” she said.

O’Neill said that despite the early software glitches, she was happy that she had been able to help her friend celebrate a milestone birthday. “I’m already planning her 85th and 90th birthday,” she said.

Miho Onaka, who helped with the planning and technical aspects of the online celebration, was happy to be a part of the event. “Susie has made a lot of contributions/impacts to the community in so many different ways,” Onaka said noting Schaefer’s work in the Washington disability community, the environmental and multicultural and diversity. “She’s like a living history, and it’s fun to hear all different stories from her and things she did in the community,” Onaka said by email.

Susie Schaefer in 2012 takes a a tour of the Demo Garden with National Wildlife Federation Education Manager Courtney Sullivan, far left, and David Mizejewski, host and co-producer of “Backyard Habitat” on the Animal Planet television channel, far right. (My Edmonds News file photo)

Through the years, Schaefer has dedicated much of her time and efforts to birding and environmental stewardship. She helped to establish the Edmonds Wildlife Habitat and Native Plant Demonstration Garden in 2009, was instrumental in getting the city certified as a Community Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and for the past five decades has also been involved with the Pilchuck Audubon Society.

“In addition to her no-nonsense, direct style, what I love most about Susie is her unwavering commitment to our environment,” Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson said by email. “The environment to her is not about supporting some abstract policy, it is about reconnecting residents with the plants and wildlife in our neighborhoods and parks and the vital role they play.”

Schaefer’s outdoor activities and interests have also been affected by both the pandemic and health challenges. Due to social distancing recommendations and her own underlying health issues — including a recent hip replacement surgery — she has not been as active, but she is not just sitting idle.

She and two other neighborhood friends, who are also members of the birding society, competed in the organization’s May Birdathon fundraiser. Schaefer said that her small group was able to see almost 40 species of birds just in their backyards and the number would have been much higher if they had gone down to the water or traveled around the state as they did in years past. “I was pleased when the Wilson’s warbler finally showed up and I finally got a California quail, which I was very happy about,” she said.

Normal group activities, such as classes, lectures, maintenance parties and experiential events, at the local demonstration garden have also been curtailed this year. Schaefer, who said she has felt in the past like she lives at the garden because of her involvement, recently took her new dog there to introduce him to the area.

In 2016, then-Edmonds City Councilmember Mike Nelson spoke during the sixth anniversary celebration for the Demo Garden. Founder Susie Schafer is at left. Nelson was elected mayor in 2019. (My Edmonds News file photo)

Despite the lack of group events, Schaefer is already making plans for how to adapt the space and demonstrations. Schaefer said the Demo Garden normally uses a small classroom at the nearby salmon hatchery facilities to conduct lectures and educational programs, “but we couldn’t do social distancing and have classes — it’s just not big enough.” Normally, after the programs the assembled group would then go out to the garden to apply the knowledge gained.

She has recently been in contact with other demonstration garden volunteers to start discussing what changes can be made to accommodate current conditions and health precautions. “I need to really re-group and we need to rethink what we want to do and set some goals,” Schaefer said. “That’s what I want to do at least — that’s me I’m a planner.” Items on her wish list include more identifying signage, possibly redesigning some of the area layouts and adding even more species of native plants.

Schaefer said that the purpose of the demonstration garden and its classes has always been to combine learning with hands-on opportunities and knowledge that participants can then apply to their own backyards. She wants to be able to continue doing so in ways that will not risk getting people sick. “My goal has always been to get more people that will support wildlife in Edmonds and not just live in a real sterile suburbia,” Schaefer said.

“Susie Schaefer has been a voice for nature and force to be reckoned as her compassion is infectious,” City Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said by email. “She was instrumental in making the Demonstration Garden by rolling up her sleeves, smiling kindly and offering words of encouragement of a global vision to restore a habitat and garden for Edmonds. We all owe her a debt of gratitude for her tenacity and strength to promote the environment.”

— By Nathan Blackwell

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the impact of coronavirus on the life, work and health of Edmonds residents. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please email us at For other stories in this series, click here.














  1. I would think that Susie would be at the top of the nomination list for Edmonds Citizen of the Year. She certainly would have MY vote!

  2. Susie Schaefer is truly an Edmonds treasure. Her long history of community service is indeed commendable and she is a great role model for showing how a life devoted to helping others and protecting nature enriches one’s own life. Thank you, Susie, for all you do. And for the delicious brownies you always bring to meetings and events.

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