Death of Ledyard teen hurts communities from Waterford to Boston
Ledyard — In 19 years on this planet, town native Shelby “Bella” Olsen inspired young Waterford campers, impressed local soccer coaches and made adults question: Is she really just a teenager?
But a late afternoon, single-vehicle crash in Charlestown, R.I., cut Olsen’s life short last Thursday, leaving communities from Waterford to Boston wondering what could have been.
“She reminds me of that Maya Angelou quote,” said Rob Brule, director of operations for the Southeast Soccer Club, which plays in New England and beyond. “You know: 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ That’s Shelby.”
Brule, who grew up playing soccer with Olsen’s father, Tom, helped coach Olsen in 2013 and 2014. He said she played where she was needed with the club, even if it wasn’t where she wanted to be. At Ledyard High School, she helped her team to one of its best seasons in recent history.
Brule said while Olsen lifted everyone up, she also did all the little things no one else wanted to do — an asset that helped land her on the NCAA Division III soccer team at Emmanuel College in Boston.
“It took me this long in my life to understand that (Angelou) quote,” Brule said. “Unfortunately, it’s during this tragedy that I realize the true impact (Olsen) had.”
Olsen had just finished her freshman year of college and was living with her mother, Lola Colette, in Charlestown. Always busy, she was working at Matunuck Oyster Bar, a farm-to-table seafood spot in South Kingstown, R.I., that made sense to a former high school vocational agriculture student.
Amanda Fagan — Olsen’s aunt and the Ledyard High School principal — said Olsen had wrapped up at work and was a mile from home when her truck apparently spun into a tree.
“We don’t have any (witnesses) to tell us if she was on her phone, if an animal jumped out, if another car came into her lane and scared her…” Fagan said. “We don’t know and we’ll likely never know … But the focus for us isn’t on how she died, it’s on how she lived.”
Fagan said conversations with her niece covered everything from opportunities for minorities and courses she may take to fashion.
“It was like she was my peer more so than my niece,” she said. “She was incredibly articulate, vibrant and selfless.”
When Fagan’s mother began showing signs of Alzheimer’s, it was Olsen who showed patience and made her feel loved, Fagan said.
But Olsen — a singer, dancer, Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship winner and camp counselor — had a funny side, too.
As a toddler, for example, she attached a leash to her sister — five years her elder — and led her around. In high school, Olsen found joy in greeting “Aunt Mandy” as “Principal Fagan,” sometimes using an “outrageous British accent” to do so.
“She had so many circles and she moved so easily through all of them,” Fagan said. “She seemed very chameleon-like. She could make anyone feel comfortable, but also could blend in with anyone.”
Dani Gorman, director of youth services for Waterford Youth and Family Services, said Olsen also exhibited those traits at Camp DASH, Waterford’s first full-day summer camp for pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
Olsen began volunteering for the camp at 14 and, over the next five years, became a paid employee who ultimately directed the largest age group: first- through third-graders. She also helped the department with other projects, including its own version of "Dancing with the Stars."
“She did everything in a way that exceeded expectations,” said Gorman, whose husband, John, works at the Ledyard Police Department with Olsen’s father, Tom. The families vacationed together for much of Olsen's youth.
“We were cheated by losing her at such a young age,” Gorman said.
Olsen's former coworkers, many of whom are attending her services this week, plan to report back to work in her honor. Notably, multiple recent applicants for volunteer camp positions, many of whom are former campers, applied because Olsen inspired them.
“She was a role model,” said Gorman, who said Olsen's fluency in Spanish helped her connect with even more people. “She had this warmness about her.”
Gorman credited Olsen’s parents — a police officer and a language arts teacher — with instilling culture and curiosity in her and her sister, Alexis.
“A child like that doesn’t just happen,” she said.
Fagan said Olsen “owned” the Ledyard Police Department from a young age, sashaying her way inside with her dad and eating what she wanted from the break room.
“She was so engaging, so vibrant … they couldn’t help but want to interact with her,” she said.
Fagan said police near and far continue to support her family. Rhode Island and Connecticut state police, for example, helped Ledyard police escort Olsen’s body home from the Rhode Island medical examiner Friday.
“It’s hard to describe,” she said. Police “take care of their own, and Shelby is theirs, too.”
Fagan said Olsen was studying psychology and linguistics at college and wanted to work for the FBI or as a diplomat.
“She wanted to make the world a better place,” Fagan said. “And she did — just not in the way she had planned."
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